Festive Cheer

From the oldest Christkindlesmarkt in Germany to decorated underground caves in the Netherlands, Christmas markets provide agents with the perfect seasonal sell, says Donna Richardson

I twirl around in a sea of festive heaven, my nostrils full of the scent of pine nuts and spiced glogg. Thousands of lights twinkle on the towering Christmas tree as I browse stalls selling tasty treats from Scandinavian saffron buns to roasted reindeer, a festive offering from indigenous Sami Herders from Lapland.

As I stroll through Gothenburg, a Swedish medieval town, my hands are kept warm by a steaming cup of mulled wine. It is a magical setting, with 18th-century buildings illuminated to create a ‘lane of light’. Although busy enough, this feels much more authentic than the amusement-led markets we get in the UK and I for one am more than happy not to see a big dipper in sight!

xmas prague
Prague’s Christmas market lights up the market square

Selling the Christmas dream

Yuletide breaks contain all the ingredients to be best-sellers. They offers a welcome distraction from the long winter slog and can be tailored to suit any kind of client. Couples can sip glühwein against the backdrop of Baroque palaces or enchanting castles, families will delight in exploring grottos and feeding reindeer and solo travellers can take in some of Europe’s most charming cities from the balcony of a luxury river cruise.

Almost all capital and major European cities now have Christmas markets that, typically, run from late November until Christmas Eve, but some run well into the new year.

From the notorious German markets of Berlin and Nuremberg’s Christkindlesmarkt, one of the oldest and most famous Christmas markets in the world, to Amsterdam, Prague, Kraków, Berlin, Vienna to Montreux, Riga, Bruges, Brussels, Zagreb, Ljubljana, and Lyon, the options are many.
However, there are a number of ‘lesser-known’ markets across Europe that are attracting visitors who want all the festive fun but without the crowds.

Agia Nast, Market Manager for Estonia Tourist Board, admits that being slightly ‘off the beaten track’ has played a part in the country getting more winter bookings this year. He said: “Especially since the pandemic, people are looking for something truly authentic. The arrival of new Michelin restaurants has attracted more foodies and the highlight of seeing our wonderful markets is working in Estonia’s favour.”

Tartu Christmas market in Estonia’s second biggest city features brightly lit glass pavilions, an ice ring set up on the Town Hall Square and sleigh rides.

xmas salzburg
Leger visits Salzburg in the snow

Perfect packages

Tour operators are now well versed in offering bespoke and off-the-shelf tours to European Christmas markets. And there is growing demand for unique and off-the- beaten track options.

The JG Travel Group’s Just Go! Holidays and National Holidays offer a range of festive coach breaks. Claire Dutton, Trade Sales Manager at JG Travel Group comments: “Every year, Christmas markets present a great selling opportunity for agents as they are so popular. Many people have visited the larger, well-known markets in Europe, but we offer places such as the Dutch town of Valkenburg, where the market is situated in an ancient network of tunnels and caves and is considered the largest and oldest underground Christmas market in Europe.”

Ashley Dellow, Leger Shearings Group’s Head of Retail Sales, agrees that an escorted tour is the best way to take in the festivities. He says: “A Christmas markets coach trip means no fighting for a parking space or a seat on busy public transport. It’s much more special to be whisked from market to market by coach with no travel logistics to worry about.”

His top tip: “Why not turn a Christmas markets’ short break into a longer holiday, building in other attractions? Shearings’ seven-day ‘Vienna and the Steam Train to Christmas’ tour includes not only the two famous Vienna Christmas markets but also a steam train ride, a Vienna city tour and time in the Vienna woods.”

Dellow also suggests selling all-inclusive Christmas markets holidays as ”the agent receives a commission on the full price and the customer gets a great deal”.

One such option is Shearings’ seven-day ‘All-Inclusive Salzburg and Innsbruck Christmas Markets’ tour, which includes meals and drinks. Prices start from £759pp.
Due to strong demand, Jet2holidays has already put its Winter 24/25 Christmas markets programme on sale, offering seven winter wonderlands from 10 UK airports.

Steve Heapy, CEO, Jet2.com and Jet2holidays, said: “As well as seeing strong demand from customers and independent travel agents booking a Christmas market break for this winter, we know that people want to book ahead and get their holidays locked in for next winter too.”

Classic Christmas market destinations such as Berlin, Budapest, Cologne, Copenhagen, Krakow, Prague and Vienna are in demand, a spokesperson from Jet2 told Selling Travel.

“Many customers are looking to enjoy a much-needed break during winter. With a Christmas market trip they can get away for just a few days, making it a cost-effective option for those looking to sprinkle some festive cheer into their Christmas.”

There’s also the option to tick off multiple Christmas markets by sailing the Rhine or the Danube on a river cruise.

“River cruises are a great way to experience a range of different markets whilst only unpacking once,” says Dutton. “We’ve just put a new Rhine Christmas market cruise on sale for 2024 in partnership with A-ROSA that includes a coach break option from selected pick-up points around England.”

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Cathedral in Mainz, Germany

Top five Christmas markets

Seventh heaven in Innsbruck: Austria’s Innsbruck has a strong Christmas market tradition and hosts seven every year. Expect a quintessential Christmas display with alpine flair and living tradition. The Old Town Christmas Market, which marks its 50th anniversary this year, is set before the famous Golden Roof and encircled by Medieval houses and a towering Christmas tree. innsbruck.info

Light up in Vienna: Agents looking for a family-friendly shopping break should consider Vienna Wiener Holidays has a four-day Christmas markets tour taking in the Christkindlmarkt on the Rathausplatz square in front of the town hall, which brings to life the magic of the advent. A thousand candles are lit and messages hung on the Tree of Hearts. You won’t find plastic toys here. newmarketholidays.co.uk

Sky high in Switzerland: One of the most unusual Christmas markets in Europe has to be Mount Pilaus in Switzerland. Perched above Lake Lucerne and open for one weekend in advent every year, this Christmas market is Europe’s highest. Ride the world’s steepest cogwheel railway to get to over 40 beautifully decorated market stalls before taking a sled or a snowbike down the mountain. pilatus.ch

Pretty in pink in Germany: In Munich there is a pink Christmas market which is aimed at the LGBTQ+ market. Visitors will find white tents and pink lights along with shows and stalls galore which are a hit not just with the gay community but with lots of families too. germany.travel

Historic charm in Poland: The captivating Christmas market of Kraków in southern Poland is set in the largest medieval square in Europe and against the backdrop of the twin-towered basilica of St Mary’s. The city has a well-preserved Jewish quarter and brims with culture. Pick up souvenirs in Cloth Hall and admire Wawel Castle. jet2holidays.com

All aboard in Germany: Ravenna in Germany is home to Hochschwarzwald’s Christmas village, tucked under the railway viaduct of the Devil’s Valley Railway in the Black Forest Highlands. A highlight is the light show that is projected on the viaduct after dark. germany.travel

xmas vienna
Vienna Christmas market is bursting with Christmas flavours

What’s new

Cruise to the markets

Newmarket Holidays has a six-day Rhine Christmas Markets River Cruise for December 2024, priced from £1,449pp. Starting in Cologne, the ship will sail to Strasbourg, for its 400-year-old Christmas market, before venturing to the wine producing town of Rudesheim. Clients can enjoy Mainz, known for its impressive cathedral and Gutenberg Museum, and finish in Germersheim and Speyer. newmarketholidays.co.uk

Just Go Holidays offers a similar Rhine Christmas Markets River Cruise on the AROSA Aqua, priced from £889pp and departing on December 9 2024. With stops including Cologne, Rudesheim, Mainz, Frankfurt and Koblenz, the cruise offers a combination of well-known and lesser-known markets. justgoholidays.com/agents 

Emerald Cruises has an eight-day Seasonal Secrets of the Douro sailing based on a December 2 2023 departure. Guests leave the city of Porto to sail the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Douro Valley, where they will enjoy vineyards and townships, explore the picturesque Portuguese city of Guimarães, Régua, Pinhão and the Baroque village of Lamego. emeraldcruises.co.uk

Go by Coach

New holiday provider Holiday Best offers affordable breaks across Europe, including a four-star, four-night trip to Prague to visit the Christmas Markets. The trip departs December 3, 2023 and is priced from £312pp, including flights from Heathrow. holidaybest.com

Leger Holidays has a four-day Festive Ghent, Brussels & Bruges Christmas Markets, priced from £449pp. The serpentine Christmas market in Ghent stretches along the Sint-Baafsplein, with 150 wooden huts packed with enticing seasonal products. leger.co.uk

Where to book it

Great Rail Journeys’ five-day Harz Mountain Christmas Markets tour starts from £995pp, based on a December 17 2023 departure from St Pancras International. The trip includes a steam-hauled journey about the Brocken Railway, time to browse Germany’s festive markets and a guided tour of UNESCO-listed Goslar. greatrail.com