There is something vastly appealing about the concept of the Christmas market. While this winning mix of craft stalls and food sellers, slotted into city-centre squares, seems to be ever-more visible amid the grey of November as well as the tinsel rustle of December, it offers a less nakedly commercial take on the year-end shopping frenzy than a Saturday in a shiny mall.
Here is a chance to buy quirky gifts - wooden toys, tree trinkets - while leavening the process with a mug of glühwein or a mustard-drowned bratwurst. And it is also, of course, an excuse for travel, to urban hotspots across Europe - or even further afield...
By heading to a true classic
The idea of the Christmas market is distilled to its essence in Prague (praguewelcome.cz), a city whose cobbled medieval core is an ideal framework for the soft-focus, children's-choir vibe of the season. Pockets of festive commerce are dotted across the Czech capital at this time of year - although the motherlodes are found in Old Town (30 November to 1 January) and Wenceslas (30 November to 12 January) squares.
A three-night stay at the five-star Aria hotel in the Mala Strana district costs from £539 per person, with flights, private transfers and breakfast, via Kirker Holidays (020 7593 1899; kirkerholidays.com).
By heading south, not east
Though tradition seems to demand it, a Christmas market does not have to be staged in a former Eastern Bloc piazza. Madrid (esmadrid.com) offers a Latin variation on the theme with an annual flurry of stalls in the iconic Plaza Mayor - the rectangular space which, with its elegant three-storey buildings on each side (and the modern cafés that lurk under its cloisters), has been the heart of the Spanish capital since 1576.
A two-night break with breakfast at the five-star Ritz Madrid, departing Heathrow on 6 December, is £259 a head (two sharing), with British Airways Holidays (0844 493 0772; ba.com/holidays).
By quick-hop rail journey
One of the most accessible markets on foreign soil is in Lille (lilletourism.com), a mere hour-and-a-half train ride from St Pancras in London to the city in the northern-most corner of France. This highly rated Christmas bonanza will fill the central Place Rihour with the aroma of gingerbread and sugared gaufres from 20 November to 30 December. Those who want a lofty view of proceedings can find it on the giant ferris wheel stationed in the adjacent Grand Place.
A two-night trip, leaving on 6 December, staying at the four-star Suite Novotel Lille Europe (room only), costs £258 per person (two sharing) via Eurostar (08432 186 186; eurostar.com).
By crossing the Atlantic
America is, of course, the home of Christmas with maximum dazzle. So it proves in New York (nycgo.com), where Manhattan is festooned with festive markets in the run-up to 25 December. Two of the best are held in Columbus Circle (at the south-western corner of Central Park - 3 to 24 December) and at Union Square (21 November to 24 December - see urbanspacenyc.com for details on both). A three-night jaunt, flying on 6 December from Heathrow and staying at the four-star Refinery Hotel in Midtown, costs from £932 per person (two sharing, room only) through Virgin Holidays (0844 557 4321; virginholidays.co.uk).
By staying on home turf
Contrary to opinion, Britain can rival continental Europe for frosty al fresco shopping. Birmingham's "Frankfurt Christmas Market" is the biggest event in the country, its odd name a tribute to both the event's ambience and the city's twinning relationship with the German metropolis, which has endured since 1966. Now into its 12th year, the market envelops Victoria Square, New Street, Centenary Square and Chamberlain Square - and will be in situ from 14 November to 22 December (birmingham.gov.uk/frankfurtmarket). Doubles at the Hotel Du Vin (0844 736 4250; hotelduvin.com) start at £135, room only.
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