It’s time to warm up the glühwein and tuck into the gingerbread cookies – Christmas market season is here.
Increasingly, however, between the unrelenting crowds and stalls turning out cheap tat, the romantic image of festive fairs rarely matches the reality. So it’s best to look beyond the oversubscribed classics for a lesser-known option worth basing a winter break around.
These spots champion local artisans and sell appealing stocking-fillers such as small-batch spirits, handmade wool hats and delicate glass ornaments. Instead of stale and sickly sweet confections, you’ll find hot dishes cooked by Michelin-starred chefs, hearty local specialties and plenty of preserves and authentic panettones to pack in your suitcase.
From Padstow to Poland, here are eight Christmas markets worth your time – and money – this winter.
Padstow, Cornwall, England
Cornwall and Christmas aren’t the most obvious bedfellows, but Padstow certainly gets into the yuletide spirit with a full-on festival. Short but sweet, the town’s event takes place over four days in the first week of December and, as expected of a place ruled by Rick Stein, it has a foodie focus. This year will see chef demonstrations from the likes of Clare Smyth and Anglea Hartnett, who will share festive cooking tips and tricks.
From the stalls expect local blue cheese and smoked fish plus stocking-fillers like mulled wine jam and gin flavoured with foraged coastal botanicals. Snack on tartiflette topped with Cornish brie or shellfish soup before stocking up on handmade wool blankets, tableware made from local slate and seashell jewellery.
Details: December 1-4; padstowchristmasfestival.co.uk.
Where to stay: The Padstow Harbour hotel is a light, bright and bold Victorian boutique hotel which fuses a little luxury with lashings of coastal charm and has views across the Camel Estuary. Rooms from £125.
For a dash of sharp Scandinavian style, head for Helsinki’s Tuomaan Markkinat, which vets its traders closely to ensure high-quality handmade products as opposed to mass market rubbish. There’s a particular focus on vintage and recycled goods at the Finnish capital’s oldest Christmas market and the eco-conscious effort extends to the central carousel, which spins with renewable energy – even the mulled wine served is flavoured with leftover apples from local orchards.
Top buys from the 90 artisans include traditional wooden gnome table decorations, delicate glass tree ornaments (remember to pack some bubble wrap) and merino wool socks.
Details: November 27-December 22; tuomaanmarkkinat.fi.
Where to stay: The Kämp offers late 19th-century classical luxury in a historic and central setting. Known to host visiting celebrities, such as the Stones and Springsteen, this is Finland’s top five-star hotel. Rooms from £235.
Krakow’s mega Christmas market may get all the attention, but opt for the northern Polish port city of Gdansk instead for a new spin on a classic festive break – not to mention far fewer tourists. In the youthful city, which attracts upcoming artists and designers looking for coastal breezes and cheap rents, you’ll find chalet stalls selling modern ceramics and upcycled clothing alongside traditional wooden trinkets.
Soak up the mulled wine with plenty of pierogis (Polish dumplings) before taking a walk along the river, which is flanked by buildings festooned with twinkling lights. Gdansk also gets bonus points for being one of the most affordable cities in Europe – perfect for cut-price Christmas shopping.
Details: November 18-December 23.
Where to stay: The millennial-focused PURO Hotel Gdańsk Stare Miasto is a winner for all ages, with its sharp design (think bold local art on the walls and subway-tiled bathrooms) and chic rooftop bar with views over the marina. Rooms from £60.
Spain might not be the first destination that springs to mind when it comes to Christmas markets, but from Barcelona to Bilbao sprawling festive fairs take over its cities come late November. Opt for a jaunt to Seville and you’ll be rewarded with relatively warm temperatures (a light jumper generally suffices) and the Festival de Belén, where around 30 traders sell wooden nativity figures.
If time allows, catch a train to Córdoba where the stalls in Tendillas Square turn out edible toys and decorations crafted from dried fruits and nuts. The fellow Andalusian city of Granada’s markets are a good choice for foodies with freshly fried churros and traditional almond cakes to snack alongside its locally made leather goods and candles.
Details: November 25-January 6.
Where to stay: Casa Poeta is a 17th-century mansion hidden down a tiny alley, which offers nightly live guitar performances and a large roof terrace with cathedral views. Rooms from £175.
Nowhere in Italy embraces Christmas quite like the northern city of Trento where the entire medieval centre becomes a snowglobe scene come late November. Surrounded by the white-topped Dolomites, the market’s alpine-style stalls certainly feel more appropriate than in, say, Hyde Park and it more than earns its nickname of Città del Natale (Christmas town).
Head to the Via Garibaldi (behind the Duomo) for handmade gifts, the proceeds of which go to charity, or the Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore which is designed for children, with workshops and a Santa's grotto. Foodwise, try the tortel di patate (a fried potato pancake topped with cheese or meat) or a thick slice of apple strudel – a reminder of the region’s Austrian heritage. This year there’s a particular eco-focus, with renewable energy lighting the stalls and food vendors even using plates made from bread.
Dates: November 10-January 8; mercatinodinatale.tn.it.
Where to stay: A 15-minute walk from the centre of town, the new NH Trento rewards guests with a peaceful setting on the Adige river and alpine views. Rooms from £89.
Croatia’s capital comes into its own in the run up to Christmas with a huge advent festival scattered across 20 city-centre locations. Top picks include Park Zrinjevac, where you’ll find local delicacies such as krpice sa zeljem (pasta with cabbage) and paprenjaci (peppery gingerbread cookies) and the Oktogan passageway for its unusual light installations.
Families should make a beeline for Ilica 49, where children can make ragdolls and little wooden toys at a special workshop, or simply enjoy the huge toy displays. There’s been a push to showcase ‘Made in Zagreb’ products, so it's easy to find quality handmade decorations. Other attractions include the 100 musical concerts that take place over the festive period, plus a host of theatre productions and exhibitions.
Dates: November 26-January 6.
Where to stay: Book a room at the art-deco Esplanade Hotel, which was originally built in 1925 as a suitably glamorous stopover for passengers on the Orient Express and remains the city’s top place to stay.
On the shores of Lake Geneva and at the foot of the snowy Alps, the resort town of Montreux provides a fairy-tale backdrop for one of Switzerland's largest Christmas markets. Its 171 stalls focus on homemade products and quality items, while food offerings include filled crepes and, of course, mulled wine. There are also a number of magical experiences for children in the covered section of the market, where they can bake cookies and colour candles.
Alternatively, take the cogwheel train up the Rochers-de-Naye mountain to meet Father Christmas in his snowy grotto. Each evening he can also be spotted riding his sleigh down to the lake and bellowing merry Christmas or Joyeux Noël.
Dates: November 18-December 24; montreuxnoel.com.
Where to stay: Push the boat out with a stay at the Fairmont Le Montreux Palace, a Belle Époque hotel with a prime position overlooking Lake Geneva. Rooms from £250.
The star of Tallinn’s Christmas market is a twinkling tree, which has been erected in the medieval Town Hall Square every year since 1441 – locals proudly claim it was the first display in Europe. With only 30 or so stalls, the surrounding market is fairly compact but more interesting than most – tuck into Estonian specialities such as black pudding and sour cabbage, while perusing the hand-knitted sock selection.
Elsewhere in the Baltic capital expect an appealing mix of fairytale towers, mighty city walls and grand old palaces – though the hip Kalamaja district, with its art galleries and street food spots, keeps things up to date. The high chance of snow and affordable prices makes Tallinn an even more tempting proposition.
Dates: November 22-January 2
Where to stay: The Schlössle offers five-star luxury in a beautifully restored 13th-century merchant's house in one of the quieter quarters of Tallinn's Old Town. Rooms from £141.