updated 12/15/2008 3:22:13 PM ET 2008-12-15T20:22:13

Sometimes it seems like chalky store-bought Santa cookies, holiday blockbuster movies and commercials for luxury cars with giant bows have sucked the soul right out of Christmas. But there are still places in this world — Christmas markets, to be exact — where the holidays have a heart.

Going to a traditional Christmas market is like literally traveling to Christmas. The air is crisp and cold, the sweet songs of choirs merge with the smells of hot spiced wine and roasted chestnuts in the air, and hundreds of shoppers (and dozens of Santas) bustle by in search of presents for loved ones near and far. At Christmas markets, the modern secularization of the season is smashed to bits by Nativity scenes, Gothic cathedrals decked with twinkling lights and marzipan Jesus figures that remind visitors of the holiday's holy history.

Christmas markets originated centuries ago in Germany and Austria as sources of practical goods for winter survival. Today, the markets offer practical gifts for surviving the scrutinizing tastes of your critical loved ones. Plan a Christmas market trip this year and you will usurp your wicked step-sister as the provider of the best holiday gifts when you bring your loved ones authentic Italian wines from the markets of Trento, sweet gingerbread from a German Christmas market or antique toys from Vienna. Your only challenge is choosing a market — there are literally hundreds of these festive fairs in Europe and North America during November and December. Here are a few of our favorites to get you started on your Yuletide adventure.

Strasbourg Christmas Market, France
Each year, the medieval town of Strasbourg in Alsace, France is illuminated by thousands of twinkling Christmas lights. This festive scene provides the perfect backdrop for the Strasbourg Christmas market, which is the largest Christmas market in France. The market's Web site claims that it offers "a thousand and one gift ideas," but the site's extensive agenda of daily activities and events proves that a visit to the Strasbourg market is more than just a chance to shop.

Visit a giant Nativity scene in the majestic Cathedrale de Strasbourg, stroll through stalls selling handmade gifts and specialty foods in the city's center (a UNESCO World Heritage Site ), or embark on an organized treasure hunt through the historic village. An ice skating rink provides hours of frosty fun, and children ages 8 and younger can play on a special winter obstacle course complete with tunnels, hoops and sleighs. The market runs from November 24 through January 8.

Nuremberg Christmas Market, Germany
Considered to be Germany's most popular Christmas market, the Nuremberg Christmas Market attracts over two million visitors annually. This is not the market to attend if you're searching for an off-the-beaten-path experience, but it's one of Germany's oldest Christmas fairs and it won't disappoint travelers looking for some of the season's best traditional shopping. About 180 market stalls sell baked goods, roasted bratwurst, hot wine, and unique toys and gifts such as Nuremberg Plum People — figurines made from prunes.

Other notable gifts sold in the market include hand-carved Nativity sets, gingerbread, and glass Christmas tree ornaments. The entire place is a lovely site to behold; all of the stalls are decorated with red and white cloth, and the most beautiful stall wins a gold "Plum Person" prize each year. The market runs from November 28 through December 24.

Trento Christmas Market, Italy
Christmas markets are not as well known in Italy as they are in Austria or Germany, but some worthwhile markets can be found throughout the Boot during the holiday season. We like the Italian Christmas market in Trento for two reasons. First, the town is remarkably beautiful —Trento lies in a glacial valley below the Alps and features pastel medieval buildings, Gothic cathedrals and a romantic 13th-century castle. Second, the town's historic Germanic influences have helped produce a distinctive Christmas market that mixes Italian and German traditions. About 70 stalls in the city center offer thousands of holiday gifts including wooden gnomes, handmade jewelry, local Italian wines, copper crafts and natural perfumes. The market runs from November 22 through December 24.

Liseberg Christmas Market, Gothenburg, Sweden
Innovation and imagination have turned the famous Liseburg Christmas market in Gothenburg, Sweden into a spectacular and surreal holiday experience. Liseberg is Scandinavia's largest amusement park; it's here that a "live" Christmas tree (red- and green-robed singers on a tree-shaped structure) serenades visitors, skaters glide in Santa suits and an entire bar made of ice beckons tourists with (literally) ice-cold drinks. Snack on Swedish foods from meatballs to pickled herring in addition to holiday favorites like mulled wine, marzipan and waffles.

When you're not participating in a Christmas sing-along or voting in a Christmas tree decorating contest (a random winner gets the best-decorated tree delivered to his or her home), you can shop for traditional handmade Christmas gifts — like ceramics, glassware and wood carvings -- in Liseburg's design and crafts market. The market is open November 14 - 16, 21 - 23 and 28 - 30, as well as December 3 to 23.

Berlin Christmas Markets, Germany
Berlin's the place to be if you want to go Christmas market hopping (that's right — hopping, not shopping); the city hosts dozens of different Christmas markets throughout the holiday season. The Berlin markets are vibrant, teeming centers for holiday cheer — the scene is more "Jingle Bell Rock" than "Silent Night." Highlights include thousands of crafts, antiques, foods and holiday gifts; Christmas music concerts; horse and carriage rides; giant Christmas pyramids; and even a carousel and a Fairyland for youngsters.

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If you've had more Christmas than you can handle (which seems a likely circumstance in this place), or have Jewish loved ones on your holiday gift list, you may want to visit the Hanukkah market in the courtyard of the Jewish Museum. The markets take place from November through January.

Schonbrunn Palace Christmas Market, Vienna, Austria
Celebrate the holidays next to the famous, breathtaking Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna. Over 60 booths sell roasted chestnuts, hot wine, homemade Austrian crafts and other holiday wares in Vienna's historic city center. Bring the kids and take part in a special hands-on workshop —children can learn to make Christmas cookies and crafts. And don't miss the live holiday concerts that happen nightly in front of the giant Christmas tree. When touring Vienna's shops and markets, fans of marzipan must visit Demel, a famous 200-year-old candy maker in Vienna; its cellar houses an intriguing marzipan museum. The market lasts from November 22 through December 26.

Christkindlmarket, Chicago, Illinois
Although Europeans started the Christmas market tradition, they certainly don't have a monopoly on this joyful holiday ritual. Try a trip to Chicago for a Christmas market experience without the overseas flight and exchange rate. The city's annual Christkindlmarket fair, which takes place from November 27 through December 24, was inspired by the Nuremberg Christmas Market and has all the festive trappings of Europe's famous Yuletide fairs. Rows of stalls sell familiar handmade gifts and hot holiday chow like roasted chestnuts, sausages, candies and hot wine.

Various events, including a meet-and-greet with the Rockettes, a Chicago holiday tree lighting and a performance by the Milwaukee Donauschwaben Youth Dance Group, put an American spin on traditional European festivities. You just might think you're in Europe if you can squint past the Cubs hats and sparkling skyscrapers — but why pretend you're somewhere else when you can enjoy a classic American Christmas in Chicago?


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