Magical Christmas Markets and Shopping
For some people, Christmas is a time for battening down the hatches, picking up the remote and taking up residency on the sofa. For others, it’s a chance to wrap up warm, travel somewhere new and seek out mulled wine and gingerbread.
Christmas Markets are found almost everywhere you look these days, but not all are created equal – here’s our pick of ten of the best cities to explore this December, all of them accessible by direct flights from London City.
The Belgian port city of Antwerp is as cool as they come these days, with enough quality cafes, clubs and galleries to more than justify a long weekend. It’s a good-looking place too, which adds to the atmosphere of the Christmas market: you’ll find close to 100 stalls, as well as an ice rink and the customary array of brightly lit fairground rides. It’s also just a short train ride from Brussels – 35 minutes on the faster services – where you’ll find another of Europe’s top festive markets, complete with son et lumière displays.
When Audrey Hepburn uttered the famous line “Paris is always a good idea”, she had a point – although anyone here at the height of the summer throng might choose to disagree. Coming in winter is an excellent alternative. The French capital is a hugely atmospheric place to visit over the Christmas period, with a nip in the air, roasted chestnuts on the go and the main boulevards shimmering with lights. Head to La Défense, a business district for most of the year but also home to the city’s biggest Christmas market, with more than 300 stalls and wooden chalets.
The none-more-hip German capital doesn’t do Christmas by halves. In 2016 there are more than 45 different festive markets taking place, a suitably hefty number given that Germany itself lays strong claim to having invented the concept of Weihnächtsmarke (Christmas markets) back in the Middle Ages. Among the very best of Berlin’s markets is the WeihnachtsZauber Gendarmenmarkt, partly for its range of stalls – big on handmade crafts and warming traditional foods – and partly for its illuminated backdrop of domes and grand civic buildings, which comes into its own after dark.
Few cities are as versed as Edinburgh when it comes to hosting festivals and events, so the Scottish capital’s six-week season of Christmas entertainment shouldn’t come as a surprise. Alongside familiar trappings such as craft markets and a Big Wheel, you can expect seasonal shows in the Festival Square Theatre and other features such as the Street of Light, an elaborate light and music installation along West George Street. If you’re staying for New Year’s Eve, meanwhile, brace yourself for the full force of Hogmanay.
Religion runs deep in Rome – particularly as the Vatican City sits plum in the middle of it – so a visit here over Christmas tends to have more overtones than in your average European city. The two headline draws are Christmas Eve Midnight Mass at St Peter’s Basilica (you’ll need tickets) and the Pope’s famous “Urbi et Orbi” blessing the following day, but elsewhere you’ll find gospel festivals, church concerts and countless nativity scenes. There’s a good Christmas market on Piazza Navona.
The Spanish capital might not be the most obvious winter destination, but it’s somewhere that takes hold of the festive spirit in a big way. The Christmas lights are impressive, festooning all the major streets, and the central square of Plaza Mayor hosts a lively market full of baubles, handmade crafts and twinkling decorations. Take the chance to try sweet treats such as marzipan and turrón (almond nougat). Elsewhere in town, several other squares become ice rinks and there’s even an open-topped “Navibus” (Christmas bus), which tours the town centre taking in the main festive sights.
As a medieval city lined with guild houses, turrets and a 1,000-year-old cathedral, Bremen provides an apt setting for one of Europe’s oldest Christmas markets, complete with the promise of roasted bratwurst, baked apples and cinnamon biscuits. The city draws few tourists in comparison to many other German destinations, but there are some classy attractions to enjoy – set aside a couple of hours for the Weserburg Museum of Modern Art or step into the future with a visit to Universum, a highly rated interactive science museum shaped like a colossal silver clam.
Lined with dozens upon dozens of fairy-lit pine trees, the Swiss city of Basel is another that doesn’t believe in holding back at Christmas time. Classic national staples like chocolate and melting Raclette cheese are very much in evidence, and virtually the whole Old Town comes alive in a radiant huddle of stalls and craft chalets. It’s home to the largest Christmas market in the country, and lays on various concerts and themed tours as well. Keep your eyes peeled for Samichlaus, the Swiss Santa.
Immortalised by countless lights-a-twinkle Hollywood movies, Christmas in New York is a living example of what happens when the festive-factor gets turned up to 11. And despite the crowds, even the most hardened Scrooge would have to admit it’s a spectacular place to be in December: the world-of-wonder displays at the department stores, the razzle-dazzle of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, the bite in the air in Central Park, the late-afternoon glow along the main avenues, and on, and on. The most wonderful time of the year? You decide.
Another German city underpinned by centuries of Christmas tradition, Hamburg is a great bet if you’re in search of the full yuletide market experience: the scent of fig trees, the reflection of lights on water and the inevitable pull of mulled-wine stalls. Again, there’s a large number of different markets to choose from. The most famous – and the heaviest in terms of nostalgic knick-knacks – takes place on Rathausmarkt, in front of the Town Hall. If you’re here over a weekend, it’s also well worth rising early on Sunday.