Europe’s 10 best winter market destinations
Get in the festive spirit with a visit to these winter wonderlands
So here it is, Merry Christmas. Or rather, here it is – way before any of us are ready for it, and seemingly only about 3 weeks after we polished off the last of 2015’s turkey. But to get yourself back into the swing of things, you can’t beat a visit to a Christmas market to pick up gifts and soak up plenty of festive spirit (not to mention warm, spiced booze). These are some of Europe’s very best.
The picture-postcard city in West Sweden is ripe for transformation into a Winter Wonderland, with historic buildings, winding cobbled streets and a reliable dusting of real snow. It also happens to have one of the biggest and best theme parks in the world – Liseberg – home to the city’s most illuminating Christmas Markets. This year, nearly 5 million lights will dazzle shoppers, mulled wine-guzzlers, and those looking down on the whole thing from the top of the big wheel.
This year will be the 582nd running of Dresden’s Striezelmarkt (lead image) – said to be the oldest in Germany, no less – so you’d hope they might know how to put on a decent show by now. Luckily, you’d be right; expect masses of stalls, carol singing and plenty of mulled wine, which you’ll need to wash down all the stollen you’ve eaten. The dense, doughy fruit bread originates from Dresden and you’ll see lots of it not only at the Striezelmarkt, but at any of the city’s 10 (yes, 10) other Christmas markets.
You don’t have to escape the UK to find world-class Christmas markets. In Edinburgh, where they know a thing or two about how to celebrate, you’ll find one on East Princes St Gardens and another, Scottish-flavoured market on George Street. Better still, there’s a massive programme of live performances, plus ice skating and loads of rides and attractions. There’s even a Christmas Tree Maze, which sounds to us like a good place to ‘accidentally’ lose the kids for a few hours while you hit the shops.
The baroque Austrian city, with the Alps as a backdrop and the river Salzach running right through it, could barely be any prettier as it is – but at Christmas it takes on a whole new dimension. To go with the buzzing markets, keep an eye out for the Krampuses and Perchten accompanying Saint Nicholas – they’re wild, evil spirits (or, in case we’ve now put you off, people dressed as evil spirits) that run through the crowds in search of naughty children and grownups to swat with their birch ‘rute’. You don’t get that in the Santa’s grotto at our local supermarket.
One of the oldest – if not the oldest – Christmas markets in Europe is held in Strasbourg, and today you’ll find more than 300 stalls throughout the city, where you can buy everything from artisan crafts to craft beer. If you can’t actually make it there, the tourist board’s created a virtual reality tour you can download at home, so you can take in the sights and sounds of a Strasbourg Christmas while munching crisps on your sofa. Joyeux Noël and all that…
The Belgian capital’s Christmas market stretches for 2km, and it packs in plenty for kids and grownups to do, including a huge ferris wheel, dazzling illuminations and an ice rink. And whether you’re young or old, good luck keeping your hands off the spiced waffles – a Brussels classic with a festive twist. We reckon we know how Father Christmas packs on all that extra timber each winter…
For a whistlestop tour of the historic Bavarian city’s Christmas markets, hop aboard the ChristkindlTram. As the name suggests, it’s a tram that takes you around Munich’s top festive spots, with a few surprises thrown in for good measure, and they’ll ply you with mulled wine and gingerbread while you’re at it. Beats the 8.23 to Kettering any day of the week.
Unless you’ve been hidden away somewhere for the last few months (possibly working in a toy factory in Lapland), you’ll have heard about the Danish concept of ‘hygge’, which is dedicated to being as cosy and happy as possible. And what could be cosier and happier than wrapping up warm and taking in the festive markets and activities that fill Copenhagen at Christmas? Our favourite stalls are dotted along the quay at Nyhavn – though you might struggle to hit peak hygge if you overdo that æbleskiver and gløgg and fall in the canal.
With Lake Geneva stretching out in front of you and the Alps looming large in the background, Montreux is surely one of the most impressive settings for a Christmas market anywhere in Europe. This being Switzerland, all the stalls are immaculate little wooden chalets, and you can transport yourself to an enchanted medieval world at the Château de Chillon. Lord Byron visited and wrote about the castle in his 1816 poem The Prisoner of Chillon, though sadly he was 200 years too early to enjoy the Elves’ Village or get a souvenir selfie with Santa Claus.
Bath is dripping with history on any day of the year, but at Christmas the city takes on a magical glow. You’ll find 170 stalls, almost of all them run by local traders, offering a huge variety of gifts – from wine and cheese to art and clothes. If it all gets a bit much, head to the city’s famous spa and kick back, because nothing says ‘Merry Christmas to me’ like an open-air soak and an aromatherapy steam room session. They’ll provide slippers and a robe, so you don’t have to parade around the spa in your finest Christmas undercrackers. (Not even sorry.)