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If you think you know all the best French Christmas markets, France will surprise you.
You have the obvious variations – size, speciality and story focus – but there are several markets that stand out because they are the most unusual of their kind.
Take Strasbourg, for example: it is France's oldest Christmas market, or Lyon, which is the most artistic, with eye-popping multi-coloured creations. Yet others are famous for different reasons — amazing lighting, an offbeat theme or simple beauty and ambience.
Rather than give you the top 10 Christmas markets in France, I've highlighted my choice for the 11 most unusual ones, each of which excels for a reason. Either I have been to these markets myself, or the description is written by someone who has.
These also happen to be located in fantastic French cities, which you can enjoy at a time of year when the crush of summer tourists is over. If you want to make the most of your visit and turn it into a true holiday, make sure you take a reliable guidebook with you, one that truly understands France. (Here's one of my favourites.)
These beautiful Christmas markets are not listed in order of preference, but geographically: I start in the northwestern corner of France and work my way east in an arc to Paris and down eastern France, ending up in the least wintry part of the country, Provence. Many of these destinations, especially in Northern France or the Grand Est, can be visited on a day trip from Paris.
And let's face it, France does have some of the best Christmas markets in Europe!
Christmas should be cold, shouldn't? The city of Rouen in Normandy certainly thinks so.
The city itself is worth a visit: the historic center is great for strolling, there are plenty of reminders of Joan of Arc (who died here), and the cathedral is magnificent.
But each year, it goes over the top with its Christmas decorations re-creating a cozy winter chill in honour of the season, which is one of the reasons this market is called La Givrée, the "icy".
The iciness of Christmas should be counterbalanced by... warmth. This Christmas market goes overboard in that direction, with its hot wines and spicy foods.
The name, however, goes beyond ice. Because givrée in French also means... a little nuts. I'm not sure the city fathers had this in mind when they chose the name but to me, that's really what puts this market at the top of my list. Anything with this whimsical a name has got to be great fun.
Here's the market's official website.
These days, there is much talk of sustainability and of eliminating waste, especially as our planet takes a beating from fires and floods and unusual climate events.
Sandwiched between the city of Lille and the Belgian border, the former textile center of Roubaix may seem an unlikely candidate as France's premier zero waste pioneer. Yet it is a badge Roubaix wears with pride, so much so that since 2014 it has hosted France's first sustainable Christmas market.
Here, all products are locally made, usually by hand, and often from recycled materials. Even the Christmas chalets are sustainable and are reused each year.
If you are keen to preserve the environment and dislike waste of any kind, this is the Christmas market for you. Not to mention how attractive it is...
Here's more information about the Roubaix Christmas Market.
There are many Paris Christmas markets but the Tuileries is one of the most popular and best Christmas markets in Paris. It is held, as the name might indicate, in the Tuileries Gardens, just in front of the Louvre Museum, and replaces the Champs Elysées Christmas market.
What not many people know is that the Tuileries Gardens are home to a phantom, a little man dressed in red. According to the legend, this phantom is the soul of Jean the Butcher who worked near the Tuileries in the 16th century. Jean the Butcher was assassinated at the orders of Queen Catherine de Medici because he knew too many secrets of the crown. From then on, the ghost terrified occupants of the Tuileries Palace, always announcing tragedy whenever it appeared.
The phantom of the Tuileries has been quiet since the palace was burned down in the late 19th century. But with the Tuileries Christmas Market open until late at night, are we going to wake him up again?
—By Elisa from World in Paris
If Reims (sometimes spelled Rheims in English) is deemed the most sacred, it is because the market draws a circle around the cathedral, which is brightly lit for the occasion. The cathedral, as you may know, is famous for being the place where the kings of France were traditionally consecrated. This is where Joan of Arc (known in France as Jeanne d'Arc) would bring Charles VII for his own coronation in 1429.
While the vin chaud, or hot mulled wine, will keep you warm this chilly season, do remember that you are in the heart of Champagne region, and we know Champagne is best sampled cold. Very cold. You won't have any trouble finding some here.
Click through to the Reims Christmas Market official site.
As the oldest Christmas market in France, Strasbourg Christmas market has a fascinating history.
Not only is it one of the biggest Christmas markets in Europe, but it is France's oldest, dating back to 1570 – although some records show that an earlier version of the market was held each year on 6 December from the late 12th century. The stalls sold candles, spiced breads, herbs, clothes and Christmas trees.
Celebrations began when Strasbourg was part of Germany (where Christmas was celebrated more than in France). The festivities were mostly Catholic but Strasbourg eventually became a Reformation stronghold with a strong Protestant voice. Some sort of clash was inevitable, but a compromise was found.
Initially held in honour of St Nicholas, who died on 6 December, the "saintly" side of the fair was abandoned and the date moved to three days before Christmas, still giving people time to buy provisions for the feast day. The event was renamed Christkindelsmarkt, or the Market of the Child Jesus, satisfying both Catholics and Protestants.
Many of the traditions were retained and adapted and today, Strasbourg is one of the few Christmas markets in the world to celebrate two different cultures, religions and heritages.
Nowadays, France's largest Christmas market has over 300 stalls spread across the city in 10 different locations, selling traditional food, drinks and a lot of festive cheer. There is also an ice rink, live music performances and cultural events arranged throughout the celebrations. Check out the Strasbourg Christmas Market dates here.
—By Kathryn Bird from Wandering Bird
Colmar Christmas market isn't just one market – it's half a dozen little ones all strung together throughout this magical town. Even without Christmas, Colmar is magical but during this season, it is positively enchanting and people come from far and wide to visit.
The 1150 Christmas lights and the city's decor have won Colmar a prize from the Academy of Street Arts. By using computer-aided fiber optics, the lights are woven through town, shining and ebbing at will and highlighting each detail of the city's contours.
The entire town is decorated for Christmas and because the heart of Colmar is pedestrian, nothing comes between you and the Christmas brightness. It's like walking into a constellation, albeit one tinged with fluorescence.
More information on the Colmar Christmas market
Yes, Mulhouse dresses up at Christmas.
The Indian cotton industry dates back to 1746 in this city, making Mulhouse one of Europe's textile capitals, abetted by a location at the crossroads of France, Germany and Switzerland.
To celebrate this industrial textile heritage, each year, a new and festive cloth is designed specifically for Christmas. You'll see it throughout the city, where it is used to drape everything from City Hall to Christmas trees to the market's Christmas chalets. And if you're looking for unusual gift ideas, the cloth is also sold at the market.
Here's more information on the Mulhouse Christmas Market.
Given Montbéliard's long Germanic history (it became part of France during the Revolution in 1793) a Christmas market with the traditional spirit of the Christkindlmarkt, or German Christmas market, is exactly what you might expect.
Yet it is full of surprises.
The "children of the light", Les Enfants de la lumière, is a unique choral group of 150 children who perform their songs while wearing crowns of candles on their head – but don't worry, these are battery-operated, no flames are involved. (The tradition comes from Sweden, in honour of St Lucie, patron saint of light.)
Also, Santa Claus has competition here and must share the spotlight with Aunt Airie, the good fairy of Montbéliard. Airie may have been the youngest daughter of a Gaul druid, or perhaps the reincarnation of a 15th-century countess who lived in the local chateau... Either way you're bound to run into her (or most likely her descendant) as she weaves through the wooden chalets of the Christmas market on her donkey, handing out candies to children.
The Evian Christmas market is storytelling at its best and if I could find an adjective for "driftwood", I'd use it. As in the "most driftwoody" market, but that doesn't really work...
Evian has outdone itself by using what it has to hand: driftwood collected from its shores along Lake Geneva. It has created a Christmas village made of wood and filled it with fairy-tale creatures – elves, genies, sirens and witches – all from driftwood. In French, driftwood is "bois flotté", so the mythical creatures are called "Flottins".
This is no traditional Christmas market with stands but the village is right in the heart of town, so businesses all decorate their shop windows with driftwood to get into the Flottin spirit.
Some 350 tons of driftwood are used to make 650 sculptures and at night, everything magically lights up, the brilliance enhanced by torchlights and fireworks. This original idea came from a super-creative local theater troupe, the Theâtre de la Toupine. And here's more information on the village itself.
While Lyon's Christmas market is worth the visit, the REAL treat is an event that takes place during the market but is separate from it: the Fête des Lumières, or the Festival of Lights.
We all love a good light show but this one is more like a spectacular fairy tale, located in the Old Town and throughout the city and with a level of sophistication that will keep your eyes glued to building façades, whatever the chill in the air. I don't think I've seen anything else like it, with each illumination a true work of art. In fact, the designers of each "act" become known in their own right. (I know that anything by Muriel Chaulet, pictured above, will astonish me.)
The lights festival takes place in early December, usually over the first weekend, and it's so popular you'll really need to reserve a room ahead if you want to attend. Start your walk at the giant ferris wheel on Place Bellecour.
As for the market itself, you'll find it on the Place Carnot but there's a second market, very much worth seeing, on the hills of Croix Rousse, where Lyon's artisans show off their skills.
The Santons of Provence are a local tradition that dates back to the 18th century. The tiny terracotta figurines, or santons, were originally created to play out nativity scenes in a miniature fashion, when the traditional nativity scenes in churches were outlawed during the French Revolution.
Today they're a much-loved part of Christmas festivities in the South of France and you can find markets entirely dedicated to both the santons and the artists that create them, with one of the best markets located in Aix-en-Provence.
The foire aux santons (santons fair) started here in 1934 and still takes place from late November to the end of December every year. You'll find it in the centre of Aix-en-Provence, running alongside the annual Christmas market, which starts at the Place de la Rotonde and spreads down the city's central boulevard, Cours Mirabeau. Here you'll find santonniers selling their creations, often displayed reenacting everything from traditional nativity scenes to full-blown village life including fishmongers, bakers and farmers.
Any market in Aix-en-Provence is a joy but the santons fair is an excellent way to both appreciate this unique cultural aspect of Provence, and to pick up some very special treasures to take home with you.
—By Nadine Maffre from Le Long Weekend
Most France Christmas markets open towards the end of November, the 3rd or 4th weekend, and go through to the end of December. A few edge into January, but each market has its own dates.
Impossible to know! There are around 50 (at least) well-known ones but many smaller towns and even villages have a Christmas market, so you cannot really count them.
Sadly, most are closed in winter. However, some exhibitors also have brocante or antique shops, and those do remain open, as do other shops. But you'll have to wait for spring and summer for your typical outdoor experience. Here are some of the best flea markets in France.
—Originally published 20 September 2020