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7 of the best Christmas weekend breaks in Europe for markets and festive fun

Indulge yourself with a Christmas holiday to some of Europe’s most festive cities

Chris Wilson
Monday 11 December 2023 11:46 GMT
Get into the festive spirit in Christmassy destinations such as Rovaniemi
Get into the festive spirit in Christmassy destinations such as Rovaniemi (Getty Images)

When it comes to a winter holiday, most travellers will be after snow, festive foods and cosy bars and restaurants. Fortunately, you don’t have to go far to get into the Christmas spirit. Many destinations across Europe are covered in lights, decorations and a light dusting of snow as they near 25 December, with dozens of Christmas markets making these towns even more atmospheric than usual.

Provincial cities like Nuremberg and Strasbourg lead the way for traditional Christmas markets, but capitals such as Edinburgh and Vienna also come alive in winter, with a dizzying array of markets and events punctuating the winding, cobbled streets and photogenic alleys.

Elsewhere, the guaranteed snow of Finnish Lapland adds a touch of magic to festive celebrations, offering a decidedly different Christmas break. Whatever your taste, read on; we’ve rounded up a selection of the best places to go to nail that much-needed Christmas holiday.

Edinburgh, Scotland

Hogmanay celebrations happen just after Christmas in Edinburgh (Getty Images)

The Scottish capital is especially enchanting at Christmastime, with the early darkness bringing opportunities for festive decoration, twinkling lights and cosy markets. The Christmas period begins in November, with dozens of special events including theatre shows, carol performances and festive light trails.

The city’s main thoroughfares, Royal Mile and Grassmarket, are as resplendent as ever, while the illuminated Edinburgh Castle provides a dramatic backdrop to the city. There are several markets that light up Edinburgh, though the main ones are located on East Princes Street Gardens and George Street. After strolling through the cobbled streets and browsing the various stalls, get your fill of mulled wine and traditional German foods.

The home of Hogmanay remains in an equally as festive and even more celebratory mood after Christmas as it gears up for New Year’s Eve celebrations, so a Christmastime visit can be combined with a special way to welcome in 2024 if you time it right.

How to do it

easyJet fly direct to Edinburgh from London Luton, Stansted and Gatwick, with flights available from as little as £14 one way.

The Eden Locke hotel sits in Edinburgh’s magnificent Georgian New Town, in close proximity to the city centre and East Princes Street Gardens. Set in a beautifully decorated town house, this hotel only offers suite and apartment rooms, making for a particularly comfortable stay.

Read more on travel inspiration:

Nuremberg, Germany

Nuremberg’s Christkindlmarkt is opened with a speech from a woman dressed as the Christkindl, a traditional gift-bringer in some forms of Christianity (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Home to one of the most famous Christmas markets in the world, Nuremberg is a Christmas-lover’s paradise. Bavaria’s second-largest city hosts an annual Christkindlesmarkt in its Hauptmarkt square, dubbed “the little city of wood and cloth”, where vendors sell various trinkets and local foods ranging from gingerbread to bratwurst. Running parallel is the Sister Cities Market, where vendors from Nuremberg’s sister cities – including Vienna, Antalya, Kharkiv, Glasgow and Krakow – sell local fares.

When you aren’t wandering the markets you’l likely be in Nuremberg’s quaint old town, filled with half-timbered buildings and narrow alleys. All the main sites are within walking distance, such as the German National Museum, the Neue Museum and the vast Nuremberg Castle, a medieval fortress with panoramic views over the city.

How to do it

British Airways Holidays are one of the only UK providers to offer package trips to Nuremberg. Their stay at the NH Nuremberg City gives you comfy, stylish rooms right in the city centre, less than a mile from the Christkindlmarkt.

From £670pp including return flights from Heathrow and two nights’ accommodation.

Rovaniemi, Finland

Rovaniemi is around 75 minutes from Helsinki by plane (Getty Images)

This town in Finnish Lapland is a Christmas wonderland of its own. Self-styled as the ‘Home of Santa Claus’, Rovaniemi is home to a Santa Claus Village, with buildings covered head-to-toe in lights and festive decorations, while also being consistently covered in snow during winter. There are Christmas-themed shops and activities, and kids will have the chance to meet Santa himself.

This part of Lapland is also an ideal destination for families with young teens, with its position in the Arctic Circle making it a great destination for Northern Lights hunting. Other popular activities including husky sledding, reindeer sleigh rides, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing.

How to do it

Regent Holidays’ ‘Winter Weekend Break’ in Rovaniemi lets you experience the best of this winter wonderland on a four-day tour. You have a choice of three city-centre hotels to stay in, while in your free time you can hunt the Northern Lights, go on snowmobile expeditions, visit reindeer farms and see the city’s sites and museums.

From £1170pp including return flights to Helsinki, onward flights to Rovaniemi, three nights’ accommodation, all transfers and breakfast on each morning. Enquire online for date-specific prices.

Prague, Czech Republic

Christmas is generally celebrated on 24 December in the Czech Republic (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Picturesque Prague shines at any time of year, but the winter months are one of the best times to see the Czech capital. The city possesses a magnificent blend of striking architecture, a rich cultural scene and – come November – a large network of Christmas markets; when combined with the odd flurry of snow, Prague becomes a postcard-perfect Christmas destination.

One of Prague’s best features is its manageable size, with most of the main landmarks and attractions within walking distance of each other. The focal point is the Old Town Square; in December, its Baroque buildings and the Astronomical Clock surround a mini-network of alleys created by wooden stalls, with the smell of cinnamon and mulled wine filling the air.

Nearby Wenceslas Square holds its own market, and after a quick browse you can head to the Charles Bridge for an atmospheric walk under its lights. Once across you’ll be at the foot of Prague Castle – the largest ancient castle in the world – which hosts its own market complete with carol singers.

How to do it

easyJet holidays offer several winter holiday packages to the Czech capital. A weekend stay at the NH Collection Carlo IV is a great option for those who want a city centre location – less than a kilometre from the Old Town – but also seek more space and greater relaxation.

From £311pp for return flights from Gatwick, two nights’ accommodation and 23kg of checked-in luggage.

Tallinn, Estonia

Tallinn claims that it was the first city in Europe to put up a Christmas tree in the town centre (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

It’s unlikely that the Estonian capital is on many lists as the ideal Christmas destination, but with an average of 11 days of snow in December, it is one of the best places to visit if you’re trying to experience a ‘White Christmas’ on your break.

More affordable and compact than other cities we’ve mentioned, Tallinn is a characterful place where a fusion of architectural styles (such as Gothic and Baroque) are showcased throughout. These sit alongside medieval palaces, cathedrals and castles, such as Kadriorg Palace, which houses an art museum, and Toompea Castle, which today hosts the Estonian Parliament.

Much of this is contained within the medieval walls of Tallinn’s Unesco-listed Old Town, as is the Town Hall Square, the site of the city’s main Christmas markets. It is said that a Christmas tree has been set up here every year since 1441, and nowadays the square transforms into a ‘fairytale’ land, where dozens of stalls are lined up beside carousels and food vendors.

How to do it

Ryanair and Wizz Air operate direct flights to Tallinn from Luton and Stansted respectively. Return flights start at around £130 over weekends in December.

The Savoy Boutique Hotel is just a few steps from Tallinn’s Old Town and provides guests with understated luxury in its Art Deco rooms, at a very affordable price point.

Vienna, Austria

There is evidence that Vienna’s first Christmas market took place in 1298 (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

As well as being one of the most elegant European cities, Vienna is also a haven for those who love the festive period. A slew of markets arrive in and around the centre during the run-up to Christmas, giving the Austrian capital a merry buzz. The city’s magnificent architecture lends itself to the magic of Christmastime, with the addition of lights, trees and decoration at every turn, making it an ideal place to spend a romantic Christmas break.

First-time visitors will likely be taken aback by the grandeur of Vienna’s most famed landmarks and their associated markets. Whether sipping gluhwein in front of Belvedere Palace or tucking into bratwurst by the city hall at the Viennese Dream market, you’ll be enjoying a magical backdrop as you wander the stalls and admire the Baroque buildings.

How to do it

Tui provide packages to Vienna’s elegant Trend Hotel Savoyen, located around a mile from outside the city centre but close to Belvedere Palace and its stately markets. The grandiose facade is complemented by simple but stylish rooms, and a rooftop restaurant gives great views over the city.

From £428pp including return flights from Heathrow, two nights’ accommodation and 23kg of checked-in luggage per person.

Strasbourg, France

Strasbourg’s markets as we know them first started in 1570 (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Strasbourg is the self-styled ‘Capital of Christmas’, and the Alsatian capital is as idyllic a setting as any for a festive trip, with the timber-framed buildings and grand squares – such as Place Kebler and Place de la Catedrale – sparkling with lights and a light dusting of snow. Winter is a wonderful time to walk its narrow streets, with the canals of the ‘Petite France’ district as charming as ever.

A series of traditional markets light up the city from mid-November, spread across 10 different sites and attracting around two million visitors each year. They range from traditional German-style markets (like the Christkindlmarik at Place Broglie) to markets with a focus on sustainability, such as those at Grimmeisen or Place des Meuniers, where all the stalls sell products from small producers from Alsace.

How to do it

There are no direct flights from London to Strasbourg so the best option is to travel to Paris on a plane or the Eurostar and then take a train. An onward train takes around one hour and 45 minutes, and costs as little as £14 one way.

Strasbourg can get quite expensive around Christmastime, but the Mercure Strasbourg Centre Petite France offers affordable accommodation right in the centre. Less than half a mile from Petite France and Place Kleber (and under 15 minutes from Place Broglie) it is the ideal place to base yourself for exploring the city’s various markets.

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