A winter wonderland of charming squares, castles and bridges, Prague is undoubtedly the perfect place for a cosy break. Ever more enchanting under a layer of white snow, the beautiful Renaissance and Rococo facades of the Old Town Square frame the hustle and bustle of the city’s largest Christmas fair. Kids will be delighted with the animals in the Bethlehem stable, but for smaller crowds and traditional eats, walk to Republic Square. Savour the sizzle of a Pražská klobása spiced sausage and, weighed by the gram, ham hock Pražská Šunka comes aplenty. Plaited golden vanocka brioche is a Christmas pastry staple, but more on trend is the Slovakian trdelnik cake – strips of dough sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon and baked on revolving wooden poles. For stocking fillers and local Czech produce, make sure to check out Jiřák Farmers’ Market, which continues through December.
Must try: Svařák (mulled wine scented with lavender) and medovina (honey wine)
When: 2nd December 2023 -6 January 2024
2. Vienna, Austria
Best for: artisanal gifts and glorious grandeur
At the Christmas market outside Schönbrunn Palace, only the highest quality goods make the cut, with 80 Christmas booths bearing gifts fit for royalty. Known for its exceptional standards, visitors flock here to buy creations from wood carvers, ceramicists, glass blowers and candle makers, and its food doesn’t disappoint either. You’re in Austria now, meaning there are limitless options made from the noble potato; try it fried in Bauerngröstl; as dumplings with salted, smoked meat (Kartoffelknödel mit Geselchtem); or simply spiralled or baked.With shepherds on stilts ambling by, slurp back apple strudel punch (Apfelstrudel-punch) or lumumba (hot chocolate with a shot of rum) from a souvenir mug. Finish off with traditional Kaiserschmarrn, a sweet treat named after emperor Franz Joseph I who was particularly fond of the shredded pancake.
Must buy: Beechwood rolling pins with laser-cut designs for Christmas pastries from Claudia Lang, and organic plum ketchup from Annemarie and Georg Rohrbauer
When: 18 November 2023 -25 December 2023 (converts to a New Year’s market from 26 December 2023-4 January 2024)
3. Arras, France
Best for: Craft beer and indulging your sweet tooth
If you’re craving a quick Christmas weekend getaway this December, look no further than the charming historic town of Arras. A mere two-hour Eurostar journey from London to Lille, followed by a short train ride, will transport you from the hustle and bustle of city life to the enchanting Christmas markets nestled across three magnificent Flemish-Baroque-styled squares. While not the largest in Europe, these markets have an array of attractions for all ages – think vintage carousel and ice rink for the kids and local treats like chicory conserve and craft beer. The frites are not to be missed – Arras hosted the world’s first French Fries World Championships in October, so they take them seriously.
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Must try: Frites; a cinnamon and hibiscus hot chocolate topped with fresh whipped cream and lime zest from Maison Vayez; chocolate rats from Pâtisserie Thibaut; and fresh oysters with champagne.
When: 24 November 2023 – 30 December 2023
4. Wrocław, Poland
Best for: fairytale charm and child-friendly fun
With rows of candy-coloured houses and decorations galore, Wroclaw’s market square may be one of the sweetest spots to spend Christmas. Wroclaw Town House gingerbread is a must-try – and mix Spanish churros, Hungarian kolacz and Turkish baklava into the equation, and you’re in for an eclectic choice of cuisine from all corners of Europe.Polish specialities include wholesome meat and cabbage bigos stew and oscypek, a smoked salty cheese made from sheep’s milk that’s grilled over a charcoal fire and served with lashings of cranberry sauce. Cosy up by the flame of an outdoor fireplace, or watch the whole affair unfold from one of the viewing platforms with an aromatic mulled cider in hand. This Christmas extravaganza is a wonderful occasion for the whole family, with fairy-tales such as Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood brought to life with magical visuals and soundscapes, and most importantly, a visit from Santa Claus and his reindeer friends.
Must try: Polish chimney cakes and shashlik meat kebabs
When: 24th November 2023 – 7th January 2024
5. Budapest, Hungary
Best for: vibrant visions and jovial jigs
Neoclassicism meets modern technicolour funk at Szt. István Square in Budapest, where you can ice skate in front of St. Stephen’s Basilica, lit up daily with light shows and digitally mapped 3D projections. Yearning for some Hungarian tradition? Tuck into lángos, a deep fried dough topped with soured cream, garlic butter and cheese, or get those twinkle toes in action with the Goncol Folk Dance Ensemble, known to surprise visitors in flashmob form.Warning, kakastöke pörkölt is not a dish for the faint hearted – made up of a juicy mix of onions, tomatoes, cottage cheese and, yes, rooster testicles. But with Hungarian bravado and a dash of pepper and dill, it’s sure to warm the cockles on a chilly night. End the affair with a beigli, a sweet walnut or poppy seed filled roll, and wander the cobbled paths to Vörösmarty Square, if still in need of more festive fodder.
Must eat: Gulyásleves, goulash soup with succulent beef served in an actual bread bowl
When: St Stephen’s Basilica, 17th November 2023 -1 January 2024; Vörösmarty Square, the Crafts Market of the Budapest Christmas Market, is open between November 17th 2023 and December 28th 2023. After that, only the Food stalls will remain open until December 31st 2023
6. Nuremberg, Germany
Best for: Christmas grandeur and traditional eats
A market that can be traced as far back as 1628, Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt is one of the oldest in the world, opening each year with a spectacular ceremony steeped in tradition. Wander the booths nestled by the Church of St. Sebald, selling local specialities and artisanal handmade goods. As the founding home of gingerbread, don’t miss out on the original secret ‘Lebkuchen’ recipe, jazzed up with chocolate and spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves.Equally famous is Nuremberg rostbratwurst; miniature grilled sausages served traditionally with horseradish (‘Kren’ in the local dialect) or cushioned in a hearty bread roll (Drei im Weckla). Regional eats aside, the Market of The Sister Cities offers delicacies from around the world, plus there is a dedicated market for children decked with a carousel and sparkling ferris wheel.
Must try: Gingerbread (Elisenlebkuchen) and red-wine spiked hot chocolate
When: 1st December 2023 – 24th December 2023
7. Bratislava, Slovakia
Best for: rustic roasts and Christmas on wheels
Bratislava’s quaint Old Town may be small, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in spirit. Set beside the gorgeous banks of the Danube, follow winding paths to Christmas fairs at Hlavné Námestie and Hviezdoslavovo Námestie, both filled with candy cane striped huts selling bites to eat and trinkets. Most cities have their own take on the pancake, and here it is the mighty lokše – thin rolls of potato dough commonly filled with cabbage, sausage or sheep’s cheese (bryndza).Get messy with Cigánska pečienka, a burger stuffed with grilled meat, onion and mustard, or for something a little more a la carte, goose is a traditional winter delicacy, paired best with jewelled crimson wine. Now what’s that sparkling vision of red passing by, you may ask? Only the famous Christmas tram! No ordinary vehicle, this Christmas wagon is kitted out with a fireplace and festive decor and is known to sing a carol or two. Passing through the tunnel under Bratislava Castle, stop off at The Slovak National Theatre for a grand evening at the Nutcracker ballet and all its many twists and twirls.
Must eat: Trdelnik cake filled with ice cream and turbo punch with absinthe.
When: 23 November 2023 -23 December 2023
8. Ljubljana, Slovenia
Best for: waterside charm and sparkly lights
The Slovenian word for love is ‘Ljubezen’, and here in Ljubljana, along the Ljubljanica river, there most certainly is a lot to love. Stroll along the Breg river bank, where wooden eco-friendly huts sell ornaments, accessories and gifts, and continue up the pedestrian zone to pretty Prešernov Trg square, an opulent open space lit up in splendour with hanging snowflakes and stars.
Kongresni trg square transforms into a magical forest, hosting creative Christmas workshops and a folk fairy-tale themed procession, and the central food market across Tromostovje Triple bridge is another popular Yuletide destination. Slovenia’s cuisine is greatly influenced by its neighbours, so dine on Austrian influenced Danjski zrezek (Wiener schnitzel), Italian style rizota (risotto) or Hungarian-hailing golaz (goulash). Looking for a cheap filling snack that is easy to hold in gloved hands? The Good Fairy in Mestni Trg square grants your wish, with Balkan burek ticking the box – lip-smacking layers of flaky filo pastry filled with soft cheese, spinach or meat.
Must try: Potica – rolled dough cake with tarragon filling
When: 1st December 2023 – 2nd January 2024
Photo credit: Getty Images
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Travellers are advised to read the FCO travel advice for the country they are travelling to.