A MYRIAD of twinkling stalls, smokey bratwurst and steaming mugs of glühwein - there is a lot to love about German Christmas markets, unless you are on a diet.

Such is their popularity that copycat versions have cropped up in towns and cities across the UK, each claiming to capture an authentic taste of Deutschland.

Having visited Southern Germany last week for the first time, I can confidently say that the real deal is worth getting on a plane for.

The memory of forlorn smatterings of stalls back home faded away upon seeing the '‘Weihnachtsmarkt’ in Stuttgart centre, which pulls in about three million visitors each year.

Admittedly, I was less enthusiastic about the city upon arrival at its main train station.

The area is currently a colossal building site for a €6.5 billion project called Stuttgart 21, which will replace the station and transform railway transport in the city.

Roadwork signs and a ginormous fenced-off pit did not make for the best first impression, but thankfully the market was much easier on the eye.

Hundreds of wooden cabins line the streets and marketplaces, each bedecked with fairy lights and real fir tree branches.

A competition is held every year to find the trader with the best decorations on the roof of their stall, and they vie for the crown in spectacular fashion.

One teamed with lifelike replicas of woodland creatures, while another looked like it might topple with a towering chimney of wrapped presents.

The market populates the square outside Stuttgart’s Rathaus (town hall), and swarms with locals and tourists alike as evening falls.

Stalls are crammed with a kaleidoscopic range of baubles, sweets, wooden toys, jewellery and ornaments, with other ‘aisles’ of the market offering practical household items and cosy clothes.

Inside the Rathaus, a couple of floors up, there is a brilliant people-watching window with an unrivalled view of the action.

Despite the rain outside, people still crowded around the standing tables devouring hot spiced wine or ketchup-smothered currywurst.

Belgian truffle stalls, crêperies, baked Lebkuchen and a cabin called Käse Paradise – piled high with rounds of cheese – mean there is little chance of going hungry here.

Diners can burn off the extra calories at the outdoor ice rink, just a short walk away in the picturesque Schlossplatz.

The plaza is home to an 18th-century Baroque palace and, in December, an array of illuminations.

The entire façade of the Königsbau building is lit up, providing a striking backdrop for eight sculptures covered in thousands of LED lights.

Each signifies one of the city’s main attractions - from cars representing the Mercedes-Benz and Porsche museums, to an elephant representing Stuttgart’s Wilhema Zoo.

At the strike of each hour in the evenings, the display comes alive for a short sound and light show.

If that wasn’t enough to dazzle the senses, the zoo itself also staged its first ever Christmas Garden illuminations this year.

After a short ride on the S-Bahn I ducked under gleaming archways to reach the start of the light trail.

I was so mesmerised by the LED ‘birds nests’ twinkling from the treetops that I had a shock noticing a pod of pelicans at my feet, within touching distance.

Most of the other animals are shrouded in darkness or tucked up in their enclosures, which were out of bounds, but I did get a glimpse of penguins and pelicans.

The light sculptures stamped out a route through the zoo’s ample grounds, accompanied by a soundtrack of festive music and the occasional Christmas-themed food and drink stall.

My favourite installation was the giant water lilies, floating peacefully on the water in the walled gardens.

Unfortunately the ponds were surrounded by scores of huge domed Christmas trees, which, for anyone who grew up watching Doctor Who, resembled a silent and rather sinister army of Daleks.

Aside from the city centre itself, Wilhema and a host of smaller Christmas markets in Stuttgart, the location makes an excellent base to access nearby cities.

During my three-day stay I used public transport to get to Ludwigsburg and Esslingen, both of which were worth a short trip on the train.

After a quick nosey around the impressive Ludwigsburg Schloss, from which the entire city grew, I ventured into the markets.

Flanked by two impressive churches, the market is smaller than Stuttgart but not without its charm.

Crowds gathered around a stage to witness a reenactment involving a regally-robed Frederick I, who lived at the palace until becoming King of Würtemberg.

My tour guide says the Lebkuchen stall here is the best around, and the sweet Schneeballen pastries I tried from a neighbouring vendor were another market delicacy.

On the other side of Stuttgart is Esslingen, which offers a traditional Christmas market as well as a hugely popular medieval counterpart.

Beautiful half-timbered buildings look down on the market, which is populated by people wearing traditional medieval garb and merchants demonstrating traditional trades such as blacksmithing.

There are several outdoor bars lit by flame torches - the weißer glühwein was delicious, an unusual twist on the drink using white wine instead of red.

If you are looking for a more unique and characterful market, Esslingen should certainly be on your list.


Get there: BA flies direct from London Heathrow to Stuttgart, and there is half-hour direct train (costing about €4) from the airport into the city centre

Stay: There are many accommodation options in Stuttgart - we stayed at the new Cloud No. 7 apartments, offering sleek, well-equipped studios about a 15 minute walk from the central station

Do: Visit the Christmas markets in Stuttgart, Ludwigsburg and Esslingen