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Europe's Christmas markets

European holiday markets, which date back centuries, are enjoying renewed popularity.

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Farther south, officials in Vienna report that the city saw a decline in its hotel vacancy rates in 2007 when compared with the year before.

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"The number of overnight stays in November and December has been increasing [over] the last [couple of] years," reported Eva Draxler, a spokesperson with the Vienna Tourist Board. However, she adds, "we cannot tell if it is solely because of the markets."

Still, there's an excellent possibility that the country's Christmas festivities play a major role.

Austrian cities all seem to try and outdo one another in seasonal flair, making it tough to decide where to begin. For two weekends last year, I picked my way through the country's endless outdoor marketplaces, enjoying an assortment of pastries I couldn't pronounce and washing them down with hot punch.

I bought sweet-smelling handmade soap in Salzburg and beautiful glass rings in Vienna, where I was overwhelmed by rows upon rows of gift booths lining the streets and parks of the city center.

"Since the '80s, there are Christmas markets all over the city," Ms. Draxler explains. "The most beautiful and nostalgic ones take place against the majestic backdrop of major palaces ... like Schoenbrunn Palace and Belvedere Palace."

My personal favorite is the park outside Vienna's sprawling City Hall. Every inch of the square is decked out in holiday glitz, from carolers and sweets to the towering Christmas tree and Nativity scenes scattered about. It's hard to know where to look first.

While some people have complained that the season has grown too commercialized with the expansion of Christmas markets, most cities seem vigilant about maintaining a local feel at their annual markets – and it shows.

In Prague, for instance, visitors can sort their way through endless displays of tree decorations, wooden toys, and marionette dolls. Grilled sausages, corn on the cob, and carp stands (a traditional Czech "delicacy") are also big hits here.

At the Dresden market – considered one of the oldest in Germany with history books first mentioning them in 1434 – it's a type of cake called stollen that takes center stage.

During the second weekend of the markets' annual run, a four-ton stollen creation is paraded through the streets of the city's Old Town and cut up for all to taste.

This tradition is so ingrained that it's even reflected in the name of the market, Striezelmarkt, as stollen was originally called Striezel.

Meanwhile, Nuremberg's jolly little Christmas "village" has gained such acclaim that city officials boast that some 2 million people from all over the world stop by for a visit each year.

There, a sea of wooden stalls decorated with red and white cloth (which give the market its nickname, the Little Town From Wood and Cloth) hawk some of the very best spicy gingerbread – Lebkuchen – baked in the country.

"It flatters me to hear that our Christmas market is considered one of the best in the world," said Nuremberg's Weber. "A Christmas market in a big city is not the snowy little place in the mountains next to a chapel with candles in the trees.... But we also try to maintain the local feel."

Truly, I have found, there is nothing quite like the Christmas markets in Europe. Visiting them is an unforgettable experience, even if you don't buy a thing.

Top Christmas markets

Dresden, Germany

Year of first recorded market: 1434

Must buy: Stollen loaves

Web: www.dresden.de/index_en.php

Munich, Germany

Year of first recorded market: 1642

Must buy: Rauchermann, small wooden figures used to burn incense

Web: www.christkindlmarkt-muenchen.de

Nuremberg, Germany

Year of first recorded market: 1628

Must buy: Nuremberg plum people, little figures made out of prunes

Web: www.christkindlesmarkt.de/english

Vienna

Year of first recorded market: 1626

Must buy: Vanilla crescents, traditional Viennese Christmas cookies.

Web: www.vienna.info

Salzburg, Austria

Year of first recorded market: 1491

Must buy: Mozartkugel, a tasty chocolate delight since 1890.

Web: www.christkindlmarkt.co.at

or www2.salzburg.info

Prague, Czech Republic

Must buy: Honey gingerbread

Web: www.czechtourism.com

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