Christmas markets as we know and love them only really spread to the outer reaches of Europe in the last 10-15 years or so, but they have been a winter staple in the German speaking countries since at least the 14th century. Now, whether you’re from Kiev or Kidderminster, it simply doesn’t feel like Christmas until you’re swaying on too many glühweins and spilling mustard all down your snowman jumper because your gloved hands are unsuccessfully trying to juggle both holding an oversized bratwurst and getting money out of your wallet to pay for it.
I’m not saying Christmas markets are the best things the Germans have given the world, but I’ve been sat staring at this screen for 6 minutes and literally the only other competition I can think of is Lidl. And whilst Christmas markets continent-wide all have a nod to their Bavarian origin, they are each in their own way wonderfully unique.
Here are some of the best Christmas markets for a festive weekend away this winter…
Unsurprisingly, Germany absolutely nails the whole ‘German Christmas Market’ thing. So it is so difficult to pick just one, or even two, of all the incredible Christmas markets put put in this list. In beautiful Dresden you can gorge on Dresden Stollen (Streizel) cake and tick seeing the world’s tallest nutcracker off your bucket list, Berlin is practically drowning in festive warmth with about 60 different markets on the go, Stuttgart is quite simply a fairytale, and Cologne’s magnificent Gothic cathedral takes some beating for a market backdrop.
But it’s the 400 year old Christkindlesmarkt in Nuremberg that I’ve tentatively decided to hand the prestigious ‘Best Christmas Market in Germany’ crown to. A delightful medieval city that rarely springs to mind as a top choice for a weekend away, which is probably due to it’s association with war criminal hangings. The Nazis really do put a dampener on things. But with a feast of the best Bavarian comfort foods, a thousands of handcrafted goods (mass-produced items are forbidden), tiny men made out of prunes for some reason, and a blonde teenage girl in a crown and a cape spearheading proceedings, this really is the ultimate Christmas market.
Now Tallinn’s Christmas Market isn’t huge, it’s little more than a few dozen wooden huts selling the Estonian take on regular Christmas market fayre – woollen hats and gloves fit for Baltic winters, local honeys, sweets, meats and huge quantities of quite possibly my favourite hot winter wine, the fruity Estonian glögi. These dot the pretty old town square around the centrepiece of the market, a towering illuminated spruce that stands in the very same place as the first ever recorded Christmas tree, over 500 years later.
It may not sound much on paper but my god does it feel like you’ve been sucked into a snow globe. Tallinn’s gorgeously preserved old town feels like it’s been designed by the same artists who make those oil painting style Christmas cards your grandma always gets you. And every December powdery white snow blankets the city, which defies the physics of climatology and somehow makes it…warmer. It may be small, but this little market is so heart-wrenchingly Christmas it makes you want to weep tiny, snowy tears of joy. It also has reindeer.
Winter Wonderland, Hyde Park, London
For quaint toy stalls, locally made delicacies and an authentic Alpine Christmas experience in the UK, then do not come within a merry mile of Winter Wonderland. But for the best Christmas knees up since St Nick’s stag weekend, look no further.
Hoards of locals and tourists, squeeze through the gates of this gigantic market every day from late November until early January to suck at the teat of Christmas joy. Get in before the late afternoon to avoid queuing with gaggles of drunk middle aged women shrieking about how much they’re “burstin’ for a slash”, navigate your way through the busy avenues of crepe stalls and gangs of surly London ‘yoofs’, and head straight for the Bavarian Village.
The ‘village’ is less a village, more a giant mock wooden log cabin lined on each side with bars selling steins, hot wines and sausages. From 10am ’til 10pm, the village bounces with crowd pleasing hits from what seem to only be 3 or 4 bands on permanent rotation. By mid afternoon it’s long wooden benches are heaving with people in novelty jumpers clinking steins in the air, and before you know it you’re doing the conga with a 55 year old receptionist called Sharon. The Bavarian Village is how I imagine German weddings were in the 90s.
The undisputed highlight of this entertainment behemoth is Joseph. A 60-something bespectacled German man in leather trousers and a functional khaki waistcoat who headlines every night, and has done for years. I say ‘plays’. He sings along to a playlist of party classics on his iPad, and between each song, he has to tilt his varifocals to try and find the next track. He has the audience eating out of his fucking palm.
Nobody seems to knows anything about Joseph. He doesn’t seem to have a Soundcloud or even a Myspace. We only know his name because the of the Wordart projection behind him reading “Joseph Live On Stage”. Yet for 6 weeks of the year he is the biggest act in the city. He effectively headlines Christmas in the capital. I like to think for the other 11 months he’s an account manager for a small stationery company in Dusseldorf and absolutely nobody knows about this double life he leads. Every November he gets a mysterious phone call, and just takes his annual leave. “You going skiing all December again, Joseph?” his colleagues probably ask. “You sure do pack a lot of leather trousers.”
I love a good nativity scene at Christmas. Little Jesus in the manger, still a little sticky with the holy placenta; Mary looking knackered but relieved that the whole ‘virgin’ rouse still seems to be holding firm; Joseph staring deep into Jesus’s little baby eyes for signs of the milkman or Kevin from accounts; the three wise men, one looking smug the other two annoyed and keeping hold of their receipts; and of course a mysterious figure in the corner curling out a hot Christmas steamer on the floor. It really is my favourite time of year!
If that scene sounds a little more faecal than you remember, then you’re probably not from Barcelona, where quite understandably one of the most popular figures of the nativity is El Caganer, or “The Shitter”. These wonderful little figurines are available for sale in the thousands at Barcelona Christmas market. Traditionally, they’re dressed in Catalan peasant garb but you can also get versions modelled after almost any international celebrity you can think of. Yes, this Christmas you too could decorate your mantelpiece with a tiny shitting Kardashian. The kids will love it.
If that wasn’t enough, those crazy Catalans also celebrate the season of goodwill with a jovial character called ‘The Shitting Log’ (or Caga Tió). This is exactly how it sounds. Caga Tió is a log, with a smiling face, that poops out presents. There are tiny figurines for sale, and a giant Tió that children queue up to receive literally crap gifts from. It poops the pressies, so children are taught, when they beat it with a stick and sing threateningly at it to “shit nougats” and “shit money” or suffer a further stick beating. Which if you think about it, is the true meaning of Christmas.
Colmar is one of those curious little towns that lies in the cultural Venn diagram crossover between Germany and France. Which means that although it might be caught in a perpetual cycle of surrendering to itself, it also magically manages to capture the idyllic French pace of life in the perfect gingerbread architecture of Southern Germany. It has Germanic politeness spoken with the poetic French tongue. Both wine AND beer!
Five individual Christmas markets, each based around a different theme, are linked by a labyrinth of narrow twinkling streets and half-timbered houses. From the fun children’s market in canal-woven Petite Venise, to the antiques roadshow of the Koïfhus. But it’s the stalls that combine the German sweet tooth with French culinary finesse, that’s when Christmas in Colmar really begins to shine.
There are obvious benefits to a Christmas jaunt in one of Austria’s top skiing destinations, but as well as winter frolics on you doorstep Innsbruck also has several fantastic Christmas markets, all set within the surrounds of rugged Alpine peaks and one of Austria’s most beautiful cities.
Spend your days on the slopes building up an appetite for both of the Austrian food groups, pork and sugar, and then in the evening waddle your aching thighs into the glittering lights of the medieval old town to indulge it.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany
What do the Nazis and Walt Disney have in common? No, not that. The answer I’m looking for is that they both bloody loved Rothenburg ob der Tauber! The Nazi’s loved it so much that they surrendered the entire town without fighting, which they hailed as “the most German of German towns”, rather than risk it suffering damage from artillery fire. Walt Disney used it as inspiration for the village in Pinocchio. And if you visit Rothenburg this Christmas, I can guarantee you’ll be just like them. In this way.
If Nuremberg won my pick of Germany’s bigger markets, then Rothenburg ob der Tauber wins best of the smaller ones. R Taubz, as it’s known to E!, is quite possibly the prettiest town in Germany. There are others with similar fairytale looks, steep-roofed medieval houses, and narrow cobbled streets, but Rothenburg is simply the most perfect. And the same goes for it’s Christmas market. The only problem is because it’s so amazing, Rothenburg is very popular at Christmas. But it’s worth it. It is also home to Germany’s only Christmas museum!
Budapest is a cracking city anyway, but they really lay on the festive spirit thick here at this time of year. The 18th century Gerbeaud House in Vörösmarty is turned into a giant advent calendar, with a new window opening each day at 5pm to reveal a painting. In front are hundreds of cottage-esque stalls, and this is where Budapest’s market excels. They sell delicious sweet Hungarian pastries, natty looking fur hats and gloves, honey cakes, cinnamon chimney cakes, handmade chocolates, a fantastic sort of Hungarian-style pizza called toki pompos, and so much more at cheap, cheap Hungarian prices.
Be sure to warm up in one of Budapests three outdoor thermal spas while you’re there, or all of them if you collect that kind of thing. Because nothing says Christmas like sharing a bath with a hundred strangers.
Bruges is a beautiful city year round, but it really comes alive at Christmas. The market spreads out beneath the magnificent Belfort bell tower in the square and is a hive of festive activity. There’s not much more to it. Great chocolate, better beer, and only 40 minutes from London. What are you waiting for? If you leave now you can still get a Wetherspoon’s breakfast before your flight!
Where’s more Chistmassy than the Arctic? The actual home of actual Santa! Well technically Trondheim isn’t in the Arctic, but’s it’s pretty bloody close. It’s certainly cold. The Viking capital of Norway is steeped in history and Norwegian charm, but wrap up warm.
A cluster of chalets and traditional Sami teepee-style tents in front of Nidaros Cathedral sell moose burgers, reindeer meat, berry-flavoured cheeses and fantastic local wines and beers. Eat and drink yourself warm in front of the glow of much needed open fires in the Sami tents, and if you can drag yourseld away from the flames take a romantic horse and sleigh ride through the streets.
Combine Trondheim with a tip to Røros, a UNESCO world heritage town that is just two hours north by train and holds host to another idyllic little Christmas Market. Here you can feed one of Santa’s reindeer, as well as eating them.
Tivoli Gardens, Copenghagen, Denmark
Tivoli Gardens is the second oldest operating amusement park in the world. It is home to the 2nd tallest carousel and the world’s 3rd oldest roller coaster. When it’s not repeatedly failing to get into the Guinness Book of World Records, Tivoli is providing top quality twee entertainment to Copenhagen’s residents and visitors.
At Christmas time, Tivoli builds on the already magical Victorian features of this toy town amusement park and takes the Christmas market to the next level. If London’s Winter Wonderland was smaller, less crowded, and designed by Oliver Bonas, this would be it. Being an amusement park there unfortunately is a small entry fee (about £13) but what you get in return is quality.
Classic Christmas music plays over the collection of unique food a drink stalls, each offering something slightly different and almost always delicious. There’s a fairy-lit boating lake, quaint animatronic elfin workshops, and further in the park vintage dodgem cars, classic arcades and roller coasters old and new, all of which seem to avoid the taint of tackiness. If Winter Wonderland is Bad Santa, Tivoli Gardens is A Miracle of 34th Street.
Is it a coincidence that ‘Tivoli’ backwards spells ‘I Lov It’? …Think about it.