It’s time to rethink winter sun, especially this year when purse strings are pulled tighter. For me, the best kind of travel at this time of year involves warming your gloved hands on a mug of steaming mulled wine at the edge of the throngs ambling around Christmas markets as the frosty air nips at your nose. Since the middle ages, Christmas markets have taken centre stage in hundreds of cities, towns and villages across Europe throughout the winter season. Here is a selection of some of the best, which are close to airports served by direct flights from Ireland.
On the garter of Italy, Bolzano is home to the Alpine region’s most thriving Christmas market. The festivities are held in the main square of Piazza Walther so it’s hard to miss, but follow your ears if in doubt; it’s soundtracked by traditional Christmas music, live bands and choirs. You’ll find rows of wood chalets selling Christmas tree decorations, wood, glass or pottery gifts, and food such as zelten: the traditional seasonal cake of South Tyrol, made with nuts and dried fruit. You’ll also find a wealth of fine Italian foods, as one might expect from a country with a strong culinary culture. Stock up on artisanal pasta or panettone for the season of indulgence.
Bolzano is one of South Tyrol’s five traditional markets, which together have been certified as “Green Events” by the Ecoistituto Alto Adige. You’ll notice careful touches such as plenty of recycling, reusable plates, seasonal and regional ingredients, and a push to travel by environmentally friendly transport.
Dates: November 25th to January 6th
Get there: Fly to Verona from Dublin from €28
To make holiday funds go a little further this winter, try a trip to Riga. The Baltic country is generally 30 per cent cheaper for goods than Dublin, which means more bang for your buck when buying handmade wooden toys, jewellery, ornaments, snacks and cosy hats and socks made in typical Latvian style.
The centre of the action is the old town square of Doma Laukums, where you’ll spot the towering Christmas tree decked out in a way that’s befitting for the city – Riga is where the tradition of decorating trees began more than 500 years ago. If you like what you see, you’ll be able to buy handmade Christmas decorations from its stalls as a keepsake or a perfect pre-Christmas present. Or you can explore the Christmas Tree Trail, a citywide arts project dedicated to the Christmas tree. Scattered throughout the city, professional and student artists display their interpretation of the visual, and their creativity certainly shows – admire lavish, slick and avant-garde versions of the ubiquitous festive symbol.
Dates: November 27th to January 1st
Get there: Fly to Riga from Dublin from €48
While the first true Christmas market was held in Dresden in the 15th century, Vienna held a “December market” back in 1298. Today, there are several Christmas markets dotted across the Austrian capital. The focal point is in the town hall square, Rathausplatz, where 125 chalets sell presents and trinkets and winter clothes along with food and drink stalls to replenish. Elsewhere, you’ll find the fountain-dotted Christmas Village at Maria-Theresien-Platz and the organic farmers market that gets transformed for the season at Freyung – note that’s mostly German-speaking.
Our favourite is the Belvedere Christmas Market, one of the smaller markets in the city. Seasonal shoppers can hone their focus for eye-pleasing objects beforehand at the baroque-style Belvedere Palace, which provides quite the backdrop for pictures. Among the van Goghs and Messerschmidts, the must-see painting is Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss. Even if you’ve seen it a million times as prints, notebooks or tote bags, it feels brand new when the gold, silver and platinum leaf shimmers in front of your eyes.
Dates: November 10th to January 4th
Get there: Fly to Vienna from Dublin from €60
A hop, skip and a jump across the water, Manchester is host to eight Christmas markets. While the traditional elements – handmade gifts, bratwurst, mulled wine – are solidly represented, Manchester’s yuletide activities aren’t always conventional. The culinary hit here is Yorkshire pudding wraps, in which the contents of a roast dinner are tightly rolled into a giant Yorkshire pud, perfect for eating on the go. At the Mulled Wine Barrell Bar you’ll find a Vimto mulled wine.
The main shopping opportunity is in front of the town hall at Albert Square while the main entertainment hub is Winter Island, by Piccadilly train station. In this mammoth festival space, expect to find the UK’s largest heated outdoor winter market, a rooftop ice rink, a Christmas tree forest, gift-making workshops, a live music stage with DJ sets from Norman Jay, Greg Wilson, Dele Sosimi, DJ Paulette and Crazy P, plus live sets from Massaoke, Hip Hop Karaoke, The House and Garage Orchestra, and the AMC Gospel Choir.
Save some festive energy for the ice rink at Cathedral Gardens, or the French Christmas market at King Street, which offers Gallic food, beers and wines, and a gin bar with more than 100 varieties.
Dates: November 10th to December 24th
Get there: Fly to Manchester from Dublin, Cork, Shannon, Kerry or Knock from €24
You don’t get more festive than Christmas in Bavaria and in this heartland the Christmas capital is Munich. The main Christkindlmarkt takes place in Marienplatz, under the city’s towering neo-Gothic town hall. This market began in the 14th century and has evolved with its own traditions since. Keep an eye out on the town hall balconies as that’s where the Christmas brass bands and choirs perform. If time permits, dig into its full history with a guided tour around the market.
As a big-hitter, Munich has it all. The whole snowy city gets swept up in the festive spirit, proven by both the quantity and quality of decorations and sparkling lights across the central area. Munich has one of the biggest ranges of nativity scene ornaments, but the city’s contemporary edge ensures you’ll have a full breadth of options for eating, drinking and shopping. Just don’t miss out on the boozy warm drink of Feuerzangenbowle, which literally means “fire-tongs punch bowl”.
Dates: November 11th to January 8th
Get there: Fly to Munich from Dublin from €28
The home of hygge, festive feels are in no short supply in the Danish capital. From candlelit wine bars to tastefully decorated coffee shops, the Christmas vibe is strong everywhere. Most point to the harbour area of Nyhavn as the place to go for traditional wooden stalls of food, wine and gifts. But, arguably, you won’t find a more magical set-up than at Tivoli – and that includes the HC Andersen Christmas market at Nytorv, named after the famed Danish fairytale author.
While the HC Andersen market is aimed squarely at kids, the set-up at Tivoli – the fairground park in the centre of the city – is one for every age, making it an excellent choice for a multi-generational day out. Don’t leave without trying glass of gløgg (Denmark’s variation on mulled wine) and æbleskiver, the Danish delicacy of small doughnut balls served with jam and powdery sugar.
Dates: November 4th to December 31st
Get there: Fly to Copenhagen from Dublin from €41