Standing in the centre of Bruges’ Market Square is a little bit like being inside a real-life snow dome. Mitten-clad kids skate around a shiny ice rink, strings of coloured bulbs light up a huge Christmas tree while locals and visitors nurse cups of steaming mulled wine and browse market stalls.

Each winter the medieval city of Bruges is transformed by its Christmas markets that run from late November until January 6. For those lamenting the thought of a cold Christmas minus your beloved family, visiting one of Europe’s annual Christmas markets is a sure-fire way to spark your festive spirit and enjoy a more civilised shopping experience.

Set up on two of the city’s main squares, the markets sell a selection of arts and crafts, Christmas decorations and woolly wares sure to impress the folk back home. Local fodder such as hot Belgian waffles, chocolates, crêpes, seafood and glühwein (mulled wine) are tempting distractions for hungry shoppers and bored boyfriends.

While the markets themselves are fairly small, it’s the size of the city and its smattering of attractions that make it ideal to tackle in a weekend. The cobbled streets of the historic old centre, which is on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, can be explored on foot, but it’s worth splashing out on a guided boat tour of the city’s canals, sometimes referred to as the ‘Venice of the north’ minus the overpriced gondola rides.

The tour cruises past some of the city’s historic buildings, and allows a sneak peek into the lives of local residents.

Back on dry land it would be a crime against culture not to whet your whistle with some of Belgium’s most famous exports.

A tour of The Half Moon family brewery, including a swig of homemade beer, gives a good insight into the brewing process and a cracking view over the city.

Christmas isn’t all about you, though, so don’t miss the chance to tick a few names off the gift list. Continuing with the beer theme, the centrally located Bottle Shop is the perfect place to buy locally brewed ales. You’ll do well to choose wisely from more than
700 varieties, many of which come with a distinct beer glass for extra brownie points.

Perfect for the matriarch of the house is the city’s trademark lace. There are several shops specialising in handmade and cheaper, manufactured lace around the old centre, but at Kanthuisje you can watch the lace being stitched before you commit to that doily.

And if the way to a lady’s heart is through her sweet tooth, a box of beautifully wrapped Belgian chocolates should have it covered. There are oodles of chocolate shops happy to take your Euros, the most famous of which is Pralinette where you can drool over hand-filled chocolates.

If some of Belgium’s best beers, chocolates and handicrafts don’t twirl your tassels, a snow dome might not be such bad option after all. At least you can say you’ve been there, done that.

Christmas markets to check out

A million shoppers can’t be wrong when visiting the magical Tivoli Gardens each year where the Christmas market (until December 30, 2007; excluding December 24 and 25) and outdoor ice rink are set up.

Basel and the Black Forest
Basel claims the dual honour of being home to Switzerland’s largest and most traditional Christmas market (until December 17, 2007) and Europe’s longest illuminated Christmas street.

About 240 exhibitors from all over Europe set up their wooden chalets to sell local handicrafts (until January 1, 2008). Many Bruges-bound bus tours also spend a few hours in Brussels.

If you need another excuse to visit there are some 50 markets in Berlin; the main ones (until December 28, 2007) are at Gedächtniskirche, Unter den Linden and Alexanderplatz.

Mingle with the pretty people at the Skansen Christmas market (December 8-9 and 15-16) where Swedish sweets, smoked sausages, reindeer meat and glögg go down a treat.

Fill your stocking with Estonian goodies such as toys, decorations, candles, basketry, painted silk and felt hats, and chow down on pork and sauerkraut, pie-soup or blood-sausage (until January 1, 2008).

You’ll be spoilt for choice in Prague where 150 wooden stalls in two locations sell gingerbread, corn dolls, wooden toys, straw decorations, roast chestnuts and punch (from December 1, 2007 to January 1, 2008).

Dublin debuts its European-style Christmas market (December 12-23, 2007) in George’s Dock, where you’re promised seasonal food, handicrafts, mulled wine, carol singing and a German-themed bar.