Steaming mugs of mulled wine, outdoor ice rinks, festive markets - Europe does Christmas city breaks perfectly. But, if you’re looking for a new luxury European experience this year, somewhere off the usual festive tourist trails, then where should you head to?
Why not try one of these five destinations? They are all lesser known as festive hotspots, yet have natural Christmas spirit in gorgeous abundance.
While Prague takes a lot of the stag party masses, Brno, the Czech Republic’s second-largest city, is free to relax in a quieter sort of magic.
Baroque palaces and pretty, pastel-coloured buildings look over town squares and winding, cobbled streets, which at Christmas are filled with festive markets and twinkly lights. The Vegetable Market has all of the above, as well as an underground labyrinth of Medieval passages to explore. Once used as wine cellars by the city’s merchants, they bring to life Brno’s gastronomic and colourful history. Nearby is the Reduta theatre, where an 11-year-old Mozart gave his first concert in December 1767. It is the oldest theatre in central Europe but underwent an award-winning revamp in 2005. Now run by the National Theatre Brno, it’s the perfect place to catch a festive show.
There’s something about a city’s long and colourful history that adds to the festive feels. Perhaps it’s the soul it brings, or the magic created by folklore – whatever it is, Marseille has it in abundance. This port city in the south of France has a history that stretches back to Ancient Greece and all the festive traditions that go with it. The mythical Santons Fair runs throughout December and pays homage to the age-old local craft of creating little nativity figurines
Locals take part in a procession down the Canebière to the sound of the tambourine, before santon makers (the santonniers) display their figurines in the Old Port. Of course, this is all accompanied by a myriad of French foodie stalls serving up delicious goodies. There is also the obligatory Christmas market in the Old Port and the adjoining narrow streets, which are bustling at this time of year. Enjoy a mulled wine as you wander before settling down for dinner in a cosy bistro.
Beautiful Syracuse sits on the Ionian coast of Sicily. This Medieval city, resplendent in the summer months with is terracotta-coloured buildings, pavement cafes and citrus groves is equally glorious in the winter. Thanks to rich traditions and that Italian flair for amazing food and great parties, it turns into a festive wonderland, with all of the twinkling lights and Christmas magic that we love. The celebrations start on December 13th, the day of Santa Lucia, who is the patron saint of the city. There are processions through the streets, singing, markets, and plenty of cuccia - a rich dessert made with ricotta, wheat, chocolate and oranges. Alongside this, the city’s bagpipe players, known as the ciaramiddari, play throughout December, performing the nine stories of the nativity at venues around the city. This historic instrument, which dates back to Syracuse’s mythic past, creates a haunting, spiritual sound that can make you feel like you are travelling through the centuries.
When it comes to the food (and everything in Italy comes down to the food) fried stockfish served with pipi sicchi, or dried pepper, is a Christmas speciality. Otherwise indulge in hearty bowls of cavateddi with tomato sauce, and mpanata, which is a focaccia filled with ricotta, potatoes, spinach and tomatoes. It is rich, deep in flavour, and big in carbs - all the good things.
Valletta manages to encapsulate all of Christmas – from historic, gilded splendour, to the artisan markets, and the all bells and whistles Christmas fairground. This Baroque, fortress city (a UNESCO World Heritage site) has quirky, towering townhouses, each with brightly coloured balconies, that set it apart from other luxury city break destinations. The famous Maltese weather means that December temperatures range between 16 to 20 degrees, and the historic old streets and town squares are gorgeously decorated with lights and decorations. There is often lots of Christmas carolling and street performances to enjoy too.
Head to the landmark St John's Co-Cathedral for a Christmas service and take in the splendour of the artworks, ornate carvings and gilded walls. There are even a couple of Caravaggios to spot. Then head to Fairyland, where the lights dazzle and the fairground rides whirl. Pose for photographs on the magical carousel, pull on your ice skates and take a few laps of the outdoor rink, and then check in with Father Christmas himself at his grotto.
People in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana take Christmas pretty seriously. Twinkling lights adorn the trees, buildings and bridges. They shine from people’s windows, hang above you in the streets and city squares, and the old lantern-style streetlamps help to transport visitors to a festive wonderland. Then there are the markets, and for this Lilliputian city (it is one of the smallest European capitals) there are a lot of them. Breg, Prešeren, Pogačar and Kongresni trg squares all have stalls to browse, where you can buy local delicacies and warming mulled wines. Then head along to either Cankarjevo, Gallusovo or Petkovškovo embankments, for even more.
One of the city’s ancient traditions, dating back to the 17th Century, is the straw Christmas nativity scene with life-sized figures, which you can find down on the Gallus Embankment. Then there are the organ grinders who wear historical costumes and perform traditional Slovenian folk songs on the city’s streets. It’s the pure Christmas abundance, perfect for awakening that childish festive excitement and creating lifelong memories.
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