Something about Europe at Christmas time seems to exude a festive spirit. From the holiday markets to the mulled wine to the cobbled old towns, some spots in Europe appear to fall from the pages of your favorite Christmas tales. However, all of this holiday cheer and fun can come at a premium price. Instead, try visiting these below-the-radar European cities come Christmastime. They’ll lend you that festive feel…but for a bargain price.
It’s hard not to fall for Budapest no matter the time of year, but come winter, the city puts on a festive cap. Split by the majestic Danube, Budapest dazzles with its Roman, Gothic, and Turkish architecture and its romantic streets and alleyways. And luckily for travelers on a budget, the city tends to be one of Europe’s cheapest capitals. Many of Budapest’s attractions come without a fee such as basking in the views from Fisherman’s Bastion, roaming the Castle District, or paying a visit to St. Stephen’s Basilica. It’s also pocketbook friendly as public transport is cheap, the cuisine is affordable, and accommodations cater to budget travelers.
Budapest comes alive for the holiday season namely with its Christmas Market in Vörösmarty Square. A nearly 20-year tradition, the Advent and Christmas Fair spans November through December. You can sample regional foods and wines and bask in the works of more than 100 artisans. Budapest also boasts ice-skating right in front of its illuminated St. Stephen’s Basilica.
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Prague, Czech Republic
Easily one of Europe’s cheapest cities to visit, Prague regales visitors with its colorful baroque and Gothic architecture, cobblestone streets and standout attractions like the Prague Castle, Charles Bridge, and the iconic Astronomical Clock. Many of Prague’s attractions also come without cost. Public transportation amounts to just a few euros a day and beer will cost less than bottled water in most cases.
Come Christmas, Prague steps up its game and transforms into a winter wonderland. You can visit several Christmas markets all around town but the best are easily the Christmas Markets at the Old Town Square. You’ll find plenty of traditional Czech food and drink to enjoy along with souvenirs to pick up like wooden toys and glassware. Prague also has a number of outdoor ice-skating rinks during the holiday season. Travelers who visit during the Christmas season can also watch a lamplighter light up the lamps by lantern on the Charles Bridge, an event that only occurs during Advent.
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First established in the early medieval era, Tallinn might be the closest you can get to time travel. The capital city of Estonia boasts an Old Town that is considered one of the best-preserved Hanseatic town centers in the world. Sweetening the pot, Tallinn also happens to be a great value. In fact, Lonely Planet has already named the city the #1 best value destination in the world to visit in 2018. Freebies in Tallinn include a free walking tour of the Old Town held every day at 12 and free city views atop Toompea Hill. Of course, roaming the Old Town with its pastel-colored buildings and cobblestone thoroughfares also comes free of charge.
For Christmas, Tallinn continues its fairytale image with its Tallinn Christmas Market, held at the Town Hall Square and adorned in roughly 40,000 lights. You can bask in the town’s Christmas tree here too, a tradition that has been in place since 1441. In fact, it’s believed that Tallinn had the first Christmas tree on display in Europe. The Estonian Open Air Museum even turns up the volume for the holidays with its special winter program showcasing rural life complete with handicrafts, bread baking, and wood chopping.
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While over recent years, Croatia has identified less and less as budget friendly, its landlocked capital has largely remained a bargain. With its blend of old and new, Zagreb offers a quality capital city break in Europe, especially for the holidays. Much of Zagreb’s attractions come without a cost or very little, like the Museum of Broken Relationships, the Dolac Market, or Maksimir Park. A budget traveler’s delight in Zagreb is merely roaming the Upper Town and all of its narrow streets.
For the holidays, Zagreb offers a number of Christmas markets all around town including in Ban Josip Jelacic, the city’s central square. Running from December through January, the market features loads of mulled wine stalls, Christmas carols, and shopping opportunities. In addition to its Christmas markets, Zagreb also sets up an outdoor skating rink in King Tomislav Square. For a more offbeat experience, you can even find the holidays underground at Gric tunnel. Running right under the center of the city, the tunnel is adorned with sculptures and 3D light installations with a holiday theme and even offers concerts and video displays during the season.
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Europe for the holidays is often a bucket list dream for travelers but it doesn’t have to remain there. These destinations are not just perfect for your pocketbook but they pack in the festive punch come Christmastime!