Christmas Markets in 48 hours


By Simon Heptinstall

Photography by Westend61

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October 2016

A mid-week visit to Europe’s Christmas Markets is a chance to combine an indulgent city break with shopping for truly individual gifts. Travel writer Simon Heptinstall – who once drove through 12 European countries in one day – reveals five of the continent’s best cities to soak up the fairy-tale festive atmosphere.

Vienna

This year, the Vienna Christmas Markets run from 11 November 2016 to 6 January 2016. Once you’ve touched town in Vienna, the new non-stop City Airport Train will whizz you to the centre in 16 minutes for just €12. Check into The Ritz-Carlton Vienna near Stadtpark, which is a 15-minute stroll from the Christmas Villages at Belvedere Place and Maria-Thersien Platz.

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Vienna’s Christmas Markets are easy to find – simply follow the aroma of roasting chestnuts, simmering hot punch and fresh almond cakes

Day 1

Around the city’s grand squares, period boulevards and Danube waterfronts, you’ll discover 20 different traditional romantic markets. They’re easy to find – simply follow the aroma of roasting chestnuts, simmering hot punch and fresh almond cakes. Later, a memorable Viennese evening treat is to dress up for a cultural event in an historic venue, like the Opera House or Burgtheatre.

Day 2

Explore Vienna’s biggest Christmas Market, which spreads our in front of the magical towers and spires of the gorgeously gothic City Hall. Outside, browse fine-craft stalls among illuminated trees; inside, enjoy homely biscuit-making and carols. Take a break in one of Vienna’s world-famous museums and galleries, or relax with a serious pastry creation and a window seat amid the glittering elegance of a classic Viennese coffee house.

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Krakow, Poland

Discover Polish market delights between 27 November and 26 December 2016. Once you arrive at Krakow airport, trains leave every 30 minutes, taking less than 20 minutes to reach the city centre. Set in a restored 15th-century building in Krakow’s Jewish Quarter, Eden is the perfect base to explore the festivities – it’s close to the Market Square and Town Hall.

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Day 1

One of Europe’s biggest and best medieval squares, Rynek Glowny, is the perfect romantic backdrop to Poland’s most popular Christmas market. Browse quirky, crafty gifts and elaborate homemade cribs, while sampling tasty specialities like grilled ewe’s cheese with cranberries, honeycake and vodka tea.

Alongside is the fabulously ornate Renaissance Cloth Hall – claimed to be the world’s oldest shopping mall. Step inside for a chance to find more unique Christmas gifts.

Day 2

Immerse yourself in the winter wonderland spirit with horse-drawn carriage rides over cobbled streets and glühwein at pavement cafes (heaters and blankets supplied). Or send yourself to the salt mines. It’s just 30 minutes to Wieliczka Salt Mine, a memorably eerie series of hand-carved underground chambers and chapels.

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Prague, Czech Republic

Prague’s collection of pretty Christmas markets start popping up from 26 November 2016, running until 1 January 2017. A £20 taxi ride is the quickest way into the Old Town from Prague airport at night. Built on the site of a former 14th-century monastery, the elegant Mandarin Oriental Prague has an enviable location on the left bank of the Vltava River, an indulgent spa and mesmerizing views of the city.

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Day 1

Enjoy a tour of the magnificent city by wandering between markets. The Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square have the best festive stalls, Christmas trees and carol singing – but there are lively markets in other locations, including Kampa Island, Prague Castle and Republic Square, too.

While browsing, try the hot sugar-coated pastries, washed down with Czech pilsner beers. Then experience East Europe’s liveliest nightlife, with options ranging from cool dance clubs to basement bar jazz.

Day 2

Explore the quiet, atmospheric alleyways between Prague’s turrets, domes and palaces. Discover the big sights minus the summer crowds, like Charles Bridge and St Vitus Cathedral. And look out for men selling live carp from buckets. Families keep them in their baths until Christmas – then serve them fried for traditional dinner.

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  • The suite life: the Mandarin Oriental Prague

    Go nuts

    Fortune telling is a popular Christmas custom in Prague. For example, families place small candles into empty walnut shells, which are floated in a bowl of water. If the shell makes it across the bowl, its owner will live a long and healthy life.

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  • Krakow’s main square, Rynek Glowny, is the hub of the city’s festive celebrations © Martin Dimitrov/Getty Images

    Yule love it

    The Yuletide festivities in Krakow start in late November and stretch all the way to early February – making the city a contender for the longest Christmas celebrations in the world. Fly from London to Krakow from:£39 each-way

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  • Tuck into tasty Hungarian sausages as you browse Budapest’s markets © Robert Rowe/EyeEm/Getty Images

    Festive fare

    Other local Hungarian specialities include töltött káposzta (stuffed cabbage leaves), kürtőskalács (spiral-shaped pastries rolled in cinnamon and sugar) and – of course – gluwein. Book flights from London to Budapest, plus a three-night hotel stay from:£118 pp

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Berlin, Germany

Berlin’s Christmas markets run from 21 November to 31 December 2016. From Tegel airport, it’s just a 40-minute ride on the TXL bus to Alexanderplatz in the centre. Here, you’ll find the Park Inn Alexanderplatz, aka Berlin’s tallest hotel – drink in the city views from its 39th-floor rooftop bar.

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Day 1

While Berlin is usually a chilled-out centre for trendy modern culture, the festive period sees it turn into a fabulously cheesy, tinsel-covered, wonderland of ice-skating rinks, carousels, brass bands and trees groaning under the weight of fairy lights. Best of all, it’s easy to join the Berliners’ non-stop Christmas party. Sip a hot white chocolate drink, nibble some fried apple or a classic Bratwurst sausage and wander round the most ‘Christmassy’ capital in Europe. Incredibly, there are more than 100 Christmas markets across the city.

  • The Christmas Market at Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin © Christopher Hill/Alamy Images

    Winter sports

    With more than 100 markets across the city, Berlin is sure to please Christmas lovers, but fans of winter sports should head to Potsdamer Platz, where an ice rink, a 12m-high toboggan run and a curling pitch are the order of the day. Book flights from London to Berlin, plus a three-night hotel stay from:£133 pp

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Day 2

Are you brave enough to tackle the artificial toboggan run on Potsdamer Platz in front of the Brandenburg Gate? Or would you rather tuck into a Christmas feast at the huge ‘Christmas Pyramid’ in Alexanderplatz, illuminated by more than 5,000 festive lights? Round the corner at Marienkirche there’s medieval hot mead served in clay pots and a big wheel offering views across the city. Or head for Charlottenburg Palace, where gourmet restaurants serve bargain food in heated tents surrounded by Berlin’s best Christmas light show.

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Budapest, Hungary

Discover the festive markets of Budapest between 27 November 2016 and 1 January 2017. A cab from Budapest airport to the city centre costs around £20. Check in to Hilton Budapest, set in the heart of the Royal Castle District, for sparkling views of the Danube River.

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Day 1

Explore more than 100 ultra-Christmassy stalls in the central Vorosmarty Square, surrounded by ancient buildings, lights and decorations. Spot the giant Advent calendar on the façade of the classic coffee house Café Gerbeaud.

Choose from thousands of handmade gifts at the market – and be assured that everything, from the knitted hats to the fur slippers, is pre-checked for quality by Hungarian folk art experts. Later, tuck into Hungarian seasonal fare, including specialities like fried bread, roast chestnuts and homemade strudels. Then wrap up warm for an evening cruise on the Danube.

Day 2

After ice-skating at Vajdahunyad Castle in the city park, relax in the elegant open-air Edwardian hot baths at Szechenyi or in the grand period interior of Gellert thermal spa.

Say goodbye to the city and take in the terrific panoramic view from the terrace café at the Fisherman’s Bastion fortifications.

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