An evening spent mingling with the pink-cheeked crowds at festive fairs throughout Europe could transform the most curmudgeonly Scrooge and the greenest of Grinches into stocking-stuffing, carol-crooning converts.
Imagine rustic chalets overflowing with handicrafts that might have been fashioned by elves themselves; historic town squares illuminated by twinkling strands of lights; and local delicacies, from bratwurst to pastries, washed down with mugs of mulled wine.
Here’s a look at five of the best cities to stoke your holiday spirit.
While continental Christmas markets are typically twee, “Olde Worlde” affairs. Hyde Park Winter Wonderland goes for the glitz. It’s a neon-drenched Las Vegas-style fever dream — the bizarrest of holiday bazaars.
Incongruously nestled alongside Bavarian chalets belching out the Bratwurst, this over-the-top extravaganza offers a dizzying array of blinking, twinkling attractions. They change a bit from year to year, but expect rides like careening roller coasters, a 60-metre high Ferris wheel that looks like a festive Eye of Sauron, a 60-metre high Star Flyer tower, which twirls brave (and possibly nauseous) punters 360 degrees in their bucket seats, and–my favorite–a ride called The Hangover, which, like a few too many mugs of mulled wine, will leave you wondering which end is up.
There’s also typically a haunted house and Pirate’s Adventure, complete with a grizzly looking animatronic pirate and a shark, in case Santa isn’t enough to scare the Bejeezus out of the kiddies.
For more thrills and chills, in every sense, check out the ice rink and The Magical Ice Kingdom, which is filled with ice sculptures. In recent years, these have included “life-sized unicorns” (which does beg the question…where did they find a live unicorn to verify this?) and a butt-numbing “ice-sculpted tree throne”—as refreshingly frigid as a wintry morning toilet seat in a North Pole Port-A-Loo. Thank heavens there’s also an igloo-shaped ice bar to warm you up from the inside out.
It’s not just the warm Glühwein that will leave you feeling giddy in Berlin. It’s the sheer abundance and variety of this city’s Christmas markets, more than 70 in all.
One of Berlin’s most beautiful bazaars is staged at the Gendarmenmarkt, where two cathedrals overlook a “village” of white tents filled with hand-carved furnishings and accessories, blown-glass ornaments and one-of-a-kind ceramics.
For a taste of Christmas past, continue a mile to the northeast to the Berliner Weihnachtszeit around Marienkirche and the Red Town Hall. There’s a medieval market, as well as Old Berlin market lane, with shop facades from 1900. A circular ice rink and fairground rides like a 50-metre-high Ferris wheel keep wee ones entertained.
If its high-octane excitement you’re after, head to Potsdamer Platz. Take a ride on the 12-metre-high toboggan run, then bundle up for a spin around the ice rink or try your hand at curling, which is a bit like bowling on ice, with a hockey stick. (The sport was originally invented by the Scots, so there’s a fair chance whisky was involved).
The second largest metropolis in Germany after Berlin, Hamburg is surprisingly hip. The Beatles played some of their earliest gigs around the burg back in the 1960s, and its street cred has only grown over the years, with a nightclub scene that will have you dancing ‘til dawn when you ought to be snug in your bed.
But you’ll still find plenty of traditional holiday happenings and 15 Christmas markets, each with its own personality, earning Hamburg the title “The Christmas Capital of the North.” (And there you were thinking that honour belonged to the North Pole).
The “historic” market occupies the town hall square, the Rathausmarkt. Three million people flock here each year to wander down its themed lanes, scooping up jewelry, glass ornaments, chocolates and cakes, all hoping for a glimpse of Santa’s sleigh jingling overhead. Also popular with the knee biters: an old-fashioned Christmas parade starring Santa and his elves, who make their way through the city center.
If you’re hard up for gift ideas for your partner, or perhaps that mischievous uncle with a never-ending repertoire of risqué jokes, hit the Santa Pauli market at the Spielbudenplatz. Nestled in the Reeperbahn red-light district, Germany’s only over-18 Christmas market offers some very, er, creative ways to stuff a stocking. Let’s just say some of these presents are hot enough to melt the North Pole. Who knew elves could be so naughty?
With its Baroque onion domes, Gothic church spires, and a multitude of towers that seem custom-made for fair maidens dangling long golden braids, Prague looks like a fairytale kingdom at any time of year. So when a constellation of Christmas lights and garland-wrapped fir trees sprout in its squares, the scene is so surreal that you half expect to spy Santa’s sled gliding over the red-tiled rooftops—particularly if you’ve indulged in a tipple or two of high-octane honey mead.
The main market is in Old Town Square. A giant illuminated tree and peaked-roof huts bursting with holiday tchotchkes occupy the cobblestones between the medieval Astronomical Clock, where crowds gather to watch a parade of clockwork Apostles appear every hour, and the multi-pronged spires of Tyn Church, which allegedly inspired Walt Disney’s vision of Sleeping Beauty’s castle.
Wenceslas Square is a good place to look for wood-carved toys, glassware, ceramics and ornaments, while the tiny Andel Market offers a smorgasbord of local delicacies at incredibly cheap prices.
At the street market on Havelska due south of Old Town Square, you’ll find some of the best prices in the city on everything from nutcracker soldiers to faux-fur hats and witch dolls astride broomsticks. These craggy-faced crones are so inexplicably popular around Prague’s markets, you’d need an air-traffic controller to keep them from colliding with Saint Nick on his midnight ride.
Strasbourg is no newbie when it comes to heralding the holiday season in the streets. It lays claim to perhaps the oldest Christmas market in Europe, dating back to at least the 16th century. These days, Santa’s helpers hawk their wares at more than 300 chalets in nearly a dozen squares, with one of the most picturesque in the shadow of the cathedral.
This French city doesn’t just deck the halls. It illuminates its avenues with twinkling lights, a constellation of glowing stars, and crystal chandeliers. At Place Kléber, a 30-metre fir tree—the tallest decorated tree in Europe–presides over it all.