The Perfect Excuse for a Festive Break and lots of Shopping!
Mulled wine pervades the air. Gingerbread houses twinkle their adornments in the crisp winter sun. Everyone’s wearing bobble hats, ear muffs and brightly coloured chunky scarfs, permanent smiles etched across their rosy-cheeked faces. This can mean only one thing: Christmas markets! And it’s time to share with you my personal and super exciting recommendations for The Best Christmas Markets in the World.
So put on your reindeer jumpers, blast out the carols in the background, deck your trees with tinsel, twinkly lights, and kitsch robins, and empty out those piggy banks. It’s going to be so-ho-ho much fun…
Bath, UK – 22th November-9th December
Now Bath may not be the largest of all the Christmas markets, but it is oh so quaintly gorgeous. Coupled with the fact that a visit gives you the best excuse to book into a period Jane Austen style hotel… and hit Bath’s one-off independent shops and boutiques, followed by a trip to Bath’s infamous spa to unwind after all of that spicy infused punch, what are you waiting for? Bath’s annual festive market celebrates everything quintessentially German and British (with a spotlight on local products and crafts) that you could possibly want to eat, drink, wear, decorate the home with or play with at this time of year. And it is located amidst the stunning backdrop of the Abbey and pump rooms where wooden huts line the streets – which given this year’s weather predictions, may even see genuine snow covering! Many of the happy traders will even offer taster samples so you can try before you buy. And there’s a pop-up Apres-ski bar!
Stockholm, Sweden –24th November-23rd December.
The Old Town Christmas Market in Stockholm is a shopper’s delight. Whilst the German’s may well lay claim to having the oldest Christmas markets in the world (reputedly Dresden’s), Sweden’s history of Christmas markets in its capital city of Stockholm, actually dates back to 1523. The present-day array of goodies is a veritable feast for the eyes. Unlike many of the other European markets, Stockholm’s is strongly flavoured with its own unique Swedish Christmas traditions. Come here for festive sweets, candy floss, smoked sausage and reindeer, elk, glögg (a type of mulled wine), Swedish handicrafts such as handmade knitted caps and decorative arts of exceptional quality. Whilst this is a much smaller market than many of the others featured in this list, its individuality and absolutely stunning setting make it a Christmas market with a difference, and one which is well worth a visit this winter.
Nuremberg, Germany – 30th November-24th December.
What a gem of a Christmas market Nuremberg is! It’s the pungent smell of cloves, mulled wine and gingerbread in every edible format that hits you between the eyes as you follow its trail, entranced by this Pied Piper of all that is beautiful, cosy and joyous. Carousels twirl, children tuck into candy and grown-ups swig on their hot toddies. Nuremberg’s market is a festive delight – day or night – for all the family. And if that’s not enough to keep the younger members of your entourage happy, there are heaps of ‘hands on’ booths where they can become gingerbread makers (there is nothing on this planet as good as authentic Nuremberg Gingerbread) and stained glassed window creators! Think golden lights and pillar box red and white candy cane stripes, smiley faces and an infinite variety of hearty market traders and you have a truly unforgettable experience. You may even get to meet the beautiful 2016 ‘Christkind’ in person (the Christmas market’s ambassador), although chance might be a fine thing… she has over 170 appointments at the Christmas market itself and charitable institutions. She’s even known as far away as America!
Strasbourg, France – 24th November-30st December.
This chocolate box Alsacien city doesn’t refer to itself as the ‘Capital of Christmas’ and the ‘City of Lights’ for nothing! Strasbourg’s Christmas market tradition is deeply rooted; the first taking place here in 1570, and the city thrives on this rich heritage. As well as all of the usual suspect festive goodies – from gingerbread houses to glass baubles – that are so quintessentially associated with this time of year, Strasbourg also plays host to Luxembourg in 2016, and a number of stalls selling everything Luxembourgish will be set up in a very special ‘Luxembourg Village’. What really sets Strasbourg apart though is the vast scale, authenticity and amazing quality of the merchandise it has on sale. In fact, it is impossible, to sum up everything this Christmas market lover’s paradise has to share. It really is a Disneyland of an experience! So much so that it hosts the following mini (though they could hardly be referred to as that…) markets within its Christmas market; The Christkindelsmärik, The Cathedral Christmas Market, The Christmas Delights of Alsace Market, The Market of the Invincible Small Producers of Alsace, The Christmas Market of the Three Magi, The Christmas Market of the Carré d’or, The ‘Other’ Christmas markets, The Village of Sharing and last but not least, The Children’s Village. Phew. I am all shopped out just thinking about it! Time to hit the ice rink followed by a yuletide rendition or three from the orchestra. Oh yeah, it has those as well…
Bologna, Italy – 20th November-6th January.
Okay, so I have an endless love affair with Bologna. For many years when I worked in children’s publishing, I had to visit every spring. Oh, what a chore… As if the food, the people, the architecture, the culture, and the history weren’t enough of a magnetic tug at the heartstrings… now I can add the Christmas Market (or Mercatini di Natale)! Come to this market for turrone and biblical figurines to complete baby Jesus’s manger. Come to this market for locally handmade crafts. Come to this market for the freshest Panetonne and speciality pasta imaginable. Come for the grappa! It’s not the largest of the Christmas markets, this is true. But it is a wonderful city to experience a panaforte slice of true Italian style Christmas. Which is what the essence of these European markets is all about, after all. And when you are done, it’s an absolute must to head down the Via D’Indipendeza to Bar Calderoni’s… just don’t drink too many Campari and Blood Oranges, you’ll be a prime candidate for the karaoke in the famed ‘Piano Lounge.’
Prague, Czech Republic – 1st December-6th January.
With the spellbinding and Gothic backdrops of Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square, Prague’s Christmas market will transport you to the heart of the most scenic fairy tale. Wooden huts are vibrantly decorated to offer visitors and locals alike a cornucopia of loveliness – from hand-knitted hats, gloves and scarves to traditional wooden handicrafts and puppets and dolls to glassware. Then we come to the food! Marvel at cakes and pastries as they are created in front of your eyes and try with all your might to resist the large hams roasted on spits, as well as the gloriously Czech barbequed sausages that are especially popular at this time of year. Children can stroke sheep, goats and a donkey on the special animal stable in the Old Square, and there is a beautiful nativity scene of quite epic proportions. Add to all of this the local and rather delicious beer, as well as the enchanting melodies of the local school choirs who perform regularly of a late afternoon and evening and you have all the ingredients for a very special Christmas market.
Zurich, Switzerland – 22th November-23th December (depending on location)
Actually, Zurich has two Christmas markets: the Christmas Market in the city’s railway station (apparently Europe’s largest indoor market with 160 chalets selling festive finery plus a colossal and brilliantly decorated Christmas tree, adorned with 5000 Swarovski jewels), and the Christmas Market in the Old Town. The former is open 19th November-24th December, and the latter 27th November-24th December. Both are well worth a visit, as is the city itself, not least since it is surrounded with one of the most beautiful lakes on the continent. The variety of wonders on sale and display is an endless fascination; we’re talking jewellery (well of course, this is pretty much the luxury watch capital of the world), fabrics, traditional Swiss decorations and food and drinks. Lots of it. Gluhwein and heart-shaped iced gingerbread cookies making the perfect gift for somebody at home, or well, just yourself! And then there’s the Swiss chocolate…
Vienna, Austria – mid-November to Christmas Eve
‘Oh Vienna,’ sang Midge Ure… and I can’t help but thinking it was for his love of the city’s Christmas market. For what’s not to adore? From mid-November to Christmas Eve this jewel in the European Christmas markets’ crown is simply unmissable if you are a fan of all that is truly and traditionally festive. 150 booths scattered across various locations in the city offer mouthwatering sweets, hot punch, tree decorations and the most exquisite Christmas gifts for your family and friends. All beneath a glittering cascade of lights as the most romantic buildings in Vienna become beacons of the winter’s night. Festive advent music spills out across the streets, traditional handicrafts are displayed and taught, figurines beg to be taken home and added to your nativity scene, and this year there will even be a Christmas post office for all your Viennese Christmas Market postcards… just to make your loved ones jealous! Add to all of this the museums, the opera, and the cakes… A midwinter’s break in Vienna is very much a must.
Brussels, Belgium – late November through to early January
Brussels is so often unfairly overlooked. But Belgium’s capital is one of the most spectacular of the great European cities once you take a closer look. And what better time to do so than during it’s infamous Christmas Market season when it is transformed into a Winter Wonderland of excitement and conviviality. From late November through to early January come to eat croustillons (donuts), caricoles (winkles in a spicy sauce) and how could we forget the chocolates! In fact with a mammoth 240 wooden chalets selling everything from handmade decorations for the tree to jewellery, and wooden toys to mulled wine… the aroma of which seems to pervade the entire city’s air, this is simply one of the best shows of its kind on offer. Laser shows, ice sculptures, a ferris wheel, merry-go-rounds, the ‘slalom’ and the ‘ice monster’, plus an ice skating rink, complete the experience to make this the perfect fun festive getaway with family or friends.
Philadelphia, USA – 25th November-27th December.
America’s love of the traditional German Christmas market – or Christkindlmarket, as it is commonly known in the U.S – has grown and grown over the past few years. And so it is only right that I include one of the most awesome of all of the stateside versions: The Christmas Village in Philadelphia. With traditional German Christmas decorations from Kathe Wohlfahrt, warm spiced – and definitely alcoholic – apple toddies from nearby Chadsford Winery, alternative Christmas cake seeped in red wine (sounds so good!), personalised made to order Christmas stockings, coasters and baubles, stands choc full of European food (the smell of waffles and Bratwurst is legendary), international Holiday gifts, sweets, drinks and jewellery, Philly’s LOVE Park caters for every taste. You can even buy doggy treats packaged in cute Christmas tins for your pampered pooches. And as if that wasn’t enough, there’s the big Holiday Tree; a monumental Christmas tree studded with the most beautiful lights you have possibly ever seen.
Just one thing: don’t forget to bring me back a present!