Enjoy Christmas markets in Riga, Prague, Tromsø... and Birmingham
WAFTS of warm, candied macadamia nuts fill the chilly air and crowds huddle around signs promising 'mulled wine and cider'.
It's like a scene from the heart of cosmopolitan Europe or the far north of Scandinavia at the height of advent, where reindeer meat is served in slabs alongside strings of German sausages from the counters of log cabins with tiny windows by staff wearing Santa hats.
Only it's not Riga, Prague, or Tromsø but Victoria Square in, what the locals call, 'the heart of Britain'... Birmingham.
It's the first day of the city's Frankfurt Christmas Market which remains the largest authentic German market in Britain with 190 stalls selling traditional festive treats over a one-mile footprint, stretching from the bottom of Broad Street, through Chamberlain Square, Victoria Square and the entire length of New Street.
By nightfall a German DJ is pumping out what sounds like the latest festive European hits from the balcony of a two-storey log cabin beneath a towering, inflatable Father Christmas and a throbbing, ever-growing crowd of people eager to get a glug of some mulled-stuff.
Millions will come here from the opening day until it closes on December 22 and more so than ever this year, say Visit Birmingham.
Among those will be throngs of Devon residents, says the tourism board which predicts the numbers of those travelling to the market by coach has risen by 30 per cent since last year and passenger numbers rocketing by 36 per cent.
"This year, coaches are set to descend on the city from 40 different locations around the UK including Teignmouth," said a Visit Birmingham spokesman.
Jennifer Young, head of Visitor Experience at Marketing Birmingham, said: "Attracting in excess of three million visitors year on year, the Frankfurt Christmas Market is the pinnacle of the city's festive calendar. The record number of bookings with our bespoke 'meet-and-greet' service shows that a personal welcome goes a long way — we aim to help visitors find their feet and provide a first class experience for those visiting the city, from the moment they arrive until they leave.
"With an internationally acclaimed dining scene, fantastic range of family attractions and world class shopping Birmingham is a great place to spend a festive break — the 'meet-and-greet' service is all about showcasing Birmingham's fantastic Christmas offering to visitors, while also helping people to get the best out of their time in the city.
"We are still taking bookings for the meet-and-greet service and hope to welcome many more Devon visitors on board in the lead up to Christmas," she said.
The tradition of Christmas markets is said to have been popular in the UK for centuries, until the time of Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century who banned accustomed celebrations — the markets vanished instantly.
Lincoln Christmas market was the first UK revival 26 years ago but many others, as Birmingham does, have continental themes.
Now there are many to choose from with some lasting a day or a weekend, like Brixham, and others lasting for six weeks.
Nearer home, the cities of Exeter and Truro both have nationally reputable Christmas markets with Exeter this year hosting its first festive fair on Cathedral Green until December 16 with a range of stalls selling unique, handmade and unusual gifts.
In Cornwall's capital, Truro, the start of the Christmas festivities were this month marked by the City of Lights procession with thousands of people lining the streets to watch the magical parade of hand crafted paper and withy lanterns, carried by local school children to mark the switching on of the city's Christmas lights.
On that night and every Wednesday until December 19, the streets across the city host festive market stalls, entertainers, brass bands and carol singers with all of the shops staying open late.
Throughout November and December there also are a range of events planned in the city including the Made in Cornwall Christmas Market from November 28 to December 1, Sunday Special Market on December 2, Truro's Grand Victorian Market on December 11 and 16, and the Last Chance Market will be held on December 21 and 22.
From yesterday to January 6, the city also hopes to become home to Cornwall's only outdoor ice skating rink which will be open every day (apart from Christmas Day) between 10am and 8.30pm next to the cathedral.
As part of the Christmas festivities in Truro, a number of accommodation providers in the city are running special offers including Alverton Manor Hotel's three-nights-for-the-price-of-two offer (01872 276633/ www.alvertonmanor.co.uk – quote code WEB342).
In the opposite end of the South West, you will find Bath Christmas Market (www.bathchristmasmarket.co.uk) — one of the largest festive events in the UK and said to be the most beautiful, running until December 9.
More than 140 quaint wooden stalls line the squares and streets surrounding the impressive Bath Abbey, selling everything you could possibly need for your festive celebrations.
Stay at Royal Crescent Courtyard, Bath, the famous Grade I-listed building in the heart of the city with the Christmas market on the doorstep. Sleeps up to four (two bedrooms) for £180 per night in December (www.holidaylettings.co.uk/191685).
Alternatively, if you fancy escaping the UK to sample an authentic European market, here are a few suggestions.
Celebrate Christmas in the popular Austrian resort of Mayrhofen this winter, which has an incredible 650km of pistes to explore including the Hintertux Glacier, which is currently boasting excellent snow conditions. Inghams is offering seven nights' half board accommodation at the four-star Hotel Kramerwirt from £749 per person, saving £220 per person, departing December 22, includes return flights from Bristol to Innsbruck, resort transfers and a Christmas gala dinner with carol singing (01483 791114/ www.inghams.co.uk).
Take a Christmas shopping trip to Rome for Christmas markets Italian style from £285 per person with Citalia (0844 4151956, www.citalia.com) departing December 12, including Easyjet flights, three-nights' accommodation at the four-star Starhotel Metropole.
Czech out the Prague Christmas market in Wenceslas Square (www.pragueexperience.com).
It's open daily in December and visitors can soak up the festive atmosphere, browse stalls and enjoy good food and hot wine.
Stay at No 46, Vinohrady Namesti Miru, a beautiful 19th century apartment a ten minute stroll from Wenceslas Square (www.holidaylettings.co.uk/50399) or travel with Kirker Holidays (0207 5932283/ www.kirkerholidays.com).
In Sweden, pony traps, saffron buns and sausages abound.
There are Christmas markets everywhere, including Skansen at weekends.
Stay at the Berns Hotel in Stockholm from £261 per person (00468 56632200/ www.berns.se), complete with a beautiful Asian restaurant.
Denmark's crisp Christmas air is illuminated by thousands of white lights when the many traditional Christmas markets open their doors to a new season of yuletide festivities all over the country. Try Aarhus (www.dengamleby.dk/ or http://en.aros.dk/); Odense (www.visitodense.com); Kolding (www.koldinghus.dk/); Vejle (www.hopballe.dk).
Fly into Billund or Aarhus airports — both are served from the UK with Ryanair.
To help visitors plan their festive celebrations in the city Visit Birmingham has launched a new microsite www.christmasinbirmingham.com, complete with day trip itineraries, online competitions, seasonal tips, event information and an interactive advent calendar during the countdown to Christmas.