The ultimate guide to Europe's quirky Christmas markets
FESTIVE: The Christmas markets are probably one of our favourite things about December but getting to Europe's capital cities for a festive weekend in the snow can quickly become costly. So we've lined up 10 quirky Christmas markets, showcasing some of Europe's undiscovered gems at great prices. Whether you're looking for a cheap couple's weekend away, a short break with friends or a festive trip with the family, these off-the-beaten-track Christmas markets all have an edge on the big names in festive fare and won't break the bank.
Dresden - Germany's oldest market
If Germany is the home of Christmas markets, then Dresden is most certainly the Big Mumma of them all. As the end-of-year festivities roll around each year, this East German city literally rams itself full of Christmas markets selling delicacies, decorations and handicrafts from all over the country. The pick of the bunch has to be the Strizelmarkt, one of several who lay claim to the title of oldest German market and located in Altmarket Square, right in the heart of Dresden's historical centre. Its records date back as far back as 1434 and its name comes from Hefestriezel - sweet platted bread stuffed to the brim with raisins - now known as Christstollen. You can still watch the artisan bakers at their craft on a wander through the stalls, as well as glass blowers and carvers making intricate Christmas decorations.
Instead of rows and aisles, the market is laid out in clusters of stalls, with endless little nooks and crannies to discover. One moment, you'll be browsing the textiles and pottery from Lusatia, the next standing in front of the world's tallest tiered Christmas pyramid. You can also count on plenty of mulled wine and gingerbread to thaw frosty fingers and hungry bellies.
Cologne - Christmas shopping in a gothic cathedral
Just like many of its fellow German cities, you can't move for the amount of Christmas markets in Cologne during December. The tempting smells of hot roast chestnuts and gingerbread follow the revellers as they shop, invariably luring them into one of the stalls for a quick bite to eat and a place to watch the glassblowers at work. The Am Dom market, held in the grounds surrounding the imposing Cologne Cathedral, is particularly special. As well as being dwarfed by Europe's largest cathedral, the market offers around 160 stalls to peruse at your leisure. It might be bitingly cold but a constant stream of traditional Glühwein and German music are on tap to warm chilly fingers and thaw frozen insides. The market also boasts the tallest Christmas tree in the Rhine, always decorated with the utmost care and strings of lights to cast its glow over the whole area.
For those travelling with little ones, head to the Alter Markt where Santa will be waiting in his grotto, along with row upon row of toys and a puppet theatre, or the market on the Rudolfplatz will take you to the world of the Brothers Grimm with its fairy-tale figures and lights.
Valkenburg - Christmas in a cave
This cave-filled city is little-known outside the Netherlands but it provides the perfect location for some of the most original markets in Europe. Wander into the bowels of the Earth and emerge into a land of fairy lights and Christmas delights. Just a short ferry ride accross the North Sea, the town has not one but two intriguing Christmas markets to visit. The Municipal Cave holds the largest and oldest underground market in Europe, with its long, winding galleries and stalls which are literally stacked to tipping point with beautiful Belgian chocolate (there are other goodies on offer but we didn't pay much attention).
The Velvet cave is also a firm favourite with over 50 stalls to browse, as well as murals and sculptures and an incredible little 18th century chapel that you'd never have guessed was hiding just below the Earth's surface. The market also plays host to Santa's grotto and a cosy little café to grab a mug of steaming hot chocolate.
Salzburg - Swap mulled wine for melange
If you're lucky, there'll be snow underfoot as you browse the beautifully-lit stalls of Salzburg's Christkindlmarkt. As one of the most romantic locations that Europe has to offer, this market comes highly recommended for a couple's getaway. It's the oldest Christmas market in Austria, returning year on year since the 15th century with some of the best gingerbread, scented candles and coffee that Europe has to offer. Set out across Cathedral and Residence Squares, you won't find much mulled wine here. Instead, go for a cup of frothy Weiner Melange, similar to a cappuccino but made with delicious Viennese coffee.
Make sure you're on the square for 6.30pm on Saturdays, when the Turmblasen brass band sets the romantic tone for shoppers (even the greenest Grinch can't resist a brass band at Christmas time). Whilst you're there, don't forget to walk round to the Hellbrunn Palace, which decorates its 24 windows as an advent calendar throughout December! Take a virtual look around the Salzburg Christmas Market with the Christkindlmarkt panoramic map.
Basel - Switzerland's cultural capital gets festive
This is the Christmas market for foodies. If you dream in Glühwein, revel in Swiss raclette and delight in delicious waffles, there is no better place for a Christmas-themed weekend than Basel. Walk through the Old Town of this city and you won't find a road unlit or unadorned with sparkling Christmas lights and flashing tinsel. Follow your nose to Barfusserplatz and Munsterplatz and you'll find around 190 traders and artisans offering Lackerli -a kind of Swiss gingerbread - cheesy raclette, grilled sausages, waffles topped with rich chocolate...the list could go on and on.
Bologna - Christmas and New Year's Eve covered
Take a step back from the blockbusting wundermarkets of Germany and you'll find a real treat tucked away in the Italian town of Bologna. With a more secluded festive feel, this ancient city is the place for peaceful Christmas weekend away. Bologna's Fiera di Natale is the town's main December event, filling the area around the San Pietro Cathedral with gently lit stalls and illuminating the city's beautiful Asinelli Tower. Sweet-toothed fiends, don't miss citrus peel dipped in dark chocolate, roasted nuts and tons of torrone, a Christmas-speciality nougat made with honey and chocolate.
On New Year's Eve, the magic becomes even more palpable with a stunning street market stretching through the Piazza Maggiore. Wander through the numerous vendors and musicians, sampling Italian wares from all over the region. As it nears midnight, a vecchione - a statue of an old man - is burnt to symbolise the parting of all negativity from the year before and the beginning of a fresh start.
Barcelona - Five markets for the price of one
It might not be the first place you think of for a great Christmas market but Barcelona is one of the best places to be for reams of Christmas cheer and five great festive markets which will take you on a cultural tour of the beautiful Spanish city at the same time! Its narrow streets and resplendent plazas make Barcelona an ideal market city and the Fira de Santa Llucia is testament to this. The best-known of all Barcelona's festive markets and presided over by the city's majestic cathedral, it's the perfect place to find Christmas trees, mistletoe, unique decorations and the all-important King of a Catalan Christmas - the Caga Tio. This chocolate log with a smiley face on one end is a staple in all Catalan houses over the festive period.
Then you can move on to the Sagrada Familia for the Christmas market at the Plaza de la Seu, or wander to the Mercat Gòtic, just off the Plaza de Catalunya. The fun continues with the Col.lectiu d'Artesans de l'Alimentació, situated in a cosy little square just outside the Santa Maria de Pi church. For the fifth and final market, take a wander through Barcelona's well-known narrow streets, beautifully lit for Christmas, to the Born area with its Mostra d'Artesans de la Ribera.
Strasbourg - Europe's oldest Christmas market
Don't bother with Paris for Christmas markets, the French capital falls painfully short of the high standard set by other French towns, where you'll find a much greater range of gifts for much better prices. Strasbourg is the capital of Christmas in every way and it's not to be missed! The Christmas market, otherwise known as Christkindelsmarik, claims to be the oldest one of its kind in Europe, dating as far back as 1570. Timber houses line the pavement, whilst stars and snowflakes hang from rooftops in virtually every street. If you want traditional, authentic Christmas market, there's no place better than Strasbourg.
Make sure you have the time to visit all 11 of the market's "villages", with a special place given this year to Belgium, whose market will showcase its finest regional products. If there's one thing that should be at the top of your shopping list its bredele - traditional Alsatian biscuits stuffed full of anything from hazelnut and walnut to praline, cinnamon and fruit. The tradition is to take them home and hang them on the Christmas tree, much like we would with chocolate treats!
Jersey - Christmas markets PLUS
Every Christmas, St Helier transforms into every child's dream. Activities abound, markets are crammed full of delicious treats and moonlight parades mean staying up late is definitely on the cards! This is where France meets Britain in a head-long collision of Christmas flavours that will have your bags bursting at the seams on the journey home. The Advent market in Royal Square decks its conker trees with reams of fairy lights, whilst the Norman French market gives you a flavour for the other side of the channel. Wooden chalets line the squares and streets, selling a true mix of Franco- and Anglo-influenced Christmas fare.
The famous Fête dé Noué Christmas Festival combines stalls of Christmas gifts and treats with a full-on programme of activities for all ages. There are places to get creative with Christmas crafts, art festivals and for the very brave there is even a ghost walk. History buffs will love the city's tours and Dickensian storytellers, whilst parades and parties light up the evenings with festive cheer.
Birmingham - Frankfurt comes for Christmas
Every year, Birmingham lays claim to a very special event. December sees the "largest authentic German market outside Germany and Austria" descend on the city to get the Christmas cheer flowing freely. With 180 stalls, this is not a claim to be discarded lightly as the Frankfurt Christmas Market invades Victoria Square with its varying German delights and wonders. With the more local Christmas Craft Fair just next door in Chamberlain Square, you can be browsing the products on offer for hours. If you don't know where to begin, try the food. Anything from Bratwurst to Brezel and Gluhwein to good old German beer, you'll find something to tickle your taste buds here.
Over the other side of the market, you can find some of the most beautiful locally crafted Christmas decorations and gifts, cosy winter hats and superbly knit scarves to keep out the descending winter chill. To top it all off, Carols in the City and a variety of local bands provide a soundtrack of Christmas cheer for all those who pay the markets a visit.