Sunday 25 September 2016

Europe's Top 10 Christmas markets 2015

Early birds get the worm...

Published 18/09/2015 | 10:18

Salzburg Christmas Markets
Salzburg Christmas Markets
Copenhagen, a Tivoli Christmas.
Traditional christmas market in Vienna, Austria
Budapest Christmas Markets
Nuremburg, Christmas markets
Prague at Christmas.
Budapest Christmas markets
Nuremberg Christmas Markets
Krakow, Poland

From mulled wine in Munich to glögg in Gothenburg, nothing says winter like a Christmas market. Pól Ó Conghaile picks his faves for 2015.

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Salzburg, Austria (Nov 20 - Dec 26)

Salzburg (pictured) may be the city of Mozart, but it's also the city of Josef Mohr.

Who? Mohr (1792-1848) was the local composer who wrote Silent Night, one of the world's most famous Christmas carols. When you're competing with Mozart however, not even Silent Night will win you name recognition.

There are no direct flights scheduled from Ireland to Salzburg (the Austrian city is an hour and 45 minutes by road from Munich). It's worth the extra effort, however, with a spread of stalls, cathedrals, set-pieces and cosy crannies that seems tailor-made for frosty-breathed festivities.

Salzburg's Christkindlmarkt takes place around the cathedral, with huts gathered at the foot of Hohensalzburg Fortress.

Do it: LowCostHolidays.ie (01 485-3835) has a two-night (4-star) break including Aer Lingus flights to Munich from €265pp. Salzburg is a two-hour drive from Munich.

Budapest, Hungary (Nov 27 - Jan 1)

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Year after year, Irish visitors pay the majority of their continental Christmas visits to Budapest, Prague, Munich, Vienna and Berlin.

 They do so for a reason - these big hitters consistently churn out some of the best shots of festive atmosphere in Europe. Budapest isn't content to scatter stalls around Vörösmarty Square, for example - it goes the extra mile by transforming the 18th century Gerbeaud House into a giant Advent Calendar, with a new window opening to reveal a painting daily at 5pm.

Budapest is one of those cities on the Danube that lays the seasonal atmospherics so thick, you'd half-expect St Nicholas himself to emerge from the local spa. Stalls offer everything from mulled wine to warm-your-heart waffles, and crafts are overseen by the Association of Hungarian Folk Artists, which is conscious that the markets introduce visitors to Hungarian culture.

Do it: Abbey Travel (01 804-7100; abbeytravel.ie) has flights plus two nights in a 4-star hotel from €188pp.

Prague, Czech Republic (Nov 28 - Jan 1)

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Prague is the perfect setting for the festive season, with its stunning castle, Old Town and Charles Bridge lit up like Christmas trees.

The city's central tree is practically worth a trip in itself too, shipped as it is from the Krkonose Mountains and erected right at the heart of the main markets in the Old Town Square (there's another market at Wenceslas Square).

Prague (like Munich and Budapest) is a good place to go if you want to get some decent department store shopping in along with the cutesy stuff at the markets - which includes Bohemian Crystal, wooden toys, scented candles, hand-made jewellery, ceramic mugs and decorative ornaments as Czech specialities.

Do it: Independent Travel (01 539-7700; travel.independent.ie) has flights plus three nights' B&B at a 4-star hotel in Prague from €199pp. Book here.

Copenhagen, Denmark (Nov 14 - Jan 03)

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Copenhagen is almost impossible to do on the cheap, but it's easy to argue that you get what you pay for - a classy Christmas city with a smorgasbord of New Nordic cuisine thrown in to fill your stomach. . . if not your stocking.

First stop? The Tivoli Gardens, of course. Traditional Danish markets here set dozens of food and gift stalls against the backdrop fairy lights, reindeer rides and old-school rollercoasters - with the magical ambience culminating in several nights of fireworks displays (Dec 26-30).

Copenhagen is a good '2-for-1' spot - with Malmö just 35 minutes away over the Öresund Bridge. Sweden celebrates its St Lucia festival on December 13, with the Queen of Light borne aloft on a horse-drawn carriage.

Do it: Cassidy Travel (0818 332500; cassidytravel.ie) has two-night packages to Copenhagen, including flights and 4-star accommodation, from €196pp.

Krakow, Poland (Nov 27 - Dec 26)

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A visit to Poland's prettiest city is a perfect fit (or gift?) for Christmas.

Festivities centre in and around a market square unchanged in layout since 1257, with St Mary's Church and the surrounding buildings dotted with stalls selling baked potatoes, roast chestnuts and stocking fillers ranging from handmade ornaments to szopki - Krakow's famous nativity cribs.

The prettiness extends to prices, too. Krakow is one of the cheaper Christmas market cities to visit, with food and drink doing a lot less damage to the visitor's wallet than, say, in Vienna or Salzburg. Add the magic of Wawel Castle, the clip-clopping horses-and-carts and the energy of the city's 21st century bars and cafes, and you could have a Christmas to cherish.

Do it: Travel Department (01 637-1650; traveldepartment.ie) has flights plus four nights at the 3-star Hotel Chopin from €399pp. The price includes a walking tour and excursion.

Vienna, Austria (Nov 13 - Dec 26)

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Vienna oozes elegance at any time of year. At Christmas, however, the city ups a gear. Seasonal markets here are on the go since 1296, when Emperor Albrecht I granted Viennese traders the privilege of holding a December market for their customers.

Tradition seeps from the stalls like the warmth from a barrel of hot chestnuts. The main event is the Christkindlmarkt by Vienna's Town Hall. Christmas sees its Gothic facade lit up with fairy lights, and some 140 stalls shopping out the roasted almonds and gingerbread to three million visitors a year.

Austrians love their gemütlichkeit (cosiness), a sensation you'll be able to tap into in the city's classy cafes as much as its markets - more of which you'll find at Schönbrunn Palace, Am Hof and Karlskirche.

Do it: Independent Travel (01 539-7700; travel.independent.ie) has flights plus three nights at a 3-star hotel in Vienna from €243pp, departing December 13. Book here.

Munich, Germany (Nov 27 - Dec 24)

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Berlin has threatened to steal Munich's market thunder ever since the Wall came down, but the Bavarian city is still Germany's best in our festive list.

Munich's town records mention a 'Nicholas Market' near the Frauenkirche as far back as 1642, with gingerbread, nativity figurines and chimney sweeps made of plums and almonds amongst the fancies on display. . . many of which you'll still find in the same place almost four centuries later.

Today's main markets are organised around a 100-foot Christmas tree in Marienplatz, where getting stuck into the Germanic fare is one of the most satisfying things a seasonal visitor can do. How do bad-ass bratwursts, hot-to-hold pretzels and tankards of frothy beer sound for starters?

Marienplatz is just the beginning, too. The Rindermarkt specialises in handmade cribs, and the gay Christmas Market on Stephansplatz is great fun with its pink trees and cross-dressing carol singers.

Do it: Lowcostholidays.ie (01 485-3835) has flights plus two nights at the 4-star Ibis Muenchen City from €260pp, based on a December 12 departure.

Gothenburg, Sweden (Nov 20 - Dec 30)

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Gothenburg is another Christmas city where you may spend generously to have a good time, but there is good value if you know where to look.

Christmas markets at Liseberg Amusement Park cost SEK90/€10 to visit, locals assemble into the shape of a Christmas tree to sing carols in the Drottningtorget, and there's a cosy indoor alternative at the Nordstan Shopping Centre, where stalls sell crafts ranging from knitwear to graphics.

If you like your design, check out the market at Röda Sten Art Centre, and you'll find all manner of gifts and glögg (mulled wine) at the traditional markets in Haga. Finally, wrap up and take a walk along the Lane of Light, a 3km trail of lights connecting the port to Avenyn, the city's main shopping drag.

Alas, there are no direct flights from Ireland to Gothenburg (although SAS did introduce one for a limited time as part of its Summer 2015 schedule).

Do it: SAS (flysas.com) flies from Dublin to Gothenburg via Stockholm in December. Norwegian (norwegian.com) also flies from London Gatwick and Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies from London Stansted. See also goteburg.com.

Nuremberg, Germany (Nov 27 - Dec 24)

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Ok, so the 'little town of wood and cloth' isn't the sexiest tagline.

What Nuremberg can bring to the Christmas party, however, is atmosphere - and heaps of it. One-hundred-and-eighty stalls are decorated throughout the Old Town, creating a veritable Christmas City stocked with ornaments, gifts, toys, games and holiday treats ranging from rum punch to sweet-scented chestnuts.

The Christkindlesmarkt begins the first Sunday in Advent, when the famous Nuremberg Christkind appears on the balcony of the Church of Our Lady, and another local angel - the Rauschgoldengel, glistens from every corner.

There's a neat story to this one - the original Rauschgoldengel is said to have been fashioned by a local doll-maker whose daughter lay dying of fever during the Thirty Year War (1618-48). Before she passed, he heard the flutter of angel's wings and was inspired to create an angel in her memory.

Do it: Nuremberg is a 90-minute drive from Munich Airport. Aer Lingus flies direct from Dublin to Munich, while Ryanair flies to Memmingen (Munich West).

All kinds of everything…

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Can't decide which continental market to visit?

You may need an early Christmas pressie to bankroll it, but a river cruise is a hell of an option for visitors looking to visit several of Europe's best Christmas markets, without having to pack and unpack along the way.

Sunway has a five-star 'Christmas on the Rhine' cruise departing on several dates in November and December from €1,749pp. That's expensive, but includes flights, transfers and seven days all-inclusive on a five-star AMA Waterways ship, with ports of call in Basel, Cologne, Amsterdam and more.

Do it: 01 231-1889; sunway.ie.

NB: All prices subject to availability/change.

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