From Stockholm to Berlin via Budapest, Paul Ewart explores the best Christmas markets the Continent has to offer - where hand-made gifts, local delicacies and lashings of tradition are to be found.
PICTURE the scene: you're wrapped cosily in a coat, hat and boots. Your fingers grip a steaming glass of mulled wine. The smell of roasting chestnuts, sausages and spicy gingerbread fills the air, along with the angelic sound of choirboys singing carols.
Under your feet, powdery fresh snow crunches as you walk past Gothic church facades and ancient half-timbered houses. Fellow shoppers bustle past you, pausing to sample a lip-smacking local delicacy from one of the many surrounding food stalls.
Above you, stars and fairy lights twinkle and another snowflake falls silently onto your nose. Not your average shopping experience, is it?
Dating to the Middle Ages, the Christmas market is a favourite element of Europe's Yuletide celebrations. Nowhere does a market better than Germany, where Dresden and Berlin host two of the best-known of the country's 2500 markets.
But while Germany and France are well represented, they no longer have a monopoly on festive cheer. New markets that adhere to the original Germanic template have sprung up across Europe and are catering to an increasing demand from Christmas-time tourists.
Traditionally beginning on the Friday before the start of Advent and ending on Christmas Eve, markets offer the perfect antidote to our global culture of Identikit high-street stores and malls. Selling handcrafted, locally produced gifts at purse-friendly post-GFC prices, this is a retail experience like no other.
The Christkindlmarkt on the square in front of the magnificent Town Hall is Vienna's classic Christmas market. At more than 700 years old, Christkindlmarkt is also one of the oldest. Look for traditional images of St Nicholas and the devil (Krampus) sculpted in confectionery and, when you've had one sweet too many, take a stroll in the surrounding Rathaus Park - transformed into an enchanted scene of snow-blowing gargoyles, pony rides and endless streams of traditional red Viennese hearts.
When November 13-December 24.
Buy Hand-blown glass orbs, silverware, red heart ornaments and incredibly detailed, hand-painted biscuit moulds.
Eat Golden kartoffelpuffen (potato cakes), sausages and hams.
Don't miss The Vienna Boys' Choir, free on Sunday mornings at the historic Hofburg Chapel.
Getting there Austrian Airlines flies from Sydney via Bangkok or Singapore. austrian.com.
More information wien.info.
Dating to 1434, Dresden can legitimately lay claim to the market crown. Traditionally called Striezelmarkt - after a sweet delicacy the city was famous for, now known globally as stollen cake - the market stays true to its mediaeval origins. Its 250 stalls house traditional craftsmen selling their wares; however, the focal point is undoubtedly the world's tallest Christmas pyramid, complete with life-sized depictions of angels and the nativity.
When November 26-December 24.
Buy Christmas pyramids, candle-holders, glass baubles, bright blue-and-white hand-thrown ceramics and the traditional pflaumentoffel, a chimney-sweep figure made of dried prunes.
Eat Stollen cake, obviously. Only approved bakers are allowed to sell the traditional, yeasty cake.
Don't miss The Stollen Festival, held on the second Sunday in December. A 3000-kilogram stollen is paraded through the city, presided over by a glamorous Stollenmaedchen (the stollen maiden).
Getting There Lufthansa flies from Sydney to Dresden five times a week. lufthansa.com.
More information dresden-tourist.de.
Berlin has 60 markets spread across the city this year, with at least one in each of its 12 districts. While you can still find the traditional sights, sounds and smells, the city's cutting-edge ethos prevails so many markets have a more contemporary feel. The most popular is Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedaechtniskirche. Other notable locations include the Charlottenburg Castle and Potsdamer Platz, which is a great option for kids, thanks to the nearby Legoland Discovery Centre.
When November 23-December 31.
Buy Unique artwork and contemporary jewellery.
Eat Bratwurst, currywurst and potato cakes.
Don't miss Europe's largest mobile toboggan run in the Winterwelt market in Potsdamer Platz.
Getting there Qantas flies to Berlin via Hong Kong and London. qantas.com.au.
More information christmas-markets-germany.de.
Prague, Czech Republic
Wenceslas Square hosts one of the most famous markets around. The 11th-century marketplace has rows of wooden huts selling stocking-fillers, a stage-set nativity scene and daily carol singers and bands. Most impressive is the enormous Christmas tree ablaze with lights.
When November 28-January 1.
Buy Handmade wooden puppets that represent characters from Czech folklore, Bohemian crystal, garnet jewellery and traditional straw-and-maize decorations.
Eat Trdlo, a soft yeast dough that is wrapped around a hot metal pin and baked into a cylinder, then rolled in ground almond and sugar.
Don't miss Mikulas (St Nicholas Day) on December 5, when actors portraying St Nicholas, an angel and the devil appear at the market, rewarding good children with treats.
Getting There Qantas flies to Prague via London.
More information czechtourism.com.
What Tallinn's Christmas market lacks in history, it makes up for with beautiful, chocolate-box charm.Taking place in the cobblestone 15th-century
Old Town square, 60-plus wooden stalls are clustered around a huge Christmas tree. By December, Tallinn is usually under a quilt of snow. The Gothic town hall in front of the market provides a fairytale feel and, when the cold gets too much, there are candlelit restaurants on the fringes of the square that can provide excellent refuge.
When November 27-January 9.
Buy Carved wooden bowls, decorations made from wood and twine, hand-knitted jumpers, felted hats, buckwheat pillows, ceramics and glassware.
Eat Spicy blood sausages and sauerkraut, soups, marzipan and gingerbread.
Don't miss The open-air ice rink in nearby Harju Street.
Getting there Finn Air flies from Sydney to Tallinn via Hong Kong and Helsinki. finnair.com.
More information tourism.tallinn.ee.
In the capital's romantic, 19th-century Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen's main market celebrates Jul (yuletide) in style. The kilometres of Christmas lights need to be seen to be believed. Add to this a carnival-like atmosphere, courtesy of its theme-park location, lashings of potent gloegg (a highly alcoholic mulled wine) and you have a recipe for Christmas shopping heaven. If the shopping doesn't appeal, try the ice rink, concerts, pantomimes and ballet performances.
When November 20-December 30.
Buy Knitwear, sheepskin rugs, figurines of clog-clad elves and Royal Copenhagen porcelain.
Eat Apple dumplings, doughnuts slathered in blackcurrant jam and roasted almonds.
Don't miss The annual Christmas beer tasting on November 18, complete with free tasting sessions and live jazz.
Getting There KLM flies from Sydney via Amsterdam to Copenhagen. klm.com.
More information visitcopenhagen.com.
Lille hosts the largest market in northern France. The city is ablaze with colour, lights and lavish evergreen garlands embellished with red-and-gold ribbons. The marketplace in the Grand Place is dominated by a 50-metre Ferris wheel; at its base is the Village de Noel - a reproduction of a snow-covered village. The market's 60-plus wooden stalls sell crafts and gourmet treats.
When November 24-December 30.
Buy Nativity figurines and Christmas decorations, traditional French toys.
Eat Cheese, chicory pate, macaroons and babeluttes (soft caramels).
Don't miss Father Christmas "falling" from the Chamber of Commerce's 80-metre belfry on the Saturday before Christmas.
Getting there Air France flies from Sydney to Lille. airfrance.com/au.
More information noel-a-lille.com.
Two markets really stand out. One is Gamla Stan, in the city's oldest neighbourhood. Held in the shadow of the Royal Castle, the Gamla Stan market hosts small stalls that sell home-made gifts and traditional Swedish Christmas foods. From here, take a boat to the market at Skansen and the world's oldest open-air museum at the same time, including a zoo complete with Nordic animals. Market staff wear folk costumes.
When November 21-December 24.
Buy Embroidery, leather goods and ornaments made of straw.
Eat Smoked sausage, eel, salmon, pepparkakor (ginger snaps), saffron buns and braenda mandlar (roasted, candied almonds).
Don't miss The Christmas window display at NK, Stockholm's swankiest department store.
Getting There Scandinavian Airlines flies from Sydney to Stockholm. flysas.com.
More information visit-stockholm.com.
City officials claim their "Christmas street" is Europe's longest. Set in the Old Town, Basel's market features choirs and concerts aplenty and more than 100 stalls and houses, in which traders and craftspeople offer their goods and demonstrate their skills. Whether they desire a sparkling diamond bracelet or world peace, visitors can write a private seasonal wish in the city's Book of Wishes.
When November 25-December 23.
Buy Decorations, toys and knives.
Eat Basel biscuits and wine.
Don't miss The Coursing of St Nicholas on December 30. Marking the end of Christmas and beginning of New Year, the celebration sees "St Nicholas" being chased through the streets by 44 men armed with boughs of holly and sprigs of mistletoe (representing the new year).
Getting there Lufthansa flies from Sydney to Basel. lufthansa.com.
More information baslerweihnacht.ch.
Budapest has several markets, with the most popular being at Voeroesmarty Square. Ranked as one of the best in Europe, folk dances take place daily among Voeroesmarty Square's 150-plus cottage-style stalls.
When November 19-December 29.
Buy Handmade, authentic glassware and wooden puppets.
Eat Goulash, strudel , Christmas cookies, sausages and sweet yeast cake.
Don't miss The Gerbeaud building's Advent calendar "opens" at 5pm daily — look at the windows for brilliant scenes.
Getting There Austrian Airlines flies from Sydney via Vienna. austrian.com.
More information budapestinfo.hu/en.