Germany may boast the biggest Christmas markets but if you prefer a little quirkiness to your festivities, head to neighbouring Holland. Here you’ll find classic scenes of ice skating straight out of a Pieter Bruegel painting, along with some intriguing twists – including a floating market and an underground market in a cave.
Now that the Eurostar runs direct to Amsterdam from London, you can connect more easily into the excellent Dutch rail network, avoiding taking to the winter roads and thereby able to guzzle the glühwein. All of the markets below are within a 2-3 hour train journey from Amsterdam. Some involve a local tram or a walk, but that should only sharpen your appetite for oliebollen (deep-friend Dutch doughnuts), the essence of comfort food.
Head south to the caves
First head south to the charming city of Maastricht (with its own Christmas market until January 1st); some 15 km to the east is the extraordinary Valkenburg market that extends into a cave (open until 23rd December). The cave systems of this region were used as a refuge in times of conflict; in Maastricht, they served to keep Rembrandt’s Night Watch safe during the Second World War.
Above ground between Maastricht and Valkenburg lies Château St. Gerlach, a Relais & Châteaux estate with a baroque church featuring splendid eighteenth-century frescoes. The church hosts a concert open to all on Boxing Day. On 16th December there is a free concert in the hotel itself; that same day you can also tour the 13-acre property. It adjoins a 150-acre nature reserve, and it is possible to walk through this wintery natural landscape all the way to the Valkenburg market (approx. 3 km).
Leiden’s floating world
The Hague will host a Royal Christmas Fair from 14th-23rd December in the historic centre of government, but for something unique, head to Leiden, ten minutes north by Intercity train. This venerable city is famed for its university, the nations’s oldest, and from 14th-25th December it hosts Holland’s only floating Christmas market.
Very much a local’s market, it offers the classic array of comforting treats such as hot chocolate and traditional gifts including children’s wooden toys; you’ll lose track of the number of times you hear the words ‘lekker’ (delicious) and ‘gezellig’ (cosy), and if the noise and crowds prove too much, you could always retreat to the adjacent Vooraf en Toe café, an equally ‘gezellig’ spot where you can savour the signature ginger tea with orange and lemon.
What the Dickens?
On 15th-16th December, around 1,000 costumed actors will be joined by Christmas carolers and musicians for an annual Dickens festival in the eastern city of Deventer. Founder Emmy Strik helps run a local antique shop and started the event 28 years ago with a small group of fellow Dickens lovers. She thought it might interest a few neighbours, and never expected that it would now attract over 125,000 people.
This same weekend (14th-16th December) sees Holland’s largest market take place in Dordrecht, a short train ride from Rotterdam’s Eurostar stop. Some 200 stands and numerous choirs line a 2.5 km route through Dordrecht’s ancient city centre and harbours. It gives a good sense of the riverine system here, which has not only served trade down the centuries but also regulates flooding risk in this delta and wetland region (ninety per cent of Rotterdam lies below sea level). Other features to note in Dordrecht include the medieval Grote Kerk (Great Church), and Voorstraat, Holland’s longest shopping street.
Your base in the capital
Museumplein in Amsterdam hosts a famous winter ice skating rink in the shadow of the Rijksmuseum. The popular ‘I Amsterdam’ sign here had to be removed due to the growing risk of collisions between selfie-takers and cyclists. From 14th-26th December you will find a winter village with market stalls.
Just 400m away is the Conservatorium hotel, an Amsterdam ‘through-the-wardrobe-to-Narnia’ experience. Behind the imposing brick entranceway, you tumble into a delightfully light and large lobby. The designers were tasked with retaining the old building – a former bank and music school – plus its courtyard, so they encased the courtyard in glass. The resulting mix of mercantile heritage, creativity, functional modernity and humour is quintessentially Dutch; the decorations aren’t bad either. Fall into bed after a day at the markets before heading back to London by train.