Let’s step into the joy of Christmas in the UK with the discovery of one of the most popular festive traditions. The Christmas markets in the UK are somewhat a recent tradition and originate from the famous Weihnachtsmärkte in Germany. During Advent, the main cities and towns of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland host Christmas markets. In the crisp winter air, their stallholders sell a vast array of seasonal gifts and mouth-watering treats. But it’s not just about shopping. People also come there for the atmosphere. The picturesque streets and squares offer a beautiful backdrop to the Christmas markets with enchanting decoration and illumination. In this article, we’ll look at the origins and traditions of this particular Christmas tradition before giving you a list of 10 of the best Christmas markets to visit in the UK!
Why you should discover the UK at Christmas
For some years now, I have called England home. I have spent three Christmases in the UK, the first of which was in 2001 in Bournemouth.
Having lived in Germany and Alsace, the tradition of Christmas markets is something I am very familiar with.
I knew that the British had their own Christmas traditions and I didn’t expect to discover Christmas markets that were wonderfully inspired by those in Germany.
Yes, it was a real discovery for me.
I thought that only London, Birmingham and Edinburgh had their markets and then while searching on the internet, I realised that there are dozens and dozens of places that offer Christkindlemärkte… and in German-style!
So, in this article, I wanted to go in search of these Christmas markets in the UK, from England to Scotland and from Wales to Northern Ireland.
I haven’t visited them (yet), but based on my research, these are the Christmas markets I’d like to discover in the coming years.
Perhaps you, dear reader, know a few. If so, please let me know in the comments below if there is a market you recommend (that is not on the list!)
The history of the UK Christmas markets
As I mentioned in another post on the Christmas Markets in Germany, many winter traditions from our distant past, including the decorated Christmas tree, have their roots in Northern Europe, especially in Germany.
The Christmas market is one of the Germanic Christmas traditions newly established in France, the UK and North America.
These markets have a long history in Germany and Austria, especially if one considers their medieval precursors: the St. Nicholas markets.
The medieval St. Nicholas markets
For example, as early as 1294, a municipal ordinance of the city of Vienna in Austria mentions the organisation of a St. Nicholas market. This is the oldest written record of such a market.
Similar markets are mentioned in municipal ordinances throughout the Holy Roman Empire.
For example, the Nicolausmarkt in Munich dates from 1310 and that in Frankfurt from 1393. Strasbourg, then a Free City of the Empire, held its own market in front of the cathedral.
Then, in 1434, Elector Frederick II authorised the organisation of a market in Dresden on the Monday before Christmas. Known as the Striezelmarkt, it allowed the people of Dresden to stock up on food for the Christmas meal. It takes its name from the traditional Dresden cake: the Strietzel. It is considered to be the oldest Christmas market in the world.
The shift to the Christkindlmarkt at the Reformation
Then came the Protestant Reformation. This break with Catholicism led to a change in local traditions in the Holy Roman Empire.
Protestantism did not favour the worship of saints. As a result, the St. Nicholas markets held in regions that had converted to Protestantism were simply cancelled.
To satisfy the unhappy traders and merchants, markets opened one week before 25 December. Centred on the Nativity Festival, the markets were renamed Christkindlmarkt or Weihnachtsmarkt.
The beginnings of the Christmas markets in the UK
The first Christmas market in the UK was held in Lincoln in 1982, long before similar markets were introduced in France (apart from Strasbourg). The organisation of the German-style Christmas market in Lincoln owes much to its twinning with Neustadt-an-der-Weinstrasse in Germany.
The festive event began in December 1982 with just 11 stalls in Castle Square, most of which were from Germany. Building on its success, the market has grown in subsequent decades to become one of Lincoln’s most important annual events. In the 2010s, the Lincoln Christmas Market totals over 200 stalls and attracts over 250,000 visitors.
The association of British towns with their German counterparts has contributed greatly to the development of Christmas markets in the UK. We have seen this with Lincoln, which has drawn on its twinning with Neustadt-an-der-Weinstrasse in the Palatinate.
The Frankfurt Christmas market in the UK
However, it is Frankfurt-am-Main that has propelled the tradition of Christmas markets in the British Isles.
The German city, twinned with Birmingham, has had a Christmas market tradition in the city since 1393. It is one of the biggest festive events in Germany, alongside those in Dresden, Cologne, Munich and Berlin.
In 1997, the Frankfurt organisers decided to export the Christmas market concept abroad.
Birmingham hosted a Frankfurt Christmas Market for one season. The Frankfurt Christmas Market and Craft Market had 24 stalls. Due to the popular success of the Christmas market, the collaboration between the two cities continued from year to year. In the 2010s, the Birmingham Christmas Market welcomed more than 5.5 million visitors and featured more than 100 stalls. This success makes the event one of the most visited Christmas markets outside Germany and Austria.
But the Frankfurt organisers did not stop there. In fact, the success of Birmingham gave them the idea of duplicating the concept in other major British cities: Edinburgh (2000), Leeds (2002) and Manchester.
Adaptations of the German Christmas market in England spread to other cities in the country from the late 1990s and especially in the 2010s. The latest Christmas market to open for the first time is in Brighton in 2021 with 150 stalls.
The Christmas pyramids in Britain
Consequently, it is interesting to observe that the fashion for German Christmas markets in the UK has contributed to the appearance of a very present structure: the Christmas pyramid. You will see it in London, Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester and Southampton to name but a few.
In comparison, in France, few Christmas markets have followed the example of a Christmas pyramid, the only ones being in Metz, Arras, Calais and Nice.
Furthermore, in many cities across the British Isles, the Christmas market is just one aspect of an overall event including a funfair, ice rink, entertainment stage, etc.
Christmas things to do in the UK
While visiting the Christmas markets in the UK, why not join one of the following activities?
Our partner Get Your Guide offers several activities that will appeal to children and adults alike: A London Christmas Lights Tour, a Christmas Evening Cruise in Manchester, A Christmas Carol musical…… Enter an enchanting world of Advent in the UK!
Top 10 Christmas markets in the UK
Below you will find a selection of the Christmas markets I would personally like to discover… Let us know in the comments below which one is your favourite or if another great British Christmas market is missing.
Please note that some Christmas markets may be cancelled for 2021 due to the pandemic (Bath, Portsmouth have already confirmed their cancellations…).
BATH CHRISTMAS MARKET
Bath is often voted one of the best Christmas markets in the UK. It features 170 decorated chalets spread out across the town’s beautiful Georgian streets. It is known as the largest festive event in the southwest of England.
However, in 2020 and 2021, the Bath Christmas Market was cancelled due to the pandemic and hopefully should return in 2022. Although not going ahead these years, the organisers came up with the idea of a virtual Christmas market where visitors can still do some festive shopping through independent, sustainable retailers at our virtual Christmas market.
Plan your visit to the Bath Christmas Market
- ℹ️ The official website of the Bath Christmas Market with practical info (opening dates and times, location and more)
- 🛌 Where to stay in Bath: choose from a wide selection of accommodation
- 🏰 What to do in Bath: check out the top activities in the city 👇
BIRMINGHAM CHRISTMAS MARKET
Birmingham hosts the UK’s largest Christmas market, and one of Europe’s most visited festive events outside Germany and Austria, attracting more than 5 million visitors each year!
Since 1997, the Frankfurt Christmas Market in Birmingham takes place in two locations: Victoria Square and New Street.
In addition, Birmingham’s Frankfurt Christmas Market offers a wide range of traditional festive food and drinks: pretzels, schnitzels, bratwursts, and roasted almonds without forgetting Glühwein, Weissbeer (wheat beer), or delicious hot chocolate.
Plan your visit to the Birmingham Christmas Market
- ℹ️ The official website of Birmingham’s Frankfurt Christmas Market with practical info (opening dates and times, location and more)
- 🛌 Where to stay in Birmingham: choose from a wide selection of accommodation
- 🏰 What to do in Birmingham: check out the top activities in the city 👇
EDINBURGH CHRISTMAS MARKET
The festive season in Edinburgh is a spectacular, six-week period run in the heart of Scotland’s capital. Against the backdrop of the emblematic Edinburgh castle, the fantastic festive market offers a wide range of local and European crafts, food and drink. The Forth 1 Big Wheel provide an amazing general view of the market and the old town of Edinburgh.
The celebrations of Christmas in Edinburgh take place at three sites. Two have a Christmas market (East Princes Street Gardens and Santa Land in West Princes Street Gardens). The west end of George Street features an ice-skating rink and food and drink stalls.
Plan your visit to the Edinburgh Christmas Market
- ℹ️ The official website of the Edinburgh Christmas Market with practical info (opening dates and times, location and more)
- 🛌 Where to stay in Edinburgh: choose from a wide selection of accommodation
- 🏰 What to do in Edinburgh: check out the top activities in the city 👇
GLASGOW CHRISTMAS MARKET
Glasgow Christmas Market occupies two sites in the city centre: St Enoch Square and George Square (the latter site was cancelled in 2021).
As part of the Glasgow Loves Christmas event, the Christmas market of Glasgow offer international gastronomic treats, crafts and entertainment. The event draws traders from 32 nationalities across the globe.
Plan your visit to the Glasgow Christmas Market
- ℹ️ The official website of the Glasgow Christmas Market with practical info (opening dates and times, location and more)
- 🛌 Where to stay in Glasgow: choose from a wide selection of accommodation
- 🏰 What to do in Glasgow: check out the top activities in the city 👇
LINCOLN CHRISTMAS MARKET
The impressive Norman castle and the lofty Gothic cathedral provide the perfect backdrop for the Lincoln Christmas market. Dating back to 1982, this is the UK’s first Christmas market.
From 11 stalls present in its early years, the Christmas market of Lincoln now totalled over 200 stalls, making it one of England’s largest festive events. The stalls occupy the medieval square and surrounding area.
The traditional Lincoln Christmas Market only takes place for four days in early December (in 2021: from 2-5 December).
Plan your visit to the Lincoln Christmas Market
LONDON CHRISTMAS MARKETS
Londoners have the choice of several Christmas markets to attend. Here are some of the most popular:
- Winter Wonderland Christmas market in Hyde Park is one of the largest festive events in London. It features more than 100 wooden chalets, the UK’s biggest outdoor ice rink, a Ferris wheel and Christmas shows.
- Southbank Centre Winter market along the South Bank’s riverside where the wooden chalets line the banks of the Thames.
- Covent Garden Christmas village, beautifully illuminated.
- Leicester Square Christmas market looks like a traditional German-style Weihnachtsmarkt.
Plan your visit to the London Christmas Markets
MANCHESTER CHRISTMAS MARKET
Self-proclaimed the UK’s one and only capital of Christmas, Manchester hosts a world-famous Christmas market that takes place in six city centre squares (St Ann’s Square, Exchange Square, New Cathedral Street, King Street, Market Street and Cathedral Gardens).
Then, in 2021, the family-friendly Winter Gardens attraction in Piccadilly Gardens became the hub for Christmas in Manchester, offering yuletide bars, food stalls, craft sellers and a stage with live music.
Plan your visit to the Manchester Christmas Market
SOUTHAMPTON CHRISTMAS MARKET
The German-style Christmas market of Southampton is run by a well-established German company. Its wooden chalets occupy the pedestrian precinct of Above Bar and sell handmade gifts, festive food and drinks (mulled wine and German draught beer).
In addition, the Southampton Christmas Festival features a unique attraction in the UK that draws huge crowds into the city: the interactive Flying Santa Show.
Plan your visit to the Southampton Christmas Market
- ℹ️ The Find out more about the Southampton Christmas Market with practical info (opening dates and times, location and more)
- 🛌 Where to stay in Southampton: choose from a wide selection of accommodation
- 🏰 What to do in Southampton: check out the top activities in the city 👇
WINCHESTER CHRISTMAS MARKET
The cathedral city of Winchester hosts one of England’s most beloved Christmas markets, attracting more than 400,000 visitors each year. With its wooden chalets, the Winchester Christmas market is inspired by the traditional German Christmas market. It takes place in the historic Inner Close of the cathedral, at the heart of Winchester. The chalets sell a range of Christmas gifts and festive treats, some of them inspired by Germany, others more locals from the New Forest.
Plan your visit to the Winchester Christmas Market
- ℹ️ The official website of the Winchester Christmas Market with practical info (opening dates and times, location and more)
- 🛌 Where to stay in Winchester: choose from a wide selection of accommodation
YORK CHRISTMAS MARKET
The picturesque city of York boasts one of the most beautiful Christmas markets in the UK. The timber houses, monuments and York’s cathedral provide a wonderful backdrop to the festive event, known locally as St Nicholas Fair.
The decorated alpine chalets of the Christmas market occupy Parliament street in the centre of the historic part of York. Around it, the famous narrow snickelways and cobbled streets of York are adorned with Christmas lights and decorations.
Plan your visit to the York Christmas Market
Other Xmas Events in England, Scotland, Wales and NI
Here’s a list of other Christmas markets to discover across the UK.
- Belfast Continental Christmas market
- Brighton Christmas Festival (new in 2021!)
- Chatsworth Estate
- Harrogate Christmas Fayre
- Leeds (Christkindelmarkt)
- Leeds castle
- Portsmouth (Victorian Christmas) – cancelled in 2021
- Reading (Christkindlmarkt)
- Rochester (in the castle’s courtyard)
- St. Albans
- Stratford-upon-Avon (Victorian Christmas)
Tip for visiting a UK Christmas market
With Christmas markets becoming even so popular with visitors coming not only from England but from continental Europe and the Us, it’s best to be prepared to avoid unpleasant surprises.
The best practical advice for visiting any Christmas market in the UK is to anticipate! Especially if you have never been there before. If you want to limit surprises (there will always be unforeseen events!), you need to do a little research. Where will you park your car? If I take the train, what are the train times and frequencies for the return journey?
First, check the dates and opening hours of the Christmas markets. These can be changed without notice for several reasons (e.g. the pandemic).
The best thing to do is to check the websites of the local tourist office and contact them by phone or email.
Visiting during the Pandemic
The pandemic crisis has led to several changes in the organisation of traditional Christmas markets in the UK. After the historic cancellation of the festivities in 2020, the vast majority of Christmas markets are back in 2021. Some can be subject to the wearing of masks but are usually free from the presentation of proof of vaccination.
In fact, the organisers of the Christmas markets in the UK are complying with the legislation in force to fight the pandemic. The rules may change, leading to adjustments or cancellations of Christmas events in the short term (as in Bath or Glasgow). It is best to find out about the Christmas markets before you plan your visit.
Book your accommodation
If you want to visit the Christmas markets in popular places like York or Lincoln, book well in advance to benefit from availability in hotels, rental flats, gites and B&Bs. Sometimes you’ll need to anticipate almost a year in advance… although anything is possible in 2021 as attendance may be lower than Pre-Covid.
Avoid busy days
To avoid visiting Christmas markets on busy days, there is a trick. Don’t wait until the last week to visit the most popular Christmas markets. For example, if you want to visit the one in Winchester, choose dates between the opening of the market and the school holidays. Where possible, avoid the school holidays just before Christmas.
And avoid visiting the Christmas markets in the UK at the weekend, especially on Saturdays! For markets that take place on the four weekends of Advent, prefer planning your visit on Friday.
However, in fair weather, there will definitely be more people coming to the Christmas markets. So don’t hesitate to plan your visit even if it’s raining!
Access to the Christmas markets
Your choice will depend on whether you can reach your destination by train, car or even plane!
Coming by train
The train is the ideal way to get to a Christmas market. There is no need to stress about finding a parking space for your car. Moreover, the train stations are located in the city centre, so they are close to the Christmas market.
Also, if you are travelling by train, remember to leave your bulky parcels at the manual lockers in stations. Most major stations have them. This will allow you to visit the Christmas markets without carrying a heavy load.
Coming by car
To reach certain sites, the car remains one of the only means of transport. The roads leading to Rochester or Lincoln can be congested on busy days. It can be difficult to find a parking space (even if you have to pay). Sometimes you have to park far away from the site and walk the distance in the cold, rain or wind!
Fortunately, some sites have set up free shuttle systems between the paid car parks and the town centre. This makes it easier to visit the Christmas markets even if the car is parked 3 km from the market! Check out the local tourist board to check if such an option is offered.
Coming by plane
Sometimes it is worth coming by plane… well particularly if you come from outside the UK! Most of the large Christmas markets in the UK are located near a busy airport with excellent connections with the rest of Europe: Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Edinburgh…
Use public transport
To get to the Christmas markets in the UK’s big cities (London, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow…), don’t hesitate to use the public transport network.
A Christmas market wears out your shoes!
Put on good walking shoes to visit the biggest Christmas markets in the UK (London, Birmingham, Manchester, York, Edinburgh..). You may well find yourself walking a lot, without even realising it.
Carry a backpack to carry your personal belongings (umbrella, water bottle…) and your purchases. I advise you to be very careful with your most precious belongings (wallet, identity papers, etc). Beware of pickpockets!
Finally, arrive at the Christmas market site around 3.30-4 pm. If you are an amateur photographer or just a visitor, you will enjoy the blue hour before the dark! A very magical moment!
Find out more…
- Read this article on the Christmas Markets in the UK in French on our blog Destination Angleterre
- The 30 best Christmas markets in Germany
- Strasbourg Christmas Market – our discovery-guide of France’s premier and oldest Christmas market
- The Traditions of the Christmas markets in Alsace – including Strasbourg, Colmar, Mulhouse, Sélestat, Obernai…
- The origins and traditions of the Christmas pyramid in Germany
- England in French – read more about names of British places in French
Pin the Christmas markets in the UK for later