Trips to European Christmas markets are a popular choice for short breaks. Various companies offer deals and you can travel by coach, ferry, rail or air. One way to save on the cost of your trip is to book river cruises to Christmas markets. Most Christmas markets do not take place on Christmas Day or Christmas Eve so the cruises are scheduled from the end of November to just before Christmas. You should also check out prices for accommodation at luxury hotels catering to the business market. These can often be very cheap over the Christmas and New Year period and so make a good budget extension to a cruise. Christmas markets can be found in Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Slovenia, Switzerland, Belgium, Denmark, France, Holland, Iceland, Italy, Norway, Poland and the UK.

Germany has many Christmas markets which date back to the middle ages. Dresden Christmas market was first held in 1434, but this is not the earliest market. Today it attracts over 1.5 million visitors and has over 60 stalls. In most of the markets the stallholders sell handmade items, books, toys, Christmas tree decorations and ornaments. Usually mulled wine and Eierpunsch (an eggy warm alcoholic drink) are sold along with food and there is traditional singing and dancing.

Austria has a Christmas market in every major town and city. Vienna alone hosts approximately 25 markets, from the small to the large. Christmas markets have a long history in Austria, the December Market in Vienna dates back to 1294. The Schonbrunn Christmas Market located outside the spectacular Schonbrunn Palace is amongst the most popular. There are more than 60 stalls selling wooden Christmas tree decorations, felt, glass, stone, handmade pottery, toys and hand-carved mangers. In addition there are plenty of Austrian specialities to enjoy such as wines, punches and teas from all over Austria. Graz is also home to numerous Christmas markets offering regional farm products, Styrian arts and crafts, hot punch and mulled wine.

France has many Christmas markets and they are particularly popular with British people because they are easily accessible via the Eurostar. They offer great shopping opportunities and you can stock up on wine for the Christmas season. The items on sale vary depending on the part of France within which the market is held. The Lille Christmas market is a popular destination. The market is held in the centre of the town and has stalls selling arts and crafts and local cuisine. There is a theatre and games for children and Father Christmas attends the market. In a spectacular event on 20th December he ‘falls’ from the 80 metre high Belfry of the Chamber of Commerce.

Christmas markets are also popular in Belgium, again largely due to the rapid Eurostar service. The Brussels Winter Wonderland market has a wonderful atmosphere with its cheerful lights and tantalising aromas of local delicacies. To add to the fun there is an ice-skating rink and the market is held in the ancient and beautiful Grand Place which is lit up for the occasion. Ostend also boasts an ice-skating rink and a fantastic array of shops, boutiques and stalls. As Belgium’s largest seaside resort it also offers plenty of evening entertainment and restaurants and bars.

Holland has a number of established Christmas markets which can be easily reached by ferry. The Valkenburg Christmas market is unusual in that it takes place in a cave. The soft gentle music and twinkling illuminations give a magical feel to the darkness of the Fluweeleengrot (Velvet cave). As you walk through its passages you will discover caverns, decorated niches and stalls featuring Christmas items or old Dutch trades and handicrafts. At the centre of the cave is the catering garden that serves food and the famous Dutch Christmas drink Gluhwein (sparkling hot wine). There is an entry charge to this market of EUR4 for adults and EUR1.5 for children over the age of 3.

Poland has only a few Christmas markets, the chief market being Krakow. It is held in the Rynek, a large market square in the heart of the old town. The wooden stalls offer a variety of gifts from woollen clothes to jewellery. Others sell local delicacies. The square is dominated by the ancient Cloth Hall and during December you are almost guaranteed snow.