There is something about a good Christmas market that really lifts those holiday spirits. Be it the handmade gifts, the twinkling of lights, the carols playing in the background,the smell of bratwurst, or the taste of cinnamon and cloves in a warm glug of mulled wine. For one reason or another, the Germans have perfected the art of a good Christmas market. This is possibly because they started them to begin with but either way it is difficult to go to any other Christmas market in the world without comparing it to that special kind of German magic. Not to say I have given up.
I’ve visited a few Christmas markets in England over the years, and though cities such as Bath and Canterbury definitely have their charm, they still don’t capture that perfect Christmas I am always searching for.
Last weekend, the family and I took a weekend trip to Winchester- a city that has been making those ‘Top Ten Christmas Markets’ lists all over the place. (See here or here or here.) Winchester has been called England’s Christmas Capital, and the tourism bureau’s new slogan ‘The Perfect Christmas’ definitely had my curiosity peaked.
Arriving in Winchester, the rain was coming down. Typical English weather, and not the best setting for a winter wonderland. We jumped into a taxi and went straight to the tourism office where we met with a local blue badge guide for a walking tour of the city. (You can book your own here.) Taking us through a very condensed version of English history, we spent an hour walking through the city’s remarkable past.
Although you may have never heard of Winchester, you certainly know of it, the city is full of treasures. Examples include the round table of Arthurian legend fame, although it was sadly closed during our visit for a film shoot. (Mental note to return.) Winchester Cathedral where King’s and Queen’s of England once held their marriage and coronation ceremonies and where a certain female novelist by the name of Jane Austen was laid to rest. There there is Alfred the Great, a King who ruled from 871-899, that has become a symbol of the city through a statue in his likeness overlooking the main street. (England can thank Alfred for their Navy.)
The guide left us in front of Winchester Cathedral, adequately prepared with an hour’s worth of stories to explore the cobblestone streets, and discover whether or not this unlikely town in Hampshire could fulfil my hopes of a perfect Christmas getaway.
Winchester Christmas Market
After an absolutely amazing walk through Winchester Cathedral (watch out for a post on that later) we made our way to the Christmas Market, ready to have our fill of Christmas indulgence. I was immediately head over heels in love with the ice skating rink, the center piece of the market, lying under the shadow of the looming cathedral above. The market was packed, full of smiling faces and families spending time together in a beautiful festive setting. We hit the rink, The Kid donning her first pair of ice skates, ecstatic to ice skate hand-in-hand with her dad. I mostly just watched, taking it all in. There was definite seasonal magic in the air, and it was apparent on every persons face skating by.
After an hour of gliding and laughing on the ice, we began to explore the German-style wooden chalets spread throughout the Cathedral’s historic Close. There were no tacky souvenirs or Chinese imports to be found, only high quality gifts from people such as local and regional glass-makers, wood carvers, and silversmiths. We picked up a couple of ornaments from the Cathedral’s own stall, proceeds going back to the organization, and bought unique Christmas presents for family that we definitely couldn’t have picked up in any store.
Finally, I was ready to see if Winchester Christmas Market could pass the biggest test of all- delicious food and hot drinks. I shouldn’t have worried, there was bratwurst aplenty, out of this world hot cocoa, and a mouth watering variety of mulled wines to warm my insides. Just when I began dreaming of the boot-shaped mugs of Glühwein back in Germany, I spied a Scottish stall serving Caledonian style mulled wine in their own homemade ceramic mugs. Score. The Dutchman eyed a stand run by a couple of girls from Quebec, Canada who were bestowing the gift of maple syrup on England. While he turned down their maple goodies, he was happy to indulge in a few glasses of hot maple whisky. I think it changed his life.
As the evening set in, the lights began to glow all around us. The smell of freshly roasted chestnuts lingered in the air, and holiday music floated through the crowds. It was official, we had stumbled upon something truly special. England’s Christmas capital is the real thing, and if you are looking for the perfect Christmas, I promise that Winchester will deliver.
How to Get to Winchester Christmas Market
Winchester is only one hour from London, and is served by direct train services leaving from London Waterloo station. The city is also well-connected by National Express buses from London, Heathrow, and Oxford.
The 2014 market will run until December 21st, and is open everyday 10am-6pm from Sunday-Wednesday and 10am-7.30pm from Thursday-Saturday.
Where to Stay in Winchester
We stayed at the Holiday Inn Winchester, a new generation Holiday Inn hotel, located about 10 minutes by taxi from the city center. The property exceeded all my expectations, and was definitely the best Holiday Inn I have ever stayed at. (I loved the Winchester Cathedral artwork in the rooms!) Staff were extremely helpful, and the rooms were modern and comfortable. I highly recommend dining at the on-site restaurant, the Morn Hill Brasserie, the food was absolutely fantastic.
The Holiday Inn Winchester currently has a Christmas Market package that includes a three-course dinner, breakfast, and entrance to Winchester Cathedral.
Where to Eat in Winchester
- Morn Hill Brasserie at the Holiday Inn Winchester is wonderful, and not what you’d expect of a chain hotel. The AA-
Rosette awarded restaurant uses only local produce and meat as well as seasonal ingredients. For more information or to make reservation, you can check them out here.
- No. 5 Bridge Street is a pub-style restaurant, but modern and very nice. We enjoyed a wonderful lunch there, and it is worth stopping in just for a taste of their own No.5 Ale. In addition to their terrific food, you can book a room at their boutique hotel located above the restaurant. For more information, you can check out their website here.
- The Christmas Market has plenty of food options, so you can easily grab something to eat while you are shopping!
(Sorry, I was too busy stuffing my face with sausage to take any pictures of the food. But trust me, there is tons.)
What to See in Winchester
Although Winchester is a small city, there is no shortage of things to see and do. We really enjoyed the following.
- Winchester Cathedral
Winchester Cathedral is one of the largest cathedrals in England, and has the longest nave of any Gothic cathedral in Europe. Highlights include the burial place of Jane Austen, the Winchester Bible, and the crypt. Admission is £7.50 for adults, and free for children under 16.
- Winchester City Museum
We really enjoyed the City Museum which explores the history of Winchester from its beginnings to present-day. There are a ton of activities for kids, a fantastic collection of artefacts, and some really cool reconstructed Victorian-era shops. Admission is free.
- Winchester City Mill
This National Trust site is a working corn mill, powered by the river the flows through the city. Visitors can watch grain be milled and even take home a bag of flour. Admission is £4.40 for adults and £2.20 for children, or free for members.
- Winchester Science Centre & Planetarium
There are over 100 hands-on exhibits at the museum, making it the perfect place to play and learn on a rainy morning. They had a good selection of exhibits for all different age groups, and would be ideal for anyone from toddler age to adults. Admission is £10 for adults, £7 for children 3-16, and free for under-twos.
Check out this short video of my time in Winchester!
Are you planning on visiting a Christmas Market this year?
Disclaimer: My trip to Winchester was part of a press trip in partnership with Winchester Tourism. All content, recommendations, and opinions are my own, as always.