Three million visitors flock at the Vienna's Christkindlmarkt on Rathausplatz for beeswax candles, wooden toys, and glass ornaments. Shoppers snack on cream-filled pastries, candied fruit, roasted chestnuts, and Weihnachtspunsch (a spiced "Christmas punch" of wine, brandy, or schnapps sweetened with warm fruit juices). Here, it is celebrated with stories of Wiener Christkindl, the official Christ Child, played by a young woman with long blonde curls. There's another market of luxe Christmas wares in the baroque forecourt of the Schðnbrunn Palace, and a more intimate and sophisticated market lining the cobblestoned streets of Spittelberg district.
Recommendation: Choirs from around the world perform Christmas music as part of the Internationales Adventsingen festival.
It's currently in France, but it bears Teutonic traditions. It is the oldest and best Christmas market in France, complete with caroling choirs, nativity plays, an ice rink, and mulled wine served in boot-shaped mugs. The stalls are wooden and sells ornaments and nativity. Edible specialties include pretzels, roasted chestnuts, bredele cookies, and Flammekueche (a "flamed cake" thin pizza of bacon, onions, and crème fraîche).
Recommendation: The city mascot and an Alsatian symbol of good luck, stuffed white storks are found in the boutiques of La Petite France. The neighborhood's half-timbered houses are enveloped in a warm yellow glow of Christmas lights, and the gingerbread bakery is flocked with shoppers.
It is one of Europe's oldest markets; documents from the 15th century describing the fine crafts are being sold by elderly women in front of the Salzburg cathedral. Pewter crafts, furry slippers, loden coats, gingerbread, roasted chestnuts, almonds, sausages, and sweet mulled wine are found in the stalls.
Recommendation: One of the world's largest Advent calendars.
Romans put up presepi (Nativity scenes) across the city, from life-size tableaux on the Spanish Steps and before St. Peter's to countless crèches in church chapels, all populated by papier-mâché or terracotta figurines and most with a pizza parlor tucked between the shops of the Bethlehem backdrop. The stalls sell toys, handmade presepi figures, carnival games of chance, ciambelle (dinner plate-size doughnuts), and platters of peanut brittle.
Recommendation: "La Befana," the Christmas witch, traditionally brings Italian children presents on Epiphany.
Prague, Czech Republic
The markets of Wenceslas Square and in the medieval movie set of the Old Town Square are the two best Christmas markets. The brightly decorated stalls sell wooden toys, Bohemian crystal, handmade jewelry, Czech marionettes, and honeyed gingerbread, vánocvka (a braided pastry studded with raisins), and vosí hnízda' ("wasps nests," nutty cookies heavy with rum). Christmas Eve dinner consists of wine sausages and carp.
Recommendation: A highlight of Christmas season is Mikulas, or St. Nicholas Day. This saint takes his own day (Dec. 5) to roam town accompanied by an angel and a demon. The trio wades through the crowds of kids in the Old Town Square, tallying the naughty and nice.
Craft stalls are set up around a 85 feet tall Christmas tree on Marienplatz. Shoppers munch on sausages and reiberdatschi (potato pancakes), gulping glühwein, and crunching Lebkuchen (gingerbread). Every evening carols are played out at Gothic Rathaus (Town Hall).
Recommendation: Small themed markets is set up all round the city including the Kripperlmarkt on Rindermarkt, with Bavarian and Tyrolean Nativity figures, and a Medieval Market on Wittelsbacher Platz. Spiced wine and gingerbread is served in an old tram, which moves across the city.
Christmas is celebrated with a four-ton fruitcake. The citizens parade the city with the Fruitcake Maiden before entering into Striezelmarkt, which is as old as 1434.
Recommendation: You find the best crafts from artisans from across Saxony with regional specialities. They bring wooden crafts from the Ore Mountains, blown glass from Lauscha, Blaudruck indigo prints from the Lusatia region, incense burners shaped like nutcrackers, and Dresden's own famed blue-and-white ceramics.
Shopping season opens with Regent Street switching on lights for a pedestrian parade from Norwegian spruce on Trafalgar Square to the ice skating rink at Somerset House. Hyde Park turns into a winter wonderland with outdoor skating rink, toboggan slide, ferris wheel, carolers and a traditional market. Small markets are lined up at Natural History Museum. The best carols are heard at the Royal Albert Hall.
Recommendation: In the Great Christmas Pudding Race , costumed contestants tread an obstacle course around Covent Garden while balancing fruitcakes on spoons.
Copenhagen puts up Christmas markets and Christmas trees in the city's amusement park, Tivoli Gardens. Nearly four miles of lights are hung in patterns dictated by Tiffany's head designer, and are draped on the lakeside willows. The favourite Christmas food for the Danes is æbleskiver (iced doughnuts with black currant jam) and a steaming hot mulled red wine laden with raisins, almonds, cinnamon sticks, and cloves. There's also a market installed along a canal in Nyhavn district.
Recommendation: Tiny household elves flock Denmark around Christmas. They bring presents if you leave them bowls of porridge in the attic.
This market is since 2002. It includes a sound-and-light show on the Grand Place and a market surrounding the Bourse and along Place Sainte Catherine. The wooden chalets host artisans from around the world hawking vendoring Christmas wares, handmade crafts, and souvenirs. You can browse the food stalls for pots of mussels and caricoles (peppery whelks and winkles), Belgian fries and Belgian waffles, seasonal croustillons (sugar doughnuts), and Belgium's fine chocolates and powerful beer. There is a 160-foot Ferris wheel,vat the Place de la Monnaie, and a nearly 8,000-square-foot ice skating rink.
Recommendation: Brussels invites different guests from around the world to set up a market-within-the-market to share some of its own traditions.