Winning tip: Modena, Italy
Even in the pelting snow, you can enjoy an evening passeggiata in Modena under the porticos that line all the major streets. Dusk in this Emilia-Romagna town is glorious, with lanterns hanging under arches that are home to lots of cosy bars and cafes. It’s a compact historical centre, thronging at weekends when it’s closed to traffic – a delight just to wander at will, enjoying the lively hubbub. Our favourite place for an aperitivo is Mercato Albinelli, the covered market, which stays open late on Saturday evening. We browsed the stalls, picking up some gourmet treats, then made our way to one of the market’s bars, where you can grab a glass of wine with a platter of local prosciutto and Parmesan for a few euro.
Winter barely makes an impression in Sicily, with mild sunny weather the norm. Catania in January was blissfully untouristy but busy with local life. The major highlight was the outdoor produce market, as colourful and theatrical as you’d expect. A few steps from Catania’s Duomo is the fish market, where negotiations echo under the arches and roaming hawkers press you to buy fistfuls of parsley and giant knobbly lemons. Beyond the fish, truckloads of green artichokes and oranges overflow on to the road. Drifting smoke led us to a stall selling chargrilled vegetables - possibly the tastiest I’ve ever eaten. Lunch of fritto misto (a fried mix of fish or vegetables) at Osteria Antica Marina, by the fish market, was heavenly: light and crunchy, perfect with the juice of one of those oversized lemons.
Christmas and New Year celebrations may be over, but the party keeps on going in Palma. For two weeks in January, the city plays host to the fiesta of its patron saint, Sant Sebastià, marked by parades, fireworks, cultural events and street entertainment. On the evening of 19 January, a massive bonfire is lit in Plaça Mayor and pop-up barbecues and free concerts take over the city’s many squares, the revels continuing well into the early hours. Stay in the heart of the action at the stylish Brondo Architect Hotel (doubles from around €71 room only)
Last year, while we were visiting Budapest, our friends took us for a weekend in Brasov – 65 lei (£13) train fare – for a slice of Romania’s winter. We walked the remnants of the town’s original wall, ate traditional sausage from street carts at the outdoor market, all while walking streets so classically “European Winter” they looked as if they’d been created for Christmas cards. I’m sure Bran Castle, which is vaguely connected to the Dracula legend via Vlad the Impaler (£7 entry), is beautiful all year round, but a chill in the air and a frosty blue sky gave it an extra magical quality.
In December, the fairytale squares of the Slovak capital become a real winter wonderland – there are little stalls on the cobbled streets offering handmade wooden toys, beautifully embroidered waistcoats and tablecloths, quality local white wines, beeswax candles, hand-blown glass ornaments, hand-painted pottery and Slovak folk art. There’s delicious mulled wine to warm the cockles amid the frequent snowfalls, folk music performances to set your feet tapping and a huge range of hearty dishes to sample. Try potato pancakes, chunky sausages or frisbee-sized doughnuts, all washed down with – if you’re feeling brave – a shot of hriatö, a hot toddy made from honey, goose fat and alcohol.
Sofia is a great city for a pre-Christmas winter break: the onion-domed churches look stunning in the snow and the Christmas market at Borisova Gradina Park is wonderfully festive. The park was called Freedom Park during the communist years but has reverted to its Bulgarian name. The mulled wine will knock your socks off and it’s cheap too! Stay at Les Fleurs Boutique Hotel (doubles from £110) on Vitosha Boulevard and you will be surrounded by cafes and restaurants. A free walking tour every day from the hotel is a great introduction to the city.
Saunter through the streets of Madeira’s capital, which twinkles with festive lights, gaze at the giant angel keeping watch over the cathedral, and savour some roasted chestnuts. You’ll be serenaded by carol singers and offered mulled wine by sprightly elves. No shivering in scarf and gloves, though, for this is balmy Funchal, offering all the delights of a traditional Christmas with the added bonus of daily vitamin D! Browse the farmers’ market (open throughout the night of 23 December) and build up an appetite for its cornucopia of delights with walks along the vibrant waterfront, through lush parks or the island’s levada (irrigation channels) network. To stay I’d recommend the Pestana Casino Park (doubles from €135 half-board).
The pretty college town of Münster is the only constituency in Germany where the far-right AfD party didn’t crack 5%. The historic old town is the perfect canvas for abundant Christmas decorations, and there are five Christmas markets crammed into the city centre, complete with bag storage and childcare. The historic town hall, where the thirty years war was ended, is great to visit – check out the antique astronomical clock in the main cathedral, and see original works at the Picasso Museum. For eating I recommend Reibekuchen (potato latkes with apple sauce) from one of the market stalls and traditional food in rustic pubs Cavete and Blaues Haus on Kreuzstrasse. The local drink is Altbierbowle, a dark beer with preserved strawberries and peaches – surprisingly delicious.
After a short flight to Nuremberg, it’s an hour’s drive to the medieval Christmas-card town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber – where the Christmas market is everything you ever wanted a Christmas market to be, but never was. Straight out of a fairytale, the town was spared bombing during the second world war, and is largely unvisited in winter, meaning it retains an undiscovered and authentic appeal. We spent the day exploring the cobbled streets, drinking glühwein in the marketplace and stocking up on souvenirs at the mind blowing Käthe Wohlfahrt, before rounding off with a hearty Bavarian meal (great soups, and dishes like Franconian sausages and cabbage, crispy ribs with fried potatoes and tender lamb chops) at Zur Höll (no credit cards), housed in the town’s oldest building. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect Christmas break.
Wake early to watch the winter sunrise turn Grand Harbour a burnished gold as fishing boats return to Valletta with their daily catch. Walk the historic city walls soaking up rays of Mediterranean sunshine. Sit outside for coffee at one of Valletta’s many restaurants or visit one of the city’s interesting museums.
Explore the delightful Casa Rocca Piccola (€9 entry) or take a boat across Grand Harbour to Birgu and the Malta at War Museum (€12, family €25). As evening falls, climb steep streets past colourful balconies and tiny bars to historic squares where Christmas trees made from Mdina glass glow, welcoming the festive season.