VIENNA, Austria -- The tree looks too big to be real, but it's definitely authentic. Standing a whopping 32-metres high, the 120-year-old spruce decorated with 1,000 lights graces Vienna's Rathausplatz (town hall square) -- home to one of the city's most popular Christmas markets.
Vienna has about 60 Christmas markets and each has its own character.
"Vienna Magic of Advent" at the town hall is distinguished by its various illuminations -- archways composed of thousands of tiny lights, four huge red Advent candles, enormous deciduous trees decorated with differently themed lights. One that features multitudes of red hearts dangling from its branches, is apparently the site of more than a few marriage proposals.
Everywhere, the atmosphere is festive with visitors enjoying cups of mulled wine and local delicacies, while shopping at some of the 140 stalls selling tree decorations and unique gifts. This child-friendly market also offers Christmas stories read by local celebrities at the Celestial Stage, pony rides, a Christkindl Express train, a merry-go-round, and a chance for kids to make presents and bake sweet Advent treats in Christkindl's Workshop.
An added bonus of Vienna's Christmas markets -- at least for foreign visitors -- is many are located near major tourist attractions, so you can combine holiday shopping and feasting with sightseeing. For example, after checking out some of the 80 stalls in front of Schonbrunn Palace, take a tour of this former summer residence of the Habsburgs.
Other holiday markets are located near Belvedere Palace, where you can also take in a special show -- Jubilee Exhibition: 150 Years Gustav Klimt -- on until Jan. 27; and in the MuseumsQuarter, which is home to several galleries including the Leopold Museum.
Christmas in Berlin shares much in common with Vienna. Both cities are surprisingly affordable, home to world-class attractions, and -- at this time of year -- many good Christmas markets.
One of the best is in front of the Charlottenburg Palace, where I encountered three white-clad "angels" gracefully strolling the grounds, while a four-piece brass band performed their rendition of O Christmas Tree. After sampling a chocolate-covered marshmallow, and toasted almonds served in a cone, I toured the palace's royal apartments, then popped into one of the art galleries across the street.
Another market in a beautiful square is Gendarmenmarkt, which is set amid three landmarks -- a French cathedral, a German cathedral and a concert hall.
The scent of roasted chestnuts wafted through the air near a stage where a large crowd had gathered to watch a holiday show with jugglers and costumed characters performing comedic skits, followed, a few hours later, by a brilliant fireworks display.
-- Several countries lay claim to the invention of the Christmas tree, but it's generally acknowledged that the custom first took hold in Germany.
-- Tyrolean craftsmen (from Austria) are famous for the carving and painting of manger scenes.
-- Germans have produced some of the most beautiful Christmas music ever written such as J. S. Bach's Christmas Oratorio.
-- Carp and goose are among traditional meals enjoyed during the Christmas season in Austria and Germany.
-- Silent Night was first sung in Austria, in Salzburg's Oberndorf's chapel.
--Protestant areas of Germany tend to be visited by the Weihnachtsmann -- a Santa Claus figure, while Catholic families are served by the Christkind, the Christ child who is envisaged as a white-clad maiden.
-- Among the unique finds in Christmas markets are original snow globes (these were invented in Vienna in 1900), and in Berlin's Weihnachtsmarkt, the Rose of Jericho, a holy desert plant that never dies and is said to bring good luck.
--There are many opportunities for children to bake Christmas cookies including in the imperial bakery in Cafe Residenz at Schonbrunn Palace; Christkindl's Workshop at Vienna's Rathausplatz; and at the famous Hotel Adlon Kempinski, near the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
NEED TO KNOW
-- Most Christmas markets are open daily from about 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., often later on weekends, and run from mid to late November through Dec. 24. More information is available from the Visit Berlin website and the Vienna Tourist Board.
-- There's a new app for Germany's Christmas markets with details such as opening hours, typical customs and gifts, and highlights in 32 different towns and cities. The mobile app for Android and iOS devices (Apple) is available in German, English, Dutch, French and Italian. For more, check the German National Tourist Board's website at germany.travel/christmas.
-- For seasonal activities at the Hotel Adlon Kempinski, check kempinski.com.