Christmas markets in Europe are once again tipsy on mulled wine and festooned with fairy lights. But, the coolest events in December are those that shake things up like a snow-globe, where stalls sell niche artisanal brands, festivities are carried out in a roguish artists’ commune in Denmark or there’s mischief from prank-loving Icelandic trolls. We’ve sought out this season’s Continental markets that put the ‘oi’ in ‘joy for the advent-urous…
We’ll start with the traditional… Germany is a wellspring of picturesque Christmas markets – they’re the OGs of well-hung wurst, fried potatoes smothered in apple sauce, glühwein and gingerbread hearts frosted with gutturally romantic epithets. Beginners should start at Berlin’s immensely popular, easier-to-say-when-mulled-up Weihnachtsmarkt at the Gendarmenmarkt. This gateway market is a twinkling mini-city that runs from the Französischer Dom to the Konzerthaus, where painters, stonemasons, woodworkers and other artisans peddle trinkets from mini chalets.
Stocking fillers Acrobats, jugglers and fire dancers performing after dark; a gospel-choir carol concert and an ice rink by the Red Town Hall.
When 25 November to 31 December.
Stay Sir Savigny, a stylish, artsy stay in Berlin’s cultural quarter.
In the shadow of Ghent cathedral’s Gothic buttresses there are pine-scented laneways of little wooden huts demarcating the Belgian city’s Winterfeesten area. Stalls sell the usual trinkets, but you can find warming snacks and drinks typical to Belgium, too (tartiflette, cartons of frites, super-strength beer). Glow-y goodwill permeates the city: the canals are strung with lights and the slightly vampiric-looking Count’s Castle gets a touch of tinsel. The pop-up Moose bar offers an inner-city après-ski, with a warming fire and DJs after dark.
Stocking fillers See the snow-dusted city from above on Europe’s largest Ferris wheel, ride the bauble merry-go-round and take to the ice rink under the city pavilion.
When 6 December to 5 January.
Stay Pillows Grand Hotel Reylof is a grand, Louis XIV-style townhouse with poetic leanings on the outside and a cosy modern hideaway within.
Manchester has wholeheartedly embraced the tradition of the Christmas market, with more than 300 festive stalls popping up at 10 locations throughout the city. The scent of mulling wine (and hot buttered gin) and roasting hog will waft from Albert Square to King Street to the Corn Exchange, and you can bag presents for all sorts with stalls peddling bonsai trees, Belgian cookware, French soaps and other crafty wares. Each location offers something different, and with pop-up prosecco bars, hot-toddie cabins, beer halls and all manner of food stalls, you’re guaranteed to be well fed and quite merry.
Stocking fillers A village of impressive icy sculptures in Cathedral Gardens, Yard & Coop‘s sauce-slathered fried chicken in a cone for snacking and two main drinking drags: a Christmas tiki bar and snowglobe bar.
When 8 November to 5 January (dates vary by location).
Stay King Street Townhouse, just across from the Town Hall – you can watch the Christmassy chaos below from the on-high bar terrace or spa pool.
While everyone’s jumping on Winter Wonderland’s sleigh-wagon, we’re tucking into the trimmings: the smorgasbord of London’s alt-Xmas markets, that is. Say, South London Makers Market (8 December), where you can buy Danny DeVimto sweatshirts, dried-flower posies and embellished headbands from local crafty types. Or make your own gifts at Sample Christmas Market, Greenwich Peninsula (7–8 December), where alongside free workshops there’ll be curling sessions and a helter-skelter to slide down. Hackney’s Bohemia Place market (30 November to 1 December) has top craft brews and a dedicated vegan dining area, and monthly design market Crafty Fox will get a festive feel from 2 November to 15 December when they’ll be peddling super-stylish decorations and presents.
Stocking fillers All the fun of a Christmas fair, but way cooler.
When Various dates.
Stay The Groucho Club for an insider view of seasonal shenanigans and a the slight possibility you’ll experience London’s greatest lock-in.
The second-largest city in Germany has a family of festive markets to make merry in. The largest is spread out over the square by the neoclassical Town Hall. Here, you’ll find handicrafts for sale, discuses of sweetly spiced Nuremberg Lebkuchen (cookies) and mulled wine made from local grapes and spices. There are historic treasures from the Roncalli Circus Museum on display, too: a 1920s carousel, classic cars and some old-school decorations. While visiting, stop by the Winterwald ‘forest’ at Mönckebergbrunnen, Weisser Zauber’s lakeside light show and find some ‘ho ho hos’ at the drunk uncle of the bunch: erotic XXXmas market (yes really), Santa Pauli.
Stocking fillers Streets lined with toy stalls, candy-making workshops, South Tyrolean delicacies to snack on, and, um, hourly strip shows and porn karaoke at Santa Pauli – ’tis the season…
When 18 November to 30 December (dates vary by market).
Stay Another stay in the dapper ‘Sir’ brotherhood: canalside hideaway, Sir Nikolai.
Copenhagen’s native son, Hans ‘Christmas’ Andersen, may have penned nihilistic fireside tales about Xmas trees going to seed and an illicit romance between snowman and stove (you ok, Hans?), but the city itself looks like something from a – much cheerier – fairytale. Head to anything-goes artists commune Freetown Christiania for a unique Christmas romp in the style of an Eastern bazaar. The resident artists sell their work and ladle out potent gløgg. There are plentiful eateries in the area, too, including Noma – if Santa’s been kind enough to reserve you a table months in advance…
Stocking fillers Tivoli Gardens amusement park is dressed in its seasonal finery.
When 15 November to 5 January (dates vary by market).
Stay Classical on the outside, mod-Scandi on the inside, Nobis Hotel is a decadent Danish base.
Iceland’s Christmas traditions are typically curious. Instead of Santa there’s the Yule cat, who eats children who don’t dress well for festivities, and tricksters the Yule Lads: mischievous sons of child-eating troll Gryla, who leave children gifts or rotting potatoes depending on their naughty-or-nice ranking. These pranksters pop up throughout the city, as do festive markets. Hlemmur Matholl Food Hall showcases Iceland’s top street food (foraged eats at Skal!, micro-roasts at Te & Kaffi, the freshest of fish tacos at Fuego); there’s an ice rink in downtown Reykjavik; and live music and storytelling in the woods of nature reserve, Heidmork.
Stocking fillers Arbaer open-air museum shows an as-it-was Christmas. Guests can try customary fermented skate, whittle some wood and make traditional leaf bread.
When The food hall opens from 8am–11pm until 23 December; the ice rink opens on 1 December; Heidmork holds events each weekend in December; and Arbaer’s events run on 3, 10 and 17 December.
Stay Hole up up a cosy Kvosin Hotel apartment downtown.
Amsterdam trips the light fantastic come Christmas (not for any dodgy reasons, mind). The Dam Square has a damn fine Christmas tree strung with lights, the ceremony for turning on the city lights is an extravaganza of circus performers, music and puppetry. And, the luminous, avant garde artworks of the Light Festival are displayed throughout December. Hop in a canal boat or follow the walking-route map and go towards the light.
Stocking fillers Skate beside the Rijksmuseum at the ICE Amsterdam rink, and beg some sweets from Dutch Santa Sinterklaas when he sails and rides into town on 17 November. Show off…
When The Light Festival runs from 28 November 2018 to 19 January 2019; and the city lights are switched on on 14 December.
Stay Reinvented Dutch masterpiece, Hotel Pulitzer.
To wrap up your festive escape, book a boutique city break in Europe.