There’s nothing like a Christmas market to get you into the festive spirit. The sensory overload of sights, sounds and particularly smells are bound to put a skip in your step, gifts in your bag and, more than likely, a glühwein in your hand.
The traditional wooden-stall markets originated in Germany, but are now held all over the world and, as well as providing shopping and gift inspiration, are very much an outing in themselves.
And with good reason - the intoxicating mix of gift, food and drink stalls not only provides a feast for the senses and the perfect alternative to predictable chain stores, but an array of additional attractions means you can actually have fun while you’re at it. And if you’re as averse to shopping as me, that’s perhaps the biggest Christmas miracle of all!
So as the festive season approaches, let’s unwrap some of Europe’s top Christmas market destinations…
26 November - 23 December 2018
Everywhere. Seriously. Berlin hosts anything up to 100 Christmas markets every year, but three of the best-known are Berliner Weihnachtszeit - set behind Alexanderplatz, the city’s main square; WeihnachtsZauber at the Gendarmenmarkt, idyllically located in the city’s cultural district near the cathedral, and Winterwelt, which turns the busy Potsdamer Platz into a winter wonderland.
Christmas markets and Germany go hand in hand, and Berlin is no exception, with an array of options that all brim with festive cheer, as well as the wonderful aromas of glühwein ('glowing wine') and grilling sausages. The markets are spread throughout the city, and all the locations each have a unique identity. WeihnachtsZauber is probably the most traditional and attractive of the markets here, with a lovely location by the cathedral and regular singing by the local choir, Berliner Weihnachtszeit has an ice rink and a Ferris wheel, while Winterwelt (which opens as early as 2 November) features a luge-style slide and the chance to have a go at Eisstockschießen - a cross between bowling and curling.
Berlin is a fabulous city to visit, but there’s a LOT of it, so my main recommendation - learned the hard way after doing a lot of walking - is to get on one of the hop-on, hop-off bus tours. This is a brilliant way of visiting many of the Christmas markets, as well as the city’s sights and attractions. Must-sees among the latter include Checkpoint Charlie - the main crossing point between East Berlin and West Berlin during the Cold War. The Brandenburg Gate and nearby Holocaust Memorial, is an incredibly poignant installation of 2,711 headstone-like concrete slabs of different heights. The uneven ground means your perspective constantly changes as you walk round it, and I even felt changes in temperature as I wandered around it - a truly stunning experience.
I also loved visiting the dome of the Reichstag, Germany’s parliament building, which offers fantastic 360-degree views of the city, as well as down into the debating chamber below. It’s free, but you need to register in advance.
9 November 2018 - 1 January 2019
Budapest’s main Christmas market takes place in Vörösmarty Square in the heart of the city, but don’t miss the Christmas fair, which takes place at the Basilica, starting 23 November.
Visiting the Christmas market in Vörösmarty Square felt a bit like taking a trip back in time, with choirs, traditional stalls, old-fashioned handmade gifts and food all being very much the order of the day. They say smell is the sense that most conjures up memories, and even if you’ve never been to Hungary before, the whiff of mulled wine, grilling vegetables and cinnamon pastries is sure to have you drifting into the past.
Grab a mug of that wine, a portion of warm Kürtöskalács (chimney cake) and breathe it all in while mooching among the stalls. The market also hosts free concerts and a laser light show, though on a smaller scale than the one projected onto the façade of St Stephen’s Basilica, the largest church in Hungary, which overlooks the city’s other festive market. Largely populated by stalls selling traditional gifts made by local craftspeople, it’s also home to a skating rink for those in need of a break from shopping and eating.
Budapest is a compact city, perfect for exploring on foot, so we took a walking tour, which was a great way to discover some of its hidden gems, not least the wonderful ‘ruin bars’ - abandoned industrial spaces that have been transformed into hip watering holes. Szimpla Kertmozi on Kazinczy Street was the first, and is still probably the coolest, having a painted Trabant from U2’s Zoo TV tour parked up inside.
Make sure you also keep an eye out for some of the city’s oddities, a bronze statue of Ronald Reagan (cheekily located near the Russian Embassy) and an unlikely tree memorial to Michael Jackson among them, while across the River Danube you can visit the impressive Royal Palace of Buda Castle. We enjoyed a great value meal in what we thought would be an expensive restaurant, given its stunning views over the city, right next door.
1 December 2018 - 6 January 2019
The city has three main Christmas markets, at Dome Square (Doma Laukums), Livu Square (Līvu Laukums) and Esplanade Park.
Given the country’s claim to have the first-ever Christmas tree, which dates back to 1510, it’s probably not surprising that yuletide is a big deal to Latvians, and Riga’s festive markets are one of the natural focal points. All feature wooden chalets selling mainly handmade Latvian goods; wooden toys, decorations, slippers, mittens, shawls, scarves and other woollen gear are especially popular, together with food stalls offering hot chocolate, glühwein, gingerbread and more.
The Old Town markets at Dome Square and Livu Square are especially traditional, while there’s a bit more going on if you hop over to Esplanade Park, where in addition to a Ferris wheel, there’s the somewhat unlikely attraction of a rabbit village - with real rabbits!
Riga is another city that’s easy to explore on foot, and there’s plenty worth seeing, particularly in the Old Town. The pretty cobblestone streets are home to its oldest houses and churches, and the reconstructed town hall square - including the magnificent House of the Blackheads - is an impressive sight, as is the Freedom Monument, dedicated to Latvians killed during the War of Independence and surrounded by lovely parkland.
It’s worth calling in at St. Peter’s Church for the panoramic views from the top of the church tower (don’t worry, there’s a lift) - and more fantastic views of the city can be had from the Skyline Bar, on the 26th floor of the Radisson Blu Latvia, where the cocktail menu is almost as expensive as it is extensive.
22 November - 9 December 2018
Idyllically located in the lovely Georgian streets of central Bath, overlooked by the picturesque Abbey and close to the Roman Baths and Thermae Bath Spa.
One of the UK’s most popular Christmas markets, and with good reason. The location - a UNESCO World Heritage Site - is delightful and more than 170 attractive wooden chalets sell a variety of unique goods.
Organisers take the quality seriously, so you won’t find any old tat, with 80 per cent of stallholders local to Bath and virtually all goods being handmade, either in the UK or abroad with Fairtrade certification. These gifts include toys, Christmas decorations, handcrafted jewellery, candles, artwork and personalised items, and of course there’s an array of food and drink options that you’ll no doubt smell before you get to see them. I challenge you to pass the hog roasts, caramelised nuts and mulled cider without succumbing. There’s also a Festive Family Artisan Market every Saturday, featuring a variety of attractions and activities for all the family.
You’ll get no faster than a crawl during the market’s busiest times, so give your legs a proper stretch on the Bath Skyline, a splendid six-mile circular walk from the city centre that combines great views and great fun, particularly on the Family Discovery Trail and Woodland Play Area.
Royal Victoria Park, just a short walk from the town centre, is also a festive treat, featuring an outdoor skating rink, and a crazy golf course with glow-in-the-dark balls. And after all that activity, you can always hop in the rejuvenating waters of Thermae Bath Spa, as well as enjoy the views from its open-air rooftop pool.
1 December 2018 - 1 January 2019
Maastricht Christmas Market is held in Vrijthof Square in the heart of the city’s Old Town, overlooked by St Servatius Cathedral and Basilica.
Under the banner ‘Magical Maastricht’, the Dutch city truly comes to life during the festive season, and the Christmas market is its beating heart, with a variety of stalls, food outlets and attractions, including a skating rink and Ferris wheel. Once again it’s a treat for all the senses, from tastes (food and glühwein) and smells (more food and glühwein!) to sights (twinkling lights form a ‘Magic Path’ that links many of the city’s squares and streets), sounds (carols and festive tunes) and even touch, as the cosy cobbled streets really add to the ambience - as do their welcoming cafés and bars.
If you’ve got time - and you won’t need much, as it’s only 10 minutes on the train - then pay a visit to the ‘Christmas City’ of Valkenburg. Here the festive markets are underground, held in caves beneath the city. The most popular are the Velvet and Municipal Caves, both of which are filled with lights, decorations, trees and cheery stalls selling food and gifts, to create enchanting winter wonderlands.
Back above ground, check out the city’s castle ruins or take the chairlift up to Wilhelmina Tower for views over the city and, on a clear day, across to Belgium and Germany - definitely a Christmas treat!
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