For many North Americans, the charm of a visit to Europe during the holidays is the chance to experience a country's rich culture and to witness special traditions, celebrations, decorations, and seasonal warmth.
You might sip hot chocolate at a Christmas market, or listen to a choir in a midnight service at a medieval cathedral. Simply strolling a city street and viewing the decorated storefronts can be a memorable experience. As a bonus, families traveling to experience Christmas in Europe can often find lower-priced airfares and snag off-season hotel rates.
From carolers at Trafalgar Square and illuminated West End streets to Christmas markets and outdoor skating rinks, London puts on a fantastic holiday season. Kids won't want to miss a visit with Santa in one of the many Christmas Grottos at major department stores.
No matter what German city you visit, there will be a Christmas market with unique gifts and a festive atmosphere. German Christmas markets (two of the biggest are in Dresden and Nuremberg) have been renowned for hundreds of years. Four centuries ago, a Nuremberg priest complained that too few people came to mass on Christmas Eve because everyone was shopping at the market.
Beginning with November holiday markets and continuing right through Christmas, the season is full of special, uniquely French experiences. Don't miss one of the many sound-and-light shows that have gained popularity all over the country.
- Christmas in Paris: Holiday season highlights include gorgeous street decorations, Christmas light displays at historic monuments, Christmas markets, outdoor ice skating, and more.
In Italy, celebrations get underway on December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and continue until Epiphany on January 6 when the witch La Befana delivers candy and gifts. Expect to encounter a religious, rather than commercial, holiday, highlighted by nativity scenes, holiday markets, and torchlit processionals.
- Christmas in Rome: As the site of Vatican City, Rome is unsurprisingly a top travel destination during the holiday season. St. Peter's Square, a year-round place of pilgrimage, boasts an enormous Christmas tree in December. Piazza Navona, Rome's famous Baroque square, is transformed into a huge Christmas market. The marble Nativity in Santa Maria Maggiore is said to be the oldest permanent nativity scene, dating back to the 13th century.
The Christmas seasonal celebrations in Spain start with the Immaculada on December 8 and continue through Dia de Los Reyes on January 6, which is the day when Spanish children get their presents. As in many Catholic countries, the season tends to accentuate a more religious, less commercial focus. Note that Christmas Eve is the main day of celebration in Spain, which means there are more businesses and restaurants open on Christmas Day than you would find in Britain or the United States.
- Christmas in Madrid: The Spanish capital is adorned each year in Christmas lights from late November until January 7. As you might expect, the city's main drags (Gran Via, Puerta del Sol, Paseo del Prado and so on) are particularly festive. You'll find the largest, most impressive nativity scenes on display at the City Hall on Calle Jorge Juan and in the Plaza Mayor.
Don't-misses in the Denmark holiday season include Christmas markets, sampling a traditional cinnamon rice pudding known as grod, and making the acquaintance of Nisse, a good but mischievous Christmas elf. If you're in Copenhagen, you absolutely must visit the Tivoli Gardens.
Polish cities and towns go all out for Christmas, decorating their central squares with elaborately decorated Christmas trees, illuminated churches, Christmas markets, and holiday lights.
- Christmastime in Krakow: Krakow is one of Eastern Europe's most beautiful gems, with its fabulously atmospheric and pedestrian-friendly Old Town and magnificent main square. It also boasts one of Europe's best Christmas markets, so your timing is ideal. You might even catch a glimpse of Mikolaj, the Polish Santa, while you're there.
Like many countries in Europe, Hungary is a great place to find wonderful Christmas Markets. If you're looking for Christmas gifts from Hungary, consider wine or spirits, dolls dressed in Hungarian folk costumes, embroidered linens, or even paprika, the Hungarian national spice.
- Edited by Suzanne Rowan Kelleher