Here we go again. Covid restrictions are once again hitting parts of Europe, scuppering holiday plans and adding an unwelcome layer of anxiety to upcoming city breaks. Austria has entered a full lockdown, which is set to last for three weeks, while the Netherlands has imposed an 8pm curfew on bars and restaurants, Germany is closing its festive attractions, and there are murmurings of new restrictions in Slovakia and the Czech Republic (see more on this here). But just because classic Christmas market destinations are looking unsteady, it doesn’t mean you have to miss out on that medicinal mulled wine. There are plenty of other countries that do a fine line in yuletide festivities.
From classic choices such as Strasbourg and Kraków to more unexpected options like Madrid and Montreux, we round-up where best to capture the Christmas spirit.
For a straightforward substitute for a festive German break, look just across the border to Strasbourg, which offers the same fairytale feel and even bills itself as the ‘capital of Christmas’. Dating back to 1570, the city’s Christkindesmäkir is the oldest Christmas market in France but its sprawling warren of 300 wooden chalet stalls turning out glühwein and bratwurst is resolutely Germanic. Beyond the stalls, visitors come for Place Kléber’s elaborate 30-metre Christmas tree or to take a stroll along the ‘star walk’, a pedestrianised riverside stretch where 600 twinkling stars dangle from the trees, their light bouncing off the water and illuminating the timber-clad buildings.
Dates: November 26 – December 26
How to do it: As there are currently no direct UK flights, taking the Eurostar to Paris and then catching a 1 hr 50-minute high-speed train to Strasbourg may be the most convenient option. Stay at the 16th-century Cour du Corbeau, which is one of Europe’s oldest hotels and arguably among its most enchanting. Spread across a clutch of beamed buildings, it has an upmarket boutique feel. Doubles from £111.
The star of Tallinn’s Christmas market is a twinkling tree, which has been erected in the medieval Town Hall Square every year since 1441 – locals proudly claim it was the first display in Europe. With only 30 or so stalls, the surrounding market is fairly compact but more interesting than most – tuck into Estonian specialities such as black pudding and sour cabbage, while perusing the hand-knitted sock selection. Elsewhere in the Baltic capital expect an appealing mix of fairytale towers, mighty city walls and grand old palaces – though the hip Kalamaja district, with its art galleries and street food spots, keeps things up to date. The high chance of snow and affordable prices makes Tallinn an even more tempting proposition.
Dates: November 22 – January 2
How to do it: Ryanair and Air Baltic fly direct to Tallinn from Stansted and Gatwick. Book a room at the Three Sisters Hotel. This Old Town boutique option mixes its medieval bones with modern flourishes: think a designer chaise longue beneath a painted fresco. Doubles from £119.
On the shores of Lake Geneva and at the foot of the snowy Alps, the resort town of Montreux provides a fairytale backdrop for one of Switzerland’s largest Christmas markets. Its 171 stalls focus on homemade products and quality items, rather than mass market tat, while food offerings include filled crepes and, of course, mulled wine.
There are also a number of magical experiences for children in the covered section of the market, where they can bake cookies and colour candles. Alternatively, take the cogwheel train up the Rochers-de-Naye mountain to meet Father Christmas in his snowy grotto. Each evening he can also be spotted riding his sleigh down to the lake and bellowing merry Christmas or Joyeux Noël. New for this year is ‘Light on Ice’ – an illuminated ice-skating path, which winds through a forest and ends up at an ice bar.
Dates: November 19 – December 24
How to do it: Fly to Geneva (British Airways, Swiss Airlines, EasyJet) and hop on a train from the airport to Montreux, which takes one hour and 15 minutes. Push the boat out with a stay at the Fairmont Le Montreux Palace, a Belle Époque hotel with a prime position overlooking Lake Geneva. Doubles from £250.
Copenhagen residents queued down the street for the grand opening of the Tivoli Gardens Christmas market last week, which combines stalls, rides, a Santa’s grotto and 1,000 trees, all dusted in fake snow. Throughout December, the park’s concert hall will also be putting on a production of the Snow Queen. If Tivoli feels too busy, other options include the market on Højbro Plads square, which features classic log cabins and a German barbecue; or, if you are after chic stocking fillers, try Flids Christmas market where artists sell handmade jewellery and prints (December 4-5 only).
Perhaps the best spot in the city, though, is Nyhavn – at this time of year the much-photographed harbour front is transformed into a thrillingly festive scene. Join the locals strolling along the cobbled streets and sipping on glögg, the Scandinavian version of mulled wine.
Dates: November 19 – January 1 (Tivoli Christmas Market)
How to do it: British Airways Holidays (britishairways.com) offers three nights at the Tivoli Hotel, departing December 1, from £407pp, including flights. As the name suggests, this modern hotel has links with Tivoli amusement park – its design team masterminded the colourful carnival look.
The Spanish capital may not be the first city that springs to mind when it comes to Christmas markets, but Madrid certainly invokes the yuletide spirit. At the end of November, the central Plaza Mayor trades in tapas restaurant terraces for a supersize market selling religious figurines – every family in Spain has a Belén nativity scene – and turrón (an addictive almond nougat). The festivities continue in the adjacent Plaza de Santa Cruz, where a vintage carousel is set up, and several other squares erect ice rinks. After perusing the stalls, stop by the Chocolatería San Ginés (a two-minute walk from the Plaza Mayor), which has been whipping up freshly fried churros with thick chocolate sauce for more than 100 years.
Dates: November 26 – December 31
How to do it: EasyJet Holidays (easyjet.com) offers three nights at the Axel Hotel Madrid, departing on December 2, from £338pp, including flights. You’ll feel like you’re starring in a Pedro Almodóvar film at the four-star hotel, which has given a grand 19th-century palace a new lease of life.
Kraków’s vast 13th-century town square is the perfect venue for its yuletide bazaar, with the shops flanked by beautifully restored townhouses and churches, most notably Cloth Hall, which was rebuilt in 1555 in the Renaissance style. The top buys at the market are the hand-painted glass baubles (be sure to pack in plenty of bubble wrap before loading into your suitcase) and embroidered tablecloths. When you’ve had your fill, in the early evening visit Krakow’s cathedral and fortified castle on Wawel Hill. Beautifully lit at night, they overlook the Wisla river on one side and the town on the other.
Dates: November 29 – December 26
How to do it: EasyJet Holidays (easyjet.com) offers three nights at the Puro Krakow Kazimierz, departing December 8, from £191pp, including flights. This forward-thinking hotel in the old Jewish quarter has an industrial style and in-house bakery – try the cinnamon rolls for breakfast.
Few Scandinavian cities feel quite as festive as Gothenburg, which offers all manner of Christmas markets, from the traditional (Kronhusjul) to more design-led markets like Röda Sten Konsthall and the Academy of Design and Crafts. However the city’s (and indeed Sweden’s) largest is Liseberg, which is held at a popular amusement park and pulls in around 500,000 visitors each year, thanks to its assortment of shops, winter-themed rides and series of concerts. The park goes all out with a dizzying five million Christmas lights and 700 trees. And for those yearning for Austria, there’s even a Tyrol-themed restaurant serving schnitzel and featuring live yodelling performances.
Dates: November 10 – December 30 (Liseberg)
How to do it: British Airways and Ryanair fly direct to Gothenburg from Heathrow and Stansted, respectively. Clarion Hotel Post, usefully located next to the central train station, is a sleek and lively design hotel with high-rise rooms that offer views of the hustle and bustle below. Doubles from £99.
Croatia’s capital comes into its own in the run up to Christmas with a huge advent festival scattered across 20 city-centre locations. Top picks include Park Zrinjevac, where you’ll find local delicacies such as krpice sa zeljem (pasta with cabbage) and paprenjaci (peppery gingerbread cookies) and Oktogan passage for its unusual light installations. Families should make a beeline for Ilica 49, where children can make ragdolls and little wooden toys at a special workshop, or simply enjoy the huge toy displays. There’s been a push to showcase ‘Made in Zagreb’ products, so it’s easy to find quality handmade decorations. Other attractions include the 100 musical concerts that take place over the festive period, plus a host of theatre productions and exhibitions.
Dates: November 29 – January 2
How to do it: Expedia (expedia.co.uk) offers three nights at the Esplanade Hotel, departing December 2, from £370pp, including flights. The Art Deco hotel was originally built in 1925 as a suitably glamorous stopover for passengers on the Orient Express and remains the city’s top place to stay.