Christmas Tours

For the holidays, Europe decks her halls with family-friendly cheer. Clients would be hard pressed to find a more festive time for family travel to Europe than the continent’s nice long Christmas holiday season. Not only are there extra special things for every member of the family to do and see, but ‘tis the easiest season to experience European traditions and to join local people in their celebrations.

Throughout northern and central Europe, the dazzling centerpieces of the holiday season are its Christmas Markets that open for business and a full calendar of special attractions from the end of November through Christmas Eve. And whether he’s called St. Nicholas or Sinterklass, Santa Claus is always part of the colorful festivities. Indeed, Europe offers a Santa’s sack full of travel options, packaged for hassle-free convenience and value by a handful of U.S. tour operators.

When considering holiday travel planning, for example, know that Germany is world famous for its Christmas markets, the most renowned of which may be in medieval Nuremberg, where the Christmas Angel opens the town’s Christkindlesmarkt on Hauptmarkt Square on Nov. 27. Thereafter she appears Tuesday to Friday at 3 p.m. and at the Christmas market for children at 2:30 p.m. There is much to see and do through the holiday season—concerts in the churches, traditional Nativity scenes in the baroque church of St. Egidien and in Spitalgasse, an exhibition of historical market stalls on Hans Sachs square and the “star” theater at St. Katharine’s Abbey. Other highlights are the international market on Rathausplatz, arts and crafts in the Handwerkerhof, a torch-lit procession to the castle, and rides aboard a horse-drawn mail coach.

For sheer size, Berlin becomes an enormous fairy tale in lights at Christmas, with around 60 traditional Christmas markets, cultural events, endless shopping options and unusual winter attractions. Families get into the Christmas spirit on Gendarmenmarket Square, the historical setting for the Weihnachtszauber, one of Berlin’s prettiest and most magical Christmas markets. Other seasonal highlights include a toboggan run and ice rink; a Christmas market at Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church; the Hanukkah market at the Jewish Museum; and the Great Berlin Christmas market stretching from Alexanderstrasse all the way to Alexanderplatz. The Lucia Christmas Market is made up of some 40 stalls and an old-fashioned carousel, and daily at 8 p.m., visitors are treated to a program of entertainment for all ages, while Father Christmas is on hand at 5 p.m.

Both Nuremberg and Berlin are included in Insight Tours’ 8-night German Christmas Markets tour. The tour starts in Berlin and continues to Leipzig, Dresden, Nuremberg, Rothenberg and Munich. Seven departures are scheduled between Nov. 22 and Dec. 13, and the tour cost is $1,550 pp dbl; children and teens, ages 5-17 save 10 percent. The tour features superior hotels, breakfasts and several dinners, sightseeing, motor coach transport, and tour director services.

Insight Tours also takes holiday travelers and their families to Vienna, Prague, Budapest and the Christmas Markets on a 7-night escorted tour, priced at $1,175 pp dbl. In Vienna, travelers will find the classic Christkindlmarkt on the square, starting early- to mid-November, and in front of the magnificent Town Hall, surrounded by a park with trees decorated with themed lights, shaped like hearts of gingerbread men. Additionally, throughout December, choirs from around the world perform on weekends at Festival Hall. Prague’s Christmas Markets are in full swing right through New Year’s day, filling Old Town and Wenceslaus Square with wandering musicians and dotted with brightly decorated wooden huts selling a variety of traditional Czech products and handicrafts, as well as hot food specialties and warm wine. The Old Town square also hosts sheep and goats for kids to pet, as well as a Bethlehem nativity scene, and a huge tree lights up nightly at 5 p.m. In Budapest, folk dances and live music, local art, traditional handicrafts and puppet theaters, are found daily among 150 cottage-style market stalls in Vorosmarty ter from mid-November. This Christmas market is at the center of the Pest district, near the beginning of “Fashion Street.”

Collette Vacations offers Europe’s Christmas Markets on a 7-night escorted tour visiting Austria, Germany, France and Switzerland. Highlights include Oberammergau, Munich, Bavarian Castles and the Black Forest, Strasbourg and Bern, while special “Collette Experiences” range from a cheese fondue dinner in Switzerland to capturing the holiday spirit in the Christmas markets of Innsbruck, Strasbourg and Bern. The tour price of $1,249 includes accommodations, 12 meals, all sightseeing, and tour manager services. Triple and child occupancy rates are available. Collette’s program includes France’s most famous Christmas market, Strasbourg, whose marche de noel was first held in 1561. Today, it takes place in front of the famous church in Place de la Cathedral and in Place Broglie in front of City Hall. You can follow your nose to these beautifully decorated holiday emporiums to the stands serving up gingerbread, spice cookies and fragrant mulled wine. And Santa Claus is on hand to meet and greet young visitors—a chance for American children to learn to say si’l vous plait or “please” in French.