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Germany's Christmas Markets

Few places in the world do Christmas as well as Germany, and the country’s Christmas markets, sparkling with white fairy lights and rich with the smells of gingerbread and mulled wine, are marvelous traditional expressions of yuletide cheer.

Following a centuries-old tradition, more than 2,000 Weihnachtsmärtke spring up outside town halls and in village squares across the country each year, their stalls brimming with ornate tree decorations and handmade pralines. Elegant rather than kitsch, the markets last the duration of Advent—the four weeks leading up to Christmas Eve—and draw festive crowds to their bustling lanes, where charcoal grills sizzle with sausages and cinnamon and spices waft from warm ovens. Among the handcrafted angels and fairies, kids munch on candy apples and ride old-fashioned carousels while their parents shop for stocking stuffers and toast the season with steaming mugs of Glühwein and hot chocolate.

Dating from the late Middle Ages, Christmas markets began as a way to provide people with supplies, food, and clothing for the winter; families came for the sugary treats and Christmas shopping. Now a bit more touristy, a visit to a traditional Christmas Market is still a truly a quintessential German experience. Starting on the first Sunday of Advent, the pace of life slows down when the cheerful twinkling lights are lit and the smells of hot wine linger in the air, promising respite during the drab winter.

The most famous markets are in Nürnberg and Dresden; each drawing more than 2 million visitors every year. While these provide the essential market experience, it's well worth visiting a market in a smaller town to soak in some local flavor. Bautzen hosts Germany’s oldest Christmas market, while Erfurt’s market, set on the Cathedral Square, is the most picturesque. No matter which you choose, keep in mind that the best time to visit is during the week when the crowds are the smallest; try to go in the early evening, when locals visit the markets with their friends and family. You'll experience a carnival-like atmosphere and won’t be able to resist trying a mulled wine before heading home.

Despite the market theme, the real reason to visit is to endlessly snack on greasy, sweet, and warm market food. Each market has its own specialties—gingerbread in Nürnberg and stollen in Dresden—but the thread through all is candied almonds, warm chestnuts, and roasted, local sausages. Be sure to pair your snacks with a cup of hot-spiced-wine, which is served in small mugs that make great souvenirs. The wine varies from region to region and special hot white wine is a trendy alternative. Other drinks include a warm egg-punch, hot chocolate, and warm berry juices for children.

Glühwein

The name for mulled wine, Glühwein, literally means "glowing wine" and a few cups of it will definitely add some color to your cheeks. Usually made with red wine, it can be fortified with a Schuss or shot of schnapps, often rum or amaretto. Feuerzangenbowle, a supercharged version, is made by dripping burning, rum-soaked sugar into the wine. The nonalcoholic version is called Kinderpunsch, or children’s punch.

Tips for Visiting

Always ask for local goods. Craftspeople, especially from the Ore Mountains in Saxony, produce some of the finest smoking-man incense burners, nativity scenes, candle pyramids, glass balls, and advent stars in the world.

Think about how you're getting your purchases home. Although some larger vendors will ship your purchases for you, it's wise to plan some extra baggage space and purchase some bubble wrap.

Dress warmly and wear comfortable shoes. All markets are outside and even the smallest require walking.

Bring some small bills and coins. This will make food and wine transactions faster and more efficient. All plastic dishes and cups require a deposit, which is politely refunded to you when you return the items.

Updated: 2014-03-11

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