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 selling niche artisanal brands, festivities in a roguish artists’ commune or 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, eierpunsch, 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 perform after dark; a gospel choir carol concert and an ice rink by the Red Town Hall.
When 26 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. Stalls sell the usual tchotchkes, 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 a Ferris wheel, and take to the ice rink under the city pavilion.
When 7 December 2018 to 6 January 2019.
Stay 1898 the Post is a grand, historic hideaway set within spice-sniffing distance of the market.
This year marks the last Christmas market in main drag Albert Square for four years, before the space undergoes major renovation. To see Christmas stalls laid out in front of the Victorian town hall and the city’s curious seasonal mascot (retro British TV character Zippy, dressed as Santa, who live Tweets throughout) before they’re packed away for a while, be sure to attend. While the usual Xmassy trappings abound, there’s a decidedly northern bent to proceedings, with Yorkshire-pudding wraps and trifle to snack on.
Stocking fillers A village of impressive icy sculptures, a prop-filled VW Campervan photobooth, Santa’s grotto for smalls and a ski-lodge bar for grown-ups.
When 9 November to 23 December.
Stay King Street Townhouse, just across from the Town Hall – you can watch the Christmassy chaos from the on-high bar terrace or spa pool.
Central London’s Christmas celebrations get a touch of the carnival-esque at the South Bank: Circus 1903 brings a show of lifelike animal puppets and world-class entertainers (jugglers, contortionists, trapeze artists…), and there are storytelling, cabaret and comedy nights. Watch with a steak baguette and mulled cider from the food market. Further out, up your gifting game at Greenwich Peninsula’s Sample Christmas, a Hemingway Design-curated event where independent fashion labels, handthrown ceramics and small-batch beauty products replace more run-of-the-mill baubles. Santa, who now?
Stocking fillers The South Bank have a sackful of treats: Xmassy DJ sessions, Balkan folk with bowls of goulash and a Caribbean Christmas celebration.
When The South Bank Winter Festival runs from 9 November 2018 to 6 January 2019; Sample Christmas from 1 to 2 December.
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, and mulled wine made from local grapes and spices. Stalls are themed too: especially charming is the ‘model railway’ of stalls along ‘toy street’. While visiting, stop by the Winterwald ‘forest’ at Mönckebergbrunnen, WeiberZauber’s lakeside light show, and the drunk uncle of the bunch: erotic XXXmas market (yes really), Santa Pauli.
Stocking fillers Vintage carousels for kids and classic-car displays, candy-making workshops, South Tyrolean delicacies to snack on, and NSFW fun at Santa Pauli…
When 26 November to 23 December.
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 (U 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 the Noma in its spanking-new location – 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 8 to 20 December.
Stay Classical on the outside, mod-Scandi on the inside, Nobis Hotel is a decadent Danish base.
Iceland’s Xmas 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 Grýla, 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 Mathöll Food Hall showcases Iceland’s top street food; there’s an ice rink in Downtown Reykjavik; and live music and storytelling in the woods of nature reserve, Heiðmörk.
Stocking fillers Árbær 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; and Árbær’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 18 November. Show off…
When The Light Festival runs from 29 November 2018 to 20 January 2019; and the city lights are switched on on 15 November.
Stay Reinvented Dutch masterpiece, Hotel Pulitzer.