Christmas Lights Up European Shopping

From London's Regent Street to Dresden's Striezelmarkt, Europe's shopping destinations combine Old World tradition and U.S.-style extravagance

Glitzy Christmas displays and shopping fantasy lands used to be a mainly American trademark—think of the 88-foot Norwegian pine this year at New York's Rockefeller Center or the dazzling Lights Festival illuminating Chicago's Magnificent Mile. But Europe's own Christmas shopping meccas needn't envy their American counterparts: Most boast their own forms of holiday glitz.

To be sure, Christmas shopping in Europe often follows centuries-old traditions, with old-fashioned markets and classic stores. But increasingly, it embraces American-style consumerism or blends the two in interesting ways. Whatever the style, holiday atmosphere continues to drive record spending in Europe at Christmastime. Deloitte estimates that spending on gifts this year in Britain alone will top £16.9 billion ($33 billion), while the average European household will rack up $872 in Christmas-related expenditures.

In the Mood for Spending

Experts say part of the spending spree grows from the contagious Christmas atmosphere, which cities and retailers know just how to encourage. Consider the classic symbol of European Christmas: the snowbound mountain village in Austria, Germany, or Switzerland, whose promise of ice-crusted pines and hot drinks drives countless visitors to those countries in the winter. That image is also a big draw for Christmas shoppers, says Terry Evans, general manager of London-based travel company Kumuka.

"Over the years, customers who spent Christmas in Austria, Germany, or Switzerland come away feeling more like when they were a kid," says Evans. Shoppers can find the essence of the Germanic Christmas spirit in winter markets like Dresden's 572-year-old Striezelmarkt. The outdoor crafts market, started under Friedrich II, now draws nearly 2 million visitors, who come to sip hot glühwein and soak up the holiday vibe while shopping for wooden toys or Christmas ornaments.

Serious Christmas shoppers, though, are more likely to head for the big retail hubs—such as London's Regent Street or Paris' Boulevard Haussmann—which now invariably dress themselves up in wild lighting decorations for the occasion. Regent Street's annual Street Festival, marked by a celebrity guest of honor and an elaborate fireworks show, launches the Christmas shopping season with a bang that helps nearby shops such as Apple, Benetton, and Godiva.

Lure of Decorations

In some cases, the decorations themselves are an even bigger draw than the shops. "In Vienna, people will travel there just to see the lights and the decorations," says Nikki Davies, spokeswoman for European travel agency Trailfinders, of the elegant chandelier lights along Vienna's main shopping avenues. Of course, when visitors get there and begin browsing the dresses at Prada or the chocolates at Fauchon, the expensive lights soon pay for themselves.

Christmas shopping can be tiring and invariably involves spending large amounts on unwanted gifts. But the razzle-dazzle awaiting shoppers at Europe's Christmas shopping destinations aims to turn a trying experience into an enjoyable one.

To see some of Europe's notable Christmas shopping sites, click here.