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Trip Report Christmas Markets trip report

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My husband and I just returned from two weeks in the Netherlands, which also included some day trips into Germany and Belgium. Our main reasons for going there were to visit my Dutch in-laws and celebrate Sinterklaas with them (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinterklaas to read about what Sinterklaas is), and to check out some Christmas markets in the area. Since my husband is originally from the southern Limburg area of the Netherlands, near Maastricht, we’re always able to make easy day trips across the border.

Based on a previous post I submitted here, we had several options to choose from for the Christmas markets:
http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/christmas-markets-along-the-dutch-german-border.cfm

We started with Aachen since it was the closest German market to where we were staying, then went to Köln (Cologne) on another day. We reserved one more day for another German market, but didn’t want to decide on which one until we saw the other two first. Later, we ended up not being able to go to that additional market because I became ill.

This won’t be a full-blown, detailed trip report, but rather I’ll focus on the Christmas markets we went to and I’ll include a snippet on Maastricht/surrounding area.

The weather was as expected for this time of year: most days were rainy and the temps were in the upper-40s F. There were a couple of days when the winds were pretty strong, but overall it wasn’t as windy as it usually can be.


Germany:

Aachen Weihnachtsmarkt
http://www.aachen.de/EN/ts/90_festivals_events/90_30/index.html
or
http://www.germany-christmas-market.org.uk/aachen_christmas_market.htm

Aachen’s Christmas market was a decent size in terms of the number of stalls. I was expecting it to be really small, but we easily spent a couple of hours there. It was raining and the skies were gloomy when we arrived there in the late afternoon, but the lights on the stalls and all the decorations seemed to brighten up everything. We were there on a Saturday, by the way, and while it was crowded, I wouldn’t say it was packed. From ornaments to candles, to cakes and cookies, there was plenty to look at. I found a few hand-crafted wooden ornaments that were nice, but I only ended up buying one of them because I thought to myself that Cologne’s market will probably be nicer. As afternoon turned into early evening, the winds grew stronger, so we stopped at one of the food stalls to warm up on some snacks. Many people were eating potato fritters and there were many different kinds of wursts but I just had to have a bratwurst (the smell of it was also filling the air from the moment we arrived). They were tasty and l-o-n-g … must’ve been the entire length of my arm from wrist to shoulder! I needed both hands to hold it up and while I was eating it, I was afraid people who were walking by me would bump into it.

The winds kept blowing hard and when it finally got too cold for me, I told my husband it was time to leave even though we didn’t finish seeing all the stalls. But … we had one more stop in Aachen before we left: the Lindt chocolate factory outlet. Normally, I’m a chocolate snob and I’m not that crazy about pre-packaged chocolates that you can just find in the supermarkets, but I do find brands like Lindt and Droste to be acceptable when needing a chocolate fix and nothing else is around. LOL. The factory was about a five-minute drive from the market and the parking lot was completely overflowing. People were leaving at a steady flow, though, so we drove around the lot a couple of times before we lucked out on a spot. There’s a Bahlsen cookies factory outlet right across the street that people were also going to.

When we got to the entrance, there was a 10-minute wait just to get inside. We saw people who were leaving that were carrying their purchases in huge boxes that were the size of moving boxes. Finally inside, it was a madhouse. The prices are worth it, though. Items were at least 30% off the retail prices and there were varieties/flavors that I haven’t seen anywhere else. Plus, there were plenty of Christmas specialties out on the shelves. At the checkout, my husband asked the cashier if it was so busy only because Christmas was approaching, but she said no, that it was like that all the time! By the way, it’s cash only and no photos are allowed inside.


Köln Weihnachtsmarkt
http://www.koelnerweihnachtsmarkt.de/en/home.html

Although Köln/Cologne has several Christmas markets scattered throughout the city, we only went to the one at the Dom. My husband and I agreed that we would first check out the main one, and then if we still had time and interest in the remaining ones, we’d try to see them, too. The one at the Dom was great, so we didn’t feel like going to the other ones anymore.

We arrived in the late afternoon and the weather was much better than on the day we went to Aachen. No rain or wind, but it was still a bit chilly since it was already late in the day. I was also happy that the better weather made it easier for me to take pictures (no umbrella to fumble with, didn’t have to worry about the camera getting wet).

We parked in the parking structure right at the Dom, so when we walked up the stairs, out of the structure, we were greeted by the beautifully decorated market with a huge Christmas tree in the center of everything, stalls covered in lights and garland, and an almost-life-size nativity scene. Strings of lights attached to the bottom of the tree were stretched across to the tops of the stalls to create an overhead canopy. The towering tree seemed so small, though, when you looked up at the breathtakingly huge cathedral. Even if you’ve seen it before, it’s still impressive.

Some of the upscale stores across from the cathedral were also nicely decorated. The Chopard store had a giant 3-story angel in the form of lights hanging from the side of their building.

We made our way slowly around all the stalls first, then went back to the ones where we wanted to buy something. Some of the vendors selling sweets were handing out samples of gingerbread and stollen. Everyone was quite friendly. I thought there would be a lot more stalls compared to Aachen, but that wasn’t the case. It didn’t matter because there was a lot to see and do, and we ended up being there for over 3 hours.

We ended up buying some puzzles and kids toys to give to our nieces and nephews for Sinterklaas which would be in a few days. We also bought some souvenir ornaments for ourselves and to give as gifts for family & friends back at home. The best vendor for ornaments was the famous Käthe Wohlfahrt out of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Instead of a stall, they were in a little, temporary house that you actually had to walk up into. It was also the perfect place to warm up a bit :P An employee was standing at the entrance door to the house so he could control the number of people inside, ensuring it wouldn’t get too crowded.

The market seemed more enchanting as night fell. Stalls selling candles and hand-blown glass ornaments were beautifully glowing. The smell of roasted chestnuts, bratwurst, gluhwein, and other foods mixed in the air. We also noticed that more people were arriving; probably locals wanting to have some beer or gluhwein after work with friends. I didn’t feel like drinking any gluhwein, so instead I had some hot chocolate and purchased the decorated souvenir mug that it was served in, which was in the shape of a boot. There were 4 different mug designs to choose from. You could finish your drink and then return it to the stall where they’d give you a clean mug of your choice.

Köln’s market at the cathedral was more enjoyable than Aachen’s. It seemed more organized/well-presented and the quality of merchandise seemed nicer. Maybe we liked it more also because we stayed until it was dark and the atmosphere felt different than in the daylight hours. One other note – we were there on a Monday and it was very crowded in the evening. On our way back that evening, we even noticed a traffic jam on the freeway going into the city. As other Fodorites who have been to the bigger German Christmas markets have recommended, try to avoid going on the weekend. I can’t imagine how packed it must be then. Aachen wasn’t too bad on that Saturday we went, but maybe that’s because it’s not as popular as the other/bigger markets.



The Netherlands:

Maastricht Winterland
http://www.winterland.nl/

Our home base during our stay is outside of Maastricht, so we always go into the city for shopping. This trip was no exception. We didn’t intend to go to the Christmas market here, but we parked at the Vrijthof, so when we walked up the stairs out of the parking garage, we were right at the entrance to the Winterland. We decided to quickly walk around and ended up spending about 5 minutes there just taking some pictures. It was mainly game booths and rides for kids, including a massive ferris wheel. I wouldn’t really consider it a market, but rather a Christmas fair/carnival. Maastricht has a lot to offer, but don’t go there just for the Christmas market. Like I said, we were in the city only to do some shopping so we were there anyway and just briefly checked it out.



During our stay, we ate at “home” except for one night we went out to a Michelin 2-star restaurant. Restaurant Da Vinci is located about 25 minutes north of Maastricht in the town of Maasbracht.
http://www.restaurantdavinci.nl/
We enjoyed a 5-course menu, plus extras of champagne, a plate of various amuse-bouches, 3 different wines served with the 3 middle courses, dessert wine, and coffee served with a plate of chocolates. I thought the chocolates were better than the dessert course! We had so much food I can’t remember everything in detail, but the highlights were the lobster salad and venison for the main course. They also had 5 different kinds of bread/rolls. They were beautifully displayed on a tray and someone came around every so often to each person at the table so you could point to which one you wanted.

The restaurant itself was modern and very classy-looking. The food was outstanding, of course, and the service was beyond exceptional. Not surprising for a 2-star. We even got a tour of the kitchen from the owner/chef, Margo. We arrived at the restaurant at 7:30 pm and finished at 1:30 am. The restaurant has a 7-course menu, so we joked that if you order that, the last course must be breakfast already!



All-in-all it was a wonderful trip and I’m happy that I can now cross this trip off my Destination Wishlist!! :)

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