One of the great pleasures of visiting North France in winter is its Christmas markets. They are always busy and full of locals but there’s an influx from the U.K. as people take ferries over with empty cars to fill up on Christmas gifts (and food and wine of course) to take them through the festive season.
1. Amiens Christmas Market
Amiens, the capital of Picardy, has France’s largest Gothic cathedral (built 1220 to 1288). It’s beautifully lit up throughout December with a nightly son-et-lumiere making a wonderful background to the annual market in the heart of the city.
The market itself is one of the largest in northern France with over 130 stalls plus children’s events in ‘Santa’s Grotto’. The theme this year is 'Scents of Winter'. With around 1 million visitors over the whole period, you'll find a wide range of gifts. This is the place for unusual items like Le Creuset kitchenware, regionally made glass, and fish stalls groaning with the harvest of the sea. Local specialities include Beauvais chocolate and macaroons made in Amiens. The theme this year is Jules Vernes (whose house in the center of town is open to the public), so expect odd entertainment for children in the streets and an ice tower to clamber up. It takes place in the center of the city in Place Gambetta and rue de noyon and la rue des 3 cailloux.When November 22nd to December 29th 2013
2. Arras Christmas Market
Arras is the capital of the Artois region in Pas-de-Calais. It's a charming town with a very grand Grand Place, perfect for the Christmas market that takes over the town. Around 90 different exhibitors set out their wares around the beautiful arcaded Place selling local crafts, gifts, decorations and food. Try local delicacies like chocolate rats and the pretty heart-shaped Coeurs d’Arras, either savory (as in cheese) or sweet (ginger). There are various craft demonstrations so you can try making jewellery or wood carvings at home, a large carousel full of leaping horses and an ice skating rink. Street performers will entertain you as you sip on that ever popular mulled wine. It’s international, so expect wooden toys from Poland and dolls from Indonesia.
When November 29th to December 29th 2013
More on Arras
3. Béthune Christmas Market
Most people drive past Béthune (south of Lille) on their way to somewhere else. That's a shame as it’s an interesting town with a cobbled town square full of architectural gems. Rebuilt after World War I, you get a panorama of Flemish gables and Art Deco. The area around Béthune and the town itself was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012. The slightly wacky feel Béthune has is great at Christmastime when a lively market fills the square and the town. There’s a living creche, complete with donkeys, and you can take the family in a ride in a carriage. All kinds of street theater awaits: magicians, make-up sessions, dancing, ice sculptures and enough people dressed up in period costumes to make you feel you’re in a Christmas panto yourself.
There are carousels for the children and carriage rides for the romantic.
When November 23rd to December 31st 2013
If you haven’t visited the old town of Boulogne-sur-Mer behind its walls at the top of the town, then there is no better time for an introduction than at their annual weekend Christmas market. It’s a magical setting and is pedestrianised specially for the occasion. Stalls offer all the usual festive treats, plus local delicacies such as smoked herring and Christmas pudding. And Father Christmas appears to be welcomed by Madame the Mayor at 5.45pm on December 14th in front of the town hall. Ice sculptures, a jazz band, pottery demonstrations and local folklore all combine to make this something worth making for.
Boulogne is pretty festive in the run-up to Christmas, so don’t worry if you miss the Market weekend.
When December 14th & 15th, 2013, 10am-7pm
5. Dunkerque Christmas Market
Dunkerque (Dunkirk) gets a bit neglected particularly as the main ferry companies from the U.K. don’t use the port. But it’s a small, pretty town, with a lovely beach stretch backed by hotels, restaurants and bars. The Christmas market takes place in place Roger Salerno in the center of town. The town puts on a good show, with stilt walkers and goblins, carriage rides, music, a laser light show and toboggan ride. Stock up on foie gras and pastries.
When December 7th to 31st, 2013
6. Lens Christmas Market
Lens is a former mining town just north of Arras and south of Lille. It’s a small town transformed by the opening of the fabulous new Louvre Lens museum, the major outpost of the Louvre in Paris.
At Christmastime Lens celebrates with what they call Once upon a time there was Christmas. There’s a small Christmas market devoted to artisanal crafts and local regional and specialty food. They also put on various activities and events like choral music in the church and son et lumiere on the facade, carriage rides, a Christmas tree, a giant Father Christmas and Christmas carols. It all happens in and around the Place Jean Jaures.
When December 2013
7. Licques Market and Turkey Parade
Licques, just a few miles south of Calais and near St Omer, has a small Christmas market (3 days) but a remarkable parade that attracts onlookers from far and wide. The traditional Turkey Parade showcases what Christmas dinner is all about. Turkeys are driven through the town, followed by all kinds of local dignitaries and organizations, particularly the splendid Fellows of the Order of the Licques Turkey, in the procession. You’re offered a glass of local liqueur, Licquoise, then you can choose your turkey. That bit’s really for the locals, but it’s fun and you see a real tradition. It’s all part of the market that is known for its exceptionally good traditionally reared poultry. This is the place for local products, particularly food as this is a real regional center. There’s also a Christmas dance. Licques is a 40-minute drive from Calais.
When Turkey Parade December 14th-16th 2013
Lille becomes a glorious playground at Christmas with garlands of sparkling lights draped over buildings and criss-crossing the streets. 80 chalets are full of decorations, gingerbread men, local specialities and crafts from as far away as Russia, Canada and Poland packed into the Place Rihour and the Grand Place where a big wheel takes you 50 meters in the sky above the scenes below and an 18 meter high Christmas tree.
When November 20th to December 30th 2013 11am-8pm
Thursdays and Saturdays to 9pm
Big Wheel November 20th 2013 to January 23rd 2014.
Weekdays noon-1om; weekends noon-midnight
Tarif 4 euros
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9. Le Touquet Christmas Market
Le Touquet Paris-Plage is a tylish and fashionable seaside resort so it goes without saying that they organize a very good Christmas market and festivities. The town and surrounding forest areas twinkle with fairy lights and illuminations, and the events follow thick and fast. November 29th sees a special launch at the gardens of the Palais de l’Europe (which houses the casino and the tourist office) with a jazz band and events including balloon sculptures and face painting for children.
The Christmas market takes place ovr one weekend, but the town sparkles all through the dark winter days of Christmas.
When Illuminations November 29th, 2013 to January 5th, 2014
Christmas Market December 15th and 15th