There’s nothing that can get you into the Christmas spirit quite like a visit to one of the traditional Christmas Markets in Northern Europe. Most of these markets have changed little over the centuries and are worlds away from the commercialism of Black Friday.
Here you’ll find wooden stalls selling home-made crafts and delicious smells in the air from hot chestnuts, cinnamon biscuits and gingerbread. You’re even more than a little likely to have a sprinkling of snow at your feet. It’s the Christmas you’ve read about in children’s books.
Here is my selection of the best markets, not just for their traditional feel, but for what they’ve got to offer for children. At these markets you’ll find the usual stalls plus lots of extra fun for families from puppet shows and craft workshops to sleigh rides and ice rinks.
Innsbruck’s Christmas Market at the foot of snow-covered mountains in the medieval market square has to be one of the prettiest in Europe. Trumpeters play on the Golden Roof balcony every afternoon while shoppers browse stalls laden with Tyrolean goodies: hand-blown glass, coloured felt hats and carved nativity figures.
Along the lanes leading off the square you’ll find Fairy Tale Alley, with life-size characters from fairy tales and legends. Listen to the fairy tales every afternoon in the Theatre Wagon or wander over to the market at Marktplatz for magic shows and a puppet theatre.
At Marktplatz you’ll also find the 14-metre high Swarovski crystal tree covered with thousands of crystals as well as a merry-go-round, pony rides and a children’s petting zoo.
Don’t let your kids miss: the chance to try glassblowing and make their own Christmas ornament.
Innsbruck’s Christmas Market is on until 6th January.
You can try marinated herring and roasted reindeer at Scandinavia’s biggest Christmas market. The Liseberg Amusement Park is decorated with five million Christmas lights and is divided into lots of different Christmas areas, including Lapland where you can sit around camp fires and eat traditional Sami food.
Children can take a sleigh ride pulled by real reindeer and meet Father Christmas in his toy factory. There’s also an excellent ice skating show based on the story of Hansel and Gretel.
In the Medieval Village you can watch jesters and knights training for a tournament and wander round the stalls beside the Fairy Tale Castle.
Don’t let your kids miss: a tour of Rabbit Land, where you can watch a children’s show every day and find out how these wacky rabbits celebrate Christmas.
Gothenburg’s Christmas Market is on until 30th December.
Father Christmas is very busy in Hamburg in December. He flies high above the crowds on his sleigh several times an afternoon and parades through the streets with his elves and reindeer every Saturday.
The narrow streets leading off the Christmas Market in the historic town square all have a different theme. Toy Street is an obvious favourite but you’ll also find sweets, woodcarvers and gingerbread bakers. Even the punch is served by clowns and circus performers.
There’s also an ice-skating rink, merry-go-rounds, illuminated Advent Calendar and nativity scene with carved life-size figures.
Don’t let your kids miss: The Fairy Tale Ships on the lakes. There’s a theatre ship where children can help a witch regain her magical powers; a Dream Ship with face painting and games; and two Bakery Ships where kids can bake Christmas biscuits.
Hamburg’s Christmas Market is on until 23rd December.
A Christmas Market has been held in Vienna for over 700 years and there are now markets on most of the city’s prettiest squares and castle courtyards. One of the biggest highlights for children is Christkindl’s Workshop where they can make all sorts of crafts for Christmas presents from decorated wooden boxes and tea candles to notebooks and biscuits.
In front of the beautiful Schönbrunn Palace there’s a hand-carved wooden manger with almost 250 figures. In other areas you’ll find pony rides, a Post Office in the Clouds where you can get special Christmas stamps, puppet shows and a children’s railway.
Don’t let your kids miss: The marzipan factory where they can learn how to make models of reindeer, angels and snowmen out of marzipan.
Vienna’s Christmas Market is on until 26th December.
You can celebrate Christmas as a viking in Copenhagen by jumping into icy water and then having a sauna before eating meat roasted over the fire while your children make viking shields and listen to traditional stories.
Tivoli Gardens is covered in fairy lights for its annual Christmas Market and there are spectacular light shows every evening. Elsewhere in the city you’ll find a Hans Christian Andersen market with stalls named after his fairy tales, a Christmas caravan, a mini circus train and an ice rink.
Don’t let your kids miss: The weekend street theatre on Gammeltorv Square with angels on roller skates and acrobatic elves.
Copenhagen’s Christmas Market is on until 3rd January.
You’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time at the Christmas Market at Alter Markt, with its half-timbered stalls and narrow gabled houses. And so you should. According to a local legend, gnomes are responsible for watching over this market to ensure that no modern or mass made goods are sold here.
There are seven Christmas markets in Cologne, the most impressive of which is in front of the beautiful cathedral where you can watch craftsmen at work and drink mulled wine out of special festive mugs.
There are special workshops for children and a giant advent calendar, a merry-go-round and puppet theatre. You can even go on board a ship at the Chocolate Museum in Cologne Harbour where the market has a nautical theme with pirates and special performances.
Don’t let your kids miss: The Home of the Elves in the Old Town. There’s a real fairytale atmosphere in the narrow lanes and large fairytale figures from the Grimm Brothers’ stories.
Cologne’s Christmas Market is on until 23rd December.
For information on Christmas Markets all over Europe, take a look at http://www.christmasmarkets.com
COMING UP NEXT: The Best Christmas Books for Reading Aloud