I don’t care what those grinches say it’s time to start talking about Christmas. Magical, colourful, musical – festive! And only two months away now. Some cities really know how to perk up the drizzly December weather with seasonal cheer, and those are the places to head for if you feel the weather is too grey and the Christmas music in your local supermarket too tinny. A proper Christmas market with proper gluhwein, proper mince pies, proper wooden chalet huts which smell of pine and alpine views, and proper Christmas decorations will really help you get into the spirit of it… I promise! Whether you’re a natural grinch or naturally elfin. Here’s where to go and where to stay when you get there.
Even during the summer Bruges is floodlit by night, but in the dead of winter it’s lit up like fairyland, with coloured lights and decorations in every children’s-Christmas-story-illustration shop window. Plus, there are some lovely shops selling truly beautiful wooden decorations. The Christmas market and ice rink are in the main square and there’s the usual selection of festive food and drink and gift ideas. But it’s the town itself which will really win your heart.
Where to stay?
A sophisticated award-winner, Die Swaene has 30 gorgeous rooms and suites, plus a spa and an excellent restaurant. This is a romantic spot with old-fashioned glamour, right on the canal just a few minutes stroll from the main square. Rooms start from around £125 per night.
Practical Details: It does depend on where you’re leaving from, but the easiest way to get to Bruges is probably by train. The Eurostar via Lille or Brussels is very easy from the UK, or you can catch the ferry or fly to Brussels. The train from Brussels takes about an hour. Bruges is also quite an easy drive. And how cold will it be at Christmas? The average maximum temperatures in December are 6-7°C, with plenty of rain or snow possible.
Kraków: legendary beauty
Kraków has Europe’s largest Market Square, with a spectacular 14th century Gothic Basilica on one side and the 16th century Renaissance Cloth Hall on another. And during the Christmas season it usually snows, so it’s even more beautiful and atmospheric than usual. Expect the usual charming wooden stalls laid high with food and gifts. The square is best approached by starting at the Barbican, an old fortress on the edge of the town. The thick walls are worth closer inspection. Walk through the Florian Gate into Ul Florianska, a pedestrian boulevard. Here most of the top name shops are to be seen. Whilst the prices are lower than in other western cities, they are still pricey by Polish standards.
Where to Stay?
Hotel Polski is an elegant townhouse in Krakow’s centre with 60 traditionally decorated rooms and an atmospheric restaurant. Rooms start from under £100 per night and you can expect to find a large fresco or painting, exposed stonework and/or floor to ceiling windows in yours.
Practical Details: Kraków’s modern airport is 12kms outside the city and has good, direct links to the UK and other European destinations. And how cold will it be at Christmas? The average maximum daily temperatures in winter are around 0°C to 2°C and there’s only about an hour and a half of sunshine a day.
On the river Elbe this ‘Jewel Box’ of Baroque and Rococo architecture, with its graceful royal residences and vast parks and forests, has inspired artists, and tourists, for hundreds of years. And although it’s a major city Dresden has a distinctly village-y feel. Which makes its Christmas markets all the more charming. Dresden’s Christmas market is also Germany’s oldest, dating back to 1434 – plus this is where christollen comes from. And they have the world’s largest nutcracker.
Where to Stay?
Elegant and traditional, the Hotel Taschenbergpalais is just a short stroll from the markets. The five star service and decor match the elegance of the exterior, and you can expect fine antiques. There’s a choice of bars and restaurants and a spoiling spa. The 214 rooms and suites start from around £125 per night.
Practical Details: Dresden’s Klotzsche airport is about six miles out of town, and you can fly direct from London City and Heathrow. You’re also about two hours from Berlin by train. And how cold will it be at Christmas? The average maximum temperatures in December are 5 or 6°C, but they can easily drop to around 1 or 2°C once it snows.
Lille: knows how to put on a market
Lille’s beautiful, historic centre is a great place for a stroll, especially if there’s a market on, and Lille certainly knows how to do markets. Its Christmas market is worth travelling for, what with the 80-odd beautiful wooden chalets loaded with gifts, decorations and festive food, the ferris wheel and huge Christmas tree. There’s light and colour everywhere and the shops vie with each other for the best window decorations. Lille’s annual summer antiques and bric a brac market is supposedly the world’s largest.
Where to Stay?
Right in the centre of town, the L’Esplanade has just four rooms, but elegant and generous sized communal areas too. The lounge has a beautiful fireplace and vaulted ceilings, and you’re close to restaurants and all the sights.
Practical Details: Lille’s airport is called the Lille-Lesquin International Airport, and it is just 10kms from the centre of town. Most UK airports are linked to Lille via Amsterdam or Paris but there aren’t any direct flights. However, if you’re travelling from the UK it’s hard to look past the fact that it’s only about an hour and a half from London on the Eurostar. And how cold will it be at Christmas? The average maximum temperatures in December are 5 or 6°C.
Christmas in London
With the shop windows all lit up, and Piccadilly, Covent Garden and Regent Street looking like fairyland, London’s public spaces all seem to have fairs and markets on. The Southbank does it nicely, Hyde Park goes fair crazy, Leicester Square has its own Santa, London Bridge has beautiful wooden chalets and loads of incredible food and gifts, the Tate modern has fantastic gifts at their Christmas Market and Greenwich and Clapham have big plans too. Plus, there’s skating at the Natural History Museum and Somerset House. And the beautiful decorations in Knightsbridge.
Hazlitt’s is a Georgian charmer with a boutique feel and literary associations going back to 1718. You’re in the thick of it on Frith Street Soho, surrounded by lively bars and restaurants, close to the shops and the markets, and the Christmas shows.
Practical Details: Come in by plane to Heathrow, Stansted, City or Gatwick, or by train into Waterloo, Victoria, St. Pancras or Euston. And how cold will it be at Christmas? Frost and snow are fairly rare in London, but everyone gets really excited when it snows. The average temperatures during December are between 5 and 7°C. There’s a fair bit of rain, but that does keep it a bit warmer.
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