Winter travel: mini-breaks with festive spirit

Winter travel: mini-breaks with festive spirit

Daniela Soave goes exploring for European Christmas markets with charming traditions that make the perfect escape to get you in the mood for the holiday season.

Daniela Soave goes exploring and finds easy pre-Christmas trips to get you in the mood for the holiday season.

As in the best fairy tales, I chanced upon my first Christmas market by mistake.
Estonia had recently become part of the EU, so it seemed like a good excuse to explore its capital city, Tallinn, a magical medieval maze of cobbles and crenellations.

It just so happened to be December, and when I wandered into Town Square there stood before me the biggest glittering Christmas tree I’d ever seen, surrounded by hundreds of wooden cabins selling everything from hand-crafted toys, Scandi knits, artisan jewellery, soaps, printed silks, hand-carved wooden boxes and buttons and local festive food and drink.

Wow. This felt a million miles removed from the usual frenzied high street Christmas shopping experience. I was sold.

My five European Christmas Market getaways

An early December getaway to a European Christmas market has become an opportunity to combine an end of year excursion with some last-minute gift purchases. What’s not to like?

  • Helsinki, Finland, December 3 to 22
    Attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, and no wonder. It’s a foodie delight, and you can enjoy carol singing, the most incredible festive lights and starry nights, Finnish craft and design, ‘glogi’ (a local mulled wine with a kick) and hundreds of stalls in streets, squares and alleys. Wrap up warm.
  • Prague, Czech Republic, December 4 to January 4
    Walk into a fairytale setting in Wenceslas Square, with its red-topped wooden huts. Here you’ll find enchanting Czech glass baubles and decorations, embroidered lace and handcrafted toys and clothes, as well as Czech Christmas potpourri, Christmas confectionary and tablecloths. The Nativity Scene in the Old Town Square is a real-life tableau. Properly magical.
  • Vienna, Austria, November 12 to December 24
    There are eight Christmas markets here, some dating back to 1294. Some are traditional (mulled wine and Christmas cakes); some cater for children with fairy themes and carnival, while others appeal to the hip and happening (groovy ice pavilions serving cool tunes and hot punch). Visitors come from all corners of the world to admire Vienna’s illuminated streets and squares, and the atmosphere is buzzing.
  • Strasbourg, France, November 25 to December 31
    Strasbourg’s Christkindelsmarik is the largest market in Europe with more than 300 stalls spread over 12 areas of the city. With its medieval, timbered houses decorated with red and white hearts and cobbled streets lit by fairy lights, it’s a festive dream. The capital of the Alsace region is rightly proud of its market, which has been going for almost 450 years.
  • Berlin, Germany, November 26 to December 23
    With over 60 Christmas markets (truly!) there is plenty to do here as well as shop. Apart from locally crafted food, drink, clothes, jewellery, etc, Berlin offers much in the way of festive entertainment: jugglers, acrobats, fire eaters and dance groups perform within the markets, and if you fancy learning more about the city’s tradition of flax embroidery, wood carving and stone masonry, there are demonstrations too.

Christmas market UK getaways

Today, the British Christmas market is as firmly a part of the festive calendar as it is over the Channel. But beware. There are Christmas markets, and there are Christmas markets. If you’re making a special trip of it, make sure it’s the genuine article, with artisan goods rather than generic products you’d find any old where. How about:

  • Bath Christmas Market – at least 80 per cent of items sold at the 170 wooden chalet stalls are produced locally.
  • Birmingham, Edinburgh, Leeds and Manchester markets – these are held in partnership with Frankfurt Christmas Market so you’re guaranteed to get the real deal.
  • Lincoln Christmas Market – established over 30 years ago, kick-started the whole Christmas market revival in the UK and now boasts more than 250 stalls of original handicrafts and food.

What could be more festive than a weekend wandering around a new city, sampling mulled wine and munching Stollen as you shop? And if you tire of shopping, my choices here are all great for wandering the museums and galleries too.

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