‘ Tis the season for… CHRISTMAS MARKETS!
Now that we’re in our fourth Christmas season in Germany, we’ve come to look forward to the Christmas markets. We try to see as many as possible. It means a lot of advance planning to get the perfect combination of big city, small city, big market, and small market experiences. I usually rely on recommendations from friends and the information on the major markets on the German Christmas Market website. Don’t worry, my own family-friendly recommendations will be at the end of the post. (Also, updated 9 Dec 2013: I added a chart rating some of the German Christmas markets I’ve been to at the bottom of this post.)
The wonderful thing about Christmas markets is that there is a little something for everyone. Matching stalls and twinkling lights, selling anything from handmade items to antique treasures to mass-produced decorations, fill the city centers. There’s usually at least one carousel ride for the kids, someone selling large balloons, and maybe even a ferris wheel to see the city from a new perspective. German festival food staples, such as bratwurst, mushrooms in garlic sauce, and fresh waffles and crepes are plentiful. Some markets include food stalls from other countries making it easy to try a variety of food in one place. Then there’s the drinks: beer, glühwein (hot mulled wine), hot chocolate, and kid punch – usually in some cute souvenir cup that’s worth collecting.
Plus, it’s really inexpensive overall.
The hardest part, especially for families with young kids, is the crowds.
But, this isn’t the Black-Friday-snatch-the-last-barbie-doll-before-someone-else-gets-it type of crowd. It’s a community crowd. Young and old, it’s rare to find people who don’t want to be at the Christmas market. It can easily be an all day adventure. People stroll. They grab a small bite, stand at one of the benches, and chat. Check out the vendors, maybe grab a gift or two, and repeat. They keep warm with the drinks. The children ride the carousel. Young kids, snuggled up in their stroller, will likely fall asleep. There’s no rush. So, don’t let the thought of crowds deter you!
If you’re thinking of going to Germany around Christmastime, it will be almost impossible to avoid the Christmas Market scene. Here are some tips to keep in mind when planning:
- Though most, if not all, of Germany’s neighboring countries have their own Christmas Markets, German markets are extra special. Markets along the border can get busier during the day and on weekends because of the influx of day-trippers from other countries. There can be smaller crowds at night at those markets.
- Most markets are located near big shopping areas. Most shopping areas are closed on Sunday.
- While some vendors accept credit cards, most food and drink vendors do not. Bring plenty of cash.
- For all drinks there is a deposit, or pfand, on the glass or mug. It’s a fun game to try to figure out which vendor has the best mug at each market. You can keep the mugs, or return them and get your money back.
- Big cities will usually have multiple markets running at the same time. One that is always fun is the medieval market. The market doesn’t rely on electricity in their stalls for lighting or cooking.
- If at all possible, stay at a hotel that offers a view of the city.
- Most markets are free. For those that do charge an entrance fee, it is usually small. The only Christmas Market I remember paying an entrance fee for was the Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin. It was completely worth it. The white stalls and twinkle lights are beautiful. The market is small compared to others, but with the atmosphere of the grand buildings, the orchestra playing, and the most amazing food I’ve had at any market, it’s a place I want to return to every year.
- Erfurt’s Christmas Markets are another place worth visiting year after year. There are many markets between the New Town, over the quaint Merchant’s bridge with permanent shops set up on both sides, then down to the very large Domplatz in front of St. Mary’s Cathedral and the Church of St. Severus. Erfurt is beautiful throughout the year, but there is definitely magic in the air in December.
- German Christmas Market season ends December 23. Many neighboring countries will continue their markets until the first week of January. See as much within Germany before they end, then venture to other countries. My favorites are in Antwerp and Edinburgh.
- Holiday Nomad has a great comprehensive list of specific European markets visited and loved by other travel bloggers. Check it out.
Here’s a photo of my son looking down into Erfurt’s Christmas Market from our room at the Radisson Blu a few years ago.
Wherever you live, do you have a favorite Christmas celebration?
Updated 9 Dec 2013: I’m including a table rating different Christmas markets I’ve visited on different aspects that I like looking for personally when traveling with my kids. In regards to the column “Stuff for kids” – any high score means that there’s a few rides for kids. Lower scores indicate there are no rides, but it’s possibly still child friendly. A score of 10 would mean that there’s rides as well as a children’s program that we attended.
[table caption=”German Christmas Markets” ]
City, Market Name, Time of Visit, Crowd, Food, Souvenir Mug, Quality of Goods, Atmosphere, Stuff for Kids
Berlin, Gendarmen Markt, Night, 9, 7, 10, 8, 10, 2
Berlin, Gendarmen Markt, Afternoon, 2, 7, 10, 8, 8, 2
Essen, Multiple in the City Center, Afternoon, 5, 7, 8, 8, 8, 7
Essen, Multiple in the City, Night, 7, 7, 8, 8, 8, 7
Erfurt, Multiple in the City Center, Night, 7, 8, 10, 8, 10, 7
Oberhausen, Centr”O” area, Afternoon, 7, 8, 5, 7, 8, 10*
Düsseldorf, Altstadt and Kö area, Afternoon, 7, 7, 8, 8, 7, 7
Köln, Zentrum/Dom area, Afternoon, 9, 10, 8, 9, 9, 4
*Oberhausen’s Centr”O” area has a Sea Life Aquarium and Adventure Park, plus a Legoland Discovery Center. So within the vicinity of the Christmas market there are lots of activities for kids anyway. (But, I do believe they have Christmas market season-only activities for kids, too.)