Lucky is the group that visits Switzerland during the Christmas season

In the weeks leading up to December 25, town squares across the land explode with festivities, beckoning visitors to shop, eat and share in the holiday cheer.

Starting in late November, Swiss cities and villages set up Christmas markets, a tradition that goes back centuries. Typically, these temporary marketplaces consist of clusters of wooden huts manned by artisans selling handcrafted wares. You may even see the makers at work, perhaps carving wood or decorating gingerbread. Adding to the festive atmosphere are special features like choral concerts, carnival rides and horse-carriage rides.

Christmas Village, with 100 market stalls and an ice rink, takes over Sechseläutenplatz in front of the Zurich Opera House. Zurich Tourism

Christmas Village, with 100 market stalls and an ice rink, takes over Sechseläutenplatz in front of the Zurich Opera House. Zurich Tourism

Christmas markets provide the perfect opportunity to get a head start on holiday shopping and bring back something uniquely Swiss for loved ones at home. Drifting from stall to stall, you’ll find Advent wreaths, wooden toys and hand-blown glass ornaments. Perhaps a piece of pottery or jewelry will catch your eye. Take a rest from shopping and warm up over a cup of hot cider or a glass of fragrant Glühwein (hot wine laced with cinnamon and other spices). Market-goers also enjoy savoring roasted chestnuts, grilled sausages, and waffles and crepes hot off the griddle.

Other treats include breads with nuts and candied fruits, including Stollen, a Christmastime favorite in the German-speaking world. At yuletide markets in Appenzell and St. Gallen in eastern Switzerland, don’t miss the Biberli, a pastry made of gingerbread dough and filled with almond paste. Try Basler Läckerli, a chewy biscuit made of honey, nuts and candied orange peel in the Rhine River Valley of Basel, where two Christmas markets in the Old Town take place, with a total of almost 200 rustic chalets, stretch over two squares.

In Zurich, Christmas Village, featuring an ice rink and 100 market stalls festooned with twinkling lights, takes over the square in front of the Zurich Opera House. Holiday revelers also flock to vendor stalls in the romantic Niederdorf Quarter of Zurich’s Old Town and to the huge Christmas market at the main train station.

Cities in French-speaking Switzerland serve up holiday fun as well. Montreux Noel, for example, is a month-long celebration centered around a Christmas village right on the Lake Geneva waterfront.

Christmas is a magical time to be in Switzerland, where sparkling markets in towns big and small certainly make the season bright.

By Randy Mink