Illuminated streets, the scent of vin chaud and spiced breads, regional specialities of every sort. Nobody does markets quite like the French and most of the French Christmas markets run on past the 25th of December, keeping the magical spirit alive until the end of the month at various beautiful locations in this vast country.
The city centre of the of South-West Capital gets a very alluring take-over of Christmas cheer each year, drawing crowds of 300,000 from far and wide to its famous Christmas market. The open-air ice rink on Place Pey Berland has been a major highlight for several years and the Allées de Tourny is transformed into a Christmas paradise, with the impressive Grand Théâtre forming a regal background. Amongst the 150 vendors, there is not shortage of traditional artisan stalls of every description that will delight, as well as the tonnes of local specialities on offer for sampling and buying, such as foie gras and confit de canard. The programme of entertainment is comprehensive with everything from petting zoos to folk singers. It’s one of the newer markets, having been around for 20 years but is as well-established as you could imagine and runs from November 29th to December 29th.
Another relatively recent addition to the Christmas market scene (started in 1998), Amiens in the north-east of France punches well above its weight in terms of the size of its Christmas market. More than a million visitors come to sample the wares at Amiens from November 22nd to December 29th. 130 wooden chalets, the big wheel, concerts, the village of automated models, the colourful cathedral, and various other forms of entertinament make this Christmas market the largest in the Nord.
Lille embraces its place in France as the capital of the north and puts on a Christmas Market that is more carnival than carols-singing. On the go since 1989, the market is growing every year in line with the rise in popularity of Christmas markets in France throughout the 1990s and attracts almost as many visitors now from the other side of the Belgian and German borders. The market has 80 timber chalets bedecked with fake snow and selling a wide range of local treasures and runs from the 20th of November to the 30th of December.
La Capital de Noël is how Strasbourg describes its famous Christmas market in this delightful Alsatian city where the Christmas market centres around its magnificent cathedral. It’s one of the oldest Christmas markets in the country is this very Germanic-flavoured corner of France, claiming to have been going every Christmas since 1570. It’s one of Europe’s largest Christmas market too, with 300 chalets spread out over 11 different zones in the city centre. This year, a Croatian village has been set up to honour the EU’s latest member but in truth, the whole world feels like it just got Christmassed if you find yourself in the home of the European Parliament between the dates of November 29th and December 30th this year. A recent poll by European Best Destinations carried out amongst 59,000 people voted Strasbourg’s market the Best Christmas Market in Europe for 2013/2014.
5. La Défense
This is the largest Christmas market in the Greater Paris region, with 350 chalets in a great open public space on the outskirts of the French capital. Running from the 27th of November to the 28th of December, the location is not one that you’d readily associate with Christmas cheer. La Défense is a financial district of gleaming skyscrapers and banking headquarters of futuristic and intimidating scale. Its centrepiece is the famous Arche de la Défense – an out-sized and very modern take on the Arc de la Triomphe and its in the shadow of this monumental monument that the Christmas market takes place. The result is something that can look more like a commercial fair than a traditional market, but what it lacks in traditional charm, it more than makes up for in the wide range of choice and quality on offer. Plus, when the sun goes down, the gigantic skyscrapers twinkle to life all around you.
Located at Place Royale – a beautiful 18th/19th-century square that was pretty much completely rebuilt after WWII destruction – the Nantes Christmas market has a very cosy feel enclosed within the perfect dimensions of this square and characterised by colourful little houses complete with thick layers of synthetic snow. Nantes is a city that has forged itself a powerful tradition of unflinchingly embracing change full-on and this is often reflected in the themes, activities and produce of their Christmas market. The market now also spills out to the equally alluring Place du Commerce (where the central section was used for growing vegetables in the summer of 2012!) and in between the two, ensure to pass by Rue de la Fosse, where one of the most magical chocolatiers in all France is be found – Gautier Debotté.