Sometimes it seems like chalky store-bought Santa cookies, holiday blockbuster movies and commercials for luxury cars with giant bows have sucked the soul right out of Christmas. But there are still places in this world -- Christmas markets, to be exact -- where the holidays have a heart.
Going to a traditional Christmas market is like literally traveling to Christmas. The air is crisp and cold, the sweet songs of choirs merge with the smells of hot spiced wine and roasted chestnuts in the air, and hundreds of shoppers (and dozens of Santas) bustle by in search of presents for loved ones near and far. At Christmas markets, the modern secularization of the season is smashed to bits by Nativity scenes, Gothic cathedrals decked with twinkling lights and marzipan Jesus figures that remind visitors of the holiday's holy history.
Christmas markets originated centuries ago in Germany and Austria as sources of practical goods for winter survival. Today, the markets offer practical gifts for surviving the scrutinizing tastes of your critical loved ones. Plan a Christmas market trip this year and you will usurp your wicked stepsister as the provider of the best holiday gifts when you bring your loved ones authentic Italian wines from the markets of Trento, sweet gingerbread from a German Christmas market or antique toys from Vienna. Your only challenge is choosing a market -- there are literally hundreds of these festive fairs in Europe and North America during November and December. Here are a few of our favorites to get you started on your Yuletide adventures.
Strasbourg Christmas Market, France
Each year, the medieval town of Strasbourg in Alsace, France, is illuminated by thousands of twinkling Christmas lights. This festive scene provides the perfect backdrop for the Strasbourg Christmas Market, which is the largest holiday market in France. In addition to the usual arts and crafts, visitors will also discover live musical performances, a book market and a children's village.
Berlin Christmas Markets, Germany
Berlin's the place to be if you want to go Christmas market hopping. The city hosts dozens of different Christmas markets throughout the holiday season. They're vibrant, teeming centers for holiday cheer -- the scene is more "Jingle Bell Rock" than "Silent Night." Highlights include thousands of crafts, antiques, foods and holiday gifts; Christmas music concerts; horse and carriage rides; giant Christmas pyramids; and even carousels for youngsters.
Trento Christmas Market, Italy
Christmas markets are not as well known in Italy as they are in Austria or Germany, but some worthwhile markets can be found throughout the Boot during the holiday season. We like the Christmas market in Trento for two reasons. First, the town is remarkably beautiful -- Trento lies in a glacial valley below the Alps and features pastel medieval buildings, a Gothic cathedral and a romantic 13th-century castle. Second, the town's historic Germanic influences have helped produce a distinctive Christmas market that mixes Italian and German traditions. About 70 stalls in the city center offer thousands of holiday gifts including wooden gnomes, handmade jewelry, local Italian wines, glassware and natural perfumes.
Liseberg Christmas Market, Gothenburg, Sweden
Innovation and imagination have turned the famous Liseberg Christmas Market in Gothenburg, Sweden, into a spectacular and surreal holiday experience. Liseberg is Scandinavia's largest amusement park; it's here that you can take a snowy sleigh ride behind real reindeer, go ice skating on an outdoor rink or visit Santa's house. Snack on Swedish foods from meatballs to pickled herring in addition to holiday favorites like mulled wine, marzipan and waffles.
Nuremberg Christmas Market, Germany
Considered to be Germany's most popular Christmas market, the Nuremberg Christmas Market attracts more than two million visitors annually. This is not the market to attend if you're searching for an off-the-beaten-path experience, but it's one of Germany's oldest Christmas fairs and it won't disappoint travelers looking for some of the season's best traditional shopping. About 180 market stalls sell baked goods, roasted bratwurst, hot wine, and unique toys and gifts such as Nuremberg Plum People -- figurines made from prunes.
Schonbrunn Palace Christmas Market, Vienna, Austria
Celebrate the holidays next to the famous, breathtaking Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna. About 80 booths sell roasted chestnuts, hot wine, homemade Austrian crafts and other holiday wares in Vienna's historic city center. Don't miss the live holiday concerts in front of the giant Christmas tree.
Christkindlmarket, Chicago, Illinois
Although Europeans started the Christmas market tradition, they certainly don't have a monopoly on this joyful holiday ritual. Try a trip to Chicago for a Christmas market experience without the overseas flight and exchange rate. The city's annual Christkindlmarket was inspired by the Nuremberg Christmas Market and has all the festive trappings of Europe's famous Yuletide fairs. Rows of stalls sell familiar handmade gifts and hot holiday chow like roasted chestnuts, sausages, candies and hot wine. You just might think you're in Europe if you can squint past the Cubs hats and sparkling skyscrapers.
Have you been to these or any other Christmas markets? Tell us about it in the comments below!
--written by Caroline Costello