Christmas is a time of year when even the dreariest places erupt into a festive exuberance of fairy lights and good cheer.
But amongst the seasonal sparkle, there are some that twinkle even brighter. Here’s a roundup of my favorite European cities for a Christmas minibreak – if you can be persuaded to tear yourself away from Boggle and boxsets.
With its latticework of canals, beautiful 17th-century buildings, and concentration of enchanting shops, bars, and restaurants, Amsterdam deserves its own feature. It will get one in good time, let’s call this a preview.
Amsterdam is a dream all year round. But at Christmas, it reaches new heights of sparkly splendor.
Remember that Danish/Norwegian word ‘hygge’, that everyone was banging on about last year? The one that describes that ‘mmm’ feeling you get when huddled in a cosy bar on a wintery day, or buried under a fluffy blanket on a Sunday morning while rain hammers the window.
Well, the Dutch have a word for it too: ‘Gezellig’. And Christmas in Amsterdam is certainly gezellig.
Candle-lit, wood-paneled bruin cafés welcome you out of the cold with local beer and fried snacks. Shop windows throw pools of golden light onto cobbled streets. And everywhere the water shimmers with the glow of beautiful interiors reflected from elegant canal houses.
At Christmas, the canal belt, which fans out from the medieval center like an upsidedown conch shell, becomes ablaze with light sculptures. The Amsterdam Light Festival takes place every year and artists from around the world create beautiful, quirky and usually whimsical expressions in illuminated neon. The result is effective. The best way to see it is by boat. There’s plenty of cruises on offer, but if there’s a group of you, I recommend chartering a private boat, complete with bar, to take you around. Much more fun.
Of all the neighbourhoods, the Jordaan is particularly enchanting. It’s the old working-class area, which now teems with galleries, independent shops, and wonderful old bars. My favorite is Cafe Papeneiland, which dates back to 1642. It has an old stove surrounded by Delft tiles, fairy strung from the chandelier, a jovial cluster of locals knocking back anything from coffee and cake to genever and hard-boiled eggs.
If you’re there on a Saturday you’ll be able to roam around Noordermarkt, trying local cheeses and deliberating on whether or not to buy a vintage Burberry coat. Pop into Winkel43 for quite possibly the best apple pie you’ll ever taste.
From there you can spend happy few hours exploring the artisan shops of the 9 Streets before you go ice skating. Which you must do. Or at least go and drink a gluhwein and watch.
Every year in Museumplein there’s a huge ice rink complete with imitation canal bridge decked out in fairy lights. Slither and twirl to your heart’s content in front of the stunning backdrop of the Rijksmuseum. Reward yourself afterward with a hot drink and some poffertjes (mini sugar-dusted pancakes).
I can hardly talk about Christmas destinations without including Germany – the source of all things Christmassy.
Cologne was tragically flattened in the Second World War. The only things that survived were a few portions of the Old Town, and its cathedral, whose twin spires dominate the skyline. This staggering gothic masterpiece in dark grey stone was founded in 1248 and finally completed in the 1870s. This was largely thanks to the occupying Prussians in a bid to win favour with the local populace (who were missing the French).
Inside is a gilt-clad shrine housing various body parts apparently belonging to the Three Kings. Most impressive is the incredibly intricate St Agilulfus altar-piece of carved wood, which dates from 1520.
But naturally, if you’re in Cologne at Christmas, you’re here for Christmas markets and breweries.
There are about 25 Christmas markets in total, each packed with stalls selling handmade knick-knacks, bratwurst, and steaming mugs of feuerzangenbowle (mulled wine enlivened by flaming rum-soaked sugar lumps). The most picturesque Christmas market is in front of the Cathedral. When we were there a live brass band was oompah-pah-ing Christmas classics against a backdrop of gothic spires and twinkling Christmas trees. Heinzelmännchen was also worth a visit. It has an ice rink and fairytale log cabin from which to watch the skaters while nursing your feuerzangenbowle.
There’s even an LGBT Christmas market, where you can buy rainbow Christmas decorations from pink and purple chalets.
Warm up between markets in a brauhaus, of which Cologne has plenty. Each brews its own version of Kölsch, a fresh, light, and totally delicious blond beer only found in Cologne.
No matter how busy the bar, you’re greeted with staggering efficiency, and soon have a long, thin glass of cold beer in your hand. No sooner have you finished and another is plonked beside it. They’ll only stop if you place a beermat on the glass and beg for mercy.
I loved Peters Brauhaus with its stained glass ceiling and Früh am Dom for its macho grandeur. But there are so many to choose from. Keep yourself going with knuckles of boiled pork, sausage and sauerkraut, black pudding, piles of potatoes, and lashings of mustard all over everything.
This is another one for the festive bucket-list.
Like Amsterdam, Prague is a beautiful city all year round. But, in Christmas, it truly shines.
The Old Town Square is one of the most beautiful in Europe and has been the centre of Prague since the 10th Century. It’s surrounded by gingerbread houses, overshadowed by Gothic and Baroque churches and has a medieval astronomical clock which puts on quite a show every hour. The clock was installed back in 1410 and features a jerky display of mechanical figures, including the Apostles, and death. Every hour gathers quite a crowd.
While you wait for the clock to strike the hour, indulge mightily in the pleasures of the Christmas market. Old Prague ham, which roasts on a spit over a wood fire, is hard to miss and impossible to resist. Just beware the quantities. The price displayed is actually the price by the gram, and they’ll be sure to give you a hearty helping. So go hungry, or in large numbers.
Also delicious are the Bohemian spaetzle, a German-style noodle served with ham and pickled cabbage, or as an accompaniment to meat. And don’t miss the trdelník, a dough which is spiraled around a stick, toasted over hot coals and then dusted with a mix of sugar and walnuts.
For a sit-down meal, avoid the naff restaurants in the center. A bit of research will reward you ten-fold. We loved Čestr, a bright, modern place serving wonderful cuts of beef from a Czech breed called Čestr.
Any self-respecting Prague sightseer will make a pilgrimage to Charles bridge and onwards to Prague Castle, which dates back to the 9th Century. Tucked within its ancient walls you’ll find another Christmas market and the staggering cathedral of St. Vitus, which was founded in 1344.
Christmas concerts are performed in the beautiful Romanesque Basilica of St George. A wonderful experience. Just make sure you wrap up warm.
By then you’ll be about ready for a beer. Which is good, because Prague has beerhalls by the bucketload. Make a beeline for U zlatého tygra, U Vejvodů, or any others that take your fancy. And if you see chestnut beer on the menu, order it.
If you need a break from the beer and heavy food, Anonymous Bar is a hip antidote where you can order cocktails from a secret menu amongst Prague’s trendies.
And that’s it for this year.
Tell me about your favorite Christmas minibreak destinations in the comments below.