Winterval in Waterford: Our family guide to Ireland's Christmas capital
Winterval brings the best of Irish Christmas experiences together, with lots to offer for kids big and small...
Snow may have come late to Lapland, but Ireland’s biggest Christmas festival means you don't have to leave the country to bask in merry cheer.
Winterval in Waterford is over two hours from Dublin. The city’s annual transformation into Ireland's Christmas capital gets bigger each year, and the 2019 edition is expected to attract more than 500,000 visitors over December.
We travelled with our 10-year-old for a late break in December and found that, for families especially, it's a city break with a difference before the big day.
Santa’s grotto in the Old Sorting Office on Custom House Quay is a welcome step above the usual offering of a long wait for five minutes with the man himself surrounded by battered crayons.
Here, kids and adults can take part in festive-themed carnival style games, X's and O's and Connect Four, or try to toss hoops onto a reindeer's antlers (much harder than it looks). The elves are on hand to play giant Jenga, and they're cheekily competitive - all a huge hit with the kids before - and after - stopping in to see Santa.
There is something extra magical about visiting Santa when he knows exactly what you’ve asked for and has easy answers to the many questions posed by wondering minds.
How does he make it down the chimney? He slims down. How does he get it all done in one night (a gold pocket watch is produced to explain that he can slow down or pause time).
He was, unlike other places, the real deal we decided afterwards - not just a helper dispatched from the North Pole, but the man himself.
Grab a hot chocolate on the way out to keep you warm for wandering through the markets on John Roberts Square but leave room for the fresh donuts or mini cheesecakes to keep you going for a spot of Christmas shopping.
The festival is nicely spread out through Waterford's centre, which makes for a great way to see the city transformed with lights on every corner and amusements aplenty, but nothing is too far for little legs either.
In addition to the outdoor market, there is also a craft market in Garter’s Lane Arts Centre.
You would be hard pushed not to find yourself humming along to Christmas songs after a whirl on a traditional carousel on John Roberts Square. There is also the Helter Skelter on Constitution Square and the vintage ferris wheel on Arundel Square.
But the Waterford Eye steals the show for wow factor. Located on the Quays, the big wheel offers a bird’s-eye view of the city.
A trip on the Winterval Express Train or the double decker horse-drawn sleigh will help you plot out your course for the day, taking you past some of the highlights.
Winterval on Ice is a chance for you to skate off some of the sugar consumed. There is a smaller rink with penguin shaped aides for little ones finding their “ice legs” - sadly no adult version is available, but you’ll feel all the more accomplished when you eventually master the art of staying upright.
Waterford is dotted with lots of cafes and comfy pubs for daytime dining. No 9 Cafe on Barronstrand Street is a great and welcoming option beside the carousels and Express Train stop. Pop in for big helpings of tasty and hearty food - first-timers to Waterford who have never tasted the famous blaa would be wise to try one of their burgers.
The cafe is also where Santa fuels up for the day when he pops in for breakfast on Saturday and Sundays and stops by your table for a chat.
Just down the street, Carter’s Chocolate Cafe has a dizzying array of hot chocolate, milkshakes and sweet treats - for the season that’s in opt for one with all the trimmings including a giant peppermint candy-cane, you won’t regret it.
When the sun goes down the city lights up with Winterval Illuminates at Cathedral Square, running a light show every 30 minutes after 5pm, and Spraoi’s Winter Wonderland at Wyse Park open for visitors from 5pm also.
Before you leave the city, make sure to stop off at the giant postbox at the Applemarket to send a letter to Santa.
How to do it
Winterval runs to December 23, though some events like Winterval on Ice and the Big Wheel will continue operating to January 6.
It includes a mix of ticketed and free events. Prices range from €6/5 for train rides and €5/4 for the Big Wheel, to €17 per child for Santa's Grotto (with two adults free) and €13/12 for ice-skating. See winterval.ie for more.
For a family-friendly accommodation option, Waterford Castle Golf Resort (waterfordcastleresort.com) has lodges from €129 per night.
The hotel facilities are open to all guests, including the Kings Channel clubhouse serving food and drinks, and the enormous Christmas tree in the lobby is worth visiting in itself. The hotel and lodges are set on an island accessed by ferry which runs every 15 minutes for most of the day - a massive novelty for the kids.
Our top tip? Be flexible.
Our first day was interrupted by Storm Deirdre which closed much of the festival down, but there are indoor events that can help you work around the weather including a cinema club at the Reg showing Home Alone at 2pm and 4pm, and in George’s Court Shopping Centre, the Polish Christmas folks run cookie and card making workshops.
Laura and family were guests of Winterval and Waterford Castle Hotel.
Read more:20 Best Christmas Markets in Ireland - from cosy moseys to festival fun