Christmas Markets: How to plan the perfect winter break

Christmas markets have fast become my favourite way to prepare for Christmas. The food, the stalls, the decorations, the gifts… there’s nothing quite like a Christmas market to put me in the mood for 25 December. For the past few years I have tried my hardest to go to one (last year I even went to one in Brisbane!) as I know it helps break up that long slog between the summer and a break at Christmas. A Christmas market can be a really good excuse to explore somewhere new and it’s also a really good way to get unique gifts for your family and friends.

At Home or Abroad?

The first thing you need to decide is whether you’re going to stay in the UK for a Christmas market break, or whether you are going to head abroad. If you’re constrained on time or budget then staying in the UK could be a good bet. Whilst I personally prefer a short winter break in Europe, the Christmas markets in the UK are getting increasingly bigger and better. Most cities now have one, and you generally find that they are a mix of local traders and stallholders from further afield.

If you’ve got slightly more time, or have managed to find a cheap deal, then I’d recommend heading further afield. Christmas Markets originated in Germany and that is where you’ll find the most traditional markets, although many other European countries also now have them.

Picking a Christmas Market

With so many different Christmas markets to choose from it is easy to feel overwhelmed by choice so I’d recommend thinking about what you want to get out of your short winter break. Are you purely going to see the Christmas markets? If so, either pick one that has a really good reputation, or pick one that will be close to others so you can actually fit in multiple markets in your time away. If the Christmas market is just an added bonus to a city break, think more about which city you want to visit. This year I’m heading to Krakow which was a city I’ve wanted to visit for a while anyway, but their Christmas market also looks really pretty.

Do you want to see something very traditional? Head to Germany – that’s where it all started and you know that you’ll be seeing something truly authentic. If that bothers you less then head for one of the larger Christmas markets, or somewhere that will have other events happening at the same time so that you can get your full dose of festive cheer.

There are lots of top Christmas market lists online that might help you decide, but look carefully at why they are on the list and if that matches with why you want to go. Don’t pick somewhere with over 200 stalls if you want a cosy, intimate market.

How long to go for and when to go

Most Christmas markets open in late November and then stay open until either just before or just after Christmas. If you’d prefer to extend the festive spirit rather than going before Christmas, the Tallinn Christmas market is open until 6 January. Personally, I like going in the first half of December as it gives you a little break before being off work for Christmas, but it’s not too close to the big day that it gets in the way of your plans. Whilst you might be able to get cheaper flights in November, I’m the sort of person who can’t listen to Christmas songs until it’s actually December so this wouldn’t work for me. If you go midweek, flights and accommodation will generally be a bit cheaper and the markets won’t be as crowded. At the weekend they’ll be really busy, although if you’ve ran out of annual leave then this could be when you are limited to.

Even the biggest and best Christmas markets won’t keep you entertained forever so think carefully about how long you actually want and need to go for. If you’re heading somewhere closer like Paris or Brussels, you won’t really need to stay more than two nights unless you are trying to do some sightseeing around the city too. I think three to four nights is about perfect as it gives you time to see the markets but also explore where you’re staying without it feeling like too much of a rush. If you do have longer, try and combine a couple of markets in one trip. For example, Dusseldorf and Cologne, or Stuttgart and Heidelberg.

Top tips to get the most from your Christmas Market trip

  • Pack comfortable shoes as you’ll be doing a lot of walking and wear something warm! I took thermals to Prague¬†and was really glad of them. If you’re heading to continental Europe it is likely to be colder than the UK and could even snow.
  • Make sure you have space in your luggage. You are bound to find something you want to buy, either for yourself or as a gift for someone else so don’t arrive with a bag that’s already filled to the brim. It’s also a good idea to have something to wrap fragile things in – lots of decorations and ornaments are made of glass which aren’t always the easiest to transport home.
  • Go in the day and at night – even if you head to the same market they will take on a different atmosphere. I prefer them after dark when all the little cabins are lit up as it looks really magical.
  • Try local delicacies – there will be plenty of food stalls among the gifts and most of them will sell something more traditional for you to try. In Prague there were chimney cakes everywhere, in Brussels you can’t avoid a Belgian waffle.
  • Look out for additional things to see and do – there might be an ice rink, or a light show, or even a visit from Santa.

My recommended Christmas Markets

Some of my favourite UK Christmas markets include York, Edinburgh and Leeds. I’m also looking forward to checking out the Bath Christmas market this year as I think that historic towns lend themselves to a great atmosphere for the market. Birmingham apparently has the largest authentic German Christmas market outside of Germany, and Manchester also often makes it onto the best Christmas market lists.

Abroad, I think the best Christmas market I’ve been to was in Cologne. It was huge with multiple markets across the city which each had a slightly different theme and atmosphere. I’m really keen to go and see some more of the German markets. I also loved Prague, particularly the small market in the castle grounds and the large market in the old town square. I found Brussels a bit disappointing, so if you’re heading there I would suggest combining it with a trip to Bruges. Fingers crossed that Krakow will live up to expectations!

Where is your favourite Christmas market?

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