Secrets of European Christmas Markets
I’ve had the good fortune to make two trips to see Europe’s fabulous Christmas markets. Once with my Mother on a river cruise and once with a girlfriend. Both trips were kaleidoscopes of super-sized, festive, cold, delicious Christmas overload.
I know from previous experience that Germany is really where many of our beloved Christmas traditions began and the Alsace region of France, enhanced those traditions by taking tree decorating to the next level. Germany alone has 2,500 Christmas Markets. This entry will give a recap of my market experiences and tips for markets in Germany, France, and Switzerland, listed in alpha order by city. Find out about markets in: Basel, Cologne, Colmar, Frankfurt, Heidelberg, Koblenz, Lucerne, Ludwigsburg, Mainz, Munich, Nuremberg, Rudesheim, Strasbourg, and Stuttgart.
The markets run during Advent, from late November until just before Christmas, and all feature stalls stocked with every imaginable kind of ornamentation and decorative item. About half of the markets are devoted to an incredible array of food, baked treats, and goodies of every description. Not to mention the famous hot mulled wine, Glühwein, of which I am not a fan – I’ll stick with hot chocolate. I love that the Germany markets sell cute mugs as traditional market souvenirs. They are customized for each location and year. Large and mid-size cities often have multiple markets and many smaller towns are a short train ride away. They generally open around 11 AM till 9PM in the evening. But times can vary, so be sure to check the links provided for current info.
Many markets only take cash, so have your Euros ready, and lots of items are easily available in the U.S. with no savings evident, this is NOT bargain shopping. Look for the special, locally made items and know you will pay a fair price. Be wary of anything electrical, it will not work if you bring it back to the U.S.
While you make your way through the markets here is a list of local treats to taste-test:
- ֎ Chocolate-covered gingerbread
- ֎ Springerle
- ֎ Lebkuchen cookies
- ֎ Weckla – Nuremburger sausages in a hard bread roll
- ֎ Bredle cookies
- ֎ Brenton (marzipan) cookie
- ֎ Snowball
Basel is also home to the largest Swiss Xmas Market nestled into the plaza on Barfusserplatz. A small and compact market, it is very traditional, easy and though it doesn’t take long to see trees along with everything you could possibly need for decorating, and gourmet specialties of the area such as truffles, foie gras, cheese, wine, and pastries. it does feature some nice Christmas items.
Noted for seven amazing Christmas markets, Cologne is a great stop on any market tour. We began with the closest to our downtown hotel, the Weihnachtsmarkt am Kolner Dom (Cathedral Christmas Market). This market was festive and colorful but did not really feature any distinctive merchandise. My favorite part was the plentiful food stalls and all their associated fragrances: licorice, gingerbread, warm pretzels, giant fried potato pancakes, nuts roasting, chocolate, gluhwein; all in all, an amazing and wonderful assault on the olfactory senses. But the best was yet to come . . . we wandered on over to the Alter Markt near the Old Town and were instantly transported back in time. Old fashioned wooden stalls, pine greens everywhere, woodland carvings, staff in period-costumes, carolers, and beautiful lights and decor ~ all under the watchful gaze of the cute Koln Gnomes.
There is also an area in Heumarkt, geared towards children, with an ice rink and small Ferris wheel. We circled back to the Rhine and made a brief visit to the newest market, which is by the chocolate Museum along the Harbour. The Neumarkt (also known as the Angel Market) is actually Cologne’s oldest market launched in the 70s and features rustic decorations on the top of each stall and lots of lights and stars in the huge trees. As with the other markets, there is a huge focus on food and there were lots of locals taking advantage of lunchtime culinary opportunities. The Rudolfplatz (aka Fairytale Market) was a much smaller market and even seemed a little seedy compared to the others.
Hafen Markt has replaced the Medieval Market of years past and may not have been the best business decision; it was certainly not very Christmassy. I checked out the Floating Christmas Market on the MS Wappen von Koln. An odd combination of vintage, Christmas and craft items, it is the only market that charged admission (€2 for UNICEF) and the first time I fell victim to the claustrophobic feeling when you enter a way-too-warm enclosure wearing a lot of clothing. I didn’t stay long.
Cologne has a cute “Christmas Market Express” train that gets you to the main markets efficiently. Roundtrip tickets were €7, and one-way tickets are €4. The little yellow cars are enclosed and keep you warm while listening to Xmas music.
Jam-packed crowds of well-dressed revelers of all ages come together with an impressive array of food offerings at the Frankfurt Christmas Market. At this market, the ratio of food to décor seemed to be about 80/20. It was beautiful with lots of lights and the section in the historic area was particularly interesting. Lots of fun to people watch and sample traditional treats.
Christmas Markets in Heidelberg are scattered through the squares, but all in a central area and easy to get around from one to the next. It is a pleasant stop if on your route through the area.
We saw the small Christmas Markets in Koblenz scattered around town, but did not linger since the rain began to come down really hard. We did see Koblenz’s large Christmas “pyramid” constructed of wood, fan blades, and lights. Another Koblenz Xmas tradition is to open the windows of a local government building on the main square – one each day of Advent.
The lake, of course, is so picturesque that even the dark clouds on the day of my visit didn’t diminish the beauty of the surrounding scenery with its snow-capped mountains. It was a perfect jigsaw puzzle picture. We walked across the (rebuilt) historic wooden covered bridge that stretches across the lake, watched graceful swans, and paid a visit to the very small, but pretty, Xmas Market in Lucerne located between Franziskanerplatz & Hirschengraben. The Swiss have a less-is-more philosophy when it comes to Christmas decorations and often the trees were unadorned or very sparsely decorated. Although there are many beautiful shops and department stores, the holiday markets here were the most disappointing. One of my favorite Christmas sites in Lucerne was a building turned into a giant, colorful Advent Calendar.
A 15-minute train ride from Stuttgart takes you to Ludwigsburg where you can follow the walk of golden lit angels to the center square and baroque market. Small but special we enjoyed the singing, tried a few more German treats and were glad we had seen the giant lighted angels that hover over the market. There was nothing unusual in terms of their inventory, but it was a lovely sight and we were glad we had taken the time to visit.
Dodging rain showers, we checked out the colorful Mainz Christmas Market held in the town’s main market square in front of the thousand-year-old cathedral. I would’ve loved to see it fully lit up since there were lights strung everywhere, but we were not able to be here at night. Two features were the large ‘Pyramid’ on one side of the square and the life-sized manger on another.
Munich’s numerous Christmas Markets are spread all over town including by City Hall with the giant tree, and the Village at the Munich Residenz. As the capital of Bavaria, Munich lays claim to having the oldest Christmas market, from the 14th century. The Middle Ages Market (Mittelaltermarkt) gives you some idea of what it might have been like. Get to as many as you can, but don’t miss this one. It is distinctive from any other I’ve seen, with vendors dressed in 14th-century attire and booths selling things you might have seen back in that era – think mistletoe and roasting nuts. Even their signature souvenir mugs were made from unadorned terracotta in retro styles. It was lots of fun.
A beautiful, historic city, Nuremberg is home to a 400-yr old Christmas Market that many others have been modeled after. Known as “Little Town from Wood Cloth” it’s big, lively, colorful and jam-packed with people of all ages. Among the 200 stalls, there seemed to be a Gluhwein stall every six feet. They also have the best Children’s Market I’ve seen as well as a thriving international market area featuring all their sister cities. They strictly focus on items made in Germany and, in keeping with their long history, shun the glitzy approach for a more traditional feel and look. Be sure to find the unique, traditional Zwetschgenmannle (prune) people (no, you don’t eat them). But do try the Nuremberger Rotbratwurst.
To break away from the Catholic tradition of gift-giving on St. Nicolas’ Day, December 6, Martin Luther (1483-1546) switched festivities in his home to Christmas Eve. He told his children the Christkind brought their gifts. The practice quickly took hold and spread throughout Nuremberg. The fictional gift-giver took form through the years and is represented by the Golden Angel today. Occasional visits by Christkind to the Children’s Christmas Market in Nuremberg is a huge attraction. A new “Angel” is selected every two years. We considered ourselves lucky to be in the area during one of her special appearances, I loved it.
Traditional concerts perform by the Old City Hall and since 1948, children carry homemade lanterns to the castle one night during the season – catch it if you can.
The Rudesheim Christmas Market was a favorite. It must be the custom for groups to all wear matching hats and it was fun to see the different types of Christmas-themed hats including cowgirl, Christmas trees and, of course, funky elf caps. The town is small and compact and so the market is as well but makes up for size with a heavy dose of charm. You feel like you have stepped into the pages of a fairytale. It’s fun to be out with the throngs of people with a party atmosphere. Be sure to visit the shops as well as market stalls. Entertainers were singing Christmas music from a stage set up near the chairlift rounding out the experience.
Shopping Note: If you are interested in nutcrackers, wooden pyramids, smokers, etc, visit the well-known Kathe Wohlfahrt store (one of several throughout Germany) to do some serious shopping and have it all shipped back home. I found it to be an easy process and my items showed up quickly back to the States. The nutcracker assortment was better than at the markets and prices for what I did see were comparable.
It’s impossible for words to capture the feeling and quality of the beautiful Christmas Markets in Strasbourg. What’s exceptional and unique is the dramatic, over-the-top, décor on the buildings, in the shops, and draped across the streets. Every corner you turn offers a new visual treat, always something cuter, bigger, more beautiful, brighter or more fanciful. Day and night, it’s amazing, and this is the one market town I revisited. There are actually 9 – 12 markets here, depending on the year and circumstances. It remains my favorite of the Christmas Markets.
The main market is at the Place de la Cathédrale with the backdrop of the beautiful Notre Dame. The Cathedral Market is really fairly basic, with other, smaller markets featuring more elegant products. Le Marche du Carré d’or is my favorite of all featuring high-end products at fair prices. You can check the website for location specifics but there is generally a market at Place Kléber with a giant Xmas tree and Share Village for local charities, a guest country market, children’s market, one featuring gourmet items from Alsace, and more. You can buy your Christmas tree along with everything you could possibly need for decorating, and then host a party with gourmet specialties from the area such as truffles, foie gras, cheese, wine, and pastries. Strasbourg becomes an even more exciting Christmas world at night. And what a spectacle. Every street different, with thousands and thousands of lights, stars, rings, snowflakes, gingerbread men, balls of color, angels and more. One street featured nine Baccarat chandeliers, another couldn’t run lights across the street because of the electric trams, so they just lit every building in color, and those colors and patterns changed continuously.
BTW, each street works with a designer and the décor is freshened or changed every year.
Market Note: You are a 30-minute train ride from Colmar, another beautiful market town. Be sure to pay attention to the train schedule because trains don’t run in the evenings as often as we thought. It’s very dark and hard to find your way if you arrive at night. I didn’t time this right and we wished we had more time here.
The booths of the Stuttgart Christmas Markets feature elaborate decorations on top of each of the 250+ booths. The market meanders through the central part of this contemporary city, through an exclusive shopping district and around a few historical buildings that survived WWII. Along the way, there is a large model train display, complete with a child-size train for kids to ride, a very busy ice rink, and of course, the requisite dozens of food and drink options. I hesitate to even call these booths because many are more like small pop-up stores with substantial structures and operators who seriously compete for best decor honors. The lush greenery is all real and every one of the booths is different and unique.
Although vendors sell the usual Xmas decorations, angels, candles and toys, oddly, this market also has items usually found at a home show, or maybe on an infomercial (think devices to keep pots from over boiling and special chopping tools). Knives, spatulas, pots and bathroom cleaners notwithstanding, the lights and decorations produce a magical effect. Several mammoth Christmas trees add to the ambiance as does an Advent Calendar in the windows of City Hall.
Interesting facts of early Christmas traditions:
- Nativity Cribs have been set-up since the year 360
- St. Nicholas (with brown cape and mitre) was first depicted in the Alps in the 13th century
- Earliest Christmas markets date back to Vienna’s “December Market” in 1294, followed by many throughout Germany in the 1200s and 1300s, and in 1570, France’s oldest market in Strasbourg
- First documented tradition of Christmas gifts, 14th century
- Oldest decorated tree on record was in 1419, on the edge of the Black Forest; baker’s apprentices used fruit, cookies, nuts and paper flowers
- First Advent wreath (with 24 candles), 1833
- Colored glass balls were first created in 1870
- First printed Advent calendar, 1908
- New York holds the honor for the first electric lights, in 1912 on Madison Square