We discovered the magic of Christmas in Europe…
I’ve always loved the Christmas season… the traditions, the decorations, the celebrations… the holiday music, the lights, the food… and most of all, the quieter, special times with family and friends.
For many of us in the USA, the Christmas season now often feels too commercialized… and seems to start earlier every year. Back when I was a working mom with a young child—trying to create the perfect Christmas—I felt so much pressure around house-decorating, tree-decorating, cookie-baking, gift-giving, present-wrapping, card-sending, and party-going. What should have been the most wonderful time of the year, for me became the most stressful. Instead, I had visions of quaint villages, mountain chalets, pine trees, church bells, and of course a wonderland of snow. I always dreamed of a simpler, traditional Christmas in Europe.
Our family made our first Christmas season trip to Europe in 1999. We visited Munich and Oberammergau and then traveled to Salzburg for several days over Christmas. I’ll always remember the harpist playing Silent Night after Christmas Eve dinner in the candlelit hotel restaurant. At midnight we opened our windows to hear church bells pealing all over Salzburg. We found the magic of Christmas! We loved that experience so much that we did a similar trip for Christmas 2003, again spending the days around Christmas in beautiful Salzburg.
We discovered different Christmas traditions in Provence when we lived there for six-and-a-half months in 2004 and 2005: the santon figurines and Christmas crèche, the Treize (Thirteen) Desserts, the simple village Christmas markets. We’ve returned to the Luberon in December 10 times since then, enjoying this very special time of year at our second home in Bonnieux.
We loved the Christmas season in Europe, so when we started European Experiences 18 years ago, Charley and I always hoped to offer some kind of Christmas trip. In 2017 we launched our 12-night European Christmas Experience, with four nights each in Salzburg, Austria; Munich, Germany; and Colmar in Alsace, France. We’ve welcomed five groups in the years since, most recently in 2022. And then also in 2022 we offered The Luberon Christmas Experience for the first time: seven nights based in our village of Bonnieux.
We’re excited to offer both trips again in 2023. This year’s European Christmas Experience begins on November 27 in Salzburg and ends on December 9 in Colmar. The Luberon Christmas Experience begins on December 12 and ends on December 19. Our travelers will be home well before Christmas Day.
What Creates the Magic of Christmas in Europe?
When I talk to travelers who have joined us on one of our Christmas trips in Europe, almost everyone uses the words “Magic” or “Magical.” Many people describe their European Christmas trip as a “bucket list” experience.
But what creates the magic of Christmas in Europe? Why is it so different from what we experience at home? I think it’s a combination of several features:
- The landscape… especially in the mountainous areas with winter weather, and especially when there’s snow.
- The architecture… medieval buildings, colorful half-timbered houses, alpine chalets, stone cottages.
- Strong regional cultures that embrace a religious heritage.
- Deeply rooted Christmas traditions that originated in Europe and then and then made their way around the world.
- Colorful and festive outdoor Christmas markets, offering holiday sights, smells, and sounds.
- A focus on gathering with family and friends and enjoying special holiday meals together.
I recently reached out to several people who have joined us on one or both of our Christmas trips. I wanted to know what interested them about a Christmas-season trip and what they most enjoyed on their trip.
Why Should You Consider a Christmas-season Trip to Europe?
“It is exciting to see and learn about holiday traditions in other parts of the world. During the Christmas season, people are filled with a little extra “goodwill,” and it is exciting to be part of that positive vibration. The European Experiences trips are timed so you return home just in time to celebrate and share some special gifts and memories.” (Rebecca from Michigan)
“Though this time of year can be busy and even hectic while preparing for holiday celebrations, it’s also a wonderful time to step back from the craziness and focus on the true meaning of the season. The whole experience in the three countries we visited exuded the joyful anticipation of the Advent season.” (Michell from Louisiana)
“We wanted to experience the open-air markets and seasonal smells of mulled wine and chestnuts and to enjoy the excitement of the season with the beautiful decorations.” (Sara from Georgia)
“The Christmas Markets are something everyone needs to experience at least once in their lifetime.” (Bill from Georgia)
“I live in Vermont… I love winter and love Christmas. It was wonderful to experience both winter and Christmas elsewhere.” (Becky from Vermont)
“For anyone considering a winter trip to Europe, don’t let the cold intimidate you. I personally do not like to be cold, but with my long winter coat and comfortable boots with a thick sole, I really don’t remember being especially cold. It’s an exciting time to travel in Europe.” (Debbie from Maryland)
“We had previously experienced the Luberon in the spring and fall. We wanted to learn about the origins, meaning and significance of the winter and Christmas traditions for the people of the region.” (Patti and John from Tennessee)
“For us, it was very special to experience the Christmas season in the small villages and towns of the Luberon. In much of the US, Christmas has become so commercialized…” (Mark and Marguerite from California)
Comparing our Two Christmas Experience Trips
Our two Christmas trips are similar in some ways, but different in others. Both trips focus on experiencing the regional Christmas traditions, including Christmas markets. In addition to Christmas-oriented activities, we also enjoy other aspects of the local culture. We make connections with local people, and we enjoy regional cuisine, including Christmas specialties. The food is a highlight of both trips.
The European Christmas Experience is a longer trip (12 nights), and we move between three different bases in three different countries. On this trip we stay four nights each in a small city (Salzburg, Austria), a big city (Munich, Germany), and a town (Colmar in Alsace, France). Our hotels are in central areas, and we walk to the markets, historic sites, and restaurants. This is more of a “city” trip, but from each base we make a day trip to the mountains and the countryside: the Salzkammergut region of mountains and lakes in Austria, the Bavarian Alps in Germany, and the Alsatian wine region below the Vosges mountains in France.
The Luberon Christmas Experience is a seven-night trip, based for one week in one place. We stay in a small, perched village in the countryside, the village of Bonnieux where we also base for our Luberon Experience week. We do make a day trip to the city of Aix-en-Provence, about an hour away, but the focus of this week is very much on the countryside and smaller villages.
The Christmas season in Salzburg and the Salzkammergut, Munich and the Bavarian Alps, and Colmar and the Alsatian wine region is vibrant and much busier, involving bustling outdoor Christmas markets that draw locals and visitors from around the world. Larger cities host several Christmas markets in their center, usually every day of the week. For example, there are 11 different Christmas markets in Strasbourg! In these areas there are extensive decorations and lights, especially in Alsace.
But the European Christmas Experience includes much, much more than Christmas markets. We also enjoy walking tours of Salzburg, Munich, Oberammergau, Colmar, and Strasbourg. We visit historic sites and museums. We enjoy musical events in Salzburg and a salt mine in the mountains, and we also visit a family farm in the countryside. In Munich we have a private dinner and cooking class with a chef. And in Colmar we enjoy a fun wine tasting at a family-owned winery. Some days we offer options of activities, and there’s free time to visit Christmas markets or pursue other interests. On this 12-night trip there’s a lunch and a dinner on your own in each location.
The Christmas season in the Luberon is quieter and simpler, focused on traditions, good food, and spending time with family and friends. Christmas celebrations and special events take place on the weekends. Our local friends enjoy welcoming our group, and we spend time in several private homes, making this a very personal experience. We have four lunches and all our dinners together, including three special dinners at our hotel. (There are lunches on your own in the busy towns of Apt and Lourmarin.)
Mark and Marguerite from California joined us for the Luberon Experience in May 2018 and the Luberon Christmas Experience last year: “We really enjoyed everything being on a much smaller scale. It felt much more intimate and meaningful.”
Retired French teacher Rebecca has been on both Christmas Experience trips and offered an excellent description comparing her Christmas experiences in two different areas of France. “Alsace is the lively and animated celebration of the holiday traditions, gregarious and extroverted. Provence is a more calm and tranquil celebration, contemplative and thoughtful.”
She elaborated on her experience on the Luberon trip last year: “I enjoyed the Luberon Christmas week because of its quiet and authentic look at the way Christmas is celebrated in Provence. I felt like I was part of the village. This experience is the non-commercialized way holidays should be celebrated—surrounded by friends and enjoying good food, interesting conversations, and laughter.” (She enjoyed the trip so much in 2022 that she’s returning this year and bringing a friend!)
Note: We designed the Luberon Christmas Experience for the 750+ people who have been with us in Bonnieux for one of our Luberon trips in warmer months and loved the area. Unless a first-time traveler is joining a friend or family member for the Luberon Christmas Experience or has been to the Luberon on their own or with another group, we usually recommend The Luberon Experience for a first trip to the area.
Favorite Experiences on The European Christmas Experience
“I have been on two Christmas Market tours, one a river cruise and the other the European Experiences trip in 2019. I found this time of year absolutely enchanting! The culture, traditions and decorations were amazing. The European Experiences trip offered a more in-depth opportunity to see the area and some fascinating sights outside the main area. The Krampus parade in Salzburg, Austria was a real fun experience of local folklore and the salt mine tour outside of Salzburg was also a unique, fun and interesting example of area history.” (Cathy from Virginia)
“Traveling to small Alpine towns near Salzburg and Munich is what I’ll always remember. The towns and their churches display such beautiful natural and religious holiday decorations, charming displays and unique hand-crafted items. I love learning how celebrations and customs and food are prepared in Europe. The art! The music! The churches! The museums!” (Becky from Vermont)
“I’ll always remember my first, and only, snow experience in Salzburg. I made my first snow angel in the Bavarian countryside, with help from fellow-traveler Michell. In Salzburg I enjoyed a glimpse into the musical life there, the shops full of Christmas decorations, and the museums. A sleigh ride with bells! Cafe Tomaselli!! The farm visit and making our own bread rolls!” (Sandy from Queensland, Australia)
“I especially enjoyed the private dinner and cooking class in Munich and the Mozart dinner concert in Salzburg.” (Sara from Georgia)
“I liked the day in the countryside in each country. I loved the excitement of each city followed by the slower days of unwinding in the countryside. The Christmas decorations in Salzburg were so unique and tasteful. Salzburg was covered with a dusting of snow and lit up for Christmas.” (Rebecca from Michigan)
“The variety of the experiences was wonderful. I enjoyed the uniqueness of each day. In addition to visiting Christmas markets in each city/town, we also went to museums and private concerts and had some cooking experiences. The salt mine tour was great fun and being in the mountains with the snow was special.I especially enjoyed Colmar and being able to stroll the streets in both daytime and at night. The holiday decorations in Strasbourg were beautiful. The itinerary was full each day, but there was also time to spend on your own browsing markets, museums and streets.” (Debbie from Maryland)
“There seemed to be less commercialization of the holiday. At the Christmas markets, feeling the frosty nip on my face and the positive energy in the air was exhilarating! My favorite thing was learning about different cultural aspects of the areas we visited. Who knew a character such as Krampus was part of Christmas traditions in Austria? And how delightful to visit a small village in Alsace where nearly every home displays a crèche in anticipation of Christmas.” (Michell from Louisiana)
Favorite Experiences on The Luberon Christmas Experience
Everyone mentioned our group’s visit to the tiny, remote village of Castellet, which organizes a creche festival every year. “We loved seeing all the creative crèche scenes decorating doorways, windows, mailboxes and pathways. We were hosted by the Mayor of the village and his wife in their quaint home. There we were treated to and learned about the Christmas tradition of 13 Desserts.” (Patti and John from Tennessee) “Their home was filled with such warmth and we were treated so kindly by the both of them. It was such a truly special experience.” (Mark and Marguerite from California)
Another favorite was our group’s private visit to the Old Church in Bonnieux, now decorated for Christmas. Our group was hosted for a private visit with Vincent, the creator of this now-famous crèche. “We were mesmerized by the transformation of the church and the reproduction of the detailed Santon village scenes created by Vincent. We learned that this passion of his began in the early 1980’s when he was 14 and he now has over 500 Santons, and some of these “little saints” are over 200 years old. He spends six months prior to the Christmas season accumulating all natural materials and creating intricate, historical village scenes.” (Patti and John from Tennessee)
“We always enjoy the camaraderie of a small group of people and this trip was no exception. We loved experiencing the Luberon, an area we love, during the “off” season. It was great fun to bundle up and explore different villages, Christmas shop in the local marketplaces, go for walks in the countryside, explore a medieval village filled with modern art exhibits, go truffle hunting with the doggies, take in the local Holiday Traditions, and then return to our cozy hotel at the end of each day.” (Mark and Marguerite from California)
Patti has been with us now on 10 different trips, her husband John on nine. Patti told us that The Luberon Christmas Experience was her favorite European Experience trip and one of John’s favorites. Here’s what Patti had to say about her favorite trip:
“The Luberon Christmas Experience, centered in the village of Bonnieux, was like a comforting warm hug. I enjoyed quiet, yet invigorating morning walks in the village: seeing a puffed-up kitty in a doorway, the stirrings and smells from the boulangerie, the occasional bonjour from the early risers heading out.
“Every planned outing was unique and immersed you into the Christmas and winter life and traditions of the area. All one’s senses were awakened and stimulated. You stepped back in time and learned how the passion of long-standing ways of doing and being continue to thrive in the present.
“Returning to Le Clos du Buis was like going home. Pierre, his family and staff took such good care of us. The breakfasts and meals prepared there were five-star worthy and spoke to their passion of loving what they do.”
One last thought from Becky from Vermont, who has joined us for both Christmas trips: “These are treasures one experiences only once in a lifetime.”
Thanks so much to our travelers who shared their special memories of their Christmas experiences. Now I’m ready to experience the magic of Christmas in Europe again soon!
We still have a few openings in both Christmas trips this year.
Charley and I would love to have you join us!!
Email me to reserve your place or to learn more.
The magic of Christmas in Europe is waiting for you!
November 27 – December 9, 2023
December 12 – 19, 2023
Enjoy our other blog posts and webinars focused on Christmas traditions in Europe and our European Experiences Christmas trips:
- European Experiences Christmas Trips in 2022
- Experiencing Europe’s Christmas Markets: Practical Tips for a Stress-Free Trip
- Experiencing Europe at Christmas
- Bonnieux and the Crèches de Noël
- The Spirit of Christmas: Markets and More in Bavaria, the Salzkammergut and Alsace (webinar recorded December 2020)
- Holiday Traditions in Provence (webinar recorded December 2020)
Kathy and Charley Wood founded European Experiences in 2006, offering week-long “slow tours” in some of the most beautiful areas of Europe. Their trips include The Luberon Experience in Provence, France, named one of the top 50 tours in the world by National Geographic Traveler magazine.
Kathy has personally hosted over 130 Experience groups. She hosts Experience weeks in the Luberon, the Chianti region of Tuscany, Puglia, Alsace, the Dordogne, the Cotswolds, and Normandy. Charley is now mostly retired but continues to co-host The Cornwall Experience and our Christmas trips with Kathy every year.
Kathy has been traveling in Europe for 30+ years and loves sharing her special places in Europe with other travelers. The Woods have a second home in their beloved village of Bonnieux in the Luberon. Read more about Kathy and Charley here.
Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.