‘Tis the season… to panic buy, mostly. If teeming high streets and tourist market mayhem frighten the fairy lights out of you, how do you avoid hasty (and regrettable) sock purchases?

Don’t wait for a Christmas miracle to help you find the perfect present. Here are our Lonely Planet Locals’ tips for finding quirky gifts, local produce and festive pit stops that will fuel you up for a day of chaos-free Christmas shopping in 10 cities around the world.

Two men sit in front of a Christmas tree made of lights in Porto, Portugal
Porto's giant Christmas tree made-up entirely out of twinkling lights © luisbotaro / Shutterstock

Porto, Portugal

Winter injects Porto with a whole new air of charm. Spindly trees set against weathered buildings give a decidedly Harry Potter-esque feel, while luminous ice-skating rinks pop up in Praça de Dom João I and Rotunda da Boavista. The city’s crowning glory is the giant Christmas tree in Avenida dos Aliados, which flicks its lights on 1 December.

For gifts, head along to the Artesanatus market in Largo Amor de Perdição, held in a transparent dome encircled with artisan stalls. For something extra special, visit a local jeweller and pick up a traditional filigree pendant or earrings.

Treat yourself: Post-shop, grab yourself a cone of street-roasted chestnuts (just follow the smoke) and head uptown for a warming tawny port at a cosy bar like ARCA, or if feeling peckish, scoot downtown to sink your teeth into a hearty Argentinian steak at Belos Aires.

Emily McAuliffe is an Australian travel writer and copywriter based in Portugal. Follow her on Instagram @mcauliffeemily

Christmas shopping secrets: The interior of Urban Therapy concept store, Brussels © Analia Glogowski / Lonely Planet
Shop for thoughtful gifts at Urban Therapy © Analia Glogowski / Lonely Planet

Brussels, Belgium

With the Brussels Stock Exchange lit up like a Christmas tree and the central streets sparkling, it’s worth wandering through the Winter Wonders festive market to take it all in from the Ferris wheel. But if crowds and faux snow aren’t in tune with your inner Santa, nearby Rue de Flandre has alternative gift ideas wrapped up.

Bel’Arte offers Belgian designer jewellery, chic light fixtures and buy-me-now art, allowing you to slip some original local gifts underneath the tree, while Urban Therapy’s concept store sells affordable creations like personalised terrariums and warming vodka-infused teas.

Treat yourself: Shopping can be hungry work, so once you’ve ticked a few things off your list, head to Frederic Blondeel, one of the city’s finest chocolatiers, for a comforting cup of hot chocolate.

Analia Glogowski is a Brussels-based travel writer. Follow her on Instagram @the_brusselsprouts.

Lima, Peru

Peru is a land of makers, and there are plenty of year-round artisan markets to prove it. In Lima, after perusing the stalls around Avenue Petit Thouars, venture south to find Artesanías Las Pallas in Barranco. In this colourful colonial home-turned-gift shop, you’ll find true artisanal treasures: handknit dolls, swoon-worthy textiles, and lotions and essential oils featuring native flora. Owner Mari Solari and her Peruvian hairless dog soon make you feel at home – a sensation that most of us crave this time of year!

Treat yourself: Nothing takes the edge off like a pisco sour from Gran Hotel Bolivar, where the outdoor seating area is especially romantic thanks to the view of Plaza San Martin shining bright with Christmas decorations.

Agnes Rivera is an editor based in Lima. Follow on Instagram @laboratoriodereciclaje.

Christmas shopping secrets: Karlskirche, Vienna at night © George Pachantouris / Getty Images
Karlskirche looks extra special when surrounded by sparkling Christmas lights © George Pachantouris / Getty Images

Vienna, Austria

Vienna wears its festive spirit like a brash Christmas jumper – think warm punsch (Austrian mulled wine) and sweet lebkuchen (gingerbread-style biscuits), twinkling lights and angelic choirs on cold, snowy streets – but not all Christmas markets are created equal.

Avoid the tourist traps outside Schonbrunn Palace and the Rathaus. For something original, try the art advent at Karlskirche, where artisan stallholders sell hand-carved woodwork, modern art prints, cosy knits and organic local food. Vendors submit their crafts to a jury for approval if they want to sell here, which means the stalls are different every year.

Treat yourself: Sip a warm gluhwein or coffee in one of Vienna’s grand coffeehouses. Usually, a suited pianist tinkles Christmas favourites at Cafe Sperl, offering just the right amount of festive cheer to accompany a slice of sacher torte.

Carly Hulls is a Vienna-based writer. Follow her tweets @carlyhulls.

Christmas shopping secrets: Mirzam chocolate bars on a marble counter © Lara Brunt / Lonely Planet
Stuff yourself silly on posh chocolate this Christmas © Sue Johnston / Mirzam

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

For an arty alternative to Dubai’s malls, head to Alserkal Avenue. Among the edgy galleries are a handful of cool indie stores. Pick up a hand-painted kimono-abaya from CHI-KA; stock up on single-origin chocolate at Mirzam; hit up The Flip Side for eclectic vinyl; and spoil someone with a pair of limited-edition sneakers from The Good Life. On Saturdays, jump in a taxi to Ripe Night Market at Al Barsha Pond Park for palm trees festooned with fairy lights, acoustic carols, craft stalls and foodie stocking fillers.

Treat yourself: All shopped out? Sip mulled wine and feast on gooey fondue at Après, a ski lodge-style bar overlooking Ski Dubai, while you watch excitable snow bunnies pelt each other with snowballs.

Lara Brunt is a journalist based in Dubai. Follow her tweets @larabrunt.


Swap the frenetic malls of Orchard Rd for the low-key buzz of Chip Bee Gardens, a micro-neighbourhood moments from Holland Village. First stop: custom bookbinding and leather-craft atelier Bynd Artisan, where you can spend just minutes or whole hours creating personalised notebooks. Ladies shouldn’t miss contemporary Singaporean womenswear label Ong Shunmugam’s flagship store before making a beeline for Monocle, where minimalistic fashion and design items reign alongside issues of this cult magazine.

Treat yourself: Join the Instagram crowd at Sunday Folks for possibly the best waffles on The Red Dot – the sea salt gula melaka (palm sugar) soft serve topping is a must-try. If you’re looking for liquid sustenance, try Green Door, a lush oasis in nearby Dempsey Hill that serves delectable cocktails.

Ria de Jong is a travel writer based in Singapore. Follow her tweets @ria_in_transit.

Christmas shopping secrets: A close up of pin badges at Neptoon Records in Vancouver © John Lee / Lonely Planet
Obscure pin badges might be just what they're looking for... © John Lee / Lonely Planet

Vancouver, Canada

Downtown Vancouver is studded with the usual chain store suspects – but on Main Street, where eclectic independent shops rule, finding one-of-a-kind gifts is easy. Start at the Regional Assembly of Text, a hip stationery store lined with must-have journals and esoteric stocking-stuffers. Then drop into Smoking Lily for achingly cool tops and scarves printed with insect and periodic table motifs. Need something really quirky? Try Neptoon Records for vintage vinyl Christmas albums plus 1980s retro pin badges proclaiming obscure bands and forgotten political movements.

Treat yourself: Rest your weary shopping muscles at Brassneck Brewery, where Inertia Imperial Stout and a cured elk sausage from the jar on the counter are recommended.

John Lee is a Vancouver-based travel writer. Follow his tweets @johnleewriter.

Christmas shopping secrets: A high-angle shot of three Christmas decoration sellers in Moscow © Adadolu Agency / Getty Images
Moscow comes over all Christmassy in December © Adadolu Agency / Getty Images

Moscow, Russia

Orthodox Christmas may not be until January 7, but that doesn’t stop Moscow transforming to accommodate the Christmas spirit throughout December. Red Square is the perfect place to start, with artisanal food stands and craft sellers, plus stalls hawking mulled wine, cinnamon and sea buckthorn tea. Revolution Square, Bolshoy Theatre, Tverskaya Square and Old Arbat street also feature a long line of stalls; look for decorations, handmade woollen scarves and mittens, gingerbread, spice cakes and other local delicacies. Ever tried a cranberry vodka spread?

Treat yourself: Rest weary feet in some of the city’s anti-cafes (like Kotiki I Luydi, complete with resident cats) or cosy bars hidden within old factory areas like Vinzavod, Flakon, or Artplay. For a little luxury, nothing beats the Kremlin view from the Ritz-Carlton’s rooftop bar.

Travel and media geek Kira Tverskaya is the Lonely Planet Local in Moscow. Follow her on Instagram @thelovingstranger.

San Francisco, USA

Dubbed ‘Diagon Alley for hipsters’, Oakland’s Temescal Alley was once a row of Victorian horse stables. Since its conversion into a cute pedestrian street occupied by local artisans, speciality shops trade in everything from books and retro wares to apothecary potions. Marisa Mason handmakes bohemian jewellery creations in her store, while micro-nursery Crimson Horticultural Rarities sells weird plants in terrariums and craft pots.

Treat yourself: Warm up at Driftwood with a strong drink, open fire and vintage piano, tempting you to play a Christmas song or two. Or try Columbus Avenue, the centre of San Francisco’s beatnik culture, with cosy boozers such as Vesuvio Cafe, Jack Kerouac’s old stomping ground, and Specs Twelve Alder Museum Cafe, filled with oddities and taxidermy.

Jade Bremner is a travel writer based in the USA. Follow her tweets @jadebremner.

Need more city travel inspiration? Check out The Cities Book, a celebration of 200 of the world’s great cities, beautifully photographed and packed with trip advice and recommendations.


Explore related stories


Festivals & Events

Is Brussels a good option for an autumn weekend break?

Sep 19, 2023 • 4 min read