A Guide to visiting Prague, Paris and Berlin this Winter
As winter rolls around, many of Europe's major cities sparkle with festivity and character making them excellent destinations to spend the season in. Whilst every culture has developed their own unique traditions, one can always anticipate brilliant shopping, seasonal activities and vibrant events. Whether you're organising a large family and wish to enjoy as many festive activities as possible or would prefer to spend your days browsing Christmas markets at your own pace, the cities of Europe are bound to please.
Prague: Ballets and Boat Tours
Those who decide to step out onto the crisply cold streets of Prague in the winter will be rewarded with a wealth of seasonal experiences. Snow tends to arrive in late November, coating Prague's bridges and spires, enhancing the experience of strolling through what is already a stunningly beautiful city. As you walk, you'll realise that the rush of tourists who come in the summer are nowhere to be seen, leaving you to explore some of Prague's finest monuments and attractions with ease.
Prague's architecture is always exalted as some of the world's finest, regardless of the weather. For a unique yet extensive tour, bundle up and embark on a river cruise. The sheer serenity of the city in winter is far more striking as one glides along the water, passing baroque buildings and national monuments. Many cruise boats have heating, refreshments and indoor seating, granting a very comfortable experience. Alternatively, plenty of the city's coach tours will take you through the bustling streets and local hubs, allowing you to soak up Prague's culture and the atmosphere of everyday life from the comfort of your seat.
The theatres, operas and ballets of Prague are in full swing during the colder months, and there are so many choices to pick from that it can be a tad overwhelming. Classical music aficionados can sit in on concerts at the Klementinum, Lobkowicz Palace or St George's Basilica. At the Prague National Theatre, a stunning performance of Andrea Chénier, Umberto Giordano's masterpiece, will appeal to both opera and history lovers. For families, the enchanting Hansel and Gretel fairy-tale opera by Engelbert Humperdinck is being performed on Christmas Day at the Karlin Music Theatre would be ideal. Finally, ballet fans can take their pick from many spectacular performances on offer throughout December, including Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet and the enduring Christmas classic The Nutcracker.
As with many European cities, the Christmas markets of Prague manage to charm visitors of all ages and interests, making them a must for anyone who is lucky enough to visit the city when they're on. While there are many, the two which you simply must try to visit are those held in the Old Town and Wenceslas squares. The Old Town market is the more famous of the two, and it is understandable as it is irresistibly beautiful. Framed with stunning baroque buildings, the red-roofed stalls and enormous Christmas tree glitter with fairy-lights, whilst the large space feels vibrant but not overly crowded. It's the perfect place to shop for gifts due to the sheer variety of items on offer ranging from woolly hats to colourful baubles to old-fashioned dolls in traditional costumes. As well as shopping, the market also has plenty of stalls selling wonderful seasonal and regional specialties including Pražská Šunka (open-roasted boneless ham), Trdelník (a doughy pastry rolled in sugar and/or cinnamon) and Svařák (a warming beverage akin to mulled wine with strong citrus notes).
Paris: Festivities and Fairy-lights
There is never a time more appropriate than December when Paris lives up to its oft used nickname 'The City of Light': As early evenings roll in, the city is illuminated with glittering light displays strung up over stores, streets, trees and most spectacularly, the Champs-Elysées avenue. Parisian department stores such as Galeries Lafayette and Printemps are worth a visit thanks to their exceptional holiday facades and window displays alone. As well as lights, various pop-up attractions appear which will instil wintery fun into your stay: The shining big wheel at Place de la Concorde grants stunning views of the city, an ice rink is set up on the first floor of the Eiffel Tower and a Christmas tree bristling with baubles shows up in front of Notre-Dame Cathedral.
Art lovers will be delighted to know that Paris loses none of its cultural lustre during the winter, with event calendars fit to burst with concerts, exhibitions and performances. Book in advance and the St Lucy's Day Swedish music concert inside Notre Dame is sure to amaze, as will the Christmas concert in La Sainte Chapelle when the timeless classical songs ring through the 14th century royal chapel. At the prestigious Opéra Bastille, ballet performances of La Boheme and Don Quixote are sure to be nothing short of spectacular, and Paris' cabarets will provide dazzling evenings of festive fun throughout the winter.
For those with children, Paris is a fantastic destination, with ample entertainment to keep them busy and content. Aside from the one at the Eiffel tower, the scores of outdoor skating rinks are a great way to spend an afternoon, and their memories of ice skating in Paris are bound to remain steadfast in your child's memory for years to come. There are also traditional merry-go-rounds set up throughout Paris which are free of charge so that your child can enjoy them for as long as they please. Vaux-le-Vicomte is also worth dedicating a trip to, as from November 25, it'll be transformed into a festive fairy-tale style world complete with candy apple forests and gingerbread houses.
Paris' Christmas markets are a mainstay of many travellers' winter wish-lists, and rightfully so. The Champs-Elysées market is packed with charm- miniature snow-frosted chalets act as stalls, selling traditional tree decorations, hand-stitched Christmas stockings and much more. Be sure to buy some warming treats such as roasted salmon sandwiches, raclette and French onion soup and you'll be set for an entire day of market browsing. The Alsatian Christmas market is a gastronome's delight featuring Alsace's finest wine, pretzels, gingerbread and sausages, and the Notre Dame market is packed with artists selling unique clothes and glasswork.
Berlin: Concerts and Christmas Markets
The chilly weather of Berlin winters does little to dampen the irrepressible energy of the city, especially as holidays draw close. As the lakes in snow-clad parks freeze over and the city's famous graffiti walls are tinted with a layer of frost, Berlin thrives as citizens and tourists alike gather in concert halls, galleries, cafes, bars and museums seeking warmth and entertainment. Because of this, winter is perhaps one of the best times to take a cultural break in Berlin.
Visit Naturkundemuseum Berlin, a natural history museum filled with taxidermies, fossils, a miniature planetarium and dinosaur skeletons- children will be delighted to see the museum's famous T-rex skeleton. Berlin's Kulturforum is another great option, a cultural center where the New National Gallery, the Philharmonie and Chamber Music Hall, the Berlin State Library and the Gemäldegalerie are located. Classical music lovers should book (well in advance) one of the highly popular concerts held at the pastel-hued Charlottenburg Palace: This December, a tribute to Amadeus, the Advent concert and the 'Enchanting Winter Dreams' Christmas Eve concert look set to provide their audiences with a truly unforgettable experience in one of Berlin's finest buildings.
Those intending to enjoy a family holiday with children will be glad to know that Berlin supplies ample festive activities and events to keep everyone entertained for days on end. Berlin's famous Christmas markets are the most obvious source of fun, as even though there are over 60 of them, each has something fantastic to offer. Gendarmenmarkt is one of the most well-known and understandably so. Whilst adults will love browsing the stalls selling everything from leather goods to hand-crafted stockings, children can watch the scores of entertainers who roam throughout the market.
From singers to stilt walkers to Christmassy characters, they upbeat energy in the market is palpable. The festive food is exceptional too- keep an eye out for crispy waffles, iced gingerbread and aromatic mulled wine. The market set up in front of Charlottenburg Palace has an air of fairy-tale charm, reflected in nostalgic stalls selling traditional sweet treats and crafts.
There are also merry-go-rounds and a ferris wheel from which you can get great views of Berlin. Berliner Weihnachtzeit can be spotted a mile away thanks to its eye-catching giant ferris wheel, but there are also merry-go-rounds, a petting zoo and a miniature train, whilst Father Christmas visits are scheduled regularly. Meanwhile, adults can enjoy hot mead or mulled wine as they purchase tree decorations, cosy hats and homemade biscuits.
In the evening, take a stroll through Berlin's idyllic Botanical Gardens which will be bathed in the glow of fairy lights and festive projections in light of the holidays. With themed sections like 'Fairy Beach', 'Bridge of Love' and 'Star Pavilion' it looks set to create some truly magical holiday memories, and spending time gliding across the giant ice-rink at the garden's heart would be the perfect way to finish an unforgettable week in Berlin.