Feature: Festive days out in Europe - Christmas markets

02 December 2011 11:33

‘It’s the most wonderful time of the year’, as the popular Christmas song goes. And yes, it is indeed. Shops are overflowing with stocking fillers, wish lists are being written, presents are being bought and the streets are lined with festive decorations and colourful lights. What better way to start the Christmas season with a short break to one of Europe’s finest markets, and what place to buy gifts for the hard-to-buy-for friends and family! This week, we have gone all festive. We have crossed the Channel and picked our favourite Christmas markets on the continent (and a short trip to New York...we just couldn’t help ourselves!). So, if Gluhwein, Snaps and Stollen take your fancy, you’ll be in for a treat. Wherever you go in Europe, there is no shortage of food and drink when it comes to Christmas. You won’t hear us complain!

Taking a short break to one of Europe’s most atmospheric markets has never been quicker or easier. A wide selection of tour operators and airlines are offering ready-made packages, which allow you to spend less time planning and more time shopping. Sounds good? We think so. And it gets even better. You can shop to a magical backdrop of cathedrals or candle-lit caves. Throw in a snowy setting, enticing stalls, not to mention plenty of mulled wine and you will have an experience that is truly unforgettable. Yes, we do have some real crackers up our sleeve...

Nuremberg, Germany
Where better to start than in the Christmas market capital Germany. Nowhere does festive markets better than this country. Each year, one of the best-known Christmas markets in Europe is held at Nuremberg, although it’s neither largest nor oldest. Nevertheless, Germany's most famous Christmas market opens its stalls for visitors from all over the world, right in the middle of the city, on the Nuremberg Main Market Square. The setting is beautiful, in the cobbled square on the slope beneath the Frauenkirche.

With over two million visitors, the Christkindlesmarkt is famous for its handmade wood figurines. And it has a rather odd tradition: every two years a new ‘Christ child’ is chosen, a young man or woman who opens the market and rushes around town spreading Christmas cheer, dressed in gold and white and sporting a large golden crown! Eccentric? Yes, but peculiar traditions aside, the market is best known for its food...it is Christmas after all. Gluhwein, Nuremberg roast sausage, Lebkuchen and gingerbread are just some of the refreshments available from the many stalls. So, if you’re planning on going to Nuremberg this Christmas, do go to the Christkindlesmarkt; its fame didn't come out of nowhere.

The market is open until 24 December.

And if you can’t get enough of the German markets...
...we have a few more up our sleeve. Since we just looove Christmas markets the-German-way, we have thrown in a few alternatives. So, if you’re still craving German festive spirit (and Gluhwein, Lebkuchen and Stollen of course!) after visiting Nuremberg, don’t worry, there are plenty more markets to choose from, in some of Germany’s most historical and beautiful cities. It’s not a coincidence that the country is referred to as ‘the land of Christmas markets’. It truly is...

If you’re looking for something a bit more ‘edgy’, Berlin’s main Christmas market has an altogether more contemporary feel than those in the rest of Germany. For traditional seasonal stalls, head for Munich. The focal point of the city in December is the famous Marienplatz, the heart of the old centre, flanked by the grand neo-gothic town hall and filled with hundreds of stalls in the run-up to Christmas. More food on the menu! Dresden is famous for its Striezelmarkt, which is the local version of the well-known Stollen. So, if you love sweet fruitcake dusted with icing sugar, you should visit the Dresden Christmas market, which is the oldest in Germany. And if one Christmas market isn’t enough, head for Cologne, which has a total of four Christmas markets dotted around the city. You won’t be the only one visiting Cologne during December though. Each year, the city attracts upwards of two million visitors in the month leading up to Christmas.

Copenhagen, Denmark
Christmas market Scandinavian style! The unmistakeable, historic Danish capital and one of Europe’s most vibrant, modern cities, Copenhagen puts on a spectacular display during the Christmas month. So, you may as well start packing those woollen socks. The festive season quickly encompasses and inspires Copenhagen’s shops and residents, bars and cafes are decorated both stylishly and festively, offering any visitor a beautiful seasonal break.

But what makes Copenhagen a special destination during December is the annual Christmas market in Europe’s oldest amusement park, the Tivoli Gardens. The setting is true Hans Christian Andersen-style – a real fairytale – with hundreds of Christmas trees and over half a million lights illuminating the stalls and park. The main lake is transformed into an outdoor ice skating rink, where visitors can hire skates. There is something for the eager shopper as well. Around 60 colourful stalls are selling locally produced arts, crafts and decorations, such as Copenhagen porcelain or wooden dolls. And of course there is plenty of food stalls offering the best of Danish festive treats. The main draw here is gløgg, Danish mulled wine with liquor and spices (you will need something to keep you warm while exploring the beautiful gardens). Experience it for yourself, the Danish capital is only one and a half hour away.

Tivoli Gardens Christmas market is open until 30 December...so, there is still plenty of time to enjoy some Scandinavian festivities.

Tallinn, Estonia
Not the oldest of markets but what Tallinn’s market lacks in history – it’s only been running since 1991 – it more than makes up for in atmosphere and romantic appeal. Snow-covered houses, festive decorations and friendly people make for the perfect December escape. The Christmas market takes place on the picturesque Old Town Hall Square, which offers a beautiful backdrop to the many colourful stalls selling handmade, natural gifts such as carved wooden bowls or decorations made from wood and twine. The best buys though are the hand-knitted jumpers, socks and bobble-hats. You may have to buy a knitted jumper just for yourself...it does get rather chilly in this part of the world during December!

The good thing about the cold is that you’re almost guaranteed snow here. And while the small market is perhaps not worth visiting for alone, it adds significantly to the old-fashioned romance of a snow-dusted weekend here. So, if you’re thinking of booking a Christmas break, you could definitely do a lot worse than sample the Yuletide charm of the Estonian capital.

Tallinn Christmas market will close 9 January.

Prague, Czech Republic
Christmas is serious business if you ask the Czechs. The capital hosts a selection of cultural events, folk displays, concerts and theatre in December. Its unpronounceable Vanocni trh (or Christmas markets to us Brits!) are fairly low-key and family-oriented. There are several markets dotted around the city and the biggest is held on the busy Old Town Square. The idyllic Baroque setting of the cobbled square seems perfectly suited to a quaint seasonal market, helped along by the generous layer of snow that visitors should expect this time of year. So, if you haven’t had enough snow in the UK, Prague could be a great place to do some last-minute Christmas shopping. And bring the kids. This is truly a family-friendly market. A central petting zoo, complete with ponies, goats, sheep and a single folorn-looking lama, is the big attraction for children.

The Prague Christmas markets will be welcoming visitors until 2 January.

A bit further afield...
Admittedly, it might not have its own Christmas market like those we have become accustomed to in Europe but New York is one of the greatest shopping destinations in the world – and Christmas is no different! So, can you blame us for including it in our Christmas market special? No, we didn’t think so! There is nowhere in the world that offers the array of shopping opportunities that the Big Apple does. Holiday markets in Manhattan offer shoppers a great chance to do some last-minute Christmas shopping – quick and easy! But one of the best things about New York City in the time leading up to Christmas, we think, is the spectacular holiday displays in department stores. And to keep the festive spirit up, in winter, the ice-rink outside the Rockefeller Center throngs with skaters, and from Grand Central Station to Times Square, New York Crackles with a holiday atmosphere that inspires every visitor.

…and closer to home
If you don’t have time to jet off to the continent to do your Christmas shopping or get in the festive mood, Bath hosts an atmospheric German-style Christmas market. More than one hundred traditional wooden stalls sit in the shadow of Bath Abbey and the Roman Baths. The whole area is transformed into a Christmas shopper’s haven.

But you’ll have to hurry, Bath Christmas market closes 12 December.

So, are you feeling the festive spirit yet? The appeal of Christmas markets is simple: stress-free shopping in a traditional, festive environment, with a few mugs of mulled wine to help you along the way. If you’re not sure what market to visit, why not extend your stay and explore more than one market this December.


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