And so on to the not-so-traditional Christmas markets you can find if you head eastwards or away from the heart of Europe.
Had your fill of glühwein? On the hunt for alternative stocking-fillers? Want to experience some quirkier Christmas traditions? Part II of our festive round-up has it covered. Thanks to Wanderlust for the original reviews.
1. Ljubljana, Slovenia
Famed for the extravagance of its Christmas lights, the Festive Fair, held in the Slovenian capital between 3 December and 1 January, makes a perfect winter getaway. Wander through the streets sipping medica (warm honey schnapps) or kuhano vino (mulled wine), past willow trees that shimmer with frost and stalls selling smoked-sausages and traditional gifts. Expect ice-rinks, street-theatre and decorative crib scenes in many of the city’s chapels.
Processions take place across Ljubljana so be sure to keep an eye out for Old Man Frost (Dedek Mraz), Slovenia’s version of Father Christmas.
2. Kraków, Poland
The magnificent renaissance-era Cloth Hall provides the backdrop to Kraków’s Christmas market, a warren of tents that jostle for space with colourful szopki (nativity scenes) and barrels filled-to-the-brim with mulled wine. Along with the annual szopki competition, gifts and handicrafts are the main draw here. Exquisite cut-glass decorations, Baltic amber jewellery and woollen slippers from the Polish highlands make wonderful stocking fillers.
Don’t miss the stalls in the Cloth Hall itself where hand-carved wooden boxes and delicate Cracovian lace-work count among the highlights.
3. Riga, Latvia
In 1510, a guild of merchants from the city of Riga decorated a fir tree with flowers to commemorate the birth of Christ and, if the historical records are correct, the Christmas tree was born. Riga’s festive market, held in Dome Square in the old town, features a host of decorated trees in honour of the city’s 500-year tradition. The market also boasts chalets selling intricately woven baskets, painted silk and sheep-skin clothing. Keep warm with a mug of green tea, a slab of fiery gingerbread or some roasted almonds and admire the 19th century wooden houses and art nouveau architecture for which the Latvian capital is famous.
4. Bratislava and Levoča, Slovakia
Folk dancers and musicians take to the stage in Bratislava’s main square to celebrate a distinctly Slovakian Christmas. Browse among stalls offering traditional straw or metal work decorations, and šúpolienky – charming figures in peasant dress, crafted from dried corn husks. A glass of Slovakian medovina (mead) is sure to keep your cheeks rosy. Save room for a plate of lokše – decadent potato pancakes fried in duck fat and filled with sheep’s cheese or sauerkraut – or for warm crepes sprinkled with sugar and poppy seeds.
Still more quaint and traditional is the market held in Levoča in Slovakia’s north-eastern Spiš region. Look out for painted wooden toys and vánočka – a Christmas loaf filled with currents and spices. The town is famous for its beautifully preserved medieval architecture and for St James’ Church, which features a magnificent wooden altar by the celebrated 16th century craftsman Master Paul. Reaching 18.62 metres, it is the tallest Gothic altar in the world. The town is also just a snow-ball’s throw from Spišský hrad, central Europe’s largest castle and an UNESCO World Heritage site. Standing atop crags swathed in deep December snow, it makes for an imposing winter spectacle.
Slovakia’s markets run from late November to 23 December when Slovaks take a break to engage in the time-honoured tradition of wrestling live carp into their bathtubs. They leave them to live in the water so they’re as fresh as possible for the main feast, when they’re fried and served with potato salad on Christmas Eve.
5. Bucharest and Sibiu, Romania
Christmas celebrations in Romania begin after St Andrew’s Day (30 November) when Romanians ward off ghosts and marauding vampires with cloves of garlic. At the festive market in Bucharest, reindeer sleigh-rides and handicrafts, including masks, traditional Romanian costumes and musical instruments, count among the highlights. As does chec cu nucă – panettone laced with rum and studded with candied walnuts. Plum brandy and gingerbread also feature prominently, but pride of place is reserved for the humble pig. Out of respect for a long-standing tradition, many Romanian families still slaughter a pig on Ignat Day (20 December) every year. Those with a penchant for nose-to-tail eating might wish to try the final dishes, which include caltaboș – sausages made using heart, liver and lung – and tobă – trotters and ears suspended in aspic, served in the animal’s stomach.
Idyllic Sibiu, one of Transylvania’s beautiful medieval towns, also holds a market and is well worth a visit. Here trout, smoked and wrapped in the boughs of a fir tree, is among the offerings, but the main attraction is the huge hand-carved lime-wood nativity scene, which shelters beneath the branches of the Christmas tree in the central square.
6. Lviv, Ukraine
From early December, the streets of Lviv echo to the sounds of kolyada (Ukrainian Christmas songs) as carol singers wind their way between the garlanded wooden houses in the city’s central square. Watch processions of children in peasant costume carrying hunting horns and didukh – sheaves of wheat which pay tribute to Ukraine’s agrarian heritage and symbolise a family’s ancestors. Enjoy a piece of medivnyk – spiced honey cake – or doughnuts (pumpushki) buried under a snow-storm of icing sugar and wait for the main event: the spectacular puppet shows for which the city is famous. Every year, on 23 of December, bibles stories are played out in front of the city hall using giant wooden puppets, some as tall as two metres, illuminated by fireworks displays, and smouldering braziers.
Where better to do a spot of Christmas shopping than the birth place of Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) himself? In Amsterdam, celebrations begin on Saint Nicholas’ Eve (5th of December) with a host of processions to mark the Saint’s arrival in the city.
Amsterdam also plays host to a variety of festive markets throughout the month of December with ice-rinks and handy-craft stalls filling the streets of Leidseplein and Koningsplein. Take a break from mulled wine and mince pies and try Oliebollen, delicious warm doughnuts studded with dried fruit and citrus zest: the Dutch festive treat of choice.
Wander along the canals and marvel at the reflections of the Christmas lights that hang from the trees and be sure to visit the Bloemenmarkt, the city’s floating flower market, which rustles with freshly cut pines in the run up to Christmas. If you’re really lucky, and the temperatures tumble, you can watch as hundreds of skaters take to the city’s frozen waterways.
When it comes to the quirky and the subversive, Christmas in Catalonia takes some beating. Almost as much beating as a Tió de Nadal, the scatological festive piñata for which the region is famous. More commonly known as a Caga tió (‘shitting log’), this Christmas mascot is a common sight on the market stalls of Barcelona’s Fira de Santa Llúcia, which runs from the 30th of November to the 23rd of December and celebrates its 227th anniversary this year.
Christmas in Madrid is an equally colourful affair, with nativity scenes and crimson poinsettias adding to the festive cheer. But if you’re still feeling the cold, why not take a trip to Granada and warm yourself by one of the city’s hogueras, the crackling bonfires lit to mark the Winter Solstice on the 21st of December? Tradition dictates that locals leap through the flames to protect themselves from illness, a somewhat dramatic attempt to avoid the winter flu but a spectacle not to be missed.
Christmas in Jersey is a celebration of the Island’s French Norman heritage. In St Helier, La Fête dé Noué, the Island’s Christmas festival, runs from the 30th of November to the 15th of December. With canopies of Christmas lights, stalls heaving with stocking fillers, candle-lit museum tours and children’s lantern parades, it has something for everyone. There are plenty of Norman delicacies on offer too including saucisson, cider and buttery crepes dusted with icing sugar.
Rome’s tourist hordes thin a little in the winter months making this the perfect time to visit the Italian capital. In December, the Piazza Navona is crammed with stalls selling all manner of gaudy gifts but the Eternal City also has plenty to offer those who like their Christmas a little less commercial. Midnight Mass in St Peter’s Basilica is an unforgettable experience and the more intimate surroundings of the Pantheon provide the perfect setting for some seasonal reflection. With nativity scenes adorning the streets of Vatican City and the smell of roasting chestnuts drifting through the wintry air, a Christmas visit to the home of Catholicism is a memorable experience, whatever your religious leanings.
In Dublin, Christmas Day can be a frosty affair with many of the city’s residents enjoying an early morning dip in the icy waters of the Forty Foot. The pride of the city, this seawater pool is immortalised in the work of James Joyce.
More relaxing Christmas traditions include carols in St Patrick’s Cathedral and a day spent browsing the stalls of the Docklands Christmas Festival, complete with Victorian fairground rides and a Santa’s Grotto.
Seasonal markets spring up all across Strasbourg in the run up to Christmas but the Christkindelsmärik by the city’s magnificent gothic cathedral sits at the top of the tree. Dating back to 1570, the market is one the oldest in France and features over 300 chalets. Look out for traditional Alsatian glass-work and delicacies like baeckeoffe, a hearty stew of beef, mutton and pork marinated in aromatic juniper berries and white wine. If you still have room, the gingerbread bakery in La Petit France is also well worth a visit.
The Christmas market held in the Liseberg Amusement Park in the centre of Gothenberg is the largest in Scandinavia and surely among the most beautiful. Reindeer wander between the chalets pulling sleighs filled with rosy-cheeked toddlers, 18th century buildings and Laplander teepees glisten with strings of twinkling lights and the air is filled with the smell of pine needles from the hundreds of Christmas trees that adorn the park.
In addition to the arts and crafts stalls and the Sami herders from Lapland selling roasted reindeer meat, this year’s market features an area exploring Swedish Christmas traditions from the 1930s and 40s. For a truly glittering start to the festive season, why not enjoy a glass of glögg (spiced wine) and a Scandinavian saffron bun while wandering along the ‘Lane of Light’, a 3km illuminated walkway through the centre of Gothenberg, open between the 6th of December and the 5th of January.