Christmas is coming and the shops are full of Yuletide tat. Your local arcade has all the festive spirit of a fire sale in a tinsel factory. The department stores are full of fractious shoppers, weighed down with expensive junk. Thankfully, there is somewhere fairly close to home which should rekindle your childhood love of Advent. A German Christmas market is the ideal antidote to the bland conformity of chain-store shopping. And a trip to one of the better ones is a great excuse for a winter break.
Nowadays you'll find Christmas markets all over Europe, but Germany is where they originated and Germany still does them best. They date back to the Middle Ages, long before Germany became a nation state, so some of them have ended up just outside its modern borders, in Austria, Switzerland and Alsace. Yet wherever German is spoken, these markets look much alike – a tidy settlement of wooden huts lit up with fairy lights, selling traditional decorations and warming Teutonic food and drink.
Despite their quaint appeal, Germany's Christmas markets are big business: about 2,500 markets, attracting more than 150 million visitors per year. Yet even the biggest markets in the biggest cities haven't lost their old-world charm. These little stalls, selling handmade toys and homemade grub, feel like the perfect respite from slick Christmas commerce, even though, altogether, they actually make about ¤5bn (£4bn) a year.
So what makes Germany's Christmas markets so special? Well, the language, for one thing. We tend to think of German as harsh and guttural, but it's also a language of slurs and whispers, and at Christmas it shows its softer side. "Stille Nacht" ("Silent Night") sounds magical in the original German. The weather helps as well. Winter nights are colder and clearer here. The stars seem brighter overhead. A white Christmas isn't guaranteed, but anywhere south of Hanover, you stand a decent chance of seeing snow. If you take your children, they'll think they're in a fairy tale. It's hard to remain a cynic if you're here when the first snowflakes start to fall.
But the main reason is that the Germans virtually invented Christmas – not the religious rite, of course (which was originally a rather austere affair) but most of the seasonal trappings that go with it, from Advent calendars to Christmas trees. Many of our Christmas customs date back only to 1840, when Queen Victoria married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha and brought his Advent traditions to Britain. Here, you can see them in the raw, untainted by the American influence which tends to makes a British Christmas more Walt Disney than Brothers Grimm.
What's so enchanting about German Christmas markets are all the little things that never change: children gathered round the crib; grown-ups gathered round the Glühwein stalls; the nutcrackers, the carols, the candlelight ... Foreigners come here to stock up with gifts and delicacies. Locals often just drop in for a few drinks and a bite to eat. As you wander round, you can't help thinking this is how Christmas ought to be. The Germans have two words that sum it up – kitsch (sentimental and slightly tacky) and gemütlichkeit (warm and cosy hospitality).
So which one to choose? Well, every German Christmas market has its own specialities (the best wooden ornaments come from the Erzgebirge mountains; the Bavarian Forest produces superb glass) but if you're planning a special trip to Germany to do your Christmas shopping, it makes sense to visit a market in a place you want to see in its own right. Hopefully, the following shortlist should help you make up your mind.
And by the way, a word of warning about the Glühwein. Hot alcohol hits you quicker, especially in chilly weather, and this mulled wine is often a good deal stronger than the stuff we drink at home. On my first visit to a German Christmas market I knocked back a couple of mugfuls to keep out the cold, toppled over on the icy cobbles and fell flat on my face. Two amiable locals hauled me up and helped me on my way. They were clearly quite accustomed to aiding foreigners who can't hold their Christmas booze. Next morning I woke up with a sore head – and an extremely tender nose.
23 November to 23 December (aachen.de)
Of all Germany's Christmas markets, Aachen's Weihnachtsmarkt is closest to the UK – less than four hours from London by train, changing in Brussels. The Weihnachtsmarkt, in the shadow of the cathedral, has in a spectacular setting. Be sure to try some Printen (the local gingerbread) and potato fritters (the local fast food).
Founded by the Romans, who came here to bathe in its hot sulphur springs, Aachen briefly became the capital of Western Europe under the Emperor Charlemagne during the Dark Ages. The mineral springs are still here (you can swim in them or drink them; bad-aachen.de) and Charlemagne's ornate cathedral is still standing – a relic of a time when this border town was the centre of a great empire.
26 November to 23 December (cologne.de)
From its main site in the cathedral square, close to the bustling central station, Cologne's Christmas market spills over into several diverse locations around the city. The markets in the Neumarkt and Alter Markt are both charming, but the most scenic spot is the Hafenmarkt, on the Rhine, beside Cologne's Chocolate Museum. Frikadellen (pork burgers) and Spekulatius (cinnamon-flavoured biscuits) are among the culinary favourites. Kolsch, a light lager served in a dainty 200ml glass, is the favourite brew.
Cologne's gigantic Gothic cathedral dominates the city skyline, but this busy Rhineland city is also a lively centre of the arts. The Ludwig Museum (00 49 221 221 26165; museum-ludwig.de) houses the biggest collection of Pop Art outside America and some stunning German Expressionists such as Max Beckmann and Ludwig Kirchner.
28 November to 24 December (dresden.de)
Founded in 1434, Dresden's Striezelmarkt is one of Germany's oldest Christmas markets. Contrary to popular misconception, it isn't actually the oldest – that honour belongs to Bautzen, a historic town on the Polish border which beats it by half a century. Never mind. Dresden's Striezelmarkt is uniquely atmospheric, as the city's Altmarkt is transformed into a gigantic grotto. Striezel is the Saxon word for Stollen, Germany's distinctive Christmas cake, and Dresden's version is commonly regarded as Germany's finest. If you're here on 8 December, don't miss the annual Stollenfest (stollenfest.com), when an enormous Stollen is paraded through the city to the Striezelmarkt, where the Stollenmädchen (a sort of Christmas beauty queen) cuts the first slice.
Renowned before the Second World War as one of Europe's loveliest cities, the "Florence of the Elbe" was flattened by the Allies in 1945. However, since reunification it's been painstakingly rebuilt and today the panorama Canaletto painted has been immaculately restored. As well as its beautiful baroque architecture, the Saxon capital has one of the world's most wonderful art galleries, the Zwinger (00 49 351 49 14 2000; skd.museum), full of treasures by Renaissance masters such as Botticelli and Raphael.
30 November to 24 December (muenchen.de)
Munich hosts more than a dozen Christmas markets. A lot of overseas visitors venture no further than the traditional Christkindlmarkt below the bell tower of the Neues Rathaus, but the smaller markets beyond Marienplatz are well worth a visit. The most picturesque is the Kripperlmarkt, which is devoted to crib sets and carved Nativity figures. For something completely different, visit Tollwood (tollwood.de), an alternative Christmas market with a focus on ethnic crafts, world music and international cuisine, which continues until 31 December.
Forget the tourist clichés – there's more to Munich than bierkellers, oompah bands and fat men in lederhosen. In fact, apart from a few weeks during the Oktoberfest, the Bavarian capital is one of Germany's smartest cities, with lots of chic restaurants and private galleries, and a lively opera scene. Its greatest asset, however, is its close proximity to proper countryside. On a clear day you can see the Bavarian Alps from the city centre and the lovely lakes of Starnberger See and Ammersee are only half an hour away by U-bahn.
30 November to 24 December (nuernberg.de)
Nuremberg's Christkindlesmarkt (literally, "Christ child market") is Germany's most celebrated Christmas market, attracting more than 2 million visitors annually. Air Berlin flies non-stop from Gatwick; the route ends in early January, but before then there is plenty of availability, The city's culinary speciality is Lebkuchen (spiced gingerbread) but the biggest attraction is the Christkind (Christmas angel), who opens the market on the Friday before Advent, from the balcony of the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) in the main square. A local girl in her late teens, the Christkind acts as an ambassador for the Christkindlesmarkt. Despite its popularity, the market retains an old-fashioned atmosphere and an emphasis on authentic produce, especially the Nürnberger Rostbratwürste – delicious little sausages served by the dozen or half a dozen, with heaps of tangy sauerkraut.
Nuremberg's medieval heritage made it deeply attractive to the Nazis, who adopted this romantic city as the cultural capital of the Third Reich. You can still visit Hitler's Zeppelin Field, a vast crumbling ruin on the edge of town. Thankfully, Nuremberg's totalitarian past now feels like ancient history. Today its main claim to fame is as the world's top producer of children's toys.
The German Travel Centre (020-8429 2900; germantravelcentre.co.uk) and Dertour (020-3131 0532; dertour.co.uk) specialise in individual and package trips to German Christmas markets. Dertour offers visits to the Christmas markets in Cologne, Nuremberg and Munich from £149, £180 and £183 per person respectively, including rail travel from London St Pancras.