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Europe's best Christmas markets

By Simon Hooper, Special to CNN
December 23, 2012 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
You know you're in the right place when your outfit matches the decor. Berlin has more than 60 Christmas markets scattered around the city. You know you're in the right place when your outfit matches the decor. Berlin has more than 60 Christmas markets scattered around the city.
Berlin, Germany
Birmingham, England
Nuremberg, Germany
Copenhagen, Denmark
Strasbourg, France
Vienna, Austria
Gothenburg, Sweden

(CNN) -- For something intended to bring pleasure to loved ones and keep the economy of the entire Western world afloat, Christmas shopping in the Internet age can be a peculiarly joyless and atomized activity.

Online shopping is all very well for sociopaths and agoraphobes, but here are eight destinations to put the glühwein and gluttony back into your seasonal splurge.

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You hardly need an extra reason to visit the fashionable German capital, but ice rinks, Ferris wheels, fairground rides and toboggan runs are among some of the attractions competing for attention at more than 60 markets scattered around the city.

The Gendarmenmarkt is considered one of the most beautiful.

Buy: Original works by the next big things of art, design and fashion, idiosyncratic decorations and contemporary jewelry at TrendMafia's Christmas Design Market.

Drink: With so many markets to see, a currywurst-fueled glühwein (mulled wine) crawl should keep the cold at bay, loosen the purse strings and liberate the legs for an evening of moving and shaking in some already passé Kreuzberg pop-up nightspot.

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Sing along to: Traditional German carols are hard to beat. "Stille Nacht" (the song so imbued with Christmas spirit it briefly halted World War I on the Western Front) and "Oh Tannenbaum" will get the festive endorphins flowing in even the most battle-hardened Yuletide veteran.

Birmingham, England: Glam rock and glühwein

Pretty much every self-respecting British city these days goes Deutsch-verrückt for December, but Birmingham's Frankfurt Market claims to be "the largest authentic German market outside Germany and Austria."

Buy: The adjacent Christmas Craft Fair sells an array of local produce for your Christmas table, including organic sausages and homemade chutneys and cheeses. Or you might pick up a Birmingham edition of Monopoly for those long winter nights in with the family.

Drink: Glühwein and German beers aplenty here, but a short walk to The Old Contemptibles pub will get you seasonal English ales including "Ding Dong" and "Elves' Bells."

Listen out for: "Merry Christmas Everybody" and "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day," by local bands Slade and Wizzard. It's traditional in the UK for these festive glam rock stompers to be played on loop in every department store, as increasingly dead-eyed shoppers desperately scour the emptying shelves.

Nuremberg, Germany: From brat to wurst

One of the most fabled markets in Germany, the Christkindlesmarkt dates to the mid-sixteenth century with more than 180 wooden stalls set amid the picturesque surroundings of the Bavarian city's old town.

Buy: You can indulge your inner child with lebkuchen (spiced gingerbread), locally produced wooden toys and zwetschgenmännle (traditional decorative figurines made of prunes).

Eat: The glühwein here is stronger than average so it's smart to fill your stomach with plenty of local speciality Nürnberger Rostbratwürste, traditionally served on a heart-shaped tin plate. The Bratwurstküche zum Gulden Stern has been serving sausages here since 1419.

Look out for: It's hard to miss the Christkind, a local teenage girl dressed in a gloriously Wagner-esque crown and golden robe. Selection criteria for the role include a "willingness to work in any weather."

Copenhagen, Denmark: A fairy tale festive wonderland

The Danish capital's Tivoli Gardens fun park this year celebrates Nordic and Russian traditions with Christmas-themed rides, reindeer, an illuminated miniature replica of Moscow's Saint Basil's Cathedral and half a million fairy lights.

Buy: You can support the Inuit people of Greenland by buying a sealskin accessory from the Inuit Sila stall. In Greenland, seals are hunted sustainably for meat and every part of the animal is used.

Eat: Aebleskiver are donuts baked in a special pan with round holes. They're traditionally served with glögg, hot wine flavored with almonds and raisins.

Watch out for: The nisse. These mischievous pixies were traditionally believed to live in attics and barns, bringing good luck to those who cared for them. Many Danes still leave out a bowl of porridge on Christmas Eve to keep them sweet.

Strasbourg, France: Alsatian treats and Christmas trees

With a market dating to 1570, the French border city of Strasbourg has adopted the title of "Capital of Christmas."

Fir trees have formed a part of festivals in this forested region since pagan times, a tradition symbolized by the largest natural Christmas tree in Europe in the town square.

Buy: Regional delicacies, including foie gras and traditional Christmas biscuits known as recettes de bredele, abound for those seeking gifts for gourmands.

Drink: Alsatian monks, and recently breweries, have been producing malt-heavy Christmas beers -- spicy in flavor and amber in color -- since the Middle Ages.

Say: Alsace has its own regional language, recognized as vulnerable by UNESCO. Give it a boost by wishing locals "E gueti Wnchte & E glecklichs Nej Johr" ("Merry Christmas").

Vienna: Grand old aristocrat of Advent

The former Habsburg capital shakes off its otherwise haughty reputation during lavish festivities, with baroque architecture that makes for a stunning backdrop as the decorative lights of Christkindlmarkt twinkle amid snowflakes.

Buy: The Adventmarkt, in front of the Karlskirche, is the place to go for handicrafts, ranging from stained glass sculptures to handmade wooden instruments, with workshops in glassblowing, leather work and other traditional techniques.

Drink: Weihnachtspunsch, accompanied by roasted chestnuts, is the Austrian capital's spirit-fortified variation on the hot alcohol formula. The mugs are considered collector's items.

Watch out for: The Krampus -- looking like extras from A Christmas Nightmare on Elm Street, these gruesome goat-headed long-haired monsters maraud menacingly through the markets at night.

Gothenburg, Sweden: Northern lights and smorgasbords

Sweden's "Christmas City" is a blaze of light, warmth and color in the dark Scandinavian night, with the dazzling, illuminated market at the Liseberg amusement park among the season's central attractions.

Buy: For cutting edge and playful Scandinavian future design classics, the place to be is the ever-popular Julform Pop-up market. It's now an annual December fixture.

Eat: You can gorge on a multi-course Christmas smorgasbord, the Julbord, a table laden with dishes including pickled and smoked fish, meats and cheeses, and the hearty Janssons frestelse, a casserole of anchovies and potatoes.

Listen to: Gothenburg's tourism website has put together a classy Christmas playlist (Cliff Richard aside) featuring hirsute local rockers The Soundtrack of Our Lives, currently rounding off their last-ever tour with a six-night stand in Stockholm.

Hamburg, Germany: Kinky Christmas fun

Hamburg's legendarily louche St. Pauli district offers "Santa Pauli" -- its ribald take on the traditional German market, with strip shows, drag queens and "sexy angels." Probably not one for the kids.

Buy: The handmade wooden toys that sell here are not the sort that you'd usually associate with Santa's little helpers. Those crafted by WaldMichlsHoldi, a long-running family business, are the most famous.

Drink: The Amaretto-laced hot apple wine packs a dangerous punch.

Join in the fun: Porn karaoke anyone?

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