City Breaks & Christmas Markets
If it’s December, in all likelihood you’ll be about to encounter gingerbread and embroidered jumpers. You can’t move in Europe these days without stumbling across a Christmas market – but not all are created equal. The best of them, logically enough, are often found in the continent’s most diverse and interesting cities. With this in mind, here are our suggested 48-hour itineraries for winter breaks in five of Europe’s top Christmas market destinations.
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Day One: Berlin has around 80 (yes, 80) Christmas fairs to choose from this year. After a morning coffee in the gallery district, head to the large market at Alexanderplatz – complete with 5,000-light Christmas pyramid and ice rink – then sample something more suitably hip with the rooftop market at the Klunkerkranich. Later, visit one of the city’s best museums, the excellently quirky Museum of Things in Kreuzberg, before delving into the nightlife around Prenzlauer Berg.
Day Two: Pay a visit to City West’s landmark Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, which still bears its war-snapped spire. The mosaics on the interior are fantastic. Nearby you’ll find KaDeWe, the city’s flagship department store – don’t miss the colossal sixth floor food hall. If Berlin’s top football team, Hertha BSC, are playing at home, bag a ticket for the Olympic Stadium, otherwise take a winter walk from Brandenburg Gate through the woods and parkland of Tiergarten.
Alexanderplatz market: 21st November – 26th December
Klunkerkranich market: 26th November – 18th December
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Day One: Vienna’s opulent period buildings take on a special character when the chill sets in, and the city has been hosting advent markets in some form for more than 700 years. The pick of them is arguably the lively market held in front of the neo-Gothic Rathaus (City Hall), where hot chestnuts are on hand and kids can try their hands at making cookies and candles. For a superb city view as afternoon turns to evening, climb the south tower at St Stephen’s Cathedral.
Day Two: Some of the Austrian capital’s top attractions require booking well ahead. This certainly applies to the Spanish Riding School, where you can watch the famous white stallions being put through their paces. Spend the afternoon at the historical Belvedere complex – home to numerous Gustav Klimt paintings – then round off the weekend with a classical performance at the State Opera House (again, this being the home city of Mozart et al, you’ll need to book in advance).
Rathaus market: 11th November – 26th December
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Day One: People who still think of Brussels as boring seemingly don’t value either food, drink or the self-confident charms of a multicultural city. There’s no doubting its visual centrepiece, of course, and the expanse of Grand Place provides a deeply theatrical setting for a Christmas market centred on an enormous fir tree. From here, a zigzagged walk southeast takes you past Manneken Pis – the famous “peeing boy” fountain – and the Magritte Museum, before reaching the bistros around Place du Grand Sablon.
Day Two: The highly praised Museum of Musical Instruments, housed in a striking Art Nouveau building, is a great bet for a pre-lunch visit, thanks in part to the fact you can finish up in the excellent rooftop restaurant. Enjoy a prolonged dessert by then joining a Brussels chocolate tour (they run daily at 2pm), before ending the day with live jazz at the Music Village.
Grand Place market: 25th November – 1st January
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Day One: Being Scandinavian and often snow-dusted, the Swedish capital knows a thing or two about hosting atmospheric winter fairs. The most traditional of these Christmas markets is in Gamla Stan (the Old Town) on Stortorget square – expect smoked reindeer meat, seasonal sweets and more festive handicrafts than you can shake a tankard of glögg at. It’s a photogenic occasion, so pair your visit here with a trip to nearby Fotografiska, the city’s superb photography museum.
Day Two: Tuck into a wholesome late Swedish brunch at bar-restaurant Kvarnen before taking a water tour of the city’s canals and islands (running this year until 18 December). Seasonally, it’s almost time for the annual dust-down of ABBA song Happy New Year, so also set aside a couple of hours to explore the museum dedicated to the band. Finish the weekend on a leisurely trawl through the eclectic nightspots of Södermalm.
Stortorget market: 19th November – 23rd December
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Day One: As the largest city in the EU not to be a capital, the port metropolis of Hamburg has a hefty portfolio of attractions. Unsurprisingly, it also offers a large number of Christmas markets: feed your nostalgia by visiting the bakers and woodcarvers’ stalls on Rathausmarkt or try the contemporary lakeside set-up on the stylish Jungfernstieg. Wrap up your first day with a Beatles-themed evening walking tour – the Fab Four famously served an unorthodox musical apprenticeship in the city.
Day Two: The city’s waterfront fish market bursts to life each Sunday morning, and you can settle down to a memorable herring brunch in the lively confines of the one-time auction hall. Head next to Miniatur Wunderland, where the world’s largest model railway has been created in astonishing detail, then hire a bike to spend the afternoon exploring the cafes and much-photographed architecture around the Warehouse District.
Rathausmarkt market: 21st November – 23rd December
Jungfernstieg market: 21st November – 30th December