Every Christmas the UK (including London's many festive markets) is treated to visiting European markets, but for a real festive indulgence why not venture abroad and immerse yourself in the the real thing? Whether in the historic squares of Prague or beautiful gardens of Copenhagen, you can pick up unique presents and experience European traditions.
Fira de Santa Llúcia
Dating from 1786, this traditional Christmas fair has expanded to more than 300 stalls selling all manner of handcrafted Christmas decorations and gifts, along with mistletoe, poinsettias and Christmas trees. The most popular figure on sale for Nativity scenes is the curious Catalan figure of the caganer (crapper), a small figure crouching over a steaming turd with his trousers around his ankles. Kids line up for a go on the giant caga tió, a huge, smiley-faced ‘shitting log’ that poops out pressies upon being beaten viciously by a stick; smaller versions are on sale in the stalls. There’s also a Nativity scene contest, musical parades and exhibitions, including the popular life-size Nativity scene in Plaça Sant Jaume.
Berlin could easily be described as the capital of the Traditional Christmas Market, if judged on quantity alone – it has over fifty across the city every year. The market at Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche is the biggest and most popular receiving around 2 million visitors each year who come to peruse the jewellery, decorations and artwork on sale as well to indulge in the more clichéd seasonal pleasures such as chestnuts and mulled wine.
Where Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche, Berlin, Germany When 24 Nov-1 Jan Information Visit Berlin's tourist site for details. Germany has some of the best Christmas markets in Europe, and seemingly one in every city – the ones in Cologne, Nuremberg, Frankfurt are particularly good.
Christmas in Brussels seems to get bigger every year. The Christmas market now extends along the streets from Grand’Place to place Ste-Catherine, covering almost 2 kilometres (1.2 miles). Each of the 240 market stalls is a little wooden-roofed hut selling mainly arts and crafts or food and drink, all of them having a pan-European flavour. By the time you reach place Ste-Catherine and the quays beyond, not only are you decently warmed up, but you’re at the heart of the festivities. The quaint stalls continue, punctuated every now and again by a 35m toboggan slope, a big-wheel illuminated with 18,000 lights and, of course, the 200 foot-long skating rink. Where Grand’Place to Place Ste-Catherine When 30 Nov-6 Jan Information Visit Winter Wonders for more details
Other great Belgium Christmas markets are held in Antwerp (Grote Markt) and Bruges (Bruges Christmas Market).
Traditional food, folk dances and live music can be found daily in amongst the cottage-esque market 'stalls' of Vörösmarty tér from mid-November. Based at the centre of the Pest district near the start of 'Fashion Street', this market regularly has up to 150 stalls, and plenty of local art and culture, including puppet theatres. To add to the authenticity of celebrations, all products sold in the market are guaranteed as traditionally handmade by a professional jury from a variety of organisations. Look out for the daily advent calender window displays at the 19th Century Gerbeaud Cafe.
Where Vörösmarty tér (Vörösmarty Sqaure), Budapest, Hungary When 18 Nov-30 Dec Information Visit the Budapest Tourist website for more details Read Time Out's Budapest guidebook
Tivoli at Christmas
Like many European cities, Copenhagen is decked out in decorations and illuminations at this time of year. But, unlike most, the atmosphere is less commercial and more authentically ‘Christmassy’ (maybe the sub-zero temperatures have something to do with it). From mid November Tivoli turns into a vast Christmas grotto with a special Christmas market, Yuletide grub and an infestation of nisser (Danish Christmas pixies).
The Russian theme, introduced last season, is still going strong this year, although Nordic touches have returned by popular demand. While the replica of St. Basil's Cathedral remains, then, a traditional Father Christmas is back, residing in a nineteenth-century pantomime theatre, while stall decoration takes its lead from Danish and Scandinavian customs. The gardens also offer an ice rink, rollercoaster and theme park rides for those up for more than just a leisurely amble round the handicraft stalls. Based in the centre of the capital it attracts up to a million visitors, so expect crowds.
Where Tivoli, Copenhagen, Denmark When 16 Nov-30 Dec Information Visit Tivoli's website for more details Buy Time Out's Copenhagen guidebook
12 Days of Christmas
Despite being one of the younger of the European Christmas markets, Dublin's '12 Days of Christmas' attracted 145,000 visitors in 2010. Craft jewellery, stained glass, wooden toys and artwork can be found at the recently regenerated Dublin Docklands. The carousel, carol-singing and German themed bar mean this relative newcomer is a family friendly crowd pleaser.
La Fête dé Noué is often promoted as the Christmas market that can boast a winter sun. Those seeking warmer climates in December could do a lot better than Jersey, but St Helier can proudly claim to have the most activity filled Christmas market on this list. Ghoulish walks, historical tours, Dickensian storytellers, carol singing, Christmas crafts, art festivals and moonlight parades all accompany the Normandy market stalls and stunning canopy of lights.
Where St Helier, Jersey When 1 Dec-16 Dec Information Visit Jersey at Christmas for more details
The Christmas Markets
Prague's Christmas markets takes place in Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square (as in Old King Wenceslas). Here visitors seek unusual food and drink rather than gifts and decoration – in the week leading up to the Vánoce (Christmas) holiday, the streets sport huge tubs of water filled with carp, the traditional Czech Christmas dish – and should definitely make time try the grog and honey liquor – a traditional Czech beverage. Czech carols can be heard round the market and visitors are also treated to the views of the beautiful surrounding architecture and dazzling lighting at night.
Where Wenceslas Square, Prague, Czech Republic When 1 Dec-1 Jan Information Visit the Czech Tourism website for more details Read Time Out's Prague city guide
Skansen's Christmas Market
Skansen’s ultra-traditional Christmas market has been held annually since 1903. Look out for Swedish craft products, traditional Christmas ornaments made of straw, hand-dipped candles and Christmas fare such as smoked sausage, eel, salmon, pepparkakor (gingersnaps), glögg (mulled wine) and saffron buns.
Winter is the most quintessentially Austrian time of year: snow (sometimes) blankets the city and the Christmas markets appear. Christkindlmärkte are advent markets that appear in mid November. Christmas for the Viennese is a social affair, where people meet up at the markets for Punsch or Glühwein (the local mulled wine), chestnuts and spicy Christmas cookies. These are the principal hotspots:
Its stalls are tacky but Rathausplatz is still worth a visit for a glimpse of the Advent windows on the Town Hall, decorated by local artists, and the enchanting tree illuminations in the park.