By Jo Gardner | March 2019 | 6 minute read
Christmas markets have been growing in popularity across Europe over the last few decades and the options for visitors have fast expanded. There's everything from quaint old-fashioned German markets to Dickensian-style British affairs on offer - many open as early as mid-November and running until early January.
Germany goes to town at Christmas like nowhere else and has the widest range of markets to choose from – all smelling of roasted almonds, mulled wine, gingerbread and baked apples.
Frankfurt’s most popular wintertime attraction is its Yuletide market (November 27-December 22), with its focal point the Römerberg old town, which provides a scenic backdrop with its historical timber-frame buildings. On weekends, choirs sing Christmas carols on the stage next to the market’s massive Christmas tree, the tallest in Germany. There are also plenty of Christmas markets in the towns and villages of the surrounding region. For example, in nearby Bad Homburg, Christmas market sales stalls are set up against the regal backdrop of the landgrave’s castle. The market is open on all four Advent weekends and features over 60 booths selling handcraft, Christmas decorations, local foods and hot beverages. One of the market’s most popular attractions is the life-sized and hand-carved nativity scene. The children’s favourite, however, is the little steam train that runs around the city’s premier landmark, the white tower, situated in the castle courtyard.
Cologne has one of Germany's largest markets, while Dresden’s Strielzelmarkt is the country’s oldest. For Christmas magic with turreted castles, Bavaria beckons while the Rhineland-Palatinate region is the place to try the local speciality of white mulled wine, straight from the wine-growers. Less well-known is the market in the historic northern town Celle with one of Germany’s highest wooden towers.
“Our bestselling tour Cruising the Rhine Christmas Markets is a very popular five-day river cruise holiday, visiting Koblenz, Rüdesheim and Mainz”, says Harold Burke, Sales Director at Grand UK Holidays. “Guests can enjoy the seasonal scenery as they glide along the majestic Rhine and see the romantic, illuminated towns along the river banks.”
In fact, most river cruise lines offer festive trips. Riviera Travel's Enchanting Rhine and Yuletide Markets River Cruise takes just five days and takes in Frankfurt, Koblenz, Rüdesheim and Cologne.
Helsinki is home to Finland’s oldest Christmas market, St Thomas, in Senate Square. With over 100 stalls, it’s great for local produce and typically Finnish Christmas food and drink. Also in Helsinki, the Women’s Christmas Fair has been running since 1922, selling homemade products and traditional delicacies. Porvoo, Turku, Tampere, Oulu and of course Santa’s own hometown, Rovaniemi, are other places to catch festive markets this winter.
Belgian capital Brussels’ main square, Grand-Place, gets taken over by Winter Wonders (November 24-31), complete with a sound and light show. A two-kilometre trail through the city includes stalls, a Ferris wheel and an ice rink for lots of Christmas fun.
Both Bruges and Antwerp have Christmas fairs and ice rinks, while a number of other towns have smaller markets.
Neighbouring Netherlands can be relied upon to get its skates on for Christmas and ice rinks abound across the land. Amsterdam's Winter Lights Festival runs from November until January and major cities Utrecht, The Hague and Maastricht also stage a fetsive market.
Of the three Baltic nations, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the first is the one that most avidly decks the halls at Christmas. Tallinn usually has several markets every year and the Old Town market is rightly renowned as one of the best in Europe, while cities Tartu and Narva put on smaller markets. Neighbouring capital Riga’s Doma Square is also taken over by a market from the end of November until early January, while Vilnius’s Odminiu Square has a shorter market (mid-December to early January).
Xmas markets in Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia usually enjoy an atmospheric historic setting. All of Austria’s main cities have Advent and Christmas markets with Linz an excellent recommendation for those with a sweet tooth thanks to its Linzer Torte and gingerbread.
The UK may be a latecomer to festive markets but the number – and imagination put into them – grows year on year.
Several tour operators have added new tours for the season. “One new option is the Ludlow Christmas market and Christmas at Abbey-Cwm-Hir, a Victorian manor,” says Harold Burke, Sales Director at Grand UK Holidays. Based in Llandrindod Wells, the four-day coach holiday visits the wonderful Christmas market in the medieval setting of Ludlow Castle.”
Portsmouth dockyard will this year again offer a Victorian Christmas festival, while several castles, including Leeds and Rochester, will host market weekends. The latter also features a Dickensian Christmas.
Winchester's market, complete with an ice rink, and stunning cathedral backdrop, is another growing favourite on the festive calendar.
Where to book it
Leger Holidays' five-day Slovenia Christmas markets tour, including Ljubljana, Bled and the Croatian capital Zagreb, is from £549pp. It includes return flights, four hotel nights, transfers, city tours, breakfast and dinner.