Wednesday 17 January 2018

Christmas Markets: 10 deliciously different festive breaks in Europe

That Festive Feeling

Tis the season: Frankfurt Christmas market dates back to 1393
Tis the season: Frankfurt Christmas market dates back to 1393
Sechselaeutenplatz, Zurich
Christmas Fair in Budapest
Zurich, Switzerland. Photo: Deposit
Grote Markt Square in Bruges, Belgium.
Amsterdam at Christmas. Photo: Deposit
Christmas market in Bolzano. Photo: Bolzano
Padstow harbour in Cornwall. Photo: Deposit
Paris in winter. Photo: Deposit
Edinburgh Christmas market

Nicola Brady

From chintzy chalets to traditional snacks, Nicola Brady has a selection of Europe's most magical markets.

1. Frankfurt, Germany

One of the largest of its kind in Germany, the Frankfurt Christmas market (above) dates back to 1393, when it was traditionally accompanied by an ecclesiastical mystery play. Nowadays, you're more likely to find handmade ornaments, steaming tankards of Apfelwein, woolly slippers and bratwursts. Lots and lots of bratwursts. If you want a history lesson, take a guided tour of the markets with the tourist board - see frankfurt-tourismus.de (€14pp, weekends).

When: November 23 - December 22.

Try this: Like marzipan? Then you'll love Bethmännchen, a mini, almondy pastry.

Do it: Expedia.ie has a three-night weekend break from €237pp, departing December 8.

2. Zurich, Switzerland

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Sechselaeutenplatz, Zurich

You can't shake a cinnamon stick in Zurich without hitting a Christmas market. There's the traditional one, in the romantic and rambling old town. There's the huge one, in front of the Zurich Opera House. And then there's Christkindlimarkt, held in Zurich's jazzy (and massive) train station, complete with a mammoth Christmas tree bedazzled with 7,000 Swarovski crystals. One of the biggest indoor Christmas markets in Europe, it's perfect if you want to amble around without catching a chill.

When: November 24-December 23.

Eat: You can't go to Switzerland without tucking into a fondue.

Do it: Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies direct from Dublin to Zurich. Stay in the city's tallest hotel, Swissôtel, from €146 (swissotel.com). See also zuerich.com.

3. Budapest, Hungary

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Christmas markets in St. Stephen's Basilica Square, Budapest. Photo: Deposit

If you like your markets classically quaint and festive, then Budapest is the spot for you. There are several markets in the city, but the one in Vörösmarty Square is the oldest, with charming wooden chalets doling out warm pastries, delicious waffles and handmade wooden trinkets. It's part festival, too, so expect choirs and free concerts on one of the two stages.

When: November 11-January 6.

Eat: Snag a few honey cookies - some for sustenance, some for the stockings.

Do it: Clickandgo.com has three nights in a studio apartment from €159pp, departing Dublin in December.

4. Bolzano, Italy

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Christmas market in Bolzano. Photo: Bolzano

Festive traditionalists will be happy out in Bolzano. With a rustic, Alpine nativity scene under the tree and little house-shaped stalls, the market is like a walk through Christmas past. Everything on sale is made locally (and subject to strict rulings, too). Travel Department's trip (below) combines the market with Lake Garda and Venice, striking the perfect balance between festive fun and Christmas overload.

When: November 24-January 6.

Eat: The local apple cake is the stuff of legend.

Do it: Traveldepartment.ie has a trip taking in Lake Garda, Venice and the Bolzano Christmas Markets from €449pp, for several dates in November and December.

5. Edinburgh, Scotland

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Edinburgh Christmas market
 

It may not be Prague or Cologne, but the European Christmas Market in Edinburgh will surely get you into the Christmas spirit. Held in the Princes Street Gardens, you'll find all manner of festive knick-knacks. But beyond the markets, the city goes crazy for Christmas, with light shows, carnival rides and a pretty nifty Christmas Tree Maze. Warm the cockles afterwards with a few of the city's local gins.

When: November 19-January 7.

Drink: Locals won't leave without a glass (or two) of Glühwein.

Do it: Flights to Edinburgh start from €9.99 each-way on Ryanair.com. Private rooms in the Safestay luxury hostel (safestay.com) start from around £40/€44 in November.

5. Lausanne, Switzerland

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La Place de la Palud illuminée, Lausanne

Have you ever wanted to walk into a Christmas card? Well, at Lausanne, you can come pretty close. Surrounded by the Swiss Alps and on the edge of Lake Geneva, you'd be hard pushed to find a better winter spot. The market itself is fairly small, with 50 stalls, but it's off the beaten track (which means you won't be beating off the crowds to nab a bauble). There's a covered market to beat chilly toes, too, and an ice rink.

When: November 24-December 24.

Eat: The local gingerbread (or pain d'épices) is pure Christmas in a cookie.

Deal: Fly to Geneva in December from €40 one-way with Swiss.com. Lausanne is less than an hour away by train. Stay at the Agora Swiss (agoraswissnighthotel-lausanne.com) from around €124.

6. Bruges, Belgium

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Grote Markt Square in Bruges, Belgium.

Bruges is a city just made for Christmas. With chocolate box buildings, fairytale streets and medieval market squares, it's the perfect setting for a Christmas mini-break. The main market is in Grote Markt, where you'll also find a glittering ice rink. So, you can either burn off that warm, sugary waffle you scoffed beforehand, or eat one afterwards to cure your bruised ego/bum.

When: November 24-January 6.

Eat: Chocoholics need to pick up a box of pralines from Neuhaus.

Deal: Traveldepartment.ie has a three-night trip to Bruges from €399pp, including flights, transfers and a city tour, departing November 28.

8. Amsterdam, Netherlands

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Amsterdam at Christmas. Photo: Deposit

Variety is key in the Amsterdam offerings. It's not known for the big, elaborate markets of, say, Cologne, but there is plenty going on throughout the city. There's the Christmas Village on Ice at Museumplein, and the gorgeous Amsterdam Light Festival around the canals. There are also alternative, small markets, like the Pure Winter Market, where you can find organic and sustainable gifts, or the Funky Xmas Market for art, fashion and design.

When: Various dates.

Eat: Warm up in a local restaurant with a bowl of stamppot (a traditional Dutch dish mashing potatoes with vegetables or fruit).

Do it: FlightCentreIreland.ie has a two-night break from €299pp, for travel between November 28 and December 20. Keep an eye on iamsterdam.com for market announcements.

9. Paris, France

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Paris in winter. Photo: Deposit

Before you even get to the markets, Paris is as beautiful as you'd imagine come Christmas. What else would you expect from the City of Lights? Trees and streets are adorned with illuminations, and you'll stumble upon an ice rink or Christmas tree around practically every corner. Get your classically Parisian fix at the Champs-Elysées, or stock up on traditional Alsace goods at the Gare de l'Est.

When: November 20-January 4.

Eat: Get a big, chewy pretzel from Gare de l'Est.

Do it: Superbreak.ie has two nights' B&B from €187.50pp, departing on December 4.

10. Padstow, Cornwall

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Padstow harbour in Cornwall. Photo: Deposit

If you're a foodie, then all your Christmases will come at once at the Padstow Christmas Festival (padstowchristmasfestival.co.uk). This small Cornish town is already on the map due to the presence of top chef Rick Stein, but their Christmas market is a celebration of all local producers. You'll find the best in Cornish Sea Salt, pasties and even honest-to-God Figgy Pudding. There are also demonstrations from plenty of famous chefs (Stein included), and the current sterling exchange rate makes everything a bargain.

When: December 1-4.

Eat: Christmassy it ain't, but you can't leave Padstow without calling into Stein's Fish & Chips (rickstein.com).

Do it: Aer Lingus Regional (aerlingus.com) now flies from Dublin to Newquay year-round. Stay at the nearby Bedruthan Hotel and Spa (bedruthan.com) from £149/€165 B&B.

Top tips

It seems obvious, but, book early. Travel is rebounding as the economy recovers, and weekend flights and accommodation are selling fast. Travel midweek to cut costs, or think outside the box, targeting lesser-known markets rather than big, touristy draws.

NB: All prices and dates subject to change/availability.

Read more:

14 Christmas hotel breaks to skip the seasonal stress 10 Best Christmas Markets in Europe: Where to find the real festive spirit

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