In the past, Europe was the go-to destination for Christmas markets. Wooden cabins in Germany overflowed with gluhwein, towers of panettone filled Italian Alpine chalets and French traders were the kings of handmade crafts.
But savvy stallholders in the UK and Ireland now offer just as many great treats. In fact, our markets are now so good, many sellers from overseas have chosen to temporarily set up shop on our soils for the festive season.
Choosing to Christmas shop closer to home is smart, sustainable and it’ll save you money. And with a number of great value lodges and holiday homes still available, it’s possible to transform the experience into a joyous mini break without having to be a Scrooge.
Best for… historic surroundings
St Nicholas Fair, York
November 16 – December 22
Expect a double dose of festive cheer at York’s St Nicholas Fair, which celebrates its 30th edition this season. Weave through more than 75 Alpine chalets selling handmade crafts and street food in Parliament Street and St Sampson’s Square, or hop online to make purchases if you can’t make it to the event. Travel back in time at York Mansion House, the official residence of the Lord Mayor of York, where children can meet a Santa from the 1800s, while parents play parlour games. Visit visityork.org/christmas.
Stay: Crabtree & Crabtree offer a three-night stay at six-person holiday home Number 109, in the centre of the historic city, from £410. Visit crabtreeandcrabree.com.
Best for… foodies
Padstow Christmas Festival, Cornwall
What do you give the person who has everything? An edible present is a guaranteed hit – after all, you can never have enough food (even at Christmas). Few places offer up as many tasty treats as the West Country’s top culinary town, Padstow, where more than 100 artisans will be selling their products as part of a weekend festival, featuring cooking demonstrations and taster sessions. The line-up for this year’s not-for-profit event includes appearances from Cornish food heroes Rick Stein, Paul Ainsworth and Emily Scott, along with national chef A-listers such as Valentine Warner, Matt Tebbutt and Michael Caines.
At Sharp’s Solar Wave Silent Bistro, 60 guests are invited to pop on a pair of headphones to hear a selection of specially selected sounds and watch chefs cook bitesize dishes, while Sharp’s expert beer sommelier Ed Hughes pairs the dishes with the brewery’s award-winning portfolio of beers. Visit padstowchristmasfestival.co.uk.
Stay: Lovat Parks offers a four-night break in a two-bedroom holiday home (sleeping six) at Padstow Holiday Village, a 20-minute walk from the town centre, from £324. Visit lovatparks.com.
Best for… a night out
Gunwharf Quays Christmas Village, Portsmouth
November 11 – December 31
Watch twinkling lights reflected in the waterfront at one of the south coast’s top seasonal attractions. Gunwharf Quays shopping plaza in Portsmouth will be transformed into a gifting wonderland with stalls, games and themed bars. New for this year are two Bavarian-style curling lanes, giving first timers a chance to dabble in the popular Winter Olympic sport. Snack on sizzling German bratwursts while snaking through chalets and take a spin on a 22metre-high observation wheel illuminated at night. When temperatures drop, snuggle into an igloo-inspired seating area to sip on mulled wine or sample a variety of imported beers at the Alpine Lodge Bar.
Stay: Holiday Inn Express at the heart of Gunwharf Quays, or at luxury serviced apartments Gunwharf Quays Apartments. Doubles from £90 with breakfast. Visit hiexpress.com.
Best for… grandeur
Burghley Christmas Fair, Stamford
Although this Christmas market charges an entry fee, it’s well worth the price – especially as a portion of the profits are donated to charity. More than 150 stalls will be spread across the atmospheric grounds of Elizabethan stately home Burghley House, set in gardens designed by famous landscaper Capability Brown. A Victorian carousel and towering Christmas trees create a nostalgic setting, guaranteed to ignite a festive spark regardless of the weather – and snowfall (of sorts) is almost guaranteed.
Along with luxury gifts, expect to find handmade decorations, winter clothing and homewares, with late night shopping available on Thursday and Friday until 8pm. Timed ticket slots must be booked in advance (£10 adults, £5 children 3-15 years). Visit burghley.co.uk.
Stay: Close to Burghley parkland, The Bull and Swan is a pub with rooms named after some of the members of The Honourable Order of Little Bedlam, a 17th-century gentlemen’s drinking club which met at Burghley House. Doubles from £99 with breakfast. Visit hillbrookehotels.co.uk.
Best for… family fun
Belfast Christmas Market, Northern Ireland
November 18 – December 22
Held within the grounds of Belfast City Hall at Donegall Square, one of Ireland’s longest Christmas markets is now in its 18th year. Although rooted in Irish tradition, the atmosphere is international, with more than 100 stallholders representing over 30 countries. Tuck into Belgian chocolates, hog roasts, crepes and a ‘hug in a mug’ mulled wine from Germany’s award winning Kochem vineyard. Between shopping and snacking, ride a vintage helter-skelter, jump aboard a Santa train and zoom down a large snow-slide. After a trip to Santa’s grotto, finish the day with live music at Lavery’s traditional Irish bar.
Stay: Opened in October, eco hometel room2 Belfast is a seven-minute walk from the market and has doubles from £130 per night with breakfast. Visit room2.com/belfast.
Best for… entertainment
Waterford Winterval, Republic of Ireland
November 17 – December 23
Taking over the streets of Ireland’s oldest city, Waterford Winterval festival is an extravaganza of light shows, circus acts, immersive theatre performances and magical happenings. To sample the many shopping and food stalls, either explore by foot or take a ride on the Winterval Express train, which weaves through all the festive destinations in the city.
A stand-out show for this year is an adaptation of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by CS Lewis, featuring fire, aerial and acrobatic performances (€14 adults, €12 children). Follow a band of merry elves to find Santa’s Gingerbread House decorated in candy canes, where every child receives a gift (children €25). Visit winterval.ie.
Stay: The family-run Granville Hotel, a 10-minute walk from the Winterval site, has doubles from £96 with breakfast. Visit granvillehotel.ie/en.