One of the most magical times to visit Germany is during the festive holiday season. Christmas markets in Germany take over the landscape in late November through the Christmas season making it the best place to visit for those looking to transport themselves to a what feels like a winter wonderland fairytale. Yes, the weather is cold, the days are short, but that doesn’t stop anyone from enjoying these markets to the fullest. Read on to find out all you need to know to book a trip to see the Christmas Markets of Germany.
History of Christmas Markets in Germany
Germans invented the traditional Christmas market where it’s wooden stalls adorned with sparkling lights take over the main market areas and town centers big and small. The oldest Christmas markets date all the way back to medieval times. The oldest known Christmas market in Germany is Dresdner Striezelmarkt which dates back to 1434. In this original market, which opened for only one day on Christmas Eve, the only thing on sale was meat, but over the years more and more products and food offerings began to appear.
The most famous Christmas market in Germany is the Nuremberg Christmas Market which dates back to 1628, although some believe it could be even 100 years older.
These markets have endured the history of time, being moved, mobilized and used as political fodder through the years, however they continue to survive and thrive. From the 1970s where there were only around 900 markets in the country to today where more than 2,000-3,000 markets pop up through the season.
These days, villages and towns are transformed into a winter wonderland with twinkling fairy lights, garlands and beautiful Christmas decorations. The air is filled with sweet smells of sugared nuts and savory sausages as visitors stroll around with their mugs of glüwein. Vendors sell hand carved ornaments and nativity scenes all while live music and Christmas carols fill the air.
When Do Christmas Markets in Germany Start?
If you are visiting Germany for the Christmas Markets, you can plan your trip for anytime from the end of November through Christmas Eve. If you have specific markets you wish to visit, make sure to check the opening dates before booking your trip.
Another important date to keep in mind is December 5th which is Saint Nicholas night as well as Krampus. St Nicholas night is when children shine their boots to leave out on their doorstep to be filled with nuts, candy, and small gifts from St Nicholas. Krampus on the other hand is the evil sidekick of St Nicholas who also comes out on the 5th to teach naughty children a lesson. Many people visit during this time for the raucous night of the Krampus Run where people in frightful costumes parade the streets.
What to Wear When Visiting A Christmas Market in Germany
Winter in Germany is cold and wet, so figuring out what to wear is essential when visiting the Christmas markets as they are almost entirely outdoors. The ideal is to pack items that you can easily layer. We love wool as it keeps you warm, wicks away moisture and is perfect for travel as it doesn’t get stinky.
Additionally a thick warm jacket will keep you toasty enough to continue exploring. During our recent visit, I wore my favorite down parka jacket which was amazing and kept me warm even after hours outdoors.
A warm hat and good gloves are also a must. Keeping your head warm is important, but even more so are having gloves that are easy to wear while also touring around with your phone or camera. I loved my Smartwool gloves that had grips that worked with my iPhone camera.
For those visiting earlier in the winter season, an umbrella and/or a rain jacket would also be a good item to consider bringing as the days do tend to be quite wet. As the season moves further into December many of those rainy days can easily become snowy days.
One of the most important aspects to keep in mind are warm socks and shoes. Consider layering your socks or even purchasing sheep wool liners that you can find in the Christmas markets themselves! Being outdoors for several hours on cold concrete can make for tingly toes.
Which German Christmas Markets Should You Visit?
As mentioned above there are thousands of Christmas markets located throughout the country, which makes it difficult to choose which ones to visit. Many visitors to Germany flock to the major cities like Berlin, Dresden, Cologne and Munich which is home to some of the best christmas markets in the country. While the markets in these cities are fantastic, there are many others hidden away in quaint lesser known medieval villages that are also well worth the effort of visiting. Below are a few of our top picks to consider on your trip to Germany.
RELATED: Read our post on 20 amazing foods to try at German Christmas Markets
Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt is a traditional market that is often considered one of the best German Christmas markets in the country. There is so much on offer here, that even the Nuremberg Christmas Market website has several tours guests can use to guide their visit.
Located on the city’s main square, the 180 wooden stalls offer quality ornaments as well as a lot of characteristic German decorations such as nutcrackers, smokers–figurines and prune men. Nuremberg is one of the oldest and most popular of the Christmas Markets in Germany.
Stuttgart Christmas Market is a perfect place for those looking to dive into this winter tradition. There are a great number of delicious traditional foods, both traditional crafts as well as more commercial goods and plenty of entertainment including a massive ferris wheel. This market has over 200 stalls making it ideal to visit over several days. The main market of Stuttgart is closely located to the Finn Market as well making it easy to wander between the two. While you are here, make time for the cute roller rink, children’s ride on train and the massive ferris wheel.
While you are in Stuttgart, it is well worth the effort to check out two other unique Christmas Markets – the super cool medieval market in Esslingen with it’s famous public bathhouse and the adorable Baroque market in Ludwigsburg.
Munich is filled with Christmas markets, but the most popular and famous is the one located near the main town hall, or on the Marienplatz. This beautiful market will lure you in even covered in snow! This market will take you back in time before Santa Claus delivered coke as they like to say, with nativity scenes and special charm. In order to get the most out of your visit, we highly recommend checking out a guided tour of the market. Keep an eye out for local musical performances held during the market hours as well.
Baden-Baden is known as a wellness center in Southwest Germany for it’s amazing thermal hot pools. While this is more than enough to lure you to this charming town, the Christmas market is another reason to put this on your winter wishlist. The market here occupies one main street with several other lanes creating a large circle around the open grassy park area. The stalls here range from delicious macaroons to handmade metal works for the yard. There is a large stage for daily performances. During our visit locals were singing carols on stage. This beautiful market gets busy on the weekends, so plan accordingly! While here, don’t miss the chance to soak in hot pools.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber
This is a popular off the beaten track Christmas market set admist one of the loveliest towns in Southern Germany. Rothenburg turns into a winter wonderland as it’s narrow winding streets around the Town Hall are filled with huts selling handcrafted gems and mulled wine. This town is the current darling amongst those who make Christmas markets a yearly tradition! Not the easiest to reach by train, however, the effort it is well worth it. Also home to stores under the Kathe Wohlfahrt brand, it’s a great place to pick up some beautiful ornaments and decorations.
Located in the Black Forest, Ravenna Gorge offers a festive atmosphere and one of the most beautiful Christmas markets around. This fairytale forest is worth visiting as you arrive to the only Christmas market located in a gorge, right under the arches of the railway. Unlike many of the larger markets that have been taken over with more commercial stalls, Ravenna Gorge’s main goal is to feature local artisans and musicians in an effort to preserve local traditions from the Black Forest region. If you find yourself this far into the Black Forest, this is a must visit.
What to Expect at German Christmas Markets
For the first time visitor, we will give a quick rundown of what you can expect at traditional Christmas markets in Germany. Regardless of where you go, many Christmas markets will be located in the old town area of the city or the city center. Typically you will find a beautifully decorated Christmas tree, often a ferris wheel, wooden huts adorned with Christmas lights, lots of sweet treats, and various market stalls selling everything from food to wood carvings, ornaments and more. These festive markets tend to be filled with locals and tourists alike looking to bring in the holiday season. Different markets have different specialities, so make sure to ask around.
One thing Americans should be aware of is that there are very few Santa Claus ornaments, decoration or costumed characters wandering around the markets. During our visits, we noticed a few decorative Santa Claus’s either in blow up form or wooden sculpture, but was surprised by the lack of Santa ornaments or other items around the market. This is not to say they aren’t there, they just weren’t as prevalent as they would be in American Christmas festivities.
What to Eat at German Christmas Markets
Every German Christmas market tends to have its own regional speciality. Typical Christmas market food includes sausage (wurst), lebkuchen (spicy gingerbread), glüwein (hot mulled wine), stollen, kartoffelpuffer (potato pancakes) and candied nuts. While you are in Germany during winter, the markets will be the best place to sample a range of local foods. Check out our post on the most popular foods you will find at German Christmas markets so you know what to look out for!
If you don’t drink alcohol, don’t worry as there are alcohol free options at many markets these days as well as the ever present kinderpunsch.
Our favorite find is käsewurst, käsespätzle and all the chocolate covered fruit skewers, called Schoko-Fruchtspiesse.
Whatever you do, arrive to the markets ready to sample tons of food and to eat most of your meals here. It will be worth it for your pocketbook as well as to really get a taste of local foods.
What to Buy at the Christmas Markets
Just like each market has a specialty for food, they often also have one for what to purchase. Some of the more common goods you will find at Christmas markets include: ornaments, wooden goods, even household brushes. Depending on the markets you will find speciality items that are not to be found anywhere else. In Esslingen you will find medieval market stalls not found at most other as well as an 80 year old man selling his hand carved wood figures. Things you can find at most markets include the wooden figurines with wire pipes, thin laser cut wooden ornaments, lebkuchen cookies, stollen, paper lanterns and beeswax products.
For many visitors to Christmas Markets in Germany however, the top gift to purchase is actually the mug you get to drink your hot beverages from. With every drink you order, you will pay a 3 Euro deposit on the mug. If you don’t return the mug, you now own it! Every market has its own mug, while some markets even have several versions each year. Many markets will allow you to purchase your cup from one stall and return to another, while other markets require a return at the specific location you purchased. Make sure to ask in advance if you plan to walk around with your hot drink.
What to Know When Visiting the Markets
One of the most important things to know about visiting the Christmas Markets in Germany is that cash is still king here. You will find that almost none of the stalls take credit card, so have plenty of cash on hand.
While some people have complained in the past about the lack of restrooms at the markets, we found them to be quite easy to find and located at all the markets we visited. During busy times, do expect a wait.
Christmas markets are popular not just with tourists, but with locals alike. You can expect that evenings and weekends will see much larger crowds than early afternoon on the weekdays. If you wish to avoid major crowds, make sure to go early even if it is a weekend.
Getting Around Germany
By far the best way to explore Germany in winter is via the extensive train network. However, for those who want to get off the beaten path a bit, car rentals are easy and manageable. During our visit we took both the trains when possible as well as rented a car to reach some of the more off the beaten path markets in the Black Forest region.
To book your train tickets in advance, you can go here. One of the great things about traveling to Germany with children is that their train fares of free until the age of 15 (on the DB, not within the city centers). This little bit helps tremendously for those traveling on a budget!
Depending which town you are basing yourself in, you should consider getting a day or week pass for the local rain network. During our visit we had a ticket that allowed unlimited use on all buses, U -bahn and S-bahn lines. This made getting around the city and various markets extremely easy.
Have you been to Germany for Christmas Markets? Which ones are your favorites?
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