Sarah Marshall seaches for treats and trinkets as she rounds up the best of the Christmas markets in Europe
Cynics may scoff at the idea of a place being ‘magical’, but that’s probably because they haven’t paid a visit to Prague.
With its Gothic cathedrals, cobblestone streets and colourful townhouses, this fairytale capital of the Czech Republic provides the postcard-perfect setting for a Christmas market.
The heady smell of hot wine (svarak) and cinnamon-sweet pastries is unforgettable, while the artisan gifts for sale are a pleasing antidote to the usual plastic toys that fill department stores at this time of year. Bohemian crystal ornaments, handmade woolly scarves and sturdy, wooden toys are all worth buying.
There are several markets in the city, notably in Wenceslas Square and Namesti Republiky, but the most famous - and beautiful - stalls can be found in the Old Town Square. This is definitely the place to go for an authentic festive fix.
Once you’ve shopped, take time to soak up the city’s atmosphere. At night, the square is illuminated by strands of twinkling fairly lights, with entertainment provided by choir singers and traditional Czech dancers.
It’s hard not to be swept away by the romance of it all, especially as crowds gather around the Square’s impressive centrepiece: the towering Christmas tree. Decorated with hundreds of dazzling lights, it looks truly magnificent and would enchant even the most hardened Scrooge.
:: When: November 26, 2011 to January 8, 2012
:: Where to stay: Rooms at the Hilton Prague Hotel start at £123 per night. Visit www.hilton.co.uk/prague
:: Getting there: Easyjet fly from London and Bristol to Prague, from £53 return in December (including taxes). Visit www.easyjet.com
Those who fear the Christmas spirit may have been buried beneath a pile of tinsel and till receipts, might want to consider a trip to Copenhagen.
While there are plenty of opportunities to go shopping, the city has much more to offer than consumer pursuits.
Begin a festive journey at the Tivoli Gardens amusement park, which dates back to 1843. The quirky sights, including a Moorish palace and a late-19th century pantomime theatre, attract thousands of visitors each year.
Since 1994, the park has been open for Christmas, and for many Danes, a festive visit to Tivoli has become a tradition.
Alongside the kitsch, old-fashioned rides, seasonal attractions include ice sculptors, jovial elves, and a winter tableau with snow-covered pine trees. This year, the park will unveil a Russian city with a cathedral and 21m high tower.
Satisfied you’ve experienced a sufficient amount of culture, it’s time to turn your attention back to shopping. More than 70 decorated stalls can be found in Tivoli, selling a range of goodies including hand-blown glass balls, caramelised apples, steaming mulled wine and delicious Danish doughnuts.
:: When: November, 11, 2011 to December 29, 2011. Visit www.visitcopenhagen.com
:: Where to stay: Rooms at the Radisson Blu start at £160 per night (excluding breakfast). Visit www.radissonblu.com/royalhotel-copenhagen
:: Getting there: SAS fly from London and a range of regional departure points. Single fares start from £85 from Birmingham, £86 from Aberdeen and £63 from London Heathrow (including taxes). Call 0871 226 7760 or visit www.flysas.co.uk
Days may be short and dark during winter, but Sweden’s second city still manages to celebrate the festive season with an impressive light display.
From mid-November, a 3km Lane of Light will run through the city, stretching from the harbour to the Liseberg Amusement Park, home to Scandinavia’s biggest Christmas market.
Amid an epic display of 700 Christmas trees and five million dazzling lights, 80 rustic stalls will be selling traditional arts and crafts along with modern design-led pieces.
Marinated herring, marzipan pigs and spiced ‘glogg’ wine will all be on the menu, as will roasted reindeer meat served by indigenous Sami people from Lapland. Drinks, meanwhile, will be served from a bar made of blue ice.
Plan a visit on December 11 or 13 if you want to witness the city’s famous Lucia ‘Queen of Light’ coronation. Choral concerts will be held in candlelit churches throughout the city.
:: When: November 18-27, 2011, weekends only, then daily from November 30, 2011 to December 23, 2011. Entry costs 90 SEK (£8). Visit www.goteborg.com
:: Where to stay: Rooms at the family-friendly Hotell Liseberg Heden, within the amusement park, start from £56 per person based on four sharing a room, including breakfast and free entry to the Liseberg Christmas market
:: Getting there: SAS fly from London Heathrow to Gothenburg, from £63 (including taxes). Call 0871 226 7760 or visit www.flysas.co.uk
Black Forest, Germany
German cities are famous for their Christmas markets, but for a more alternative setting, shoppers should explore the Black Forest.
A traditional market will be held along the cobbled streets of Freiburg, with stalls selling Gluhwein, chestnuts, wooden cuckoo clocks and hand puppets, but more esoteric events are planned for towns and villages in the surrounding area.
In the medieval town of Gengenbach, a 200-year-old town hall will be transformed into a giant advent calendar, with a new window opened each day. An accompanying market will run from late November.
East of Freiburg, in Ravennaschlucht gorge, a small cluster of stalls will trade beneath a stone railway viaduct.
Should you miss the pre-Christmas period altogether, there’s still a chance to enjoy special events taking place from December 25 until the New Year. Each evening, 800,000 candles will be carried to the Triberg Waterfalls, some of the tallest in Germany.
:: When: The Freiburg Market takes place from November 21, 2011 to December 23, 2011. Visit www.freiburg.de
:: Where to stay: The Freiburg Tourist Board are offering a special Christmas market package for two nights in a 3-star hotel on half board basis with mulled wine voucher, from £115 per person based on double occupancy. Book online at www.freiburg.de
:: Getting there: Easyjet fly from Edinburgh and London to Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg from £36 return in December. Visit www.easyjet.com
If a trip abroad is out of the question, there are still a number of decent markets around the UK.
Edinburgh’s annual festive affair has been going from strength to strength, blending continental traditions with local foods and crafts. This year, the market will be divided into several themed areas: German, Highland, Ethical and Farmer.
Stallholders from Frankfurt will be selling traditional sausages and warming mulled wine, while Scottish produce, such as speciality game and meats, chutneys and breads, can be found in the Farmers’ Market and Highland Village.
Those thinking of going green this year could make a one-stop visit to the Ethical Fair, open from December 12 to 20. Gift ideas include eco-friendly gadgets and Fairtrade chocolates.
A winter wonderland with ice rinks and a funfair will keep kids entertained, too.
:: When: November 26, 2011 to December 24, 2011. Visit www.visitscotland.com/surprise
:: Where to stay: The 5-star Scotsman Hotel has double rooms from £140 per night in December. Visit www.thescotsmanhotel.co.uk
:: Getting there: Trains to Edinburgh vary in price depending on where you’re travelling from. Visit www.directrail.com for more information