Schloss Hellbrunn, Austria
Christmas markets glitter all over Austria come advent, but few are as magical as Hellbrunner 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.
On the blustery Cornish coast, Padstow’s Christmas Festival is a cracker. Rick Stein, Paul Ainsworth and Nathan Outlaw are among a star-studded line-up of chefs giving 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. Fireworks sparkle in the harbour at 8:30pm on Friday.
Mt Pilatus, Switzerland
For novelty value and sensational Alpine views, ride to Europe’s highest Christmas market on the world’s steepest cogwheel railway, which has been trundling up to 2132m Mt 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 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 (6-8 Dec 2019) for antiques, poinsettias and festive food, while Good Jul at Gustav Adolfstorg (25 Nov-23 Dec 2019) sells fairtrade, recycled and vintage gifts. Slip on skates to twirl around the open-air ice rinks at Raoul Wallenberg and Folkets Park.
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.
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.
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. Alsatian gingerbread, spicy Bredele cookies, anise-flavoured Sprengerle biscuits and kirsch-laced Berawecka fruit cake make great foodie stocking fillers.