The sensual way to go shopping this Christmas

The sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feel of a market add spice to this seasonal activity. Ryan Levitt reports

The time for festive shopping is upon us and where better to do it than in the Christmas markets of Europe. If there's one thing our neighbours have perfected, it's the consumerist joy of the holiday season. Alpine villages are bedecked with tantalising tinsel, while Nordic nations plaster themselves in a riot of ribbons. Why battle your way along the local high street when you could be meandering through medieval lanes, stopping intermittently for a mug of mulled wine? Hundreds of European hamlets set up Christmas bazaars every year – each one featuring a variety of items to appeal to the senses. But which one to choose? Use your senses to help make your selection a merry one.

The time for festive shopping is upon us and where better to do it than in the Christmas markets of Europe. If there's one thing our neighbours have perfected, it's the consumerist joy of the holiday season. Alpine villages are bedecked with tantalising tinsel, while Nordic nations plaster themselves in a riot of ribbons. Why battle your way along the local high street when you could be meandering through medieval lanes, stopping intermittently for a mug of mulled wine? Hundreds of European hamlets set up Christmas bazaars every year – each one featuring a variety of items to appeal to the senses. But which one to choose? Use your senses to help make your selection a merry one.

For the eyes

Prague, 6-22 December

One of Europe's most romantic cities at any time of year, Prague comes into its own in the winter when the Baroque majesty of the Czech capital is dusted with snow and lit up by dazzling rows of Christmas lights. Don't be confused if you spot flowering twigs around town during this season. One of the area's oldest traditions is to trim little branches from cherry trees on Saint Barbara's Day, 4 December. Locals then put the branches in water near fireplaces or stoves so that they may start to blossom before Christmas.

For the most spectacular views of Czech Christmas traditions, head for Wenceslas Square or Prague Castle, where the largest Christmas trees are located. Good things to buy include ironware, Bohemian glassware, wooden crafts, vanilla sweets and tubs of white fish which are specially bred and prepared for the Christmas holiday.

Citalia (020-8686 5533; www.citalia.com) offers two nights from £287 per person, based on two sharing, departing 13 December, including return flights and b&b in a three-star hotel. Czech Tourist Authority (020-7291 9925; www.pis.cz).

For the ears

Stuttgart, 29 November-23 December

This is the largest Christmas market on the continent – what Stuttgart lacks in charm, it certainly makes up for in size and scope. But as well as offering the widest selection of Christmas gifts, the city also becomes a feast for the ears in December, with daily performances by choirs and carol singers, attracting music lovers from around the world. More than 1 million visitors descend on Stuttgart during the Christmas season, making das Christkind big business in this financially focused city.

Cresta (0870 333 3303; www.crestaholidays.co.uk) offers two nights from £282 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights and b&b in a three-star hotel. German National Tourist Office (020-7317 0908; www.stuttgart-tourist.de).

Salzburg, 21 November-December 24

If you're a fan of The Sound of Music, Salzburg should be your destination of choice. As well as indulging in some Christmas shopping, lovers of the film can book a seat on the Sound of Music coach tour, which departs from the central bus station. Sights on the day-long trip include the church where Captain Von Trapp and Maria marry, the amphitheatre where the Von Trapp Family singers perform and the gardens where Maria teaches the children how to sing.

But, Salzburg is also home to the special Salzburger Christmas ornament, a delicately scented bouquet of lace-wrapped dried flowers that dots every Christmas tree in this picturesque Austrian town. Be sure not to miss the weekends-only celebrations in the Hohensalzburg Fortress courtyard, complete with lantern processions and carriage rides, which cater for the more romantically inclined.

Der Travel (020-7290 1111; www.travel scene.co.uk) offers two nights from £322 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights, transfers and b&b in a three-star hotel. Austrian National Tourist Office (020-7629 0461; www.salzburginfo.at).

For the nose

Strasbourg, 29 November-24 December

In the heart of the Alsace, Strasbourg combines the best of French and German traditions in a seductive Alpine setting. France's oldest Christmas Market dates back to 1570 and is also one of the nation's most enchanting. During the Christmas season, the town is filled with the scent of spice as every bakery turns out masses of bredele (star and moon-shaped spice cookies). Combine that with the earthy odour of Provençal sausages (not a native tradition, but a well-liked gift from the south) and copious pine garlands and the result is a feast for the nose.

Travelscene (020-8424 9648; www.travelscene.co.uk) offers two nights in Strasbourg from £347 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights and b&b in a three-star hotel. French Government Tourist Office (09068 244123, premium rate line; www.strasbourg.com).

For the mouth

Nuremberg, 29 November-24 December

The most famous Christmas market in Germany – and that's saying something – Nuremberg is a feast for the gourmand. Try Nürnberger Rostbratwurst (the local sausage), glühwein (traditional mulled wine) or Lebkuchen (spiced gingerbread) for a tasty traditional treat. Nuremberg is especially good as a family destination because it has a separate children's market, featuring entertainers, clowns, ballets, rides and even a steam engine. As the world's top producer of children's toys, however, you might want to keep tots on a short reign to avoid blowing your budget.

Der Travel (see above) offers two nights from £318 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights, transfers and b&b in a three-star hotel. German National Tourist Office (020-7317 0908; www.nuernberg.de).

For the hands

Stockholm, 1-23 December

Try making your own decorations at the Skansen market in Stockholm, where shopping takes on an arts-and-crafts twist. Sweden is also a good choice because it offers a greater variety of items to buy, including ceramics, glassware, advent stars and funky fashions – a nice change from the ubiquitous red, green and gold ornaments of central Europe. The largest market is in Gamla, the city's old town. And don't miss the chance to sip some glogg, Sweden's favourite Christmas tipple. But beware: drink too much of this stuff and you might start seeing more than just the Northern Lights.

Cresta (see above) offers two nights from £199 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights and b&b in a four-star hotel. Swedish Travel and Tourism Council (00 800 380 380; www.stockholmtown.com).

For the undecided

Brussels, 6-22 December

Still can't decide which market is the best one for you? Why not visit them all by heading down to the pan-European Christmas Market held every year in Brussels. Dedicated to showcasing Christmas crafts, goods and toys from all the member states of the European Union, this is the place to go if you want to buy Swedish glass, mulled wine, Italian Pinocchio puppets and German gingerbread in one convenient location.

Travelscene (see above) offers two nights from £191 per person, based on two sharing, including return fares on Eurostar, transfers and b&b at a three-star hotel. Belgian Tourist Office (020-7531 0390; www.belgium-tourism.net).

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