It’s everyone’s favourite pre-Christmas tradition: using the cold weather as an excuse to get hammered on mulled wine before noon, then staggering around buying anything remotely festive, from ludicrously expensive hand-carved wooden reindeer to oven gloves with Santa’s face printed on (Granny will love ‘em). Yep, it’s Christmas market time.

But it’s not all baubles and bells – some of Europe’s Christmas markets are pulling out all the stops this year to offer a more up-to-date experience.

You can expect to find everything from firebreathing to saucy cabaret at this year’s events. So wrap up warm and take your pick from the best markets of the festive season.

Vienna: Christkindlmarkt

The biggest and best market in Vienna is Christkindlmarkt, outside the City Hall in Rathausplatz.

Three million visitors pass through each year to see the square transformed into a winter idyll: the windows of the Rathaus (town hall) become a gigantic advent calendar, painted by local artists, and are revealed one by one throughout December.

When you’re not stuffing your shopping bags with Christmas trinkets, you can take a ride on horse-drawn carriages, watch the puppet shows or listen to choirs of carol singers.

The market runs from November 17 until Christmas Eve.

See: One highlight is the Heart Tree, a popular meeting spot for lovers which is adorned with – you guessed it – bright red glowing love hearts.

Eat: Try the hot marzipan punch with roasted chestnuts and Viennese wurst.

Buy: Grab some hot glühwein (mulled wine) and take home the mug, which comes decorated with images of famous Austrians and Vienna landmarks.

christkindlmarkt.at

Brussels: Winter Wonders

Winter Wonders stretches a full 2km across the Belgian capital’s landmarks including Place Sainte Catherine, the Grand Place, the Bourse and Marché aux Poissons.

Running from November 30 until January 6, 2013, it’s as much about the festivities as the shopping.

You’re absolutely guaranteed a seasonably warm and gooey feeling inside when you see the huge Christmas tree in the Grand Place, and the ‘Son et lumière’ show, with its music and projections bathing the tower of the Brussels Town Hall in sparkling light displays.

At Place Sainte Catherine, there’s an ice rink and, above the stalls in the market, a towering Ferris wheel offers amazing views across the capital. 

See: The 250 quaint wooden chalets that look like full-sized gingerbread houses, with snow-topped roofs, draped with fairy lights.

Eat: Stalls sell moules marinière (mussels) and escargot (snails) with crusty bread. For a sweet treat, munch on Belgian speciality Speculoos, Flemish shortcrust Christmas biscuit often shaped like a Santa.

Buy: Roasted chestnuts, Russian dolls, cuddly bears and handmade Christmas decorations.

plaisirsdhiver.be

Prague: Christmas Market

A most picturesque sight in Prague is the Christmas Market in the Old Town Square.

It’s best visited by night when covered in golden fairy lights and the huge Christmas tree, shipped in from the Krkonoše Mountains, is all lit up. Aww.

Miklaus, the Czech Santa, is likely to pay a visit to the market, too, which runs from December 3 to January 1, 2013.

See:
For the best view of the whole market, take a ride on the Ferris wheel. Just don’t eat too many Christmas treats first (see below) – it could get messy.

Eat
: Food on offer includes trdelník, a ring of sweet pastry baked around a cylinder and topped with chopped walnuts.

Buy:
Shoppers snap up Czech glassware in the form of Christmas baubles, ornaments and hand-made jewellery.

pragueexperience.com

 

Berlin: Gendarmenmarkt

You can barely turn a corner in Berlin in December without finding yourself smack-bang in the middle of a Christmas market – the town is full of ‘em.

There are over 50 on this year, including the WeihnachtsZauber at Gendarmenmarkt, which is one of the biggest.

Held between November 26 and December 31, this is as much a contemporary Crimbo show as a market, with firebreathers, jugglers, jazz musicians and dancers performing in the square.

See: The craftsmen tent, where you can watch toymakers, goldsmiths and wood carvers at work. If only they were wearing Santa’s elf costumes…

Eat: Germany is home to some of the best Christmas edibles, and you’ll find them all here, including lebkuchen (soft, cinnamon-flavoured biscuits) and stollen (festive fruit cake).

Buy: How about a traditional Christmas pyramid, a bizarre wooden contraption that uses heat from tealights to rotate
a windmill – it’s one of many creative handicrafts for sale.

gendarmenmarktberlin.de

Copenhagen: Tivoli Gardens

Easily the most wacky of the European batch, from the annual Crazy Christmas Cabaret, which is to be Hitchcock-themed this year, to the swarms of girls dressed as nisse (Danish Christmas pixie).

Last year there was a mini Moscow built for visitors to explore, which included an homage to Saint Basil’s Cathedral.

Organisers are keeping this year’s amusements under wraps for now, but have promised that the Russian theme will continue this year.

The market runs from November 16 to December 30.

See: The installation of 500,000 twinkling fairy lights.

Eat: Apple pancakes and mulled wine are the perfect combo.

Buy: Hand-knitted mittens, socks and hats, and knitted jumpers, just like those made famous by Denmark’s fave detective, The Killing’s Sofie Gråbøl.

visitcopenhagen.com

Bored of Christmas conventions? Can’t bear to see another bauble?  Visit one of these festive celebrations with a difference.

Pervy xmas in hamburg

What: Sleazy santas, handcuffs lined in festive fur and slinky stockings (as opposed to the hang-above-the-fireplace variety) are all on offer at the Christmas market in Hamburg’s Reeperbahn red light district – it calls itself the world’s only sexy festive market.

Located on Spielbudenplatz, the salacious Santa Pauli Christmas Market is staffed with scantily clad ladies selling mulled wine to the punters.

When
: Runs November 22-December 23.

hamburg-einkaufszentrum.de

Feng shui in Gladbach

What: Lots of people feel highly strung around Christmas time, what with all the present-buying stresses. But not the happy chaps in west Germany’s Bergisch Gladbach.

There’s not a hint of bad energy at their Christmas market, because it’s all done Feng Shui style.

Stalls are arranged in accordance with ancient Feng Shui principles of grouping elements together: stalls selling wooden knick-knacks or paper decorations are sold together in the wood area, while you’ll find the roasted chestnuts or freshly baked goods in the fire section. Now that’s Christmas harmony.

When: Runs December 14-16.
schlossbensberg.com

Sunshine in Barcelona

What: Ever fancied strolling around a Christmas market in warm weather? Head to Barcelona, where bright sunshine beats down on the ‘Fira de Santa Llúcia’.

Visit for the festive parades and handcrafted Catalan decorations. This market is also famous for selling the ‘figures de pessebre.’

Grab shepherds, camels and baby Jesus, and less conventional images, such as the guy taking a dump.

When
: Runs November 26-December 22.

barcelona-tourist-guide.com

Photos: Getty, Thinkstock