Stride-off the well-trodden Christmas market trail to find some of Europe’s favorite festive shops nestled in places as different as Alpine summits to the coast of Cornwall.
Schloss Hellbrunn, Austria: Christmas markets glitter all over Austria come advent, but few are as magical as this one held at Salzburg‘s Schloss Hellbrunn, with carollers, handicraft stalls, pony rides for kids and the baroque palace’s 24 windows transformed into a giant advent calendar. A Christmas parade, brass bands, Alphorn blowers, nativity scenes and a veritable forest of 400 twinkling trees make yuletide here special.
Padstow, England: On the blustery Cornish coast, Padstow’s Christmas Festival is a cracker. While a star-studded line-up of chefs give cookery demos to spice up Christmas dinner, jazz bands and carollers entertain crowds milling around quayside stalls selling Cornish chutneys, pies and mulled cider, wooden toys and decorations. For kids there’s the reindeer enclosure and Santa Fun Run, where some 200 Father Christmas wannabes race for charity. Catch the fireworks that are set to sparkle in the harbor on certain days.
Mt Pilatus, Switzerland: For novelty value and sensational Alpine views ride to Europe’s highest Christmas market on the world’s steepest cogwheel railway that has been trundling up the 2132m Mount Pilatus since 1889. Perched above Lake Lucerne, the mountaintop Christkindlimärt has festive music and 45 stalls selling beeswax candles, nativity figurines, gingerbread and other stocking fillers. When snow falls, combine a shop with a downhill dash by sled, airboard or snow-bike.
Malmö, Sweden: Malmö dishes up a Swedish smorgasbord of Christmas markets, concerts and twinkling trees. Browse Södertull for handmade decorations, pausing to warm up over glögg (mulled wine) with pepparkakor (ginger biscuits) or lussekatter (saffron-flavoured buns). Katrinetorp manor is the go-to market for antiques, poinsettias and festive food, while Good Jul sells fair-trade, recycled and vintage gifts. Slip on skates to twirl around the open-air ice rinks at Raoul Wallenberg and Folkets Park.
Gengenbach, Germany: Few towns look as Christmassy as Gengenbach in Germany‘s Black Forest. Its half-timbered old town is real snow globe stuff when the fairy-lights are flicked on, timber chalets glow and carollers sing in front of the 18th-century, pink-and-cream Rathaus (Town Hall). Grab a spot here at 6pm to see one of 24 windows open to reveal an advent calendar scene by famous artists and illustrators like Marc Chagall and Tomi Ungerer.
Barcelona, Spain: Who needs Santa when you can have a grinning, present-pooping log called Caga Tió? You will find this Catalan Christmas oddity in miniature form alongside mistletoe, turrón nougat and a biblical wonderland of nativity figurines at Barcelona’s Fira de Santa Llúcia sprawling in front of the Gothic cathedral on Plaça de la Seu. And if you think Caga Tió is bizarre, wait until you see the irreverent Caganer, a defecating figurine hidden in the nativity scene for good fortune and fertile harvests.
Colmar, France: For the true spirit of Christmas, you can’t beat Colmar in Alsace, where the gingerbready, half-timbered old town hosts five different Christmas markets. Canal-woven Petite Venise attracts kids with its carousel, animated nativity scene and Santa’s letterbox, while antique, art and craft shoppers roam the Ancienne Douane (Old Customs House). Alsatian gingerbread, spicy Bredele cookies, anise-flavoured Sprengerle biscuits and kirsch-laced Berawecka fruit cake make great foodie stocking fillers.
Tallinn, Estonia: You’re more or less guaranteed snow in Tallinn at Christmas. An enormous tree towers above quaint wooden chalets on Raekoja plats (Town Hall Square), the medieval centre-piece of the UNESCO World Heritage old town. Estonian crafts like hand-knitted hats, sea-grass animals, wickerwork and wood carvings are top buys. Father Christmas often stages an appearance in the evening. Find respite from sub-zero temperatures in candlelit cafes and warm up with hearty Estonian grub like sauerkraut and blood sausage.
Innsbruck, Austria: In the snowy Austrian Alps, Innsbruck’s enchanting Christkindlmarkt lasts almost two months. A huge tree glitters in front of the Golden Roof, folk bands play and chalets sell decorations, candles, gingerbread and mulled wine in the medieval old town. Kids love the fairground rides, Punch and Judy shows and petting zoo on riverside Marktplatz. Or take them to fairy-tale-themed Kiebachgasse, with street theatre and Café Munding (the Hansel and Gretel house) transformed into a 24-window advent calendar.