Dreamy white Christmas

If you think the festive season is missing its magic, a wander through some of Europe's best Christmas markets will do wonders for your yuletide spirit, says Brian Johnston.

Europe shivers in the cold and dark in December, but it's also a time of sparkling lights, seasonal cheer and the white Christmases you usually only ever get to see on greeting cards in Australia.

The festive ambience is hard to beat on the Continent, and perhaps nothing captures it better than the Christmas markets that spring up in its cities all through the month.

Shopping here is quite unlike the usual bland mall experience, and showcases the best of traditional food, handicrafts and European good cheer. Christmas markets are rich in regional character and a sense of history, with some markets dating back as far as the 13th century.

Though tourists flock to them by the millions, they aren't just for visitors. Locals head to Christmas markets in order to shop, stock up on food, or even just to ice skate, sing carols and socialise.

Fairy lights glimmer, Christmas trees shimmer, carol singers entertain and market stalls often sit in the shadow of splendid castles and cathedrals. Here are 10 of the best.

Vienna, Austria

Vienna hosts the largest and oldest Christmas market in Austria in front of its elaborate town hall.

The surrounding trees are strung with lots of lights, while Christmas trees are hung with gilded pine cones and ribbons.

Carollers and musicians wander through the crowds like minstrels of old, the mulled wine is flavoured with cinnamon, and macaroons come dusted with nutmeg.


Treat yourself to a sweet Bohemian pastry and listen to a choir sing Silent Night in its original language, against a baroque backdrop and the frozen fountains of the imperial gardens.

Famous for Gingerbread in the shape of hearts, vanilla crescents, candied fruits and chestnuts, and spicy punch made from autumn berries. Hot apple strudel is another favourite.

Salzburg, Austria

Snow usually decorates the turrets of Salzburg's dreamy old town in December, and the 500-year-old market in front of the cathedral brings warmth to wintry vistas.

A giant Christmas tree dominates, but the Krippe or nativity scene made from carved wooden figures also draws in the crowds.

Musicians with trombones entertain those crowds, and local men in costume run through the shoppers shouting to scare away evil spirits for the coming year.

Kids nibble on gingerbread biscuits layered with jam, while adults warm their hands on bags of roasted chestnuts or almonds, whose smell drifts through the cobbled streets.

Famous for Traditional items such as wreaths made from pine branches, candles, fragile painted glass balls, and traditional Austrian tree decorations made of straw.

Prague, Czech Republic

There's no more atmospheric time to see this fabulous city than under snow, and sparkling with twinkling Christmas trees.

The colourful Christmas market is hosted in the vast main square, at the heart of Prague life since the 10th century, and overlooked by pastel-coloured baroque buildings and twisted Gothic spires.

Knock back some svarene vino (mulled wine) and munch on corn on the cob and slices of ham straight off the spit.

Puppets, Bohemian crystal and traditional Czech tree ornaments are good buys.

Famous for Its life-size manger scene and stable where children can get close to goats, sheep and donkeys. There's also a puppet theatre and kids' workshop for making ornaments.

Bruges, Belgium

The cobbled lanes, mediaeval canals and fairytale buildings of old-town Bruges seem designed for a Christmas market experience. And how often do you get the chance to shop in a World Heritage site?

In Market Square, snap up woollen hats, wooden toys, ceramic beer mugs and handmade jewellery beneath 13th-century facades.

A nip of jenever, a gin-like drink guaranteed to warm your frosty toes, is just the thing after a spin on the ice rink. Then wander down to stationsplein for the spectacular Ice Sculpture Festival.

Famous for Sinterklaas, a chocolate rendition of the jolly old fellow, and other Belgian goodies such as honey waffle biscuits, special ales brewed for the season and, of course, delicious chocolates.

Strasbourg, France

Established in 1570, France's oldest Christmas market spreads around the truly magnificent cathedral in Strasbourg's fairytale old town, making for an atmospheric setting among shining Christmas trees.

Stalls resemble little chalets and are adorned with pine boughs and garlands. You can buy ornaments, wooden toys, handicrafts and traditional seasonal foods such as gingerbread and pretzels as well as candied fruit.

Look out for sabots (shoes) made from caramelised sugar and stuffed with sweets and treats, a reminder that French kids leave out shoes rather than stockings for Father Christmas to fill with gifts.

Famous for Alsace's wonderful gastronomic produce. This is where locals go for seasonal treats such as pheasant, venison and truffles for the Christmas table.

Paris, France

Though it's a relative newcomer, the market along the iconic Avenue des Champs-Elysees has proved successful and is now the largest of Paris's Christmas markets.

Start off with a ride on the giant Ferris wheel at Place de la Concorde before wandering through about 160 chalet stalls.

Different themes each year celebrate the cuisines of French regions, but there are always waffles and crepes, as well as chocolate wreaths popping with candied fruit.

Nearby, the Grand Palais has carnival rides to amuse the kids.

Famous for Christmas lights, which are magical. Blue fairy lights are draped in the trees and the whole of the Avenue des Champs-Elysees shimmers all the way to the floodlit Arc de Triomphe.

Munich, Germany

Germany is the spiritual homeland of Christmas markets, huge in such cities as Berlin, Dresden and Stuttgart. For many people Munich's might be the most beautiful, however.

At the heart of the old town, Marienplatz has hosted a Christkindlmarkt since the 17th century, and it extends all the way through to the adjacent year-round Viktualienmarkt.

Tuck in to sausages with mustard, hot potato cakes, smoked fish, thick slabs of gingerbread, and stollen, a candied fruitcake dusted with icing sugar. The smell of cinnamon from hot wine hangs in the air.

Famous for The 30-metre Christmas tree that anchors the market, and also the music. The balcony of the Gothic town hall hosts brass bands and alpine choirs that bring plenty of seasonal cheer to the shoppers below.

Madrid, Spain

Christmas markets are surely at their best under the cold and snow, but make an exception for Madrid, where the Plaza Mayor has been doing Christmas with Latin flair and fun since 1860.

The grand square is always lively with cafes and restaurants and, throughout December, an additional 100 market stalls bring locals flocking to buy tinsel, ornaments and nativity scenes for their houses.

The nearby Plaza Santa Cruz sells wigs, costumes and joke presents for December 28, the Spanish April Fool's Day.

Famous for Its long run. The festive season and market continue until the Day of Kings on January 6, when the Spanish exchange presents and the plaza features the Three Kings parade.

Tallinn, Estonia

Christmas markets have been making a comeback in the Baltic states, and Tallinn's is the best. Though operating only since 2001, its setting in a mediaeval square gives it historical charm - though this year, a move to Rotermann Square may change the atmosphere.

It's only a small market, but it has an intimate feel, and snow is virtually guaranteed. Surrounding candle-lit cafes and boutiques add to the shopping opportunities.

Santa Claus makes an appearance in the evening, along with his two elves Scribble and Scrabble, much to the delight of children. Dancing and folk music also entertain.

Famous for Estonian crafts such as tree decorations made from wood and string, wooden bowls, embroidered quilts, stained glass and hand knits.

Copenhagen, Denmark

Tivoli Park is Europe's oldest amusement park and endearingly old-fashioned. At Christmas, hundreds of illuminated trees add sparkle, with decorations themed each year.

This year, it's a Nutcracker theme, with the ballet also showing at Tivoli Concert Hall. Multicoloured stalls sell crafts, wooden dolls, hand-painted candles and decorations.

Mulled wine (called glogg in these parts) comes rich in almonds and raisins and keeps the northern European cold at bay, as do hot apple dumplings dusted with cinnamon.

The main lake becomes a skating rink and the month finishes in a fireworks festival.

Famous for Fairground rides, roller-coasters and plenty of entertainment beyond shopping. Father Christmas makes his rounds, concerts entertain and mechanical pixies cavort. Magic.

Trip notes

Getting there

Emirates flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Dubai with onward connections to more than 20 European cities. Return economy fares from $1750 from Sydney, low season, including taxes. 1300 303 777, emirates.com/au.

Address book

Vienna Rathausplatz, christkindlmarkt.at
Salzburg Residentzplatz, christkindlmarkt.co.at
Prague, myczechrepublic.com
Bruges Grote Markt, winterinbrugge.be
Strasbourg Place de la Cathedrale, www.noel-strasbourg.com
Paris Avenue des Champs-Elysees, parisvillagedenoel-champselysees.com
Munich Marienplatz, muenchen.de
Madrid Plaza Mayor, esmadrid.com
Tallinn Rotermann Square, christmas.ee
Copenhagen Tivoli Gardens, visitcopenhagen.com

More information

Austrian National Tourist Office, austria.info/au
Belgium Tourist Office, www.visitbelgium.com
Czech Tourism, czechtourism.com
Estonian Tourist Board, visitestonia.com
French Tourist Office, franceguide.com
German National Tourist Board, germany-tourism.de
Tourist Office of Spain, spain.info
Visit Denmark, visitdenmark.com