Who hasn't dreamed of a fairytale European Christmas? Whether it's London's Christmas lights, Germany's markets or Santa in the snow in Finland, Europe celebrates the festive period as it should be celebrated.
Pretty much every town or city in northern Europe has its own Christmas market and they all straddle that fine line between peddling utter tosh and embracing the Christmas spirit. Amongst the stalls flogging candlestick holders in the shape of frogs or ceramic Santas are acres of tinsel and decoration, while Christmas carols are piped through public squares and wrapped-up old men heat chestnuts over braziers. Once the stalls selling novelty nonsense are negotiated, the real joy lies in soaking up the atmosphere and stocking up on local products and foods.
|The traditional Christmas market originated in Germany and many of the best are still in German cities. However, Trent in Italy, Vienna in Austria, Budapest in Hungary and Bruges in Belgium also represent excellent choices.
If zoning in on one city, such as Nuremburg, Cologne or Munich, all you need do is sort out a flight and hotel and just stroll in. However, companies such as Christmasmarkettours.com specialise in itineraries that take in multiple markets in various cities. Prices start at around $1100 for seven nights, excluding flights.
Christkindlemarkt (Christmas market), Bavaria, Germany
The Santa experience
The only way to ensure that Santa knows what you want is to ask him in person and Rovaniemi in Finland has come up with the exceptionally cunning marketing ploy of branding itself as Father Christmas' home. Just south of the Arctic Circle, the capital of Lapland fills up in December as awestruck kids come and interrupt the great man at what is, frankly, a rather busy time of year. It's possible to meet the bearded wonder, get letters stamped by his helpers at the official post office and even have a look around his suspiciously theme park-esque village.
Once the kids are happy, though, it's time for some serious fun. Companies such as Safartica operate husky, snowmobile and reindeer safaris across the frozen landscape, with prices dependent on mode of transport and duration.
Europe gets awfully cold over the festive season and for those who like strapping wood to their feet, it's perfect for skiing and snowboarding. So why not combine a European Christmas with time on the slopes? There are plenty of great skiing options across Europe, including unexpected (and cheaper) destinations such Slovakia and Bulgaria.
However, the season doesn't properly start until January and snow cover can be patchy just before Christmas in all but the highest areas. This means the biggest Alpine resorts such as Chamonix in France and Zermatt in Switzerland are the best bet, although many Austrian and Italian resorts also have good cover by the time the big day comes around. The Snow Travel Company offers European ski break packages for from $2895.
|Christmas lights are a big thing all over Europe but the most famous are on and around London's Oxford Street. A big fuss is made of getting a suitably B-list celebrity to turn them on and then the city lights up. However, trying to walk along Oxford Street amongst seemingly millions of Christmas shoppers is absolute purgatory in mid-December, so it's best to go elsewhere for the lights. Prague in the Czech Republic is a good bet the city excels in illuminating its assets and the Christmas lights are no exception.
Christmas lights up the Old Town square in Prague
However, the best of the bunch is Turin in Italy, which eschews the usual bells and holly chintz and gets artists from around the world to create special works all over the city. The giant open air exhibition, Hogmanay celebration incorporates everything from torchlight parades and street parties to classical music concerts and performers from the four corners of the globe. Some events are ticket-only, but the whole city is essentially one big den of good cheer from December 29 to January 1. Predictably, this means that accommodation is scarce, so book ahead.
Getting there and costs
Don't expect cheap airfares just because the temperatures are hovering around the zero mark Christmas and New Year are peak times for travelling to Europe. Any return airfare below $2000 represents a tremendous bargain during this period. Travel agents may be able to package hotel and flight together for a price that is cheaper than booking them separately. Alternatively, it may prove to be cheaper to get a flight to a major hub (such as Frankfurt, Rome or London), then use a budget carrier such as Ryanair, Easyjet or SkyEurope to get to your destination city.
Hotels also have peak season rates in operation during this time and it's advisable to make reservations in advance. How much you'll pay is dependent on location (eastern Europe is cheaper than western Europe) and standard of hotel. At a bare minimum, look to pay around $150 a night for a two-star hotel in London, $115 in Munich or $85 in Budapest.