As December approaches, there is no better way to get into the festive spirit than by wrapping up warm and venturing out into the icy winter air to discover a cosy, German-style Christmas market. Rows of bright wooden chalets line the path as you walk along, bratwurst hot dog in one hand and mulled wine in the other, while the irresistible scent of orange and spice fills your nostrils.
This wonderful place is none other than Winchester Christmas Market, just 13 miles away from Southampton. Winchester itself is a beautiful, ancient city with a population of just under 117,000 (2011), but every year the Christmas market alone attracts more than 350,000 visitors.
Founded in 2006, the market offers an enormous selection of unique gifts, decorations and novelties, many of which are handmade locally; clothes, accessories, jewellery, pottery, glass, sculptures, toys, home and garden ware, food, confectionary and drink, to name but a few. It’s a great place to look for Christmas gifts, and the huge variety of unusual items makes shopping for even the most difficult people a little easier.
Hungry visitors are treated to a wealth of delicious options, including bratwurst, stollen, mince pies, chocolate, candyfloss, doughnuts, roasted chestnuts and more. Alternatively the cathedral refectory offers comfortable seating and a variety of dishes and snacks. Mulled wine, beer and soft drinks are readily available.
But it’s not all about shopping and eating. The wooden chalets are arranged around an open air ice rink, which provides a great element of fun and amusement that blends in beautifully with the festive atmosphere. At £7.50 (during peak times, £6 off peak – see website for more details) per student with free skate hire, it’s not too expensive and offers an enjoyable way to vary your visit (and it counts as exercise – so you can enjoy another bratwurst!). However, do bear in mind that the ice rink can get very busy, particularly at weekends.
The market is situated right next to the impressive Winchester cathedral, the high walls and soft lighting of which give it an enchanting, cosy feel. Parking is limited and fairly expensive in the town centre, so if you’re coming from Southampton I recommend either using the Park and Ride service, or catching the train or the Blue Star bus. The Christmas market is roughly a 15 minute walk from the train station, and about five minutes from the bus station.
It is generally busiest at weekends and evenings and quietest during weekdays, but that can vary. Although visiting during peak times may mean moving along slowly, particularly through the narrow archway entrance that opens onto the market, the bustling scene gives it a lively, pleasant atmosphere, bursting with the excitement and anticipation of Christmas. It feels particularly magical in the dark evenings, when the market and the cathedral are lit up with warm, twinkling lights.
The opening times are 10am-6pm from Sunday to Wednesday, and 10am-7.30pm from Thursday to Saturday; the market is open until Sunday 21st December, and the ice rink until Sunday 4th January. Toilets are situated nearby, and there is disabled access.
Overall, I would enthusiastically encourage you all to visit Winchester Christmas Market. Winchester alone is a beautiful city with a rich history, a variety of shops and restaurants (not to mention an incredible number of pubs) and lots of things to do. The Christmas Market adds a unique, magical festive touch that lights up the dark, cold winter months. It’s a wonderful place to go with friends or family, old and young, whether you’re shopping, eating, exploring, ice skating, or doing a bit of everything. It’s a place in which all your senses are engaged to make your experience exciting and tangible; the colours and lights of the chalets, the heavy scents of mulled wine and oranges, the sound of Christmas music and the choir, the feel of the wintery air and the taste of whichever delicious treat takes your fancy. So what are you waiting for? Enjoy your trip!