A guide to the best Christmas Destinations in Europe – Part Two
Living in Australia, Christmas usually consists of long days at the beach, barbecue dinners and family gatherings in the hot Summer sun. While this might sound appealing to most, the thought of sweltering away on a long, hot day is enough to send me running. So where did I run to? Straight to Europe to experience a cooler festive season. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that a made a return journey the following year! With Christmas just around the corner, it seems timely to share with you a few tips and tales in Part Two of my guide to the best European Christmas Destinations. If you missed Part One, you can view it here.
Prague – The New Years Eve Destination for Every Traveller
The historic and stunningly picturesque capital of the Czech Republic is like most cities in Europe, extravagantly decorated for the holiday season. The Old Town Square hosts the largest Christmas Markets in town, with all the usual characters; a giant Christmas tree, market stalls, and delicious foods. As you stroll through stalls lined with fairy lights, a sweet cinnamon smell fills the air. Follow your nose and you’ll find the famous Trdelník – A doughnut / churro hybrid curled into a cone, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, if that’s not quite enough sugar for you, fill it with ice-cream and dig in!
Make no mistake, Prague puts on a great show for Christmas, but I think you get the idea by now of what to expect for a traditional Christmas in a Europe (See Part One of my Christmas blog). What Prague does better than its European counterparts, is bring in the New Year with style. Prague has all the ingredients for a good party; arguably the best beer Europe (at hangover inducing low prices) and an infectious youthful energy drawing crowds in by the thousands to bring in the New Year with a bang!
Visitors and locals gather in the streets as dusk falls over the city, hoping to secure a good spot to enjoy the festivities. Forward thinkers will want to book a table well in advance at one of Prague’s many restaurants, who will often have special menu and drink packages for the night. Another popular option amongst tourists is to book a spot on a river cruise. The Vltava River runs right between Prague’s historic Old Town and the colossal Prague Castle, making a cruise the perfect choice for those who want an unhindered view of the festivities, without the crowds.
If you’re looking to really step it up a notch, the streets around the river bank and on the many ornate gothic bridges are where you want to be. Here you will be in the thick of the action, as the city morphs into a giant street party! Drinks flow endlessly and hand-held fireworks explode every few seconds, setting the sky ablaze in colourful showers of light. Yes, it is every bit as intense and reckless as it sounds to have thousands of “under the influence” people in crowded spaces handling fireworks; but that’s what makes it so amazing! We live in a society that constantly tightens the strings in the name of public safety, trying to ensure that everything runs to plan. The people of Prague remember too well what losing your autonomy means for your culture and thus continue to throw caution to the wind in the name of raucous celebration.
As much as I’d love to tell you I was among the fray, cider in one hand and sparking a lighter in the other, this was not the case. I opted for a quieter New Years Eve at the top of Petrin Hill; an expansive park set amongst the old medieval walls of the nearby Prague Castle with unmatched views of the sprawling city below. With a backpack full of Czech beers and cider, Josh and I made the short walk from our room at Lidner Prague Castle Hotel, to the Petrin Hill lookout. Joined by a small crowd of locals, we lapped up the incredible views of the city as the horizon continually flashed with bursts of colour, growing hazy as the smoke filled the air. As we waited for midnight to strike, some of our fellow on lookers unzipped their bag and pulled out their own stash of fireworks. We watched as they shot them deep into the night sky while the first dusting snow of our trip began to fall. In my eyes, the perfect way to spend New Years and one of my all-time favourite travel memories.
With so much to see and do, Prague is a one-stop seasonal holiday destination. However, just as it sounds amazing to you, be aware that many people will be equally amazed, resulting in the city being flooded with tourists during the New Year period. So be sure to plan accordingly and book ahead to avoid missing out!
Barcelona – For Christmas with a quirky twist
This vibrant hub of Spain’s North-Eastern quarter and capital of Catalunya, is a tourist’s dream! Barcelona is blessed with beautiful weather, scattered with landmarks including Gaudi’s spectacular creations and fosters a culture where food is at the very centre of society; Barcelona truly has something for every traveller.
One thing you’ll notice, is that Barca does things a little different when it comes to Christmas traditions. Spain is a historically devout catholic nation, but Catalunya has managed to interweave some of its own, more primitive traditions in with the typical catholic rigmarole.
Barcelona’s largest Christmas markets La Fira de Santa Llúcia are located in the Gothic Quarter, set infront of the towering backdrop of the Barcelona Cathedral. While strolling through the stalls, my first thought was, “where the hell is all the food!?” Food stalls and their delicious offerings had become my favourite part of Europe’s Christmas markets, and their absence was glaringly obvious! It seems that markets in Barcelona focus on trinkets, jewellery and handcrafted decorations, leaving the food to the many surrounding restaurants and tapas bars. Nativity scenes are a serious business, with many stalls stocking a wide range of scenery pieces and figurines to recreate a stunning rendition of your own.
Before you head out and explore the markets for yourself, you need to know about the unique Christmas traditions of Catalunya. There is a very strong theme flowing through a Catalonian Christmas, and that theme is poop! Yes, you read that right, and yes, it is as hilarious as it sounds!
One of the first things you’ll notice is the prolific El Caganer aka “The Crapper”. The Caganer is a small figurine of a man with his red beret on, pants down, with his brown comically swirled business on the ground below; this gesture is meant to be symbolic of the fertilisation of the holy ground. Traditionally the Caganer sports a red beret, white shirt and black pants. However, modern times have seen the Caganer take the form many of pop culture heroes and influential icons, with everyone from Yoda, to Donald Trump, available to become a special part of your Christmas ornament collection.
You won’t be able to walk a few steps in any Barcelona Christmas Market without spotting an adorable little log with legs, a cute smiling face and a bright red beret. This character is known as Tió de Nadal (or Caga Tió) which roughly translates to “Shit Log” – Yep, that’s poop themed tradition number two! (pun intended). Between the 8th – 23rd December, children of Barcelona shower their little log friend with love, offer him snacks and cover him with a blanket to keep him warm. However, on Christmas Eve things take quite a turn, when the children grab a stick and beat the log while singing the Cago Tió song:
Once the log has well and truly copped a beating, the children lift the blanket to find he has pooped out a pile of gifts and treats. Talk about excitement! All I can say is, this tradition is certainly more entertaining than leaving cookies and milk out for Santa!
During the Christmas season, the streets of Barcelona are particularly charming with decorations and lights strung up to illuminate every inch of the city. To experience the magic, Josh and I joined what seemed like a huge chunk of the city’s population to take an evening stroll along the pedestrian friendly La Rambla, starting at Barcelona Port and meandering our way toward Plaça de Catalunya.
The expansive Plaça de Catalunya is host to an impressive Christmas festival with a range of family-friendly activities. Amongst the crowds, you’ll find a detailed nativity scene and loads of entertainment for the children. The main attraction is a giant stage production complete with singing, dancing and fancy costumes. With my very basic comprehension of Spanish, I had absolutely no idea what was happening on that stage, so you can imagine my confusion when a giant mechanical ballet dancer made its way out and began its performance. While the message may have been lost on me, I have to admit that watching a giant dancing female C3PO is a Christmas tradition I certainly welcome!
If you still some energy left, continue your walk up to Gaudi’s famous Casa Batlló. In my opinion, this is one of those places you need to see in both daylight and after dark to get a full appreciation of its beauty. At Christmas time the Casa Batlló transforms into a winter wonderland! Inside the building fake snow falls all around you, and on the outer, you will notice an illuminated blanket of snow over the façade giving off a spectacular white glow!
Madrid – Christmas for the inner child
The capital and beating heart of Spain; Madrid is a melting pot of the distinctive cultures that combine to make this country. As with Barcelona, Christmas is an important and revered day for the people of Madrid, and as always, big cities, equal big celebrations!
We arrived on December 25th and were thrown straight into the chaos that is Christmas in Madrid. We wasted no time and headed for the famous Plaza Mayor, right in the thick of the action! The square was expansive, and flanked on all four sides by stately orange and red buildings. From children to the elderly, it seemed as though the entire city of Madrid had converged on this square to celebrate. Despite my initial hesitation, my grumbling tummy urged me to dive in and find something tasty to devour.
There were the usual rows of Christmas market stalls, selling mostly cheap plastic toys, clothes and a few carts offering deep fried foods, akin more to a Sunday flea market than the traditional markets I’d encountered elsewhere. Street performers were scattered throughout the square, drawing in large audiences with their unique routines. My personal favourite, can only be described as a rainbow, glittery bird with a kazoo. The performer hunched down low to the ground, gently bobbing and “squawking” to capture your attention. Once you throw a coin in its direction, it excitedly erupts into a flailing dance and wails on the kazoo. I enjoyed this little routine so much I dragged Josh back twice to toss this character a few more euro and laugh uncontrollably.
Puerta Del Sol, Madrid’s sprawling central public space was punctuated by a giant neon Christmas tree and the unending flow of wandering people. Making my way through the crowd it occurred to me that there really wasn’t too much going on, yet people simply gathered here to enjoy the city and celebrate Christmas together as a community. Children ran about care free and seemingly unsupervised, entertained by knock-off cartoon character costumes that seemed in need of a good wash. The costumes didn’t deter me however, as soon as I spotted Pikachu, I ran straight over for a big hug!
Wandering Madrid’s bustling streets on Christmas night was truly special. Madrid’s take on Christmas seemed to be a little more down to earth, more authentic than other cities. The Christmas displays show a modern take on a very traditional time of year, snow-capped rooftops and open fires are replaced by artistic neon installations and roving groups of musicians. The sheer volume of people on the streets can be overwhelming at first, but once you’re amongst the crowds it’s hard to not be swept up in the celebrations.
Seville – For a quieter start to the New Year
Seville is the picturesque regional capital of Andalusia, home to flamenco and a stunning mix of Moorish and Western architecture. Indulge in the glorious food, wander the shopping district or explore the incredible and historic landmarks; just don’t come to Seville looking for a big New Years Eve party.
In Spain, New Years is a holiday spent and celebrated with family and generally consists of a special dinner at home. Now I’ll confess, Josh and I knew all too well that Seville would be a low key option for New Years Eve, but we didn’t want miss this beautiful city and surrounds for one night of partying, for us travel comes first! I’m sure if you search hard enough, you can find yourself in the midst of a raging New Years Eve party, but with centres like Madrid and Lisbon in easy reach, I feel you’d be better off searching out your fun there.
On Dec 31st, you’ll find Seville’s streets are almost deserted once the lunch time rush is over. Shops, smaller cafes and bars will close (if they opened at all) so their employees can head home to celebrate with loved ones. Larger restaurants in popular tourist areas will be open, and offer special New Years Eve menus, but be sure to book a few days in advance to ensure yourself a table.
We set out at dusk, wandering Calle Mateos Gago, past clusters of orange trees and only a handful of tourists. We snagged an outdoor table at a soon to be busy bar, with our backdrop the enormous Catedral de Sevilla. It was here we commenced that most famous New Years Eve tradition; Drinking! Sipping on local beers and ciders, we sat people watching as the quaint little strip became busy with hungry and undoubtedly thirsty tourists. Not long into the night my delicious cider had run dry, so naturally, I moved on to the hard liquor. A friendly barman gave me more than I had bargained for when he filled my huge bowl-like glass ¾ full of jack, fast-forward a few hours later and I was giggling away and absolutely starving! Here’s the catch, remember I mentioned that it was important to book a table for dinner? Well guess who didn’t! (Hint: It was me) I still choose to blame Josh and his absurd distaste for “plans”, but it really wasn’t so bad. Dinner consisted of a few slices of fresh and tasty pizza and some piping hot cinnamon churros, devoured on the stairs of the famous cathedral.
With Seville’s bars and restaurants now overflowing with people, we decided to head for the hotel and the stash of booze and snacks we’d acquired earlier that day. We made our way up to the hotel’s rooftop to wait out the last few hours or until midnight, even managing to sneak in a few mojitos, before falling into a drunken slumber.
Seville offered the perfect atmosphere for Josh and I, who prefer to avoid the club scene wherever possible. We still managed to have a lot of fun in this beautiful city, so if you’re like me and lean towards a more subdued welcome to the new year, then Seville is the perfect location.
Want to visit these places for yourself? Simply zoom into the Christmas Tree markers on the map below to discover the best Christmas and New Years locations Prague, Barcelona, Madrid and Seville have to offer.
If this has inspired you to start planning your very own European Christmas trip I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment below and let me know what your favourite Christmas destination is, I’d love to add it to my wishlist for my next adventure!