Ditch the crowds this year and plan your holiday around a lesser-known Christmas market. You might find yourself taking a photo with a fluffy yeti, gazing at the Northern Lights or quaffing Italian wine amid Roman ruins. Of course, twinkling lights, fir trees and sugary treats are readily available, but these incredible Christmas markets are anything but traditional. Here are the top alternative festive markets in the world.
Boston, Massachusetts, US
New York might hold some of the most spectacular festive celebrations in the US, but it doesn’t have a monopoly on holiday cheer. Instead head to Boston, where winter markets start to pop up in late November. Embrace the festive spirit and visit the Boston Women’s Market Holiday Shop, where you can peruse a collection of artisanal products created by women-founded local businesses. Alternatively, head to Snowport at Boston Seaport to try curling and have your picture taken with Betty the Yeti, a giant, pink, fluffy yeti who jets in from the Himalaya to celebrate the festive period with Bostonians.
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Hotels we love at prices you love: The Whitney Hotel
The Whitney is the epitome of home from home – that is if your pad was interior design-magazine chic. Well-stocked bookshelves, golden lamps and elevators, and cosy living areas (complete with a fireplace) create a warm atmosphere ideal for couples and families. Step outside and you’ll find a dreamy garden that calls for endless conversations and al fresco lunches paired with fine wine.
If you’re looking for a classic European market without the crowds, then Riga, Latvia, should be your go-to destination. The medieval charm of the city blends with twinkling lights and wooden huts to create a fairytale atmosphere. There are several festive markets in the capital, with the most popular being the Riga Christmas Market at Doma laukums (Dome Square). Expect to find plenty of handicrafts – including Latvian wood candlesticks and hand-knitted winter gear – along with tasty treats such as roasted almonds and glazed gingerbread, best enjoyed with a cup of mulled wine. Don’t forget to take home a jar of Latvian honey.
Hotels we love at prices you love: Metropole Hotel By Semarah
Get a taste of the Unesco-protected Old Town with a stay at the Metropole Hotel. This grand property with gold-and-black decor, elaborate tapestries and elegant mosaics has been here since 1871, when it became the first hotel in Latvia to have hot running water in the rooms. Don’t skip breakfast; this is your chance to try some of the finest Latvian pastries in Riga.
Discover the six Christmas markets of Colmar in Alsace – a French winter wonderland of wooden chalets, illuminated alleys, and stalls selling Alsatian gingerbread and anise-flavoured springerle biscuits. The busiest of the six is at Place de l’Ancienne Douane, where 50 huts surround the Schwendi fountain. If you’re coming with kids, head to the children’s market in the Petite Venise quarter. There lies a carousel, a lot of toys and Santa’s letterbox.
Hotels we love at prices you love: James Boutique Hôtel
Gaze over chocolate-box Alsatian houses from the terrace of this stylish boutique. And if you get tired of the views, return to your spacious suite that echoes the elegance of a sophisticated Paris property – after all, the decor has been curated by renowned Parisian interior designer Caroline Tissier. The heavenly brioche at breakfast is a must.
Though relatively unknown, Tallinn Christmas Market is among the best festive markets in Europe. And it’s got a heritage to rival any. It’s said the first Christmas tree in Europe was put up in the centre of the Town Hall Square in 1441. You can see its modern relative there today. Surrounding it are cute stalls selling a variety of locally made festive goodies, plus three Christmas carousels for the kiddies. Seasonal gastronomic treats include sauerkraut and blood sausage, plus a selection of craft mulled wines created from Estonian berries.
Hotels we love at prices you love: Hotel St Petersbourg
Velvet sofas and plush carpets give way to hanging bubble chairs and quirky paintings, making Hotel St Petersbourg as luxurious as it is fun. Just steps from Tallinn Old Town and the imposing Toompea Castle, this hotel is not only close to the city highlights but also comes with lavish suites that may be reason enough to stay in. Play a round of pool, try local delicacies with a twist, and warm up at the sauna.
Georgians celebrate Christmas on 7 January, based on the Julian calendar, so that’s when Tbilisi goes into full-on festive mode. Christmas in Georgia doubles as the national New Year holiday, too, which means the festivities are twice as grand, especially in the capital. Impressive firework displays, endless feasting on Georgian delicacies and holiday markets are all part of the deal. Georgians also have a unique Christmas tree; the chichilaki is a leafless white “tree” made from dried branches, with “leaves” created from branch shavings. Head to the Christmas market at First Republic Square for street food and Georgian sweets or to listen to live music and to catch a puppet show.
Hotels we love at prices you love: Stamba Hotel
This boutique beauty sits in a former publishing house – much of the brutalist architecture still in tact – in the hip Vera district of Tbilisi. Design-forward rooms ooze contemporary chic; opt for the Aviator Signature Room for a golden, freestanding brass bathtub next to your bed. Head to the trendy Pink Bar for signature cocktails or Café Stamba for a modern take on Georgian cuisine and a coffee selection to rival any third-wave cafe.
Few places look more Christmassy than the Old Town of Sibiu in Romania. Right in the Grand Square lies a holiday market guaranteed to warm your heart – and body – with mulled wine, roasted chestnuts, and maybe even a gospel concert or a light show. Browse the 70 stalls for pottery, wooden children’s toys, and plenty of Romanian-Hungarian specialties such as cozonac (a sweet bread) or kürtőskalács (tube-shaped spit cakes). There’s also an ice rink, if you feel like a twirl.
Hotels we love at prices you love: Continental Forum Sibiu
There are two sides to the Continental Forum Sibiu: one that oozes old-world glamour through vintage-style rooms in a pale palette and one that’s ultra-modern and sleek – see the marble flooring and design chandeliers in the lobby. When you need to warm up, there’s a wellness centre with a sauna and jacuzzi, plus a relaxation lounge where you can sip cocktails or an energy-boosting tea. There’s also a ground-floor restaurant serving Balkan dishes, plus a day bar and cafe.
It doesn’t get much colder – or darker – than the Arctic in winter; so if you like your Christmases snowy, consider Tromsø, Norway. Dogsledding, cross-country skiing and snowball fighting are a fun way to spend the festive period. And though the city is in dark 24/7, the Northern Lights might bring a magical light – watch out for it between 6pm and midnight. There are several Christmas markets; head down to enjoy ingefærnøtter, a local ball-shaped gingerbread cookie.
Hotels we love at prices you love: Scandic Ishavshotel
This family-friendly hotel offers unparalleled quay views, ample lounge spaces and several activities for kids. Interconnecting rooms and play areas allow you to maintain privacy while keeping the little ones happy. The Roast Restaurant has a children’s menu; you can order grilled reindeer tenderloin with pickled onion and truffle mayonnaise or try the fresh, local seafood.
Aosta Valley, Italy
Squeezed between France and Switzerland, this small Italian region surrounded by snowy peaks has a Christmas market that looks quite different to the rest. The Marché Vert Noël is set by the Roman Theatre and the Arch of Augustus; the illuminated ruins adding grandeur to the festive ambience. Fifty huts sell Christmas decorations and handcrafted items, such as candles, soap and ceramics, along with mouth-watering pastries and wine from Aosta Valley. There’s a multimedia show projected onto one of the churches in December, and guided tours of Aosta are available.
Hotels we love at prices you love: NH Torino Lingotto Congress
If you want to make the most of northern Italy when visiting Aosta Valley, spend a couple of days in Turin. Here, you will find this picture-perfect hotel, which is housed in a former Fiat factory in the Lingotto district. A cute vintage car in the lobby will immediately draw you in, as will the many posters recounting the history of the place. You’ll also have free access to the Fiat test track on the roof, which now serves as a jogging circuit.
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