Originating in Germany and Alsace but now found rather further afield, these seasonal street markets held during Advent typically sell nutcrackers, toys, tree decorations and local crafts. A visit to a Christmas market promises the perfect short winter break: you get to combine some downtime in an atmospheric, often architecturally inspiring location with the chance to pocket some more authentic stocking-fillers than you're likely to find on your local high street. And with glühwein and gingerbread as part of the deal, there's no danger of dropping from exhaustion while you shop.
"Nor was it that the figs were moist and pulpy, or that the French plums blushed in modest tartness from their highly decorated boxes, or that everything was good to eat and in its Christmas dress; but the customers were all so hurried and so eager in the hopeful promise of the day, that they tumbled up against each other". From A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
"My Nana took me, balaclava'd from the cold/To where stalls shimmered in a splash of gold/Buttery light from wind-twitched lamps and all/The Christmas hoards, were heaped above my eyes". From "Christmas Market" by Mike Harding.
For the sweet-toothed
With hundreds of markets to choose from across Europe, deciding which to visit is a stickier prospect than a slice of stollen. If you're looking for history and charm, however, Aachen ( www.aachen-tourist.de) is hard to beat. Open until 23 December, this is not only the closest German market to the UK but also one of the prettiest. The market is set around the cathedral (a Unesco World Heritage Site) and town hall, and is known for its confectionery. Alongside traditional crafts are stalls selling specialities such as Aachener Printen (a type of gingerbread), Spekulatius biscuits and marzipan bread. Some are prepared using 19th-century machines.
The German Travel Centre (020-8429 2900; www.german-travel-uk.com) is offering three-night breaks from £215 per person, including Lufthansa flights from Heathrow to Cologne or Düsseldorf and room-only accommodation in Aachen.
On a grand scale
First held in 1570, Strasbourg's Christmas market is simply huge. It takes place around the city's cathedral until 31 December. The stalls offer Alsatian specialities such as Brédalas cakes, as well as crafts and decorations. For extra Christmas cheer, don't miss a visit to the city's Petite France district; its half-timbered buildings are also home to shops and bakeries.
Strasbourg has lost its flights to London, but you can get there in under six hours by train from St Pancras; return fares with Eurostar cost from £99 (08432 186186; www.eurostar.com). Double rooms at the Hotel Cardinal de Rohan cost from €77, room only (00 33 3 88 32 85 11; www.hotelrohan.com). For more information on Strasbourg, see www.tourisme68.com.
For the indecisive
If you're not sure whether to opt for the Christmas markets of buzzing Berlin or fairy-tale Prague, Railbookers (020-3327 0748; www.railbookers.com) has a possible solution: see both on a combined trip. It's one of several twin-city Christmas market trips the company is offering, starting at £479 per person including two nights' accommodation in each city, outward rail travel and a return by air on BA from Prague to Heathrow. If you can arrive in Berlin on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday, you get an extra night in the German capital for the same price.
A 21st-century twist
Vienna ( www.vienna.info) plays host to a myriad of different markets, all with a slightly different slant. The largest is at City Hall Square, the most traditional at Freyung and the prettiest at Spittelberg. New this year, however, is Kubik, in front of the Votive Church at Sigmund Freud Park. Here, 5-10pm daily until 31 December (except 24-26 December), you can shop while admiring a light installation, listening to live DJs and feasting on snacks from Neni restaurant ( www.kubikwien.at). Dertour (020-7290 1104; www.dertour.co.uk) is offering Christmas market breaks to Vienna from £265 per person, including flights from Heathrow on BMI and two nights' B&B .
In search of some Nordic cheer
BA resumes flights from Heathrow to Gothenburg on Sunday, making it easier to visit Scandinavia's largest Christmas market. It takes place in Liseberg amusement park until 23 December, and visitors can expect five million twinkling lights, 700 Christmas trees, stalls selling Nordic handicrafts, seasonal Swedish fare, an ice rink, ice sculptures and an ice bar. Entrance to Liseberg is included in the Gothenburg Pass, which costs from Skr245 (£22) per adult and Skr170 (£15) per child for 24 hours ( www.goteborg.com). Alternatively, book a Christmas shopping break with Simply Sweden (0845 8900 300; www.simplysweden.co.uk) and you'll get a pass thrown in. The deal costs from £310 per person for two nights, including flights from Manchester or Heathrow and B&B accommodation in a four-star hotel.
Closer to home
This year, Chester's Castle Square is playing host to a Victorian Christmas market for the first time www.chestermagic.co.uk. Until 3 January, visitors can take their fill of roasting chestnuts, Victorian arts and crafts and mulled wine. There's also an ice rink and a big wheel. Chester's ABode Hotel (01244 347000; www.abodehotels.co.uk) has a cringingly named "Shop till Yule drop" package aimed at visitors to the market, with prices starting from £99 per person. The offer also includes mince pies and mulled wine on arrival, accommodation with breakfast, and a "pamper survival pack" for weary shoppers.
What Google will tell you...
"Weekdays are the best time to visit the markets. But if only Saturdays or Sundays are available to you, at least try to get there early. The weekend crowds can be fierce. The booths also have the best selection when you get there early. A word of caution: the big attraction of the market is atmosphere. There are no bargains there. You'll pay just what you would pay elsewhere. And the selection is limited, so don't think you can do all of your Christmas shopping there."
"Most German Christmas markets will have beekeepers selling the finest hand-made beeswax candles... [they] burn with a bright golden halo and exude a slight fragrance of honey."
What Google won't tell you... until now
Germany's most unusual Christmas market is to be found at the fishing port of Emden on the North Sea coast ( www.emden-touristik.de), west of Bremen. The stalls are scattered around the city's harbour but also spill onto pontoons and boats moored up there, including a lovely 19th-century sailing ship. Stranger still, among the usual Christmas market fare of bratwurst (sausage) and lebkuchen (gingerbread) you'll find matjes (soused herring). The market runs until 23 December.