The nights are drawing in, there’s a chill in the air and the final acts are being whittled down on the X-Factor. It can only mean one thing: the run up to Christmas has begun. If you’re looking for somewhere different to do your Christmas shopping this year, you’re in luck – the UK & Europe is home to some fantastic Christmas markets that have enough twinkling lights to put Santa’s Grotto to shame. With plenty of picturesque settings, mulled wine and a magical atmosphere that you won’t find in your local shopping mall, why not combine a relaxing break with a spot of shopping at the same time. Head to one of these real-life snow globes and enjoy live carols and festive fayre in no time.
Prague, Czech Republic
You can’t get much more Christmassy than a Christmas Market whose location has been immortalised in a famous Christmas Carol. Prague’s main markets are held in Wenceslas Square (think Old King Wenceslas) and the Old Town Square, right in the heart of picturesque Prague. As well as the brightly decorated wooden huts touting traditional Czech ware, visitors to the markets can enjoy some more unusual festive cuisine such as carp (the traditional Czech Christmas dish), concoctions of grog and honey liquor and Czech beers. The sound of Czech carols sung by school children in traditional costume fills the air and at night, hundreds of twinkling lights illuminate the scene as well as the giant Christmas tree in Old Town Square, with its wonderful Astronomical Clock.
Home to not one but seven Christmas markets, Cologne is up there as one of the most popular Christmas Market destinations, drawing in an eye-popping 2 million visitors every December. There are 4 main markets in the city, but the ‘Am Dom’ market at Cologne Cathedral is the icing on the Christmas cake here, set to the impressive background of the imposing Cathedral (which also just so happens to be the most visited monument in Germany). Visitors can browse over 160 wooden pavilions surrounding the largest Christmas tree in the Rhineland, feast on sweet delicacies, watch artisans at work, sip mulled wine sold by Gluhwein traders and listen to street musicians.
Swap mulled wine for meatballs (or enjoy both) at the Copenhagen Christmas market, aptly situated in Europe’s oldest amusement park, the romantic 19th-centuryTivoli Gardens. As well as visitors being able to enjoy theme park rides and roller coasters (one of which is a 95-year old wooden coaster), in Christmas market season the park is transformed into a Danish winter wonderland, with a real outdoor skating rink in the form of its frozen main lake. Nine miles of twinkling lights, over 1,100 Christmas trees and the waft of gløgg give this a truly magical feel. Expect lots of fun, and sub-zero temperatures.
The newest UK Christmas Market on the block takes place against the romantic and historic backdrop of Rochester Castle, in the very home town of Christmas Carol author Charles Dickens. It might be a newbie but with street entertainers, Dickensian costumed characters, over 70 chalet-style stalls, carol singers, festive bands and more, all just a stone’s throw from the picturesque Victorian High Street, it promises not to disappoint.
If you’ve had your fill of Gluhwein and you’re looking for somewhere warmer, Barcelona Christmas markets could be just the ticket, offering stylish shopping, atmosphere and some fascinating Catalan traditions (perhaps the most curious of which involves having a go on a giant ‘caga tio’, a poo-shaped log that children hit with a stick to make it poop out pressies). Markets can be found at Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece the Sagrada Familia and at Fira de Satna Llucia, so visitors can sightsee and shop at the same time.
Boasting over 60 Christmas markets dotted over the city, Berlin is the mother of all Christmas market destinations. The biggest and most buzzing of these is at Kaiser Wilheim Gedächtniskirche, which lures in a whopping 4 million visitors every year. As well as featuring the usual jewellery, decorations and Gluhwein, the Christmas markets of Germany’s vibrant capital city feature fairgrounds, a ski-slope and Europe’s largest mobile toboggan run.
Valkenburg Christmas market is uniquely set in an underground network of beautifully lit caves and grottoes underneath the ruins of Valkenburg Castle. As well as hunting for traditional gifts amidst the passages and caverns of the oldest and largest underground Christmas market in Europe (it’s 25 years old this year), visitors can also soak up a spot of history, with an opportunity to get a feel for what it would have been like for the people living in the caves through a guided tour. There’s also an enchanted catering garden in the heart of the cave where visitors can indulge in the famous Dutch Christmas beverage of ‘Gluhwein’, and a Christmas parade through the centre of the town on selected evenings.
The Bath Christmas market is well worth a visit, if only for the fact that it’s held in a UNESCO World Heritage city. Here visitors can shop within a glance of beautiful Bath Abbey and the world famous Roman Baths. The market is fast earning Bath the title of ‘Christmas city’ and features 123 traditional wooden chalets, coming alive with singers, children’s entertainers, musicians and an old-fashioned Victorian Galloper Carousel.
Soak up a bit of winter sunshine and Christmas spirit at La Fete de Noue, held underneath a canopy of lights in St. Helier. For such a small island there’s a lot going on at this Christmas festival – as well as the expected carol singing and locally-crafted Christmas gifts, also on the menu are historical tours, festive concerts, ghoulish walks, engaging street theatre and even a Christmas Parade.
Christmas markets don’t come in much more picturesque settings than medieval Bruges, with its canals, cobbled streets and fairytale-like town square. The latter hosts two main markets, with an open-air ice rink as the centrepiece. Each year thousands of visitors are lured in by the smell of waffles, frites, elegantly packaged chocolates, traditional Belgian knick-knacks and the legendary array of Belgian beer.