Booking a Christmas market break
With late summer daylight beginning to lose its battle with encroaching autumnal darkness, thoughts inevitably begin to turn to the “C” word. Yep, Christmas is fast approaching and, love it or loathe it, it eventually claims us all!
While many people look to escape in search of some much-needed winter sun, more and more are attempting to kick-start a full-on festive feeling by booking a Christmas market break. But with more Christmas markets popping up in so many countries every year how do you begin to choose where to go and when? And how do you know that you’ll get that fully immersive Christmassy feeling you need to see you through the rest of the season?
Having booked a Christmas market break for myself this year I thought I’d share what I found out about the whole process, as well as what I was looking for and why…
Research! Start with Google as a base and have a think about where you want to go. This is the fun bit, but you don’t need to spend too much time looking at all the small details just yet.
Keep in mind:
Your budget – how many of you are going? What sorts of places do you enjoy visiting, and what would you like to get out of your break?
How far you do you want to go? – the UK, Europe, or maybe even further afield?
How are you going to get there? – are you happy to fly, or do you prefer the train/Eurostar, coach travel, or to drive yourself?
How long do you want to spend there?
Will you be visiting over a weekend or during the week?
How big are the Christmas markets in your chosen destination? And how many are there?
Christmas markets aside, how many other things are there to keep you occupied at the chosen city/destination?
When to book?
Christmas markets generally begin right at the end of November or very early in December. They often continue until the New Year, but sometimes end on Christmas Eve or the day before. It’s worth checking your chosen destinations to make sure that the main markets are happening when you want to go. The nearer to Christmas you go, the busier the destinations will be, and the higher the price will probably be.
While getting the best deal is never an exact science, with Christmas markets it’s often considered best to book as early as possible and before everyone else realises they want to go too.
Tip: try to make your booking on a weekday – Tuesdays and Fridays are considered the best days for making the biggest savings. Try to avoid booking on a Saturday, and particularly on a Saturday after the second week of November when you will be more likely to pay over the odds for your travel.
Where to book?
What’s important to you?
Do you want to be immersed in the biggest and loudest festivities you possibly can, or do you want somewhere that has other stuff to do in case you get bored of all the carols and mulled wine?
Do you want it to be somewhere busy and popular or relatively quaint and peaceful?
Are you looking for traditional Christmas, commercial, or a mixture? Do you want somewhere with lots of themed markets all over town or a giant one in one place? Would you rather go somewhere renowned for its Christmas markets and authenticity or somewhere relatively “new on the Christmas market scene?”
This was my initial personal brief:
- Europe and traditional/authentic.
- Under £350 each for flights and hotels.
- Somewhere I’ve not yet been to.
- Plenty of Christmas markets to keep me occupied.
- Plenty to see and do generally.
- Somewhere with character/charm.
- Potential for the added clichéd bonus of real snow.
- A destination with generally positive reviews.
- A hotel near the centre of the action/town with generally positive reviews.
I wanted something fairly clichéd but not too commercial that wasn’t especially like any other European town or city. With Google images on in the background to provide pictorial inspiration, my decision-making was really quite a simple process. This narrowed my search down to a select few destinations, and primarily Bavaria/The Alps. However, my research did throw up a couple of fantastic-sounding European “alternative” destinations.
So with all of the above in mind, I whittled my Christmas market choices down from an initial list of twelve, to the following three:
You could quite honestly choose almost any German city and have a fab Christmas market experience. There will always be hotly contested debate about which is best, from Dresden (the oldest), to Nuremberg (the prettiest?), Worms (one of the smallest/quaintest) and Dusseldorf (very themed), as well as countless others from Aachen and Bremen to Hamburg and Berlin.
But my overall German selection is Cologne which seems to have a mixture of all of the best bits: numerous themed markets all over the city to reflect their locations, from the maritime harbour to the traditional Old Town to the trendy gay and lesbian area.
Cologne’s standout market is set against the backdrop of its breath-taking Gothic Cathedral. The Cathedral Christmas Market contains more than 160 stalls selling arts and crafts, and all of the festive food and drink you’d expect to see and taste. It really does seem to contain that perfect magical Christmas feeling, all tied up with a bow and ready for you to explore and fall in love with.
Cologne itself also has plenty to keep visitors busy away from the markets, with museums, a cable car and a zoo to fill your free time with.
Cologne Christmas markets: 27th November – 23rd December 2017.
One of the most beautiful cities in the world any time of the year, Prague is a twinkling magical wonderland during Advent. The views I saw online of the large markets at the picturesque Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square are among my earliest memories of my initial desire to experience a European Christmas market. There are smaller markets around the City, all selling things such as ornaments, hats, gloves and scarves, glassware, ceramics, scented candles, jewellery, embroidered lace and dolls, from brightly decorated wooden huts.
Prague Christmas markets: 2nd December 2017 – 6th January 2018, open every day including Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
Austrian markets possess a similar appeal to German ones for me due to the associated history and traditions. Most well-known Austrian markets are in Vienna, Salzburg and Innsbruck, and it was tough to decide between the slightly quainter beauty of Innsbruck or the very slightly more commercial and larger Salzburg. Both being so close to The Alps, they certainly offered the views and feel I was looking for.
The Christmas market on Cathedral Square dates back to 1491, making it the oldest in Salzburg. With the Fortress sitting high above the city and the Cathedral serving as a magnificent backdrop, Salzburg truly appears to have come straight from a fairy-tale. Add in the fragrance of baked apples, incense and candyfloss and you have a fully immersive scene of pure perfection.
Salzburg has a varied social and cultural Christmas programme, with the Advent Brass Concert as a highlight, and plenty of things like processions and exhibitions going on too.
And if that’s not all Christmassy enough for you, don’t forget that this city is the birthplace of the world’s most famous Christmas carol, ‘Silent Night’! Palaces, castles, Cathedrals, a zoo, and Sound of Music and Bavarian tours into the mountains, plus plenty of traditional pit-stops for a cheeky stein or two, ensure that there is always plenty to do, see (and consume!) in Salzburg.
Salzburg Christmas markets: (mostly) 23rd November – 26th December 2017.
Aside from the above (and potential Christmas market choices for me for next year), I was almost tempted by:
Bruges: 24th November 2017 – 1st January 2018
Copenhagen: 19th November – 31st December 2017 (Tivoli Gardens)
Strasbourg: 24th November – 24th December 2017
Zagreb: Often voted ‘Best Christmas Market’ - 2nd December 2017 – 7th January 2018
My ultimate choice
Salzburg! it ticked all of my boxes, offering that magical ‘winter wonderland’ vibe, steeped in culture and history, intrinsic links to Christmas and plenty to do and see. And the potential for snow (and lederhosen!)
What I’ve booked:
- 3 nights hotel in the heart of Salzburg, with breakfast.
- British Airways flights: London Gatwick to Salzburg, and return flight Salzburg to Heathrow. Changing the return flight saved me £18 on the original quote and allowed me almost another full day in the city.
- 1 night hotel close to Gatwick before flying out.
- Return to London via Heathrow Express. This is often an expensive option, but easily the quickest and most comfortable way to get back into the City at 15 to 20 mins (and particularly after a long flight.) If you have the time and option to book in advance, prices are distinctly cheaper. I’ve booked their 90 Day Advance Express Saver (Week Day) Single which allows travel at any time on the chosen day (including peak). This was £12.10 which is a hefty saving on the usual £22 (off peak) or £25 (peak) I’d pay if I turned up and bought it on the day.
But if you begrudge paying that there are cheaper alternatives, including the Tube.
Total cost: £303 per person
Just plenty of spending money to factor in…
Watch out for my post-holiday update in December!