Getting your holiday shopping done in a foreign country always seems to add a little panache to the gifts. A Europe Christmas markets cruise is the perfect time to combine a leisurely vacation with holiday shopping. Browsing the charming stalls in each port, you can find trinkets for everyone on your list -- even the neighbor you hardly talk to or the coworker who would never expect it. The following are some of our favorite gifts found throughout Europe's famous Christmas markets.
If you're thinking about hat shopping in Germany, Bavaria's well-known brimmed hats (with decorative feathers or edelweiss flowers) will likely come to mind. But you're not limited to these iconic hats when shopping for souvenirs. Christmas markets around Europe provide quite a selection of head-toppers for everyone on your list -- fur trim is particularly popular in Budapest, Slovakia and Austria. Christmas market hat stands aren't just great places to pick up gifts; river cruise passengers from warm-weather climates could find themselves scrambling to shield their cold ears from Europe's winter chill. Whether you're looking to keep warm or purely make a fashion statement, consider adding this accessory to your haul (and most stands also have scarves and gloves to complete the ensemble).
2. Creative Nativity Scenes
Religious statuettes and meticulously hand-carved dioramas are plentiful in Europe, where there's a church on just about every street corner. There are endless varieties and styles of nativity sets available, which could make for a fun collection or unique gifts for your religious friends. Even if you're not particularly religious, it's hard to keep from marveling at the craftsmanship of these precious scenes. One of our favorite renditions isn't a scene at all but rather a small token called Jesus in a Nutshell -- because it is, quite literally, a tiny figurine of baby Jesus cradled in a nutshell.
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3. Things on String
The obvious pick here is ornaments, but that's too ... obvious. You'll find all kinds of sparkling, intriguing and even fragrant objects attached to strings and hanging from most Christmas market stands. A favorite is garlands of orange peel, cinnamon, and various dried fruits and flowers that give off an invigorating perfume. Wooden lanterns in Salzburg, Austria hang glowing along the stands. Ornate votive candleholders on chains glimmer in the sun, and tiny dolls and critters playfully sway on strings in the winter air. You might just find yourself selecting the perfect stringed gift for every person on your list.
4. Heart-Shaped Cookies
Perhaps best known in Vienna (where there's an entire tree with red hearts glowing warmly from its bare branches), heart-shaped cookies are a holiday tradition for locals. Saccharine phrases scrawled on gingerbread (known in German-speaking countries as lebkuchen) in pastel icing translate to phrases like "Merry Christmas" or "I love you." The cookies are plastic-wrapped and will survive a flight, so they're a sturdier bet than other confections. Save them for two months and they'll make an unexpected Valentine's Day gift! (Warning: They look better than they taste, however).
5. Handmade Toys
In an increasingly tech-savvy world, it's refreshing to find a handmade toy without a touchscreen, button or automation in sight. Whether you're snatching them up for display or gifting them to children, Old World toys, such as marionettes, might remind you of a simpler time when things were made with artistry from wood and paint. Nutcrackers for sale in local markets are as varied as the people who buy them. However, we advise double-checking the sticker on the bottom if you want to be sure it didn't get there by way of China.