This is the last part of this Christmas series, I swear! It was supposed to be a short list when I started it out, but I’m telling you, Europe is an amazing place to be during the Advent and Christmas season. The markets, the decorations, THE FOOD – it’s just such a warm and inviting atmosphere where cities transform themselves into rustic, fairytale kingdoms! What more could you ask for? I’ve already been though Germany, UK, Switzerland, Belgium and Austria in my previous posts; today I’m just going to go through the final few recommendations I’ve researched. The list could go on and on and on, but I’m going to control myself and just mention a few to conclude this series!
If there’s one thing everyone should know about Finland, it’s that the Finnish Lapland is actually the real home of Santa Claus! That’s right! This place is the OFFICIAL home of the big, jolly man himself! So head on up to Rovaniemi, the capital Lapland and prepare yourself! You’re about to meet old St. Nick himself! Santa Claus’ original home lies in the mysterious and hidden Korvatunturi (“Ear Fell”) in Finnish Lapland. Since the exact location is a secret only known to a chosen few, Santa decided to establish an office in Rovaniemi in 1985 and the city received the status of the Official Hometown of Santa Claus in 2010. Once you reach Rovaniemi (you can usually do so via Helsinki through an internal flight), head on over to Santa Claus Village, which sits right on top of the arctic circle! Getting there is easy with the local bus number 8 leaving hourly from the city centre. The village itself is a pretty place, full of fun things to see and do. Apart from meeting Santa in person (he’s a real charmer and actually spoke a few words of Maltese to me when I visited!!!), you can also tour the on site Xmas market, opt for a reindeer ride around the complex, and even visit a nearby husky farm! You can even go husky sledging! Definitely recommend that one! The dogs are just the most adorable, energetic, bundles of fur, and you get to learn some of the husky sledging history, drink mulled wine by a large wooden stove, and even play with the dogs and puppies! ❤
Apart from the visit to Santa Claus Village, there are a bunch of other fun activities you could do whilst in Rovaniemi. These include Lapland tours with skidoos, winter walks through the snowy Lapland forests, Northern Light tours (catching a glimpse of this mysterious beauty is an awe-inspiring experience), and spending time at the sauna (a Finnish favorite), then jumping into an icy cold lake!!! First timers can get guided sessions on how to do the latter. Wouldn’t recommend trying it on your own the first time around, it is a true shock to the system, albeit an exhilarating one! Thanks to the abundance of snow in Finland, especially in the North, the Finns are experts in building with snow and ice. In Rovaniemi, you can sleep in a snow hotel or an igloo, get married in a snow chapel, build an igloo under expert guidance (and actually get to sleep in it!), dine in a snow restaurant and have a drink in an ice bar! This place is just a fun place to be in during the winter season, although it gets more special during Xmas of course.
Helsinki, the country’s capital is also a great festive season destination and although it might be less snowy than its Northern sister, this beautiful city still has much to offer to the festive traveller! The Christmas season begins when the lights are turned on along the traditional Christmas street Aleksanterinkatu. During the run-up to the holidays, shoppers flock to the Christmas markets throughout the city. The biggest Christmas markets are the Helsinki Christmas Market in Senate Square between the 3rd and 22nd December (this one I can personally recommend), the Women’s Christmas Fair at Wanha Satama in Katajanokka on 2–6 December, and Ornamo’s Design Christmas Market on 2–4 December. The Cable Factory’s Merikaapelihalli transforms into a huge Christmas market during the 9th to 11th December and 16th and 18th December and the Christmas festival Kaapelin joulu introduces products from over 100 artisans, designers and craftsmen, so if you’re into more artsy and quirky gifts, this definitely is the place to visit!
Don’t forget to get a taste of the Finn’s delicious gingerbread cookies during your stay! They are the locals’ favourite Christmas speciality! Also, have a nice, warm cup of “Glögi” for me if you’re visiting, this type of mulled wine mixed with spices like cardamon and cinnamon, is served with raisins and almonds and makes for the perfect Christmassy treat!
Another popular Christmas destination is the romantic and gothic Prague. This Czech capital is an ideal setting for a traditional looking Christmas! With its cobbled streets and plenty of colourful and intricate architecture, this place is beautiful all year round! Add the twinkling of Xmas lights, a variety of market stalls, decorations-a-plenty and the smell of pine, smoked sausage and mulled wine, and there you have it, a veritable winter wonderland! The old town is especially beautiful during this time of year, featuring the best markets around the Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square (they’re about a five-minute walk from each other). The Old Town Square Prague Christmas Market is the biggest and oldest, there’s a huge Xmas tree in the centre of the square as well as a live Bethlehem manger (with real life animals) and a performance stage for the Xmas theatricals. The main part of the Wenceslas Square Prague Christmas Market is located in the lower half of the square. This will have a smaller selection of market stalls, although still very attractive. The blacksmith is always popular in this part of the market, as are the drink stalls. There are more markets around, such as the Republic Square Prague Christmas Market and the Namesti Miru (Peace Square) Prague Christmas Market, so there’s quite a lot to see and buy, and of course, EAT whilst walking around the city.
If you would like to head indoors for a bite to eat, why not try out a more traditional setting by visiting an authentic brewery/hall/restaurant such as U Fleku! This place is amazing! Just a perfect place to get into the jolly Christmas spirit whilst socializing with new friends!
Recently, Croatia has been gaining tons of popularity within the tourism sector, and although this country is most often being marketed as a summer destination, with its pristine coastline and gorgeous beaches, things could not be further from the truth. Croatia has so much to offer during the winter season, and Zagreb, the capital city, is fast becoming a travellers’ Christmas favourite, promoting itself as a festive wonderland aiming to rival Europe’s most traditional Christmas destinations! Zagreb’s main square, Ban Josip Jelačić and the nearby Zrinjevac Park are transformed into a Xmas festival from the 28th November, featuring a diverse musical programme, dance events, and numerous market areas and stalls selling local delicacies including mulled wine, hearty sausages and cinnamon donuts. There’s also a traditional Christmas Fair in the streets surrounding the Jelačić Square, where the kiddies can take a ride in the Jolly Christmas Tram with Santa Claus and where the older members of the family can do a bit more souvenir shopping at the various huts available selling hand-made gifts, delicious food and a cup or two (or five) of hot mulled wine. A temporary ice rink is also set up during the holidays for those willing to give it a go!
Dubrovnik also has its own special festive atmosphere on offer during the Christmas season. The fortifications, are lined with thousands of twinkling lights and the seaside city set aglow with the spirit of Christmas. A fair is held within the beautiful atrium of the Convent of St. Claire and features traditional craftsmen displaying their handicrafts, Christmas ornaments, candles, toys, glass works, embroidery, ceramics and porcelain, all hand-made by the artists for the festive season. Traditional Christmas cookies and sweets, roasted candied almonds, candied orange peels, locally known as˝arancini˝, traditional Dubrovnik sweets like the quince cheese ˝kontonjata˝, and other delicacies are also specially prepared during this festive time for all to enjoy! With door to door carol singing, a gorgeous Christmas market and a festive warm glow throughout the city, Dubrovnik is definitely worth thinking about if you’re looking for someplace slightly different to celebrate the holidays this year.
Last but not least on the Christmas list is beautiful Poland! With ample cities to visit during the festive season, this gorgeous country is a Christmas lover’s delight! From medieval Krakow, to the seaport city of Gdansk, most of the cities of Poland sport an Old Town, and within these old towns is where you can find the real magic of Christmas! From food vendors selling sugared nuts, pierogi, mulled wine and pork knuckles braised in beer, to artisans showing off their hand-made gifts and baubles; if you like your Christmas shopping, Poland is a great place t be!
The buzz of a Krakow Christmas is best captured within the Old Town’s majestic Rynek Glowny (main square). Here you can find wooden stalls filling the large square selling ornaments, toys, Christmas candies, local pottery, knitwear, reindeer pelts and cut glass; all having an authentic Polish feel of course. Watch out for the beautiful, hand-made and painted, glass Christmas tree baubles at the market, they’re so colourful and intricately designed! A perfect souvenir for when you get back home! Also, check out a Christmas local craft tradition when in the city – the Szopki – popularly translated as “cribs,” but looking pretty much like colourful gingerbread houses — these pretty works of art represent Krakow’s oldest and most distinct custom! Initially used as a means to perform nativity plays tinged with social criticism, the szopki are nowadays more appreciated for their intricate appearance than for the puppet plays held within. They are especially pretty when lit up at night!
The markets in Wroclaw, Poland’s fourth largest city, are also a splendid affair, the most popular being once again within the old town centre – the Jarmark Bozonarodzeniowy Wraclow! During the festive season, the historic centre is illuminated and decorated with thousands of glittering lights. The market stalls fill the square, with products not only from Poland, but also from Germany, France, Lithuania and Latvia, where you will find all kinds of possible gifts and souvenirs including traditional jewellery, lamps, woodwork, leather, objects in amber and silver, candles and hand-made ornaments! A fairytale forest is set up for the littles ones, and musical performances are aplenty during the Advent and Christmas season.
Gdansk, Poland’s most important seaport, at the mouth of the Vistula river, has a beautiful old town, full of interesting and attractive buildings dating back to the Hanseatic League. Quaint markets line the old streets and Xmas lights twinkle along the narrow roads of the historic centre.
Warsaw, the capital, and largest city of Poland once again boasts many a Christmas market, with the most popular being held at the Old Town Market Square. During the festivities, Warsaw’s reconstructed historic district is bedecked in decorations and Christmas trees lighting up main thoroughfares. Little rustic wooden huts are spread along the square, from which vendors and artisans sell Polish treasures and trinkets, for all those searching for gifts or decorations to remember their visit by. An ice rink is set up in the square during Christmas for all those looking to get slightly more active, as are a few stages where singers and dancers can give festive performances, and keep the atmosphere jubilant. Another popular Christmas market also springs up in front of the Palace of Science and Culture. While this market isn’t as romantic and warm as that of the old town market, the Palace of Science and Culture offers plenty of space for shoppers to move around and vendors to place their storefronts. So this too is worth a visit if you’re looking for some quality hand-crafted souvenirs.
So this is it…. The final destination from my three-part Christmas special! As I said earlier, this list of festive destinations could just go on and on and on and on…. There are so many wonderful places I have not mentioned, which are sure to give any festive traveller tons of meaningful, Christmassy, twinkling memories. Europe is just such a special place to be during this time of the year. My advice is, get out there and see which place you like best! The most traditional of places such as Austria and Germany are sure to impress, as are the staple markets of the UK, and Prague. Even so, younger destinations such as Croatia, Bulgaria and Estonia are also gaining popularity within the travel market, with their more affordable budgets and authentic tradition and style. One thing is for sure, if you carry the Christmas spirit within, you’re sure to have a good time anywhere you visit!
Have you been to any of the place I’ve mentioned on the list? Which other Christmas destinations would you suggest visiting? I’d love to hear from you all and have a listen to your experiences and ideas! Please feel free to comment on the article, should you have your own pearls of wisdom to share! 😉
Until next time!