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11 Surprising Christmas Markets in France (each is Unique)

If you think all Christmas markets in France are alike, think again.

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, or, in a few cases, the recommendations have come from multiple Christmas market lovers.

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 markets are not listed in order of preference, by the way, but geographical: I start in the northwestern corner of France and work my way 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!

NOTE: Given the health security situation in 2020, no one is yet sure whether markets will go ahead as planned, so where they are available, I've added links to each market's information page so you can check and see what's open and what isn't. (Some of the websites may be in French.)

rouen: the Iciest

Christmas market in Rouen, FranceThousands of tiny twinkling lights imitate the falling snow for that truly icy feeling.

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.

ROUEN HAS AN OFFBEAT SIDE

Yes, we know Rouen is where Joan of Arc's funeral pyre stands, and it is a well-visited site. But what you may not know is that the heart of Richard the Lionheart is kept in this city's cathedral. This particular Richard, despite his saintly reputation, was actually quite violent, throwing himself into the Crusades with a lust for battle. But one qualification that might cement' Rouen's importance may not be what you expect: it is the site of the Nutella plant! This is where the world's Nutella is shipped from, in case you've taken a fancy to this paste (I have not). But it is a national institution in France: each SECOND, we eat 2.7kg of Nutella; that's 230 tons, or a million jars, if you prefer. Made with Normandy milk, of course.

roubaix: the most sustainable

Roubaix Christmas marketFrance's first sustainable Christmas market by Anaïs Gadeau, Ville de Roubaix

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.

AN INDUSTRIAL HERITAGE

Like many mono-industrial cities, in this case textiles, Roubaix suffered with industrialization and the city deteriorated. It has gained new life with the recognition of its many historical monuments and its nomination as a City of Art and Culture, an architectural label awarded by France's Ministry of Culture. Many of these monuments are religious, as is the case throughout France, but a fair share is industrial, with the conservation or restoration of former manufacturing plants and promotion of an industrial heritage. 

Paris Christmas at the Tuileries: the most ghostly

Tuileries Garden Christmas market Paris

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

A CLOSER LOOK AT THE TUILERIES

The Tuileries Garden once belonged to the Tuileries Palace, built by Catherine de Medici but burned down during the Paris Commune in 1871. It served as the Paris home to many of France's rulers. The name tuileries comes from the tile factory (tile = tuile) that once occupied the former palace. Despite the palace's disappearance, the gardens survived and thrived. Under a series of kings, emperors and civilian leaders, the park was reshaped, enlarged, bombed, refashioned, sculptures were added, corners were cordoned off... and today, the Jardin des Tuileries stretches from the Louvre to the Place de la Concorde, a welcome island of greenery in the heart of Paris. In summer, seats are scattered throughout for those who want to relax for a bit next to one of the two ponds and reminisce about the illustrious strollers that once populated its paths.  

reims: the most sacred

Christmas market around Reims Cathedral

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.

JOAN OF ARC AND THE CATHÉDRALE DE REIMS

Back in the early 15th century, a young woman of 17 heard a call to go fight and help France during the 100 Years' War. She managed to wrangle an audience with the future King Charles VII and made some astounding predictions, including the future consecration of the king at Reims. Enthralled, Charles assigned her an army and she won battle after battle against the English. Finally, in July 1429, Charles was crowned in the cathedral, with Joan looking on. Sadly, things didn't end too well for her. She was discredited by palace intrigues, captured by the Burgundians (Burgundy was then not a part of France), tried and found guilty of heresy (and of wearing men's clothes), and sold to England. Eventually, after imprisonment and torture, she was burned alive on a pyre in the city of Rouen. King Charles never came to her rescue, even though he owed her his position. He somewhat redeemed himself by agreeing to a second trial 25 years later, which reversed the earlier guilty verdict. She was canonized as a Catholic saint in 1920. Better late than never?

Strasbourg: the oldest

Entrance to Strasbourg Christmas marketEntrance to the Strasbourg Christmas Market by Rama (Own work) CC BY-SA 2.0 fr

Strasbourg's 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, there are over 300 stalls spread across the city in 10 different locations, selling traditional food, drinks and a lot of festive cheese. 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

A BIT OF STRASBOURG HISTORY

In the heart of the Alsace region, the city has had a roller-coaster history, from Roman defence outpost to free city under the German Holy Roman Empire. Knowing a good thing when he saw it, Louis XV annexed the increasingly prosperous city in 1681. Then came the French Revolution and widespread destruction, but industrialization was around the corner and the city would rebuild itself. Strasbourg would still ping-pong between Germany and France until it became French again after World War I. But World War II and the Nazis intervened, annexing the Alsace region until their defeat in 1944. Today, Strasbourg is home to the European Parliament and the city sees its role as one of reconciliation. It is still in France.

colmar: the most Magical

Colmar with Christmas decorationsThese lights are hard to resist and even in the chill of winter, they seem warm and inviting © Tourisme Colmar
Little Venice Colmar at ChristmasPetite Venise at Christmastime © Tourisme Colmar

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

LITTLE VENICE

A quick look at the canals of the Lauch and you'll understand why that particular part of Colmar is called Little Venice, or Petite Venise. Historically, this neighbourhood was covered in orchards and vegetable farms and proximity to the water allowed barges to moor and pick up produce and deliver it straight to the town's covered market.

mulhouse: the Best Dressed

Mulhouse Christmas marketSee the lovely cloths on the right? ©BBuhrer / Visit Mulhouse

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.

FOR TRANSPORTATION BUFFS

Once you've visited the Museum of Printed Textiles, a must in Mulhouse, you can turn your attention to transportation because this is where you'll find two unusual museums. The Cité de l'Automobile, which houses the prestigious Schlumpf Collection, has no fewer than 400 vintage vehicles, with everything from Bugatti Royales to the first ever automobile, a 1894 Panhard-Levassor. You don't have to be a car enthusiast to enjoy what may well be the largest automobile museum in the world. If you prefer your transport on tracks, Europe's largest railway museum, the Cité du Train, retraces two centuries of railway history in France through exhibits, sound and light shows, full steam engines, train station replicas, war history and forerunners of the famed Orient Express. Like the automobile museum, this is one for the curious visitor and if you've ever traveled by train, this museum may tip you over the edge of nostalgia.

montbéliard: the most Eclectic

Montbeliard Christmas market lightsBright lights of the Montbéliard Christmas market (Denis Bretey – Ville de Montbéliard)

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.

Here is Montbéliard's Christmas market website.

A PROTESTANT ENCLAVE

When you visit this Christmas market, you can't miss the Temple Saint-Martin (named after Martin Luther). During the 14th century, there was a Catholic church here. Two centuries later, the city aligned with the Reformation and became a Protestant enclave, surrounded by Catholic territories. As the city's population swelled with Huguenots, or French Protestants, fleeing the wars of religion, Prince Frederick I of Wurttemburg called on a famous architect to build a temple on the site. The dates of all this building and shifting religions are a little fuzzy, but we do know that Louis XIV decided to impose catholicism and destroy non-catholic places of worship. The clever citizens of Montbéliard came up with a plan: they added a steeple to their temple and transformed it into a church, thereby saving it. It is now a historical monument and France's oldest Protestant temple and Reformation-era monument.

Montbeliard Christmas marketMontbéliard Christmas Market surrounding the Temple (Arnaud 25 / CC BY-SA)

Evian: the most fairy-like

Evian Christmas village©Nicolas Castermans

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.

EVIAN, HOME OF... EVIAN

Yes, this is the same Evian that bottles the water many of us have tried and adopted. Evian is a popular resort town on the French side of Lake Geneva, a privileged spot among beauty and wealth, made ever so wealthier by the spring water which has become synonymous with its name. It all began with a liver ailment. A man who was ill drank water from this local spring each day and when he got better, he claimed it was because of the water. Word spread and the spring's owner, Mr Cachat, began charging for the water. He put up a fence to make sure no one helped themselves. And the people came, flocking to the Source Cachat to "take the waters". The town was then called Evian but changed its name to Evian-les-Bains, or baths, to match its fast-growing reputation as a spa town.

lyon: the Most Artistic

Lyon Lights FestivalEvolutions - Yann Nguema ©Ville de Lyon - Muriel Chaulet
Festival of Lights in Lyon FranceTricolore - Ralf Lottig ©Muriel Chaulet

Lyon's Christmas market is a regular for me (I live an hour-and-a-half away) but the REAL treat is an event that takes place during the market: the Fête des Lumières, or the Festival of lights.

We all love a good light show but this one is spectacular, taking place 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.

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.

Here's more on the Festival of Lights and the Lyon Christmas Market.

AND WHILE YOU'RE IN LYON...

There are two things I'd like you to visit. One are the "traboules", the little passageways that take you from one building to the next and which were once used by the city's silk workers to carry bolts of cloth down the hill without getting them wet (and to hide from soldiers who were sent to put down various silk worker rebellions). Résistance fighters also used them to hide from the Nazis during World War II. There are some 400 traboules, but only about 40 are open to the public (and the tourist office has an app to help you visit).  The other thing you must see are Lyon's extraordinary murals, which are scattered throughout town, with many in the heart of the city. They are true works of art, and some of the larger ones are so intricate you could spend an hour gazing without seeing everything. Most represent some facet of the city and its history.

Foire aux Santons in Aix-en-Provence: the Most Provençal

Foire aux Santons in Aix-en-Provence

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

AIX IN ROMAN TIMES

The city of Aix-en-Provence, once known as Aquae Sextiae, was the first Roman settlement in what is present-day France. Contrary to other Roman cities, this one was populated in large part by Gauls arriving from nearby towns. It is famous for the Battle of Aquae Sextiae in 102 BC, when Germanic and Nordic tribes swept down into southern Gaul and were repelled by the Roman Consul, Caius Marius. The Greek writer and philosopher Plutarch immortalized this battle in his Life of Marius. Thousands were taken prisoner and it is said that the women chose suicide over slavery. Aix is a well-known thermal center but less known is that it was already so in Antiquity, since several Roman thermal ruins have been found.

And to answer a few of your lingering questions...

When are the Christmas markets in France?

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.

What is happening with Christmas markets in France 2020?

This is a complicated year and you'll have to check with each market individually to find out if it is open in 2020.

How many Christmas markets are in France?

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.

Where are the best flea markets in France and are they open at Christmas?

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.

—20 September 2020

Have you visited any of these French Christmas markets? What was your impression?