One of the many depressing things about 2020 was the effect its deep-piled layers of doom and gloom had on Christmas. Think back to it – if you can remember it at all. For here was a stripped-down, under-powered, withered-away version of the world’s favourite winter festival – pinched at the nose, weary around the eyes, shorn of any real enthusiasm.
It wasn’t just the restrictions on the day itself that made the event such a (if you will pardon the entirely deliberate pun) turkey. It was the dearth of merriment in the build-up.
November and December certainly didn’t involve the festive markets that bring Europe alive in the winter. The majority were cancelled, lost to a tacit consensus that 2020 wasn’t a year for mulled wine and baked goods, or for chestnuts roasting upon any sort of public open fire.
All of which makes their return in 2021, a reason to be enormously cheerful. For the most part, the coming weeks will see the Christmas market back where we expect to find it – in the main squares of attractive capitals, shimmering in the shadow of gothic churches, the aroma of cinnamon and sugar in the air. But while Eastern Europe may be the spiritual home of such matters, the Christmas market can be enjoyed in cities across the planet.
The list below is far from exhaustive, but each of my selections options will satisfy your craving for snow-sprinkled sparkle. After all, we’re owed a double dose of it.
You might assume that the French capital is far too chic for Christmas markets. Who needs hand-carved fripperies and gingerbread when you have Saint-Germain jewellers and Marais patisseries? But Paris loves a dash of festive schmaltz as much as any city, and indulges it both in the Jardins des Tuileries and in the lap of the re-emerging Notre Dame. The best example, though, may be the pocket of stalls that takes over Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, under the gorgeous gaze of the town hall, with an ice rink to boot as part of the festive fun. From November 19 to January 2.
Beyond the market: A short walk away, the Louvre is currently saluting the 200th anniversary of the Greek Revolution in “Paris-Athens”, an exhibition that charts the birth of the modern Greek state via artworks by Delacroix and Nikolaos Gyzis.
The image of the Christmas market is so tied to some snowy evening in Eastern Europe that it is almost impossible to imagine festive hot drinks in the relative warmth of Spain. But Madrid embraces the idea with gusto. The Plaza Mayor revels in sweets, toys and trinkets every December – while the adjacent Plaza de Santa Cruz plays the same card. From November 26 to December 31.
Beyond the market: A trip in the coming months will coincide with Madrid’s new stage extravaganza, Wah – which combines an immersive theatrical show about a world where music is outlawed with food halls and post-production drinks.
Croatia’s capital tends to be the underused travel substitute of this increasingly popular Balkan country – left on the bench while coastal jewels Dubrovnik, Split and Zadar enjoy starring roles. But the weeks before Christmas see it earn a starting position, shining inland beyond the Dinaric Alps. There are 20 locations to enjoy across its centre – like the main square Trg Bana Jelacica, and Trg Europe, below the gothic facade of the 12th-century cathedral. The local paprenjaci – peppery gingerbread cookies – are a must. From November 29 to January 2.
Beyond the market: Despite the name, the Museum of Broken Relationships is an oddly uplifting experience, diving into the human condition in its discarded love trinkets, tales from failed marriages, and determination to do better next time.
For a dose of whimsical retail therapy in the UK, head to Birmingham for its Frankfurt Christmas Market. Despite the semi-confusing name (Birmingham is twinned with Frankfurt, and the event is affiliated with its namesake in the Hesse city), this festive bonanza has grown to become the biggest in Europe outside Germany and Austria. From November 4 to December 23.
Beyond the market: If your hunt for presents is likely to involve something pricier than biscuits, the Jewellery Quarter will be keen to oblige.
Berlin is all but one enormous Christmas market come December, but its Bavarian rival is no festive Grinch, usually putting down its Oktoberfest steins just in time to reach for cups of hot gluhwein – and in a relaxed environment. One of the pleasures of Munich is that, while its historic and sporting profile suggests a huge metropolis, the reality is a compact city that can be explored on foot. You can easily take in the tinsel-draped trappings of the Christkindlmarkt on Marienplatz before ambling the rest of the centre. From November 22 to December 24.
Beyond the market: Munich is arguably Germany’s art capital. Together, its Alte and Neue Pinakothek galleries cover the gods of European art from the 14th to 19th centuries, while the Pinakothek der Moderne dissects everything after.
If you were to summon a stereotypical snapshot of a Christmas market, you might think of Prague on a winter’s night. Yet clichés become ingrained for a reason. The Czech capital is the loveliest of travel touchstones – an enclave whose centre somehow survived the worst of the Second World War (the Red Army took it unopposed in 1945), and still sings with medieval magic. Its focal point, the Staromestske Namesti (Old Town Square), plays host to its main cluster of festive stalls. From November 27 to January 6.
Beyond the market: Museum Kampa, on the far side of the River Vltava, is a superb change of pace – a former watermill full of modern art and sculpture
Poland’s second city would bridle at the suggestion that Prague is festive shopping at its most delightful. Its main market is no less picturesque, glittering on the vast plaza of Rynek Glowny. Is the twin-towered grandeur of St Mary’s Basilica (or the wonder of the Cloth Hall, at the square’s heart) any less photogenic than the landmarks in the Czech Republic? Sip a glass of mulled wine and decide for yourself. From November 29-December 26.
Beyond the market: Delicious Poland offers a 3.5-hour food tour, which pairs delicacies such as nalesniki (pancakes) with Krakow beers.
The Hungarian capital is a case of two cities for the price of one – its guardian spirit, the Danube, separating the hilly ex-royal enclave of Buda on the left bank of the river for flatter, busier Pest on the right. It is certainly worth strolling through the castle district of the former, but if you want the full cinnamon-and-cheer market experience, you probably need the latter. In particular, you need the Advent Bazilika market in front of the magnificent St Stephen’s Basilica. From November 29 to January 2.
Beyond the market: All the more dramatic if you can catch it under snow, Memento Park preserves some 40 statues – Lenin, Bela Kun et al – from the country’s communist era, as part throwback, part warning against tyranny.