Tripping the lights fantastic

If you have ever considered a winter Christmas, Joanne O’Conner has come up with the best places to spark your festive spirit, from a bedecked Zagreb to a twinkling Turin.

Photos: Getty Images
Photos: Getty Images
Christmas decorations in Helsinki, Finland

With an ice-skating rink, a huge ferris wheel and an attractive Christmas market (December 7-January 6), Ghent offers no shortage of opportunities to get into the Christmas spirit. But beyond the baubles and twinkly lights, there’s plenty to keep winter visitors to this Finnish city happy, from browsing the bric-a-brac stalls of the Bij Sint-Jacobs flea market to hanging out with the hipsters at the Holy Food Market, a cocktail bar and food hall in the beautiful 17th century Baudelo Chapel.

Where to stay: 1898 The Post is a cosy and cosseting boutique hotel in a former post office building. Doubles from $NZ295 (zannierhotels.com)

Zagreb, Croatia

The Croatian capital takes the build-up to Christmas seriously, with elaborate street decorations, outdoor concerts and a traditional Christmas market which is regularly voted one of the best in Europe. Most of the action is centred on Ban Josip Jelacic Square and European Square, which have market stalls and live music, and Zrinjevac Park where the trees are hung with lanterns and wooden huts serve mulled wine and strukli (warm pastries stuffed with soft cheese). But if you want to avoid the festive clamour, simply duck down one of the city’s side streets to find a range of vintage stores, vinyl record shops and quirky one-offs such as Sto citas/Sapunoteka (Gunduliceva ul. 11), a secondhand bookshop-cum-natural cosmetics store selling products handmade from Adriatic olive oil and herbs. Or head east to Zagreb’s burgeoning design district of Marticeva, where studios and pop-up shops in former industrial spaces showcase the work of local artists and designers.

Where to stay: Hotel President Pantovcak has light, spacious bedrooms overlooking gardens. Doubles from $NZ143 (president-zagreb.com). For more information see adventzagreb.com

Turin, Italy

Turin brightens up the dark nights of winter with the Luci d’Artista, a series of contemporary light installations designed by local and international artists. If Christmas shopping is on the agenda, the city has something for all budgets, from the vintage and secondhand bargains of the Balon flea market (Saturdays) to the designer labels on the elegant Via Roma. For a gift that is uniquely Torinese, head to the ever-popular Juventus merchandise store on Via Garibaldi, or to Venchi, for mouth-watering chocolates from one of Turin’s most venerated brands. Warm up with a bicerin — the local concoction of espresso, hot chocolate and milk — in one of the city’s many Belle Epoque cafes.

Where to stay: Piazza Vittorio Suites are smart, contemporary apartments in a 19th-century building on a beautiful square. From $NZ110 a night (torinosuites.com)

Helsinki, Finland

Helsinki must be the only city in the world with a Christmas market that comes with its own sauna (December 1-22). But with winter temperatures barely nudging zero, the free blast of heat offers welcome respite from the Baltic chill. Helsinki is Europe’s unofficial design capital, so you can expect a superior level of merchandise from the Christmas stalls dotted around Senate Square: himmeli ornaments (geometric mobiles made of straw), pine and birch tar candles, carved wooden kuksa mugs and contemporary jewellery. The food market at the Old Market Hall is a great place to pick up Lappish delicacies, seasonal berries and jams. No trip to Helsinki, come rain, shine or snow, would be complete without a visit to the Allas Sea Pool. Its complex of outdoor pools (two of which are heated) and saunas is open year-round.

Where to stay: Hotel F6 is a friendly boutique hotel a short stroll from the Market Square. Doubles from $NZ405 (hotelf6.fi)

Malaga, Spain

Northern Europe doesn’t have a monopoly on festive cheer, so if you want to combine Christmas shopping with winter sun, head to Malaga. Start your day in true malagueno style with churros and chocolate at the Casa Aranda (Calle Herreria del Rey) before diving into the Atarazanas food market for edible souvenirs such as Andalucian cane honey, goat’s cheese and extra virgin olive oil. In the afternoon, take your pick of the city’s cultural venues— the Picasso Museum, Pompidou Centre, the Malaga Museum or the Russian Museum. Then head to Calle Marques de Larios, the main shopping drag, at dusk when the Christmas lights are switched on: the spectacle attracts visitors from all over Spain.

Where to stay: Room Mate Larios is a bold design hotel with a lively bar and a great location right on Calle Marques de Larios. Doubles from $NZ143 (room-matehotels.com)

Colmar, France

With its wonky, half-timbered houses and narrow lanes, Colmar looks like the sort of place you might see on the front of a Christmas card. This canal-side town in the heart of Alsace has a popular Christmas market which takes over the old town (until December 30). There’s a wooden carousel and animated nativity scene, stalls selling Alsatian specialties such as freshly baked pretzels and berawecka (spiced buns flavoured with fruit and nuts), and a craft and antiques market in the medieval Koifhus (customs house). If it all gets too much, take a moment to contemplate the true meaning of Christmas in front of the Isenheim Altarpiece, a Gothic masterpiece depicting the Redemption of Christ, on display in the chapel of the Musee Unterlinden.

Where to stay: James Boutique Hotel is a contemporary bolthole a two-minute walk from the old town. Doubles from $NZ182 (james-hotel.com)

Lecce, Italy

The beautiful town of Lecce, sitting on the heel of Italy’s boot, is at its most appealing in winter, when the tourist crowds thin out, the Baroque cathedrals and piazzas are beautifully lit and craft fairs and markets pop up in unexpected corners. Don’t miss the Fiera dei Pupi (puppet fair), held every December at the Ex Convento dei Teatini, a former monastery where you can admire nativity scenes painstakingly crafted from papier-mache. Good buys include ceramic and terracotta homewares, and gourmet treats such as almond-stuffed figs and fennel-flavoured taralli biscuits. Southern Italy’s cucina povera comes into its own in winter with rabbit stews, roast lamb, chestnuts and the red wines of Salento featuring heavily on menus. If you’re visiting in the week before Christmas or the first week of January, look out for the living nativity scenes (presepe vivente) which this region is famous for.

Where to stay: Risorgimento Resort, next to the town’s Roman amphitheatre, is Lecce’s most luxurious retreat. Doubles from  $NZ239 per night, with Essential Italy (essentialitaly.co.uk)

Wrocaw, Poland

Wrocaw’s old town sparkles in winter, with huge Christmas trees, illuminated fountains and a Christmas market selling gifts, mulled wine and oscypek (grilled sheep’s cheese, with cranberry sauce). Get a bird’s-eye view of the Christmas lights from the observation deck at the top of the Cathedral of St John the Baptist, or check out the programme of carol concerts and festive recitals at the National Forum of Music, Wrocaw’s world-class new music venue. The city is great value if you’re looking to buy some last-minute gifts. Good buys include colourful hand-painted pottery from the town of Bolesawiec, west of Wrocaw, on sale at Vena (Rynek 4) and film and propaganda posters from the Polish Poster Gallery (ul. Sw. Mikoaja 54/55).

Where to stay: Hotel Puro has sleek, stylish rooms. Doubles from $NZ92 (purohotel.pl)

Aarhus, Denmark

Copenhagen grabs all the limelight, but Denmark’s second city, Aarhus, can hold its own when it comes to shopping, culture, eating out and the obligatory dose of hygge. Head to the Latin Quarter for independent boutiques, cosy cafes and a charming Christmas market. Shop for Scandi homeware and fashion on Stroget, the city’s main shopping street, before heading to the rooftop of the historic Salling Department store (Sndergade 27), for a glass of mulled wine with panoramic views of the city, lit up for Christmas. And if that doesn’t get you in the festive mood, the giant Christmas tree — the largest in Denmark — carol singers and Danish food market at the Tivoli Friheden amusement park surely will.

Where to stay: Hotel Scandic The Mayor has simple but stylish rooms in the city centre from $NZ211 (scandichotels.com)

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