Some of Europe’s most beautiful cities are also home to its fi nest Christmas markets. So, if you’ve still got stockings to fi ll, then look no further. Lydia Bell reports
Spicy sausages, warm fires, cranberry sauce, mulled wine – you’re often sitting there in winter hating the fact that it gets dark so early, as thoughts of Christmas come to mind. It might be that time of year again, but instead of getting lost in the crowds on a rainy, urban shopping street, you could be hitting one of Europe’s many traditional Christmas markets. Germany has 83 alone, Britain 144 and Europe as a whole 359 and counting. There have been markets in most central and northern European cities for hundreds of years, and they are more popular than ever, transforming drab winter metropolises into glittering, aromatic and romantic places. From decorations and jewellery to mulled wine and gingerbread, here are some of our favourites.
Prague, Czech Republic
29 NOVEMBER—1 JANUARY
Prague’s Christmas markets are truly magical – known as “Vanocni Trhy”, the stalls in this most romantic of cities are centred round Old Town and Wenceslas squares, with smaller markets dotted all around. You’ll find rows of brightly decorated wooden huts selling all manner of local arts and crafts – glassware, old-fashioned toys, jewellery, candles and puppets galore – alongside hot food like barbecued corn on the cob and juicy sausages. Excited children will discover Old Town Square’s nativity scene, twinkling Christmas tree, and a mini-zoo, with pony rides, sheep, llamas and goats. Music is everywhere you go, with carol ensembles and children dressed in traditional costume singing and dancing.
21 NOVEMBER—24 DECEMBER
Graz is a hotbed of markets, dotted around the Franciscan church and city hall, the latter with a big Christmas tree out front, a giant advent calendar adorning its façade and a traditional children’s merry-go-round. Browse the stalls selling arts and crafts, regional farm products and the obligatory mulled wine. In the Landhaushof you’ll find a huge ice sculpture depicting the nativity. Quirkily, Graz is also the home of the “Office for Christmas Carols”. Here, staff work all-year-round sending sheet music across the globe and answering pressing questions about carols, lyrics and the stories and poems of yuletide.
22 NOVEMBER – 21 DECEMBER
This medieval town of “vines and wines” has one of the prettiest backdrops in Europe for a Christmas market. Head there on 6 December, when about 100 swimmers holding torches strike out from the harbour in Kues to accompany the bishop of St Nicolas. When they arrive at Bernkastel, chocolates are handed out to all the children. It’s truly magical.
19 NOVEMBER—30 DECEMBER
Every year, Lille’s Grand Place hosts the biggest Christmas market in northern France – and the first of the French season – with more than 50 stalls. There are endless presentbuying opportunities, as artisans from the surrounding area and the whole of France offer the likes of vin chaud, waffles, gingerbread and farm goods, as well as decorations, jewellery and toys. To get a great view of the city, you can also take a ride on the giant illuminated Ferris wheel, and don’t miss the range of concerts and exhibitions on offer in Lille throughout December.
24 NOVEMBER—23 DECEMBER
In Basel, a specially appointed sleigh riden by Father Christmas tours the city, guiding atmosphere-hungry tourists to the best places for seasonal cheer (and shopping). For the latter that would be the Advent market on Barfüsserplatz, which sells traditional and contemporary gifts, toys, books and bric-abrac. Theatre Square is transformed by ice sculptures, and concerts abound – from ballet and opera to musicals and cabaret.
22 NOVEMBER–26 DECEMBER
The Viennese market dates back to 1924 and takes place throughout the city. Visit Christkindlmarkt at Rathausplatz, with its elaborately decorated trees, the historic Spittelberg quarter and Schönbrunn Palace, featuring festive concerts, as well as products such as tree decorations and mangers. It’s all very festive, with carol singers and brass bands adding to the cheery atmosphere.
24 NOVEMBER—23 DECEMBER
Six yuletide markets take over Cologne every winter. In front of the city hall, on Alter Markt, the rustic half-timbered stalls are particularly enchanting. At the medieval market next to the Chocolate Museum, there are wandering minstrels, festive performers and stalls galore. You can even find a floating Christmas market onboard the MS Wappen Von Mainz in the city’s old quarter.
22 NOVEMBER—4 JANUARY
Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park is packed with about 50 German-style chalets selling festive wares and edible treats – from bratwurst and roasted almonds to crêpes and gingerbread. Plus don’t miss the huge ice rink, big wheel and family-friendly rides. Nearby is the Natural History Museum, also the perfect setting for a lively market and outdoor ice skating
29 NOVEMBER—23 DECEMBER
Christmas in Bremen is big business, with more than 170 riotously festive stalls taking over the historic centre. The entire waterfront is transformed by torchlit taverns and snowcovered stalls selling Bavarian and Austrian dishes, and the scent of baking apples, bubbling mulled wine, cinnamon and cloves perfumes the air. The constant Christmas carols being sung adds to the assault on the senses. There are also cultural events throughout December, from classical concerts to theatre productions.
21 NOVEMBER—29 DECEMBER
The twin cities of Buda and Pest are gorgeous at any time of year, but at this time its atmospheric streets are a hive of Hungarian dancing, folk music, carol singing and children’s activities. Tuck into local hot sausages and sip on glühwein, as you browse the myriad stalls. And the quality of the crafts is topnotch, as they are policed by the Association of Hungarian Folk Artists. This year sees the market on Vörösmarty Square celebrate its 10th anniversary, with an overwhelming array of foodie delights, from breads and strudels to grills and mulled wine. Gerbaud House on the square is decorated with an advent calendar made by 24 local artists, where a new painting is unveiled every day to great fanfare.
26 NOVEMBER—31 DECEMBER
One of Berlin’s best Christmas markets (there are about 60 in total) is held in the beautiful Unter den Linden. Its Ferris wheel and skating rink are great for children, and there are over 140 stalls selling everything from stollen to regional gifts crafted by glassblowers and wood carvers. Berlin’s modern, edgy vibe is also reflected in some ultra-contemporary decorations and gifts.
13 NOVEMBER—23 DECEMBER
Liseberg Amusement Park in Gothenburg – the biggest in northern Europe – is transformed every Christmas into a giant market, with 700 glittering trees, more than three miles of spruce garlands and twinkling fairy lights aplenty. Join in the fun with carriage rides, ice skating and presents galore. The huge range of stalls have everything you’ll need to take back home, including crafts, knitted goods and gourmet treats. When you’re feeling peckish, some of the best foods to try are waffles and candied apples, not to mention traditional pickled herrings, spicy red cabbage and meatballs. It’s a fishy, Swedish kind of Christmas!
28 NOVEMBER—1 JANUARY
Easy to reach but not short on atmosphere, Brussels at yuletide is magic with its giant tree, lavish displays, tantalising aromas and carousels. Chocolates are an essential buy, and there is a wide array of traditional and seasonal products perfect as stocking fillers, from more than 240 wooden chalets. As well as the market crammed into the city centre, the rest of the shops remain open all weekend too. This year, the Grand Place is the setting for a dramatic and colourful sound and light show.