Travel Picks: Top 10 Christmas Markets in Europe

LONDON (Reuters) - Many holiday shoppers order their gifts online to avoid crowds, but there are some unique shopping opportunities around Europe during the holiday season that can be enjoyable for the whole family.

Traditional Christmas Markets, originating in Europe but now popping up all over the globe, provide a celebratory atmosphere and seasonal delicacies to enjoy while shopping for your gifts. To help you determine your next shopping destination, the members and editors of travel website VirtualTourist.com (http://www.virtualtourist.com) compiled a list of the "Top Ten Christmas Markets."

1. Vienna, Austria

Advent, the period of preparation before Christmas, begins on the Sunday four weeks before Christmas Eve, so Viennese celebrations and decorations often begin in mid-November. Rathausplatz, the square in front of the city hall, is home to Christkindlmarkt, a traditional Christmas market with more than 150 stalls selling gifts, Christmas decorations, gluhwein (mulled wine) and hot chestnuts. Two other popular Christmas venues are the Old Viennese Christmas Market on Freyung, which is more traditional and sells handicrafts, and the Christmas Market in front of Schonbrunn Palace, which offers the imperial backdrop and hosts a New Year's market, staying open until January 1. The market on the Rathausplatz runs from Nov 16 at 5 pm to December 24 - other markets around the city on average run from around Nov 20 - Dec 23.

2. Salzburg, Austria

One of Europe's oldest markets, the Christkindlmarkt in front of the Salzburg cathedral is a more intimate affair than some of the larger city's markets. The town's baroque architecture and looming Hohensalzburg Fortress give it a fairy tale feeling, heightened by the sparkling lights and holiday garlands. As the birthplace of Mozart, Salzburg has an outstanding musical tradition, so there are wonderful choral performances and opportunities to hear some of Europe's best students perform. In fact, the city also has another musical claim to fame: Joseph Mohr, the lyricist behind the famous Christmas carol "Silent Night" was also born in Salzburg.

3. Munich, Germany

While many people associate the Bavarian capital with Oktoberfest, Munich also holds a fantastic Christmas market in the center of the city on the Marienplatz. The market surrounds an enormous Christmas tree, which glitters with almost 2,500 lights. While sipping on gluhwein (mulled warmed wine) or beer, visitors can find many traditional Bavarian gifts, like wood carvings and gingerbread called lebkuchen. There are also smaller themed markets throughout the city - one unique to Munich is the Manger Market, which sells the pieces and important components for those who want to build an authentic manger.

4. Prague, Czech Republic

The two best Vanocni trhy (Christmas markets) are held in the Old Town Square and on the long slope of Wenceslas Square. While the markets do feature the expected wooden toys and holiday decor, they also sell Czech specialties, like glasswork, blacksmith's wares, and ceramics. The food is also slightly different from the German standard: although blood sausages, gingerbread, and grog are offered, there are also vendors with corn on the cob and trdelnik (cooked dough with cinnamon and sugar). If you are in town around December 20, you will start to see carp offered frequently - dining on the fish is a Christmas Eve tradition in Prague.

5. Dresden, Germany

A new addition to this year's Christmas markets list, multiple VirtualTourist members suggested that Dresden, Germany is a must visit for market lovers. The Striezelmarkt on Dresden's Altmarkt Square is one of Germany's oldest fairs with a particularly unique setting - the town erects a 48-foot- (14.6 m-) high wooden "Christmas Pyramid" in the centre of the market. The market's name is derived from stollen, the Christmas bread, which is also known as striezel in this area of Germany. In addition to this delicacy, the area is also known for the pflaumentoffel, a good-luck charm made from dried plums, and famous for its handicrafts that come from all over Saxony.

6. Strasbourg, France

For centuries, the French-German border has swayed to either side of the Alsace region, so it makes sense Alsace's capital, Strasbourg, would have the oldest and most famous Christmas market in France, the Christkindelsmärik on Place Broglie. The city's Great Christmas Tree on Place Kleber is also a spectacle that shouldn't be missed. In addition to the spiced wine usually offered at Christmas markets, markets in Strasbourg have a tradition of spicy hot orange juice. The markets are also a great chance to try some of the region's food products, including Alsace wines, bredle Christmas biscuits and foie gras.

7. Budapest, Hungary

Located on Vorosmarty ter (Vorosmarty Square) in the Pest district of Budapest, the city's Christmas fair is a great opportunity to experience traditional Hungarian food, folk dances and live music. A VirtualTourist member mentioned that one aspect she enjoyed was the variety of hot drinks, including a spicy hot apple juice and hot chocolate punch, and the chance to try Hungarian baked goods, like langos (fried bread with a variety of toppings) strudels and toki pompos (oven-baked dough). It is also a great spot to shop for handmade items, as the city has an association which checks products for quality and authenticity and certifies all items sold at the market.

8. Lille, France

Along France's northern border and the capital of French Flanders, it makes sense that Lille would have great activities during the holiday season. Around the Christmas market, the whole town is covered in a huge crown of garlands. The city's primary market is located on Place Rihour, where 80 wooden chalets teem with gift ideas, nativity figurines, Christmas decorations and festive food. On the nearby Grand Place, a 50-m (165-ft) high Big Wheel lights up the square and provides visitors with an amazing view of the city. As a city with Eurostar direct services, visiting Lille is an easy stop whether you are en route to Paris, Brussels, or London.

9. Bruges, Belgium

In prior lists, we've featured Brussels as our Belgian Christmas Market stop, but the city of Bruges was mentioned by multiple VirtualTourist members as a holiday stop to make sure to hit this year. In addition to being surrounded by the city's spectacular medieval architecture, Bruges's Christmas Market is distinguished by the ice rink erected in the Markt. For children, the city also hosts a Snow & Ice Sculpture Festival, and it is only a five minute walk from the Christmas Market and skating rink.

10. London, England

In addition to London's renowned Christmas decorations, there are great markets and activities on either side of the Thames during the holiday season. The Southbank Centre Christmas Market features 80 wooden cabins selling gifts, mince pies, gluhwein, and bratwurst to enjoy while you stroll along the waterfront. Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park is probably the best known market in London - it has more than 200 wooden chalets offering handmade gifts and decorations. The food and drink selection at Winter Wonderland is the most extensive of any spot on the list, with options including a Bavarian village, an outdoor fire pit, and even a bar modeled after an alpine ski lodge. In addition to the food and shopping, Winter Wonderland offers a 60-m (197-ft) high Observation Wheel, Britain's largest ice rink and carnival rides. Another option for ice skating is the Skate at Somerset House Ice Rink, which has DJs spinning the tunes after dark.

(Editing by Michael Roddy)

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