There’s something magical about Christmas markets. The carols, the mulled wine, the stalls selling hand-crafted decorations, the sense of bonhomie.
And you couldn’t get more traditional, with the first markets popping up in Germany and Austria in the early 1300s, while Vienna’s December Market can be traced back even further – to 1294, in fact. Here at home it’s taken us almost a millennium to get in on the act, but the Christmas market is now as much a feature of the festive season as Santa, turkey and high-tech toys that don’t come with batteries. MARK EVANS rounds up the best of what’s on at home – and entices you to blow that budget on a trip abroad.
The Czech capital is hosting stalls in the fairytale Old Town Square and the more modern Wenceslas Square. In this meat-heavy nation, the emphasis is firmly on food as large hams are roasted on spits, sausages are barbecued and pastries are prepared in front of you. The usual warm wines are available, or you might prefer the tremendous local beers such as Pilsner Urquell, Staropramen and Budva. A three-night break, staying in the three-star Residence Casa Italia, and Aer Lingus flights, costs from €299 with clickandgo.com for selected dates in December.
Germany’s biggest and liveliest city has plenty of attractions and has an array of market areas, including Alexanderplatz, Potsdamer Platz, Gendarmenmarkt and Charlottenburg Castle. Gendarmenmarkt is situated in one of Berlin’s prettiest squares and features traditional wood carvers, stonemasons and experts in all kinds of handicrafts. It’s a bustling spot, with jugglers, acrobats, fire artists, dance groups, choirs, jazz and gospel choirs. There’s mulled wine, roasted almonds and spiced cakes, too. Three nights in the three-star Best Western Hotel City Ost available from €269pp, again |with Aer Lingus flights and www.clickandgo.com
Home to two major markets, exhibitors from all over Europe will set up their wooden chalets around the Grand Place and Place St Catherine to offer a wide range of Christmas decorations and gifts. The Grand Palace is a stunning backdrop, with the guild houses festooned in Christmas garlands and the square hosting a classical nativity play. Three-star B&B, for two nights in December, with flights from Dublin from €144 with www.lowcostholidays.ie
Often overlooked in favour of Prague, the Hungarian capital is a dreamlike winter spot, with stunning views from Pest castle over the Danube and city. The main market is held in Vorosmarty square, with 100 stalls as well as puppet shows and entertainment for the children. From €207 for three nights B&B, staying at the four-star Rubin Hotel, with www.abbeytravel.ie
The Tivoli Gardens, which inspired the fantasy lands of Walt Disney, are special at Christmas. Thousands of fairy lights illuminate the entire park, Santa’s there with his reindeer, and there’s the obligatory gluhwein. It’s home to about 50 stalls, and if you’ve got children in tow they’ll love the thrilling, though pricey, funfair rides. If you're over for the weekend, there’s also a market in the heart of the city in bustling Nyhavn. Two nights, staying at the four-star Vesterbro Hotel, is €449 with www.limericktravel.ie. Flights are from Dublin with full-frills SAS, and the Scandinavian airline has the advantage of a free 23kg checked-on bag allowance.
The home of the Oktoberfest sure knows how to throw a party! It boasts no fewer than 25 markets. The best (and oldest, dating back to 1310) is held in Marienplatz. Each day, from the balcony of the town hall, music lovers will be able to enjoy the festive season with a special alpine Christmas Market concert. Children can get dressed up as winter angels with the help of the staff at the “Heavenly Workshop”. Three nights there costs from €399 from Dublin or €459 from Cork with www.traveldepartment.ie. It’s also worth looking at its offering to Cologne. Dominated by the beautiful Medieval Dom, it’s one of the prettiest-situated markets in Germany.
7. EXTEND YOUR STAY
If you fancy turning your trip into a holiday, you can see the sights of Venice, relax along the shores of Lake Garda and visit the market at Bolzano, the biggest in Italy. A five-night coach tour with the Travel Department comes in at €489, based on a December 9 departure from Dublin. See www.traveldepartment.ie
8. WHY STOP AT JUST |ONE MARKET?
If you want to experience the sights and sounds of markets in three cities – and countries – you can do it in style with Insight Vacations. It’s a bigger outlay at €1,539 (based on December 15 departure) but much of your spending is taken care of. You can see Prague, Vienna and Budapest on a luxury escorted tour, staying in top hotels. There’s a host of guided tours to get you behind the scenes of the palaces and castles and plenty of shopping time in each city. Other dates available. Log on to www.insightvacations.com for more details, contact your local travel agent, or call 01 775 3803.
9. ...OR JUST GIVE YOURSELF A PRESENT
You could buy the grandchildren a PlayStation 4 or XBox One, or you could just treat yourself this Christmas. It’s possible to combine a cruise and a markets itinerary, taking in Frankfurt (home to a market since the 14th Century), Wertheim, Würzburg, Kitzingen, Schweinfurt, Bamberg and Nuremberg. Try apple cider in Frankfurt, special holiday beer in Bamberg or gingerbread in beautiful Nuremberg. It comes in at €2,879 with flights, but much of it is inclusive. You get seven nights on the top-rated River Queen river ship, all fine dining onboard with gala dinners; complimentary fine wine, beer, and soft drinks during lunch and dinner onboard; bottled water replenished daily in your stateroom; and 24-hour specialty coffee and tea station. Also included is seven excursions around the cities and country. Log on to www.uniworld.ie for more details, contact your local travel agent, or call 01 775 3803
Enjoy the feel of a small village within the heart of Belfast at the popular Belfast Continental Market in the grounds of Belfast City Hall which runs until December 21.
There’s a wide range of crafts, decorations, food and beverages on offer from across Europe and beyond. You can also go retro and get a special photo taken with your family or friends in a snowy, festive scene. www.discovernorthernireland.com
11. DUN LAOGHAIRE
The seaside town’s Christmas Craft and Food Market sees the Pavilion Quarter and Marine Road transformed with unique arts, crafts and special gifts in chalets. There’s a traditional crib in St Michael’s church, treasure hunts and a host of shows in the Pavilion Theatre each night. November 30, 2013 to January 1, 2014. www.dunlaoghaire.ie
12. GALWAY CITY
Touted as Ireland’s longest-running market, Eyre Square will again be transformed as more than 50 traders from Ireland and around Europe will be selling crafts, foods and other gift ideas. Children will love the seasonal storytelling and Santa’s arrival. Grown-ups will be glad to know that the Bierkeller – with German beers and Oktoberfest activities – will be returning |this year, so get the lederhosen out. November 22 to December 22. www.galwaychristmasmarket.ie
13. WATERFORD CITY
The Medieval city is hoping to entice you with Christmas crepes and hot chocolate – but how about pierogi and clear beetroot soup? The thriving Polish community will be at the heart of the local winterval festival, and will be teaching children how to make gingerbread men. All the family will love the horsedrawn sleigh ride through the town, can meet Santa in the 13th Century Medieval Museum, while later in the night the After Dark events include big band and jazz shows. November 29 toDecember 23 and December 27-31. www.winterval.ie
The city’s Docklands area goes all continental as over 80 traders – offering everything from German sausages to Turkish Baklava and gifts – will be plying their trade during the 12 Days Of Christmas Market. The event will include entertainment, while the nearby Gibson Hotel (www.thegibsonhotel.ie) has special market stay deals and its own German food market. Roast hog anyone? December 12-23. www.ddda.ie
15. RDS, DUBLIN
If you want a quirky gift – and don’t fancy traipsing around the streets to find it – check out the annual National Crafts & Design Fair. Features more than 500 designers, artists and craftspeople showcasing everything from food to fashion. December 4-8. www.nationalcraftsfair.ie
The Leesiders are thinking big, with their A Cork Christmas Celebration, boasting a 30-metre ferris wheel as well as a traditional carousel. The famous Grand Parade will be a hub of activity with Irish and international crafts and food stalls. November 29 to December 22. www.corkchristmascelebration.ie
17. WESTPORT, CO MAYO
Westport’s annual Spraoi na Nollag features real-life cattle in the crib, with cabins offering Christmas gift ideas, while local retailers are giving special discounts for shoppers. December 13-15. www.westportmarket.ie
Duckett's Grove House and Estate is the regal setting for the one-day Christmas Fair. The event will include a grotto of traditional Christmas activities and feature more than 70 stands of ceramics, knitwear and hand crafted enamel. December 8 www.carlowtourism.com
19. DOONBEG, CO CLARE
Another delightful setting is the five-star country house hotel. Features 60 stallholders in the resort's courtyard as gingerbread is baked and meats are roasted in the outdoor cafe, complete with nativity scene and Santa Station. November 29 to December 1. www.doonbeglodge.com/christmas.html
For more information on festive markets, events and activities taking place across Ireland this winter, go to |www.discoverireland.ie/whatson