Insider’s Guide to Germany’s Christmas Markets

Estimated reading time 10 min

The warm glow of twinkle lights in the crisp, snowy air. Garlanded booths selling mugs of steaming, spiced Glühwein. Colorful carousels and shimmering Christmas trees and choirs sending their voices into the winter sky. You’d be hard-pressed to find a cozier, more magical destination during the holiday season than Germany’s Christmas markets. With music, food, and traditional handmade wares, these markets are the definition of gemütlichkeit (winter cheer). This Insider’s Guide to Germany’s Christmas Markets will help prepare you for a safe and utterly enchanting holiday experience in Deutschland.

History

Though widely considered a German tradition through and through, the first Christmas market was held in Vienna in 1298. When the concept first spread to Germany around the 15th century, markets were located near the town’s main church to attract churchgoers on their way to and from services. They soon grew so popular that in 1616, a priest in Nuremberg complained that he could not hold his afternoon Christmas Eve service because no one came. By the 18th century, craftsmen, butchers, and bakers were well-represented at markets across the country.

When to Go

Markets generally open during the Advent, from late November through December 23rd. Most will be closed in the evening on December 24th, but some may be open in the afternoon. (In Berlin, some markets are open through the end of the December and into January.) Note that in smaller towns, markets may only be open on weekends.

Hours can vary depending on the city and market, but most will open around 11:00am and close around 9:00 or 10:00pm.

Weather and What to Wear

Temperatures across Germany in November and December usually hover in the 30s and 40s. As the markets are all outdoors, layers are an absolute must. Pack a pair of toasty boots, a scarf, hat, gloves or mittens, and a heavy jacket. The more closely you resemble a marshmallow, the better.

Cost
Almost all Christmas markets are free to enter, but Berlin’s popular Weihnachtszauber charges a €1 entrance fee (with a portion of that going to charity). Most snacks will only cost a few euros, though food and craft prices will fluctuate. Be sure to bring cash, as most stalls won’t accept credit cards.

Food and Drink

 

Culinary offerings will vary widely across markets and regions, but there are a handful of staples that you can find anywhere. These include grilled sausages, potato cakes, waffles and crepes, roasted nuts, Lebkuchen (gingerbread), and chocolates. Glühwein, the traditional ubiquitous mulled red wine, is a market favorite—as is its non-alcoholic spiced apple or orange alternative.

Safety

The markets are generally safe, friendly environments; however, it’s wise to be prepared for any eventuality. Here are a few key suggestions for a safe and successful trip:

  • Know where to catch the nearest train or subway.
  • Choose a nearby landmark or café as a meeting point in case members of your group are separated.
  • Study the map at the market entrance so you know your nearest exit in case of an emergency.

Tips

  • Go at night. While the markets are open during the day, they’re at their most radiant once darkness falls and the lights glisten.
  • Bring the kids. From carousels and puppet shows to fairytale houses and spiced cider, the markets will enchant even the tiniest visitor. (Be aware that the crowds—and cobblestones—can make it difficult to navigate a stroller around the stalls.)
  • If you can, avoid visiting on a weekend. The markets can get busy. They’re crowded even during the week, but on weekends they’re a full-on pedestrian bottleneck. Plan accordingly.
  • Pack your appetite. Grilled sausages, regional treats, and soul-warming cups of mulled wine are all part of the German Christmas market experience.
  • Each market has its own unique Glühwein mug. When you purchase one of these hot drinks, you’ll pay a refundable deposit (around €2) for the mug. You can choose to keep it as a souvenir—and refills are cheaper!—or return it when you’re done to reclaim your deposit.
  • Look for free concerts in nearby churches. Performances include pipe organ concerts, wind ensembles, and children’s choirs.
  • Visit several different markets. There are hundreds of markets across the country (and more than 60 in Berlin alone), each with its own identity and specialties. Don’t limit yourself to just one!
  • Check the schedule of each market ahead of time for special Christmas events, including choral performances and Christmas plays.
  • Bring extra coins for restrooms. Market bathrooms are few and far between, so your best bet is to find a nearby café (which may be crowded or quite a walk) or pay to use a public restroom.

Best Markets

Nuremberg

Nuremberg’s main market, Christkindlesmarkt, dates back to 1628 and twinkles the day and night away in the city’s main square. Stalls glisten with lights and fresh greenery, and the aroma of freshly baked gingerbread wafts through the chilly air. While this market is a delight for all ages, the city holds a separate children’s market—Kinderweihnacht—for the ultimate family experience. Kids can bake and decorate their own honey cakes, write their holiday wishes on a mailbox at the children’s post office, and listen to fairytales read by Nuremberg’s Christkind—the traditional Christmastime gift giver.

While in Nuremberg: Don’t miss the city’s beloved Toy Museum, which showcases Nuremberg’s toymaking trends over the past 600 years. Its collection of nearly 12,000 toys includes model trains, wooden puzzles, and dolls and dollhouses. There’s even a supervised “imagination” area where children can play to their hearts’ content!

Dresden

Considered the oldest Christmas market in the country, Dresden’s Striezelmarkt has been leaving its visitors in wide-eyed wonder since 1434. Originally established by meat sellers, the market now boasts over 230 booths selling traditional pottery, candles, handmade toys, wooden ornaments, and more. Unique market offerings include one of the world’s tallest nutcrackers (over 33 feet high!), the largest Christmas pyramid in the country, and Dresden’s famous Christstollen cake with dried fruit and marzipan. The iconic wooden arch at the market’s entrance has its roots in the region’s mining industry. The candles and figurines displayed on its shelves represent the candles once hung by miners in mine entrances on the last working day before Christmas.

While in Dresden: Take a ride on the Schwebebahn Dresden, the oldest suspension railway in the world. This “floating train” climbs 275 feet from Loschwitz to Oberloschwitz before heading back down the hill. The upper station includes a panoramic lift to a viewing platform where visitors can gaze out across the entire Dresden Elbe Valley.

Cologne

The UNESCO-listed Gothic Cologne Cathedral serves as the backdrop for the city’s lively Am-Dom Markt. The luminous 82-foot Nordmann fir tree is the centerpiece of the market, with 50,000 LED lights warding off the chill and darkness of the season. Nearby, the Old Christmas Market in front of Town Hall is a sure bet for families with young children. If you’re lucky, you may catch sight of the Heinzelmännchen—Cologne’s legendary house gnomes who oversee the workings of the market and ensure an enjoyable experience for all. If you’re looking for a ride between any of Cologne’s four major markets, hop aboard the festively decorated Christmas Market Express.

While in Cologne: Stand beneath the largest bell in the world. At 10 feet wide, over 10 feet tall, and 52,000 pounds, the impressive St. Petersglocke has been hanging in the south belfry of the Cologne Cathedral since 1924. Despite a small crack (which was fixed) and a replaced clapper, the bell continues to chime a perfect C note as it has since its installation.

Berlin

Berlin is a veritable wonderland of Christmas markets—none of which are as treasured as the Weihnachtszauber at the Gendarmenmarkt. Jugglers, acrobats, fire-eaters, dancers, and choirs create a particularly spectacular setting for the capital’s most festive display of holiday cheer. Heated tents serve gourmet delicacies, and on New Year’s Eve the market takes its celebrations into the sky with a glittering fireworks display. For a different kind of Christmas market experience, head to Lucia Market, named after the Nordic goddess of light, at the Kulturbrauerei. The celebrations take on a Scandinavian theme here, with Nordic flags, traditional music, Swedish log candles, and unique cuisine like elk bratwurst. There’s even an open-air coat heater, so shivering visitors can slip into a toasty jacket for their stay. Kids can bounce on a bungee trampoline, wander through a knight’s castle, or meet Santa on his evening market visit.

While in Berlin: Pay a visit to Peacock Island. This small dollop of UNESCO-listed land in the River Havel is home to an 18th-century palace built by Freidrich Wilhelm II. You can also explore the island’s landscaped grounds and commune with its population of curious peacocks.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber

This quaint medieval Bavarian village is a fairytale in any season, but during the holidays it truly sings with Christmas spirit. The enchanting Reiterlesmarkt dates back 500 years and features puppet shows, guided torchlight walks through the town, tours of St. Jacob’s Church, and the music of local brass bands. If you’ve got a Christmastime sweet tooth, try the traditional Rothenburger Scheenball (Snowball) biscuit: a fried dough covered in powdered sugar or melted chocolate. For a treat of the non-edible variety, aim to arrive at the market for opening day. This is when locals and visitors receive a visit from the mythical Rothenburg Rieterle (horseman). Once a feared figure thought to ride through the winter skies with the souls of the dead, the Reiterle is now considered a friendly, highly anticipated messenger of Christmas tidings.

Insider’s tip: Restaurants in Rothenburg ob der Tauber fill up fast. Make reservations!

While in Rothenburg ob der Tauber: Stoke the fire of your holiday spirit with a visit to the Weihnachtsmuseum, the world’s only Christmas Museum. Opened in 2000, this year-round exhibition chronicles the history of Germany’s Christmas customs. Visitors can learn about traditional tree decorations, the evolution of advent calendars, and popular gift-giving figures in German culture.

Frankfurt

Over 200 decorated stalls nestle into Frankfurt’s historic old town, whose picturesque half-timbered houses lend a medieval air to the holiday hoopla. Sip a cup of Frankfurt’s famous hot apple wine and munch on Bethmännchen (marzipan biscuits). From the giant Christmas tree to vendors selling local honey and Quetschemännchen (dried plum figurines), Frankfurt’s brightly glowing market is sure to put you in the holiday mood.

While in Frankfurt: Hang a love lock on the Eiserner Steg. Spanning the scenic Main River, this pedestrian bridge has become a popular place for locals and tourists to broadcast their love with thousands of locks bolted to the iron railings. Add yours to the mix and take in sweeping views of the downtown skyline.

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