10 Best Christmas Markets in Europe: Where to find the real festive spirit
Early birds get the worm...
From mulled wine in Munich to glögg in Gothenburg, nothing says winter like a Christmas market. Here's our pick for 2016.
Salzburg (pictured) may be the city of Mozart, but it's also the city of Josef Mohr.
Who? Mohr (1792-1848) was the local composer who wrote Silent Night, one of the world's most famous Christmas carols. When you're competing with Mozart however, not even Silent Night will win you name recognition.
There are no direct flights scheduled from Ireland to Salzburg (the Austrian city is an hour and 45 minutes by road from Munich). It's worth the extra effort, however, with a spread of stalls, cathedrals, set-pieces and cosy crannies that seems tailor-made for frosty-breathed festivities.
Salzburg's Christkindlmarkt takes place around the cathedral, with huts gathered at the foot of Hohensalzburg Fortress.
When: November 17 - December 26
How: Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies to Munich, a two-hour drive from Salzburg. HolidayGuru.ie is a good site for package deals.
Year after year, Irish visitors pay the majority of their continental Christmas visits to Budapest, Prague, Munich, Vienna and Berlin.
They do so for a reason - these big hitters consistently churn out some of the best shots of festive atmosphere in Europe. Budapest isn't content to scatter stalls around Vörösmarty Square, for example - it goes the extra mile by transforming the 18th century Gerbeaud House into a giant Advent Calendar, with a new window opening to reveal a painting daily at 5pm.
Budapest is one of those cities on the Danube that lays the seasonal atmospherics so thick, you'd half-expect St Nicholas himself to emerge from the local spa. Stalls offer everything from mulled wine to warm-your-heart waffles, and crafts are overseen by the Association of Hungarian Folk Artists, which is conscious that the markets introduce visitors to Hungarian culture.
When: November 10 to January 6
How: Abbey Travel (01 804-7100; abbeytravel.ie) has flights plus four nights in a 3-star hotel from €152pp in December.
Prague, Czech Republic
Prague is the perfect setting for the festive season, with its stunning castle, Old Town and Charles Bridge lit up like Christmas trees.
The city's central tree is practically worth a trip in itself too, shipped as it is from the Krkonose Mountains and erected right at the heart of the main markets in the Old Town Square (there's another market at Wenceslas Square).
Prague (like Munich and Budapest) is a good place to go if you want to get some decent department store shopping in along with the cutesy stuff at the markets - which includes Bohemian Crystal, wooden toys, scented candles, hand-made jewellery, ceramic mugs and decorative ornaments as Czech specialities.
When: December 3 to January 4
How: ClickAndGo.com has flights plus three nights in a 3-star hotel from €245pp, based on a December departure.
Copenhagen is almost impossible to do on the cheap, but it's easy to argue that you get what you pay for - a classy Christmas city with a smorgasbord of New Nordic cuisine thrown in to fill your stomach. . . if not your stocking.
First stop? The Tivoli Gardens, of course. Traditional Danish markets here set dozens of food and gift stalls against the backdrop fairy lights, reindeer rides and old-school rollercoasters - with the magical ambiance culminating in several nights of fireworks displays (usually held between Christmas and New Year).
Copenhagen is a good '2-for-1' spot - with Malmö just 35 minutes away over the Öresund Bridge. Sweden celebrates its St Lucia festival on December 13, with the Queen of Light borne aloft on a horse-drawn carriage.
When: November/December, dates TBC
Do it: Cassidy Travel (0818 332500; cassidytravel.ie) has two-night packages to Copenhagen, including flights and 3-star accommodation, from €148pp.
A visit to Poland's prettiest city is a perfect fit (or gift?) for Christmas.
Festivities centre in and around a market square unchanged in layout since 1257, with St Mary's Church and the surrounding buildings dotted with stalls selling baked potatoes, roast chestnuts and stocking fillers ranging from handmade ornaments to szopki - Krakow's famous nativity cribs.
The prettiness extends to prices, too. Krakow is one of the cheaper Christmas market cities to visit, with food and drink doing a lot less damage to the visitor's wallet than, say, in Vienna or Salzburg. Add the magic of Wawel Castle, the clip-clopping horses-and-carts and the energy of the city's 21st century bars and cafes, and you could have a Christmas to cherish.
When: November/December, dates TBC
Do it: Travel Department (01 637-1650; traveldepartment.ie) has flights plus four nights at the 3-star Hotel Chopin from €399pp. The price includes a walking tour and excursion.
Vienna oozes elegance at any time of year. At Christmas, however, the city ups a gear. Seasonal markets here are on the go since 1296, when Emperor Albrecht I granted Viennese traders the privilege of holding a December market for their customers.
Tradition seeps from the stalls like the warmth from a barrel of hot chestnuts. The main event is the Christkindlmarkt by Vienna's Town Hall. Christmas sees its Gothic facade lit up with fairy lights, and some 140 stalls shopping out the roasted almonds and gingerbread to three million visitors a year.
Austrians love their gemütlichkeit (cosiness), a sensation you'll be able to tap into in the city's classy cafes as much as its markets - more of which you'll find at Schönbrunn Palace, Am Hof and Karlskirche.
When: November 12 to December 24
How: Going to press, Sunway (sunway.ie) had a three-night Christmas Markets special to Vienna from €319pp, including flights and 3-star accommodation.
Berlin has threatened to steal Munich's market thunder ever since the Wall came down, but the Bavarian city is still Germany's best in our festive list.
Munich's town records mention a 'Nicholas Market' near the Frauenkirche as far back as 1642, with gingerbread, nativity figurines and chimney sweeps made of plums and almonds amongst the fancies on display. . . many of which you'll still find in the same place almost four centuries later.
Today's main markets are organised around a 100-foot Christmas tree in Marienplatz, where getting stuck into the Germanic fare is one of the most satisfying things a seasonal visitor can do. How do bad-ass bratwursts, hot-to-hold pretzels and tankards of frothy beer sound for starters?
Marienplatz is just the beginning, too. The Rindermarkt specialises in handmade cribs, and the gay Christmas Market on Stephansplatz is great fun with its pink trees and cross-dressing carol singers.
When: November 25 to December 24
Do it: Aer Lingus flies direct to Munich. Cassidy Travel (cassidytravel.ie), Abbey Travel (abbeytravel.ie), ClickAndGo.com and others do packages.
Gothenburg is another Christmas city where you may spend generously to have a good time, but there is good value if you know where to look.
Christmas markets at Liseberg Amusement Park cost SEK95/€10 to visit, locals assemble into the shape of a Christmas tree to sing carols in the Drottningtorget, and there's a cosy indoor alternative at the Nordstan Shopping Centre, where stalls sell crafts ranging from knitwear to graphics.
If you like your design, check out the market at Röda Sten Art Centre, and you'll find all manner of gifts and glögg (mulled wine) at the traditional markets in Haga. Finally, wrap up and take a walk along the Lane of Light, a 3km trail of lights connecting the port to Avenyn, the city's main shopping drag.
Alas, there are no direct flights from Ireland to Gothenburg.
When: Liseberg opens on November 18.
Do it: SAS (flysas.com) flies from Dublin via Copenhagen and Stockholm. Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies from London Stansted. KLM (klm.com/ie) and Lufthansa (lufthansa.com) offer other connecting options. See also goteburg.com.
Ok, so the 'little town of wood and cloth' isn't the sexiest tagline.
What Nuremberg can bring to the Christmas party, however, is atmosphere - and heaps of it. One-hundred-and-eighty stalls are decorated throughout the Old Town, creating a veritable Christmas City stocked with ornaments, gifts, toys, games and holiday treats ranging from rum punch to sweet-scented chestnuts.
The Christkindlesmarkt begins the first Sunday in Advent, when the famous Nuremberg Christkind appears on the balcony of the Church of Our Lady, and another local angel - the Rauschgoldengel, glistens from every corner.
There's a neat story to this one - the original Rauschgoldengel is said to have been fashioned by a local doll-maker whose daughter lay dying of fever during the Thirty Year War (1618-48). Before she passed, he heard the flutter of angel's wings and was inspired to create an angel in her memory.
When: November 25 to December 24
Do it: Nuremberg is a 90-minute drive from Munich Airport. Aer Lingus flies direct from Dublin to Munich, while Ryanair flies to Memmingen (Munich West).
All kinds of everything…
Can't decide which continental market to visit?
You may need an early Christmas pressie to bankroll it, but a river cruise is a hell of an option for visitors looking to visit several of Europe's best Christmas markets, without having to pack and unpack along the way.
Sunway has a luxury 'Christmas Markets on the Danube' cruise departing November 21 from €1,698pp. That's expensive, but includes flights, transfers and seven days all-inclusive on a five-star AMA Waterways ship, with ports of call in Nuremberg, Passau, Vienna and Budapest, among other stops and activities.
Do it: 01 231-1889; sunway.ie.
NB: All prices subject to availability/change. This story had been updated to reflect price and date changes for 2016.