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I love Christmas Markets. If I hear that there is one being held anywhere that is within my reach, no matter how big or small, I try to visit. When I was small a visit to the local Christmas Market was as much part of the run-up to Christmas as writing a letter to Santa, baking cookies, wrapping presents and decorating the house. Hopefully, one day, my children will have the same fond memories of our visits as I do of the visits of my childhood.
Location and getting there
The Southbank Centre Christmas Market is located along the River Thames, right in front of the Southbank Centre, and just metres from the London Eye. Boasting a location that could hardly be any more central than this, the market is easy to reach with public transport. Good news for all those who live in or near London but dreadful for those who come from further afield and need to find a space to park their car. Public parking is sparse, free public parking even harder to find – almost impossible on a weekday. On a Sunday, when the usual restrictions don’t apply, you might be able to find a parking space on the other side of the Thames– and crossing the bridge is not only a scenic little walk with great views but also done in minutes. It’s so far worked for us every time, although sometimes we needed to circle around a bit, and beats leaving the car somewhere in North London and proceeding with the
public transport after already having sat through a 1 ½ hour journey.
If you live in London I’d strongly advice to leave the car at home.
What does it offer?
As soon as you reach the market you’ll be engulfed but the enticing scent of Christmas Market: fresh candyfloss, donuts, Crepes, roasted nuts, German Bratwurst, hamburgers and Gluehwein (mulled wine) ... There is plenty more I’ve forgotten to mention, this just reflects our menu of the day of our visit. You could say we “ate” our way once up and down the market, starting with sweets – and finishing with delicious German sausages from the grill. Yeah, I know, it should have been the other way round, but this is a visit to a Christmas Market and supposed to be all fun and happiness, so the sweets can come first.
There are something in between 80 and 90 stalls, a relatively small Christmas market that is very easy to manage and enjoyably much less crowded than I was expecting. No comparison to the big German markets I used to visit to which I would never recommend a visit on a weekend. The kids had no problem getting a good luck at the lovingly decorated stalls and merchandise without being pushed out of the way, and I’ve seen plenty of families with push chairs who seemed to have no problem navigating around the market.
The stalls are pretty decorated and offer a nice variety of present ideas from all around the world. We bought items from stalls selling gifts made in France, Mexico and Poland but there are other countries represented too. So if you are looking for a present that is a bit unusual you might just find it here. There were beautiful scarves, handmade leather bags and purses, wooden toys, Christmas decorations, books, CD’s, hand-made jewellery, soaps and more.
Prices are average, which is cool for central London and an event of this size.
This market is organized by Xmas Markets Ltd who are specialised in bringing German style Christmas Markets to the English. They also organize the market in Canterbury and have been on the Southbank since 5 years now. The market usually starts around mid-November and than lasts until December 23rd. It is open daily from 10am to 5pm. The good thing is that they are missing the whole kitchen goods section that seems to be obligatory on the German markets and you won’t find a vendor praising the fantastic specifications of a food processor at the top of his voice, as well as the guys who will fry an egg of the bonnet of a car and then remove the damage with a miracle potion. No shopping channel style sales techniques for items nobody really should want to buy for Christmas here, only good old fashioned artisan stands, just the way it should be!
Events and activities on and around the market
On at least one weekend they are supplemented by a Real Food Christmas Market, not organized by the same company, which offers a large variety of food specialities from all around the world – including foodie gift ideas. Unfortunately I’ve managed to miss this one so far every year, so can only comment on the market. I love food and the idea of the foodie market combined with the Christmas Market sounds like a little piece of paradise to me, so I’ll definitely try to go on the day when both markets are on this year.
There is also a small section with activities for children which ours have outgrown by now, like Santa visiting or face-painting. Then there is a merry-go-round which we are all not too old for – and musical entertainment. We heard a choir sing Christmas songs which was rather nice if you want to get into the Christmas spirit. All four of us love this market and we’ll try to visit every year.
If you would like to eat something a bit more substantial, or mixed up, as the food that is available on the market, you can always visit one of the many restaurants in the area. In the Southbank Centre, which is literally just metres away, you can find several eateries, including a branch of wagamama, Sushi, Italian, Thai, and if you walk a bit there is even more to choose from. Also comes handy if it is really cold and you wish to sit inside for a while to warm up - or need to find shelter from the occasional rain shower.
My tip: Visit in the afternoon so that you will get to see the market when it gets dark. With all the lights, the London Eye and House of Parliament in the backdrop, it is really magical!