The Christmas markets in the north of Europe tend to get all the attention over the holiday season, but there are plenty of fantastic markets elsewhere that provide plenty of sparkle – and, most importantly to us sun-deprived Brits, balmy temperatures! Yes, it’s nice to wrap up cosily and sip mulled wine, but we can promise you it’s even nicer to shrug off the woollies and browse the Christmas stalls in the sunshine. We’ve picked our top 5 alternative Christmas markets that offer a world of different holiday traditions. Fancy seeing Santa roll up in a Bentley? Head to Dubai! Want to watch the kids beat a log until it ‘poops’ sweets? Barcelona is for you! Looking for some unusual crafts to fill the Christmas stockings this year? Then head to Venice or Malta! Happy holidays, everyone!
We all know that Dubai is a world-class destination for shopping at any time of year, but Christmas is really special. This city of a thousand shopping malls goes nuts for Christmas, with lights, trees, special events, giveaways, markets, a gigantic gingerbread house and much, much more. There are several winter markets that will appeal, including a very glitzy affair at the St Regis which features a daily appearance by Santa in a Bentley, no less! Other extravagant Christmas frolics include the souk festival at Madinat Jumeirah, which features a North Pole train, ice rink and bunjee-jumping to go with its stalls piled high with gifts and decorations.
The Fira de Santa Llúcia is a Christmas fair that dates back to the late 18th century and takes place in front of the enormous cathedral in the heart of Barcelona’s atmospheric Gothic Quarter. Browse through stalls laden with handmade crafts and Christmas decorations and check out the amazing range of nativity scene figurines. Most famous of these is the caganer (the ‘crapper’): the classic figure depicts a Catalan peasant, wearing his red beret, squatting over his poo. Nowadays the figures are of all kinds of celebrities from football heroes like Lionel Messi to famous singers like Shakira. There are lots of activities for kids, including a giant tio – a huge log with a painted smiling face and a Catalan beret, that kids hit with sticks until it ‘poops’ sweets and toys
Madrid’s beautiful 400-year-old main square, the Plaza Mayor, is the setting for the city’s atmospheric Christmas market. Booths and stalls sell a huge choice of handmade gifts and crafts, lots of Christmas turrón (delicious Spanish nougat, that comes in a dazzling variety of flavours), along with the nativity scene figures that adorn every Spanish home over the Christmas season. December 28th is the ‘Day of the Innocents’, the Spanish equivalent of April Fool’s Day, so you’ll also find stalls with gag gifts and plenty of ideas for jokes and pranks. There are more markets across the city, including an artisan market on the Plaza de España, and a design market in the Matadero cultural centre.
Venice is a magical city at any time of year, but at Christmas, with the twinkling lights reflecting in the canals, it is even more so. The biggest Christmas market held is held along the Strada Nuova, where you can browse through stalls selling everything from baubles made of Murano glass to the famous Venetian masks and a host of other local arts and crafts. You’ll also find stalls selling typical Christmas goodies, such as mandorlato (nougat), pandoro (a buttery cake), or panettone (cake with raisons and candied peel). If you’re travelling with kids, there’s a popular skating rink on the Campo San Polo.
Don’t miss the wonderful Christmas market held in early December in Valletta, the Maltese capital. Dozens of stalls sell a huge choice of gorgeous, handmade gifts, from jewellery to woodwork, and from candles to ceramics. The stalls are arranged just below the vast walls that encircle this beautiful and historic city, and you’re sure to find all kinds of unusual Christmas gifts! There is another popular Christmas market that runs for most of December in Sliema, which has scores of booths selling a wide range of Christmas decorations, along with arts and crafts. But perhaps the prettiest and most atmospheric of them all is the Natalis Notabilis Christmas fair held in Rabat, where the ancient, narrow streets are hung with fairy lights and filled with stalls selling gifts, traditional food and wine. Try a cup of imbuljuta, a creamy drink made with chestnuts and spices, which is traditionally served at Christmas.