My first Christmas abroad caught me by surprise. The heart and soul of my new home – Prague's highly esteemed Old Town Square – had been transformed, seemingly overnight, into a scene from a Charles Dickens novel.
Little, red, thatched-roof gift booths strung with garland, tinsel, and holly dotted the snow-covered square. Smoke from roasting chestnuts snaked through the air, and pretty women in colored dresses, earmuffs, and scarves sang carols as horse-drawn carriages stood waiting for their next fare.
Dazzling and magical hardly seemed like adequate descriptions for such a yuletide display. Rather, what I remember unfolding before me on that crisp winter afternoon two years ago seemed astonishingly surreal. I didn't think the holiday season could get much better.
As it turns out, the Czech capital's famous outdoor markets were just the prelude. Europe is renowned for its Christmas markets. Practically every big city has at least one, if not several. But – not to be biased – some of the best, biggest, and oldest seasonal marketplaces reside right in the center of Europe.
Nuremberg, Germany's internationally acclaimed Little Town From Wood and Cloth braces each year for the onslaught of foreign visitors that steamrolls in for five consecutive weeks, looking for those one-of-a-kind gifts to place under the tree.
For me, though, the region's Christmas markets are not so much about the shopping experience as they are about the atmosphere. Just imagine celebrating the holiday season against the backdrop of Munich's bustling city center, Prague's baroque landscape, or the extensive, snow-capped mountains of Salzburg, Austria. The view, quite literally, will take your breath away.
"This is the problem with [something that's considered] a paradise – once it is discovered, it is no longer a paradise," says Michael Weber, the general manager for Nuremberg's tourist office. "Indeed, the Christmas market is Nuremberg's biggest tourist draw. I would go so far to say that it is for Nuremberg what the Oktoberfest is for Munich."
Perhaps he has a point. After all, it seems almost impossible these days to find a traditional European Christmas market that hasn't already been thoroughly overpromoted by the tourism industry. Still, the fascination persists, and city officials here push aside talk of a global economic meltdown, insisting their winter tourism numbers will remain steady this year.
"There has been a certain fluctuation, yes," Mr. Weber admits. "Not because of weak economies but because of an increase in the number of good markets in Germany. That number grew faster than the number of possible visitors."
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.
"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.