As winter is drawing closer and preparations for the festive season are getting underway, thoughts turn towards weekends spent sipping mulled wine and eating tasty treats in the snow-dusted piazzas of Europe’s most beautiful medieval towns and cities.
The scent of hot mulled wine fills the air, along with the appetising aromas of holiday foods such as gingerbread, marzipan, honey, cookies, nuts and sweets.
There are some wonderful Christmas experiences to be had in London but read on to find out about my favourite Christmas market destinations in Europe, for a wonderful Christmas markets holiday break this December:
Christmas markets in Belgium
Located in the heart of Europe, Belgium’s Christmas markets are probably the most convenient for a weekend break. The cities of Brussels, Bruges, Antwerp, Ghent, Leuven, Mechelen and Ypres all host Christmas markets.
The market squares will be brimming with stalls offering original handicrafts, decorative items, seasonal food and drink as well as a special yuletide atmosphere. And that’s not all – activities such as ice rinks, amusements, firework displays, concerts and special winter festivals will also guarantee Christmas fun for all ages.
The Brussels Christmas market and annual Plaisirs d’Hiver festival bring wonderful Christmas delights to the Grand Place, with illuminations, street artists, brass bands, choirs and processions. Ghent’s Christmas markets feature live jazz, folk and rock performances as well as Christmas carols add to the ambience created around the ice rink.
The first French Christmas market in Reims
Reims was the site of the first French Christmas celebration in 496 and each year its Christmas Village lights up the city during the run up to Christmas with street entertainment, magicians, carol singers, and more than 125 wooden stalls selling seasonal gifts, decorations and delicious traditional local food and drink.
The heritage city of Reims is in the heart of the prestigious Champagne region so you can combine your Christmas markets break with a festive wine-tasting weekend and pick up some bubbly for the holidays.
Reviving Christmas market traditions in Tallinn
Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, has enthusiastically revived its Christmas market traditions in post-Soviet times. Over 60 wooden stalls throng the picturesque wide open space of Tallinn’s Town Hall Square around a massive central Christmas tree open daily from November 29th until January 7th.
During the 40 day period the city expects to welcome up to 200,000 visitors to the traditional heart of this picturesque, snowy city that nestles on the Gulf of Finland in the north of the country.
Appropriately enough the Town Hall square was the site of the world’s first Christmas tree, which was central to a ritual begun in 1441, when unmarried merchants sang and danced with local girls around a tree, which they then burned!
Amid this amazing festive scene, with temperatures barely hitting zero and the city’s spires and tall, colourful medieval houses creating a frosty, white-tinged setting, stallholders sell felt hats and slippers, buckwheat pillows, wooden bowls and artefacts, wickerwork, beautiful hand-sewn quilts, ceramics and glassware, sea-grass animals, home-made candles, Christmas wreaths, knitted hats, scarves and traditional cardigans.
Germany’s best Christmas markets
Germany’s historic towns and cities, with their wintery decorations, are famous for Christmas markets in picturesque settings, with the markets in Nuremberg perhaps the most famous.
For one of Germany’s best Christmas markets, head to Berlin where – during December – the Christmas markets spring up at many locations throughout the city, with the most popular one located next to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church.
Enjoy mulled wine, gingerbread, baked cinnamon stars and roasted almonds and chestnuts, explore the many handicraft stalls which offer traditional handcrafted toys, jewellery, decorations and ornaments and take in the wide range of entertainments and amusements.
With the fall of the wall, east German towns such as Erfurt, Potsdam and Rostock have become popular travel destinations with huge cultural heritage. The cathedral and St Severi church provide a stunning backdrop for Erfurt’s atmospheric Christmas market, which offers a wide range of traditional Thuringian wood carvings – such as Christmas pyramids, smoking men, or nutcrackers. It is open from 2009.
Going all out for Christmas in Switzerland
The Swiss do Christmas beautifully and some of the prettiest decorations I’ve seen were in the city of Basel, where they go all out for the holiday season.
There are no fewer than 100 Christmas trees set up throughout the city and a number of traditional markets. Did you know that Basel was the birthplace of the decorated Christmas tree?
You will also find what is probably Europe’s most famous Christmas shop – Johann Werner – a veritable treasure trove of Christmas decorations that are shipped all over the world.
If you are looking for a lovely European city in which to soak up the Christmas atmosphere then Basel is a great option.
A traditional Catalan Christmas market in Barcelona
Over 100 stalls occupy the streets around Barcelona’s gothic cathedral for the annual Christmas market. Thankfully, you won’t see many touristy knick-knacks, as locals visit this market to buy essential items for a traditional Catalan Christmas.
The market is called Fira de Santa Llúcia and originally it was a fair held to celebrate the feast day of Santa Llúcia on December 13th. Nowadays it has evolved into a Christmas market that runs through the month and into January.
Many vendors sell ornate statues and materials to make a Belén (a traditional nativity scene that is as essential as a Christmas tree in Spanish homes).
Fancy dress costumes, tinsel wigs and joke-shop items are also available in abundance. Locals buy these for El Día de los Santos Inocentes- their Fools’ Day – on December 28th. Look out especially for the comedy ‘Christmas poo’…
A culture lover’s Christmas market in Vienna
Culture lovers have agreed for centuries that Vienna is one of the most important cultural cities in Europe. Every Christmas the squares are done up with trees, twinkling lights and decorations, and filled with wooden huts housing stalls for the whole of December.
Try traditional Viennese Christmas treats like glazed fruits and baked apples, then buy wooden handicraft stocking fillers.
The Viennese Christmas market tradition is over 700 years old. After strolling around the bustling market stalls, head for the Rathauspark nearby, where giant candles adorn the trees and children can go for rides on ponies, the miniature railway or an old-fashioned merry-go-round.
Special present-making and cookie-baking workshops for kids take place in the Volkshalle of the town hall. Don’t miss the famous advent choir concerts, held in the Festival Halls of the town hall, with carols sung by touring choirs from all over the world, held during the last three weekends of the advent season.
Traditional fun in Stockholm
The streets of Gamla Stan are bright with lights and rustic wooden stalls during December and their mulled wine (glogg) is to-die-for. For a different style of Christmas celebrations take the bus or ferry over to Skansen, Stockholm’s open-air museum on an island in Stockholm’s archipelago.
Here you will find craftspeople making items in the same way as 100 years ago and there is a small zoo. However, the best thing is joining in with families dancing around the big Christmas tree in Bollnäs Square, many in full 19th-century attire.
Festive Fun at Budapest’s Christmas Market
Budapest is one of Europe’s most beautiful capitals in winter time and the annual Christmas market takes place this year from late November and through December. Visitors will be treated to an array of Christmas themed stalls; all lit up in Vörösmarty Square, selling unique artisan gifts and adornments, as well as delicious food and mulled wine.
The square will be decorated with a huge Christmas tree, packed with lights and decorations, an advent calendar and there are regular visits by Santa Claus that will delight both children and adults alike.
While you’re there go ice skating under the stars next to the fairy tale castle of Vajdahunyad and take a dip in one of the many outdoor steaming hot spas.
Christmas market highlights in Italy
The northern, alpine regions of Italy will boast many exquisite winter markets this year, particularly in Trentino. In Trentino the tinkling decorations will be heard again in Piazza Fiera when the Christmas market opens, with 70 wooden huts in the square overlooked by the ancient city walls becoming a showcase for local products and a rendezvous for the whole city, where groups of friends meet every day for a mug of mulled wine.
Other lovely Christmas markets in the region are in Rovereto, Arco, Levico Terme and Caldonazzo. In south Tirol region of Italy you will find that special Christmas atmosphere in Merano, in front of the romantic spa buildings of the Passer Promenade, with many stalls offering local crafts and traditional regional culinary specialities.
Other Christmas markets in Sud Tirol include the medieval mining town of Vipiteno at an altitude of nearly 1,000 metres. The Cathedral square of Bressanone will be a bustle of activity, colour, seasonal aromas and music.
The magic of Christmas is also alive and well in the traditional mercantile town of Bolzano, where it is said the cultures and traditions of central Europe and the Mediterranean meet. Enjoy the romantic arcaded streets set against the backdrop of the Rosengarten Dolomite mountains.
Christmas Markets make Poland a festive wonderland
Krakow, Warsaw and Gdansk will enter into the spirit of the season this December as all three cities hold their famous Christmas markets.
Experience a traditional Polish Christmas, sample festive food, enjoy Polish carols and warm yourself with hot mulled wine. And of course a white Christmas is always on the cards in Poland.
Perhaps the country’s best-known Christmas market is the one held every year on Krakow’s Rynek, featuring handicrafts from across the Małopolska region, wonderful foodstuffs including bigos, pierogi and delicious oscypek cheese, and plenty of hot wine to help keep the cold at bay.
Warsaw’s famous Jarmark is held in front of the Royal Palace and features traditional regional produce as well as the latest fashions. It too comes complete with lashings of Polish food and tasty hot wine.
There you have it, my top tips for the best Christmas markets trips this December in Europe!
By Natasha von Geldern
Which is your favourite Christmas market in Europe?
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