The concept of the season Christmas market is hardly a new one having been a tradition in the German-speaking parts of the world since the 13th century. Also variously known as a Christkindlmarkt, Marché de Noël or Weihnachtsmarkt, such things are traditionally held throughout the four weeks of the Advent and almost always as an outdoor event, however low the temperature might be.
In recent years though the concept of - and interest in - the Christmas market has exploded, with events being staged across the world, from the fairly barren wastes of Alaska in North America to the sunny climes of Australia and South Africa. But the best, as is often the case, are still considered to be the originals, the European markets that make great efforts to become bigger and better with every passing year. Here is a look at some of the best of them:
Once a year the Winter Wonders Festival is staged in the heart of the City of Brussels. It's an extravaganza of winter entertainment and activity but at its core is the long-running Christmas Market. Most vendors set up in small wooden chalets that line the major streets and offer everything from handmade Christmas ornaments to festive foods sourced from all over the continent and even beyond.
In addition, to the chance to enjoy some excellent Christmas shopping opportunities in a rather unique atmosphere visitors can enjoy a little more vigorous activity at the outdoor ice rink or enjoy one of a number of carnival rides, including the Ice Monster, a 15 minute adventure inside the 'belly' of a 45 metre dinosaur!
Strasbourg lays claim to having the oldest formal Christmas market in Europe, with its Christkindelsmärik having first been staged in 1570. Much has changed of course since those early days but even in the 21st-century efforts are made to give the event a rather nostalgic, even historical feel that seems to transport the visitor back in time for a few hours.
The event has grown so large now that it hosts not just one but more than half a dozen different Christmas markets across the city. From a market dedicated to books and literature pieces to one solely devoted to wine, there is something for everyone, including the chance to enjoy 'Off Noel', an alternative Christmas festival devoted to street art and live performance art.
Prague's annual Christmas market extravaganza is known locally as Vanocni trh and although it operates throughout the day in two of the largest of the city's squares a visit after dark is most impressive as it gives the visitor the chance to see an illuminated display that is truly breathtaking as well as the chance to 'shop til they drop'.
In addition to the many and varied goods and gifts on offer food and drink play a huge part at Prague's Christmas Market. It's not unusual for this to be the case at any such venue but here you do not just buy the food you get to watch it being created before your eyes and the culinary experience of enjoying a freshly spit-roasted ham sandwich or bratwurst washed down with a locally brewed beer while the carolers entertain is one that is hard to forget.
As another of the European cities to have embraced the tradition of the Christmas market centuries ago, it is little surprise that not only is there far more than a single market staged annually in Cologne but that they literally attract thousands of visitors from all corners of the globe every year.
Among the markets, there are some unusual offerings showcased these days. For instance, the Gay and Lesbian Market, with its colourful pink and purple huts, is highly unusual, even in today's more progressive world and yet it still sits happily alongside the more traditional attractions such as the Angel's Christmas Market which is the oldest of them all.
Img by Malte Hübner
Copenhagen plays host to several Christmas markets over the course of the Advent but the most iconic - and most visited - is the one staged in the city's storied Tivoli Gardens.
The Tivoli Gardens in themselves are already a huge tourist attraction thanks to the magical landscapes and the many amusement park rides, including the world's oldest operational roller coaster, the Bjergbanen (the Mountain Coaster). When it is converted into a Christmas winter wonderland, however, it becomes even more spectacular.
Also worth a visit is the Hans Christian Anderson Market held in the center of the city and devoted in part to its most famous son. Filled with colour and seasonal treats of all kinds visitors can even take a 'selfie' with Mr Anderson himself if they choose as a reminder of the experience.
These five venues are often considered by many to be the best of the European Christmas markets, but they are far from the only ones. No matter where you choose to spend Christmas it's likely there is one not too far from you to visit, perhaps while you save up for a trip to experience one of these 'once in a lifetime' festivals.