Every Advent, a special atmosphere grips cities across Europe as Christmas shoppers jostle through unique and colorful outdoor markets in search of the perfect gift and mugs of mulled wine.
Christmas lights up many German cities
The crisp air is redolent of gingerbread, egg punch and fir needles. "Silent Night" hums quietly above the bustling market as people gather around small tables at outdoor Christmas markets across Europe, warming up with mulled wine or hot cocoa.
While the Christmas markets in Dresden and Nuremberg, known locally as the Striezelmarkt and Christkindlesmarkt respectively, are probably the most famous, many others across Europe have their charms, too. For a complete guide to this year's season offerings, beginning in Germany, look no further.
A Christmas market boasting more than 80 exhibitors will be held outside the old Benedictine convent Frauenwoerth on the Fraueninsel, the smaller of the two major islands in the Chiemsee, Bavaria's largest lake. According to the tourism office in Prien, the largest regional town in the Alpine foothills, the Chiemsee Christmas market is the only one in Germany on an island. It will be open from Nov. 28 to 30 and from Dec. 5 to 7.
The Christmas market at Ritzebuettel Castle in Cuxhaven, a North Sea port. A light show on the grounds will create an especially festive atmosphere, the organization Cux-Tourismus said. During the market, which runs from Nov.28 to Dec. 24, Christmas stories will be read aloud daily in the rooms of the castle.
The main Christmas market in the Bavarian city of Kempten will be open from Nov. 29 to Dec. 23. Kempten is the largest city in Allgaeu, a region straddling the southern corners of the German states of Bavaria and Baden-Wuerttemberg. The program, regional tourism officials said, includes daily presentations of gifts by Sankt Nikolaus -- Germany's Santa Claus -- and coach rides through Kempten at selected times. On Dec. 15, visitors can watch the creation of an ice sculpture as well as a fire show.
Among the highlights of pre-Christmas activities in Koblenz, situated at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle rivers, are a toboggan run made of artificial snow and guided tours of the city in the local dialect. More than 130 wooden stalls selling seasonal items will be set up at five different spots in the historic city center from Nov. 21 to Dec. 23 -- with a special midnight close on Dec. 13.
The Rhine River city of Ruedesheim is extending an invitation to its Christmas Market of Nations from Nov. 24 to Dec. 23. Culinary specialties and traditions from different countries will be presented in the historic city center and along the Drosselgasse, a popular lane. In addition, "Europe's biggest Nativity scene," complete with life-size figures will be on display at the city's market square.
The Christmas market in Ulm, on the left bank of the Danube River in the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, is held on the square outside the city's famous Gothic cathedral. With more than 120 stalls, the market runs this year from Nov. 24 to Dec. 22. A coordinating exhibition of Nativity scenes from three centuries will be held from Nov. 30 to Jan. 11 in the city's Museum of Bread Culture.
In Neu-Ulm, on the opposite side of the river in Bavaria, visitors can get a glimpse of life in the Middle Ages from Nov. 28 to Dec. 21. Local tourism officials said there would be spit-roasted suckling pig, archery exercises, artisans displaying traditional trades such as smithery and candle dipping, and also jugglers and magicians.
Christmas markets aren't Germany's alone
In Brussels, headquarters of the European Union, member countries' Christmas customs and traditions will be on display at the city's Christmas market, open from Nov. 28 to Dec. 28. According to Belgian tourism officials, the market's 240 wooden booths will have everything from Swedish glogg -- their version of mulled wine -- to English Christmas pudding. The Grand Place, as the central market square is known in French, will feature an ice-skating rink, and buildings around the square will be festively illuminated.
The Christmas market in Valkenburg, in the southern part of the province of Limburg, is held in an underground grotto and runs from Nov. 14 to Dec. 21, according to the Dutch tourism office. The city of Alkmaar also has special site for its Christmas market, from Dec. 11 to 14: the interior of St. Lawrence's Church, which dates from the 15th century. In addition to the market, there will be an extensive cultural program.
Two cities in the Austrian state of Tyrol, Kufstein and Landeck, have historic walls as the backdrop for their Christmas markets, Tyrolean tourism representatives said. The Christkindlmarket in Kufstein runs from Nov. 29 to Dec. 22 in the city's fortress. Landeck's Advent in the Castle will be held from Dec. 5 to 8, and festivities will include a large Nativity scene with moving figures and an exhibition of Christmas trees from around the world.