Christmas is the most wonderful time of year. You can feel the magic flowing through the air and the anticipation of opening gifts on Christmas Day inching closer and closer. More laughter is heard off in the distance as more and more people make their way into the cities to tackle their Christmas shopping. Decorative lights dangle from street lamps and houses are decked out from top to bottom in the Christmas spirit. Nowhere can I think of a better place to experience the holiday cheer of Christmas than at German Christmas Markets, a place which practically invented the traditions and customs we all love and cherish so much.
German towns and cities across the country come alive in yuletide celebration as markets pop up in every main square as a place to gather with friends and family to do some Christmas shopping. You could go to the mall, which is crowded and hot and buy generic gifts, or you could head to the nearest Christmas Market and sip on some warm mulled wine and the irresistible aroma of sweet roasted macadamia nuts wafting through the air enticing you to be just a little bit naughty while you buy unique, handcrafted traditional gifts. Even the Grinchiest of Grinches wouldn’t be able to resist the pre-holiday euphoria that infects everyone.
If you’re headed to Germany this winter, consider visiting as many Christmas Markets as possible to feel the true sense of Christmas in this magical country. If this is you’re first time visiting, here is what you can expect from these magical markets!
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Who: Several markets have a “Christkind” (Christ child), usually a girl between the ages of 16 and 19, who is a symbol for being the “gift giver”. This tradition began in the 16-17th century by Martin Luther. In Germany, the original day of giving gifts changed from December 6th to Christmas Eve. The Christkind is a spirit-like child usually depicted for having blonde hair and angelic wings. Nuremberg’s Christkindlmarkt is most famous for their Christkind. Sometimes, you’ll see the Christkind walking around the town with St. Nicholas.
What: German Christmas markets date as far back at the 14th century and today attracts more than 200 million people per year across the country. Most Christmas Markets are called “Weihnachstsmarkt” or “Christkindlmarkt”.
When: Most Christmas Markets open late November or the weekend of the first Advent, generally the last weekend of the month to Christmas Eve, while occasionally, some stay open until New Years Eve. This German Christmas Market website offers the most comprehensive details for each and every market in Germany. Have at it!
Where: As this tradition dates back hundreds of years, there are Christmas Markets in every major city and town, even some smaller ones in villages. No matter where you are, you will find a market! Have no fear!
Why: Because it’s the holiday season and nothing is more magical than a Christmas Market, preferably painted white from fresh snow!
What To Expect at German Christmas Markets
German Christmas Markets are generally always set outdoors, in the the main square of the city center or near the Rathaus (City Hall), and the larger the city, the more spread out they will be. Hundreds of tiny, wooden booths line up, one after the other, decorated in their festive holiday cheer, selling unique gifts you won’t find in any shopping center.
Artisans and craftsmen sell their ornately decorated and handcrafted goods, from nutcrackers to porcelain villages, displaying them in the most enticing way, begging you to shop their stall. Year after year, you’ll find the most beloved of Christmas trinkets for sale, growing your collection.
Beside gifts, you’ll find a plethora of wooden booths offering warm Glühwein (mulled wine) and delicious chocolate covered candies or roasted nuts, which are essential to any Christmas Market.
The best time to visit is generally at night, when the shimmery lights are turned on, creating a charm only a market can have. Christmas trees are lit, adding to the ambiance, and occasionally you might find a traditional German Weihnachtspyramide dominating the market, built with multiple layers and figurines on display. You’ll also almost always find a Nativity scene on full display at the markets.
At most larger Christmas Markets, there will be multiple markets spread out through the town, each offering something slightly different. You’ll find a “Kinderweihnachtsmarkt” (Children’s Christmas Market) which is perfect for the whole family. Here, you’ll typically find a Ferris wheel, carousel or other small roller coasters along with more stalls filled with toys for tots!
Christmas Markets are a social event and generally get more crowded the later is gets. During the day, the markets are a little less crowded, making it easier to really do some Christmas shopping, while the evenings are for meeting friends and family and sipping on mulled wine under twinkling Christmas lights.
What to Buy
The larger the Christmas Market, the more unique and interesting gifts you will find. Year after year, the same artisans and craftsmen sell their handmade goods as they have done for hundreds of years. Many knickknacks are locally made, making them special for that region. Should you be in a larger city, the markets will be spread out throughout the city, organized by the type of goods sold in that particular market.
Nutcrackers are found in all Christmas markets in Germany in all shapes, sizes and colors. They are used for cracking open nuts (hence the name), but have found a more decorative job as Christmas decorations. They were traditionally given as keepsakes to bring luck to your family and home. Legends has it that a nutcracker represents power and strength and serves as a trusty watch dog protecting your family from evil spirits and danger.
Räuchermänn (Smokers) date back to 1830 in Saxon’s Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains). These little wooden figurines, each characteristically different, are made to have an incense lit inside, giving off a lovely aroma. You’ll find figures that are in the Christmas spirit to more every day looks.
Leather / Knitted Goods can both be found at practically every market. Most are hand made but there are also cheap factory products. It’s the time of year after all to invest in some good gloves, perhaps ear muffs or knitted socks!
Miniature Villages are another common gift you’ll find at all markets. Made from porcelain, they are tiny replicas of typical German half-timbered houses and other famous buildings throughout Germany. Each year, you can grow your collection by adding a new one to display on your mantel, a personal childhood favorite!
Honey Carved Products are quite common. You’ll find a stand dedicated to just honey and honey carved knickknacks like candles and other odd shapes, or health and beauty products and more! Who knew so much could be made from honey!?
Christmas Decorations will be everywhere at Christmas Markets. You’ll find hand painted glass bulbs, to more intricate, hand-carved wooden ornaments. Germans typically buy new ornaments throughout the Christmas market season to decorate their tree usually on Christmas Eve (occasionally not more than a few days prior).
Moravian star is the classic German Christmas decoration with a multi-pointed polyhedron (normally with 26 points) that originated at a Moravian boys’ school in Saxony. A less intricate but equally beautiful star are constructed of paper and are easy to fold for storage. Both kinds come with a accessory kit with a plug and light socket. If you’re from out of the EU, be sure to ask if it’s possible to get a UK/US cord.
What to Eat at German Christmas Markets
First and foremost, come hungry! There are too many delicious smells wafting through the air to come on a full stomach. Most food at Christmas Markets are quick and easy to make, therefore, not entirely filling. Don’t be shy to gobble up some yummies from each stall you pass!
Sausages: Wurst are most commonly found in every market and are locally made and if you know anything about Germany, then it will come as no surprise to you that this is one of the main meals to enjoy at any festival. They come in a variety of sizes and types, so be brave and try a 16″ brat! Bratwurst is the most common sausage you’ll find, but don’t be afraid to try some of the other varieties, such as Käsewurst (sausage filled with cheese) or even Krakauer (spicy Bratwurst).
Flammkuchen: Popular at many markets, but not all, this similar to a “pizza”. With a thin crust, it’s typically topped with crème fraîche, onions, bacon and some green onions.
Steckerlfisch: For those who don’t eat meat, you’ll find this simple meal of grilled fish on a stick which is most commonly found in Southern Germany.
Reibekuchen (Kartoffelpuffer): For any potato lover, this crunchy, delicious meal is almost comparable to a hash brown pancake. An order generally comes with 3-4 and a side of apple sauce for dipping. Don’t ask why. They are usually freshly cooked, so they’ll be nice and hot to keep you warm!
Gebrannte Mandeln: One of the most delicious and enticing aromas your nose will surely pick up on are the roasted nuts. Almonds are among the most popular, but sugary roasted macadamia nuts are delicious and addictive! You may even find little train-like stalls offering roasted chestnuts on a an open fire.
Pfannkuchen: (AKA “Berliner” or in Bavaria they are known as “Krapfen”). These are practically a jelly doughnut with a light dusting of powdered sugar on top.
Lebkuchen: A classic Christmas treat which can be found throughout German Christmas Markets is similar to gingerbread cookies, which originated from Nuremberg. You’ll find them both in small packages of different flavors or in heart shaped cookies, typical for any festival in Germany.
Stollen: No Christmas market is complete without this classic German fruit bread containing small pieces of dried fruit and with a heavy dusting of powdered sugar. Typically, this is bought to be taken home or given as a gift.
Crepes: Not a traditional German treat, as it’s actually a French dessert, but during the holidays, you’ll find crepe stands everywhere. A thin “pancake” is cooked on a hot, flat griddle and you can chose from a variety of flavors to fill you crepe with. Most common is just Nutella, or with banana included. Don’t want something sweet, you can also have meats and cheeses added to it.
What to Drink at German Christmas Markets
As any large gathering of people goes in Germany, there is always bound to be alcohol in supply! At Christmas Markets, it is common practice that for every drink you order, you’ll pay a 1-2 € “Pfand” (fee), which you will get back after you return your glass. Don’t freak out if occasionally the Pfand reaches 5 €. But, if you want to keep the cup, go right ahead! Technically you paid for it!
Glühwein: No Christmas Market would be complete without a plethora of wooden booths to get a cuppa Glühwein, which is typically a red wine mulled with fruits and served HOT! Occasionally, you’ll find other varieties with a white wine, or even an Apfel Glühwein which is made with hot apple cider. Don’t leave Germany without having a glass or two, or three, or four!
Feuerzangenbowle: The next step up from Glühwein is mulled wine with rum! This one ain’t for children! A small sugar cube will be soaked in rum, which will drip into a large copper pot, or even on your glass, giving your Glühwein that boozing feeling! The most exciting thing about this is that it comes served on fire, hence the name!
Eierlikor: Often compared to eggnog, this is a liqueur made with eggs and brandy and is often served with a dollop of whipped cream. I personally didn’t find it anything at all like American eggnog.
Glühbier: Yes, I said mulled beer. Not commonly found, but here in Regensburg, it’s a special occurrence. While you might think that warm beer is disgusting, I beg to differ. Typically brewed with cinnamon and perhaps a few fruity flavors, this is an alternative for those who don’t drink wine.
Non-alcoholic: For those who either don’t drink alcohol, people who have to drive or for children, the alternative to Glühwein is Kinderpunsch, which is made from grape juice and also served hot! Heisse Schokolade (hot chocolate) is always a nice alternative, with a dollop of whipped cream.
Christmas Market Activities
Throughout the Christmas Market season, there are often different activities to look forward to besides eating, drinking and shopping.
Small Concerts & Performances are quite common and often take place in the middle of a church square or churches also hold Christmas performances. Children often sing a variety of Christmas songs to onlookers.
Carousels are quite popular at many Christmas markets and come in a variety of sizes fit for toddlers, to children and adults.
Bonfires are rare but aren’t completely unheard of in smaller, less crowded markets. It’s a nice way of warming up while supping on a cup of hot mulled wine.
Ice Skating Rinks are also found at some markets like Heidelberg which are set up for the entire holiday season. Often they have pushy handles for first time skaters!
Krampus are predominately found in the southern state of Bavaria, you may be frightened by Krampus walking around town, stomping their feet, on purposely trying to scare everyone. Krampus are half goat, half demon who, during the Christmas Market season, punishes children who have misbehaved as part of a tradition that dates back to pre-Christian times.
Things to Know Before You Go
Each town, village and city Christmas Market offers something unique and different than the last, so it would be best if you tried to visit both smaller and larger markets to maximize your experience! Each town and village have their own special mugs designed especially for that town. The reason you pay a “Pfand” for these mugs is to make sure that the sellers are not out of tons of money from those who “borrow” the cups permanently.
As previously mentioned, Christmas Markets are typically less crowded during the daytime, as well as during the week. Weekends and evenings are always way more crowded and can become quite nerve wracking when trying to peruse the stalls or find somewhere to stand to drink your Glühwein.
When visiting a Christmas Market, paying in cold hard cash is the only way. Credit cards are rarely accepted, so come with enough dough to manage your shopping. If not, there’s always an ATM around somewhere!
Markets generally open between 10-11am and close relatively early during the week, usually around 8-9pm. On weekends, they tend to stay open until 10pm, mostly to help reduce the chances of people getting to rowdy and to allow city dwellers some peace.
Most Popular Christmas Markets in Germany
Berlin, as the capital of Germany, and an ever growing population, has over 60 different markets spread throughout the entire city is one of Germany’s top Christmas Markets!. With a large multi-culti population of varying social classes, there is a wide variety of markets bound to satisfy anyone’s needs while visiting Berlin. The most popular market is the Weihnachtszauber at the Gendarmenmarkt in front of the Konzerthaus and dominated by a massive Christmas tree lit from top to bottom in shiny white lights. Handmade goods from all over the world are sold here and you can even catch a concert while you’re perusing the stalls. Head over to the Berliner Weihnachtszeit at Roten Rathaus where you’ll find an ice skating rink and a Ferris wheel!
Cologne is lucky enough to have not just one Christmas Market, but seven, however the main market is near the city’s iconic Cathedral. The market is dominated by a massive Christmas tree and hut after hut is scattered around the main market, lit by strands of white lights bringing that extra Christmas ambience to this market! While here, be sure to check out the Rudolfplatz for a Christmas Market with a medieval fairy tale theme featuring stories from the Grimm Brothers!
Frankfurt is one of the oldest Christmas Markets in Germany dating as far back as 1393! The market extends from the train station and is spread out the entire city center, making this an easy Christmas Market to explore during a quick layover in Frankfurt! The main market is of course in front of the Römerberg, a main square lined with beautiful half-timbered houses and the Rathaus. There is a massive two level Baroque carousel for the Kinder to enjoy which you will have seen in many idyllic pictures of Frankfurt. While here, you MUST try the Bethmännchen cookies made of marzipan and almonds! Mmm!
Munich is another of Germany’s best Christmas Markets to visit which dates back 700+ years! Here you’ll also find an enormous Christmas tree dominating the market and the stalls spread out in front of the Marienplatz Rathaus, making for quite possibly the most awesome backdrop at any market! From Marienplatz, to the the Christmas village in the Residenz and beyond, there is something for everyone at this Christmas Market! Munich has no shortage of traditional Bavarian gifts handcrafted by craftsmen and artisans throughout the state.
Nuremberg is quite possibly THE most famous Christmas Market of them all and boasts a whopping 2 million visitors per year! The main market is set directly in front of the Frauenkirche, where you’ll also find a small temporary museum dedicated to the “Christkind”, which I highly recommend going up for a view over the market! While in Nuremberg, you’ll need to try some of the authentic Lebkuchen as they originated here, as well as the delicious Nuremburger Bratwurst. Again, you’ll find several different markets spread out throughout the city, including a large Kinder Weihnachtsmarkt with a carousel, Ferris wheel and even a chance to meet Santa!
Regensburg is likely a town you have never heard of, but it makes it in the Top 5 Bavarian Christmas Markets. Boasting five markets throughout this medieval town which straddles the Danube river, Regenburg‘s main market wraps around the Neupfarrkirche, with the Cathedral off in the distance. Here you’ll find many small alleys lit with garlands of Christmas lights adding to the romantic ambience this historic town offers. While here, head to Kohlenmarkt to try some of that delicious Glühbier I mentioned earlier. After 9pm, head to the Thurn & Taxis for a cheaper entry into the castle’s Christmas Market.
Stuttgart boasts over 300 wooden stalls all decked out to the max and spread out throughout the entire city making for one of the most beautiful markets in Germany. Every year, stall owners try to outdo their neighbor, all vying for a slice of glory, hoping to win “the most beautiful stall” award! Claiming to be among one of the oldest markets in Germany, this market has a lot to look forward to. From culinary food from around the world to the more traditional, there is bound to be something for everyone here! The main market is snuggled up against the Old Palace and winds it’s way through the city.
Unique Christmas Markets to Visit in Germany
Abensberg offers a unique change of pace compared to your traditional Christmas Markets. Firstly, a market can be found wrapped around a large, futuristic looking tower designed by the Austrian artist Friedrich Hundertwasser which during the summer months has a biergarten as part of the Kuchlbauer Brewery. Should you be too cold to walk outside, you could peruse the stalls inside of a heated parking structure. As the Abensberg Christmas Market is so unique, it’s only fitting that any handcrafted goods also be incredibly unique.
Heidelberg is quite possibly one of the most ROMANTIC Christmas Markets you’ll find in Germany, as the town itself is incredibly romantic even without the market. Set along the banks of the Neckar River, with the Heidelberg castle ruins perched above the town, it is one of the most idyllic towns to stroll, hand in hand with your lover from one stall to the next. Although the town might be small, the markets are scattered throughout the town, stretching from Bismarkplatz to Kornmarkt, where you’ll find a market at the foot of the castle. Here, there is an ice skating rink and beautiful garland arches to stand beneath while drinking hot mulled wine. Head over towards the Rathaus and you’ll find a traditional Weihnachtspyramide booth selling mulled wine.
Tegernsee is another unique market with an upscale atmosphere. Perched along the banks of Lake Tegern, with a stunning mountainous backdrop, and not far from Munich, this Christmas Market will be like none you have ever visited before. To reach the main market, you’ll need to hop aboard a boat offering you some beautiful views of the market. Here, you’ll find more special handcrafted wood works with a traditional Bavarian atmosphere. You’ll be less likely to find many non-German tourists visiting this market and can sip on champagne here. The main Advents markets to check out here is the Tegernsee Schloss Markt and the Rottacher-Egern Advents Markt.
If you’re interested in visiting Germany and are looking for more information, I highly recommend using the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide! Without these guides, I would be lost! This is my travel Bible!
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