Ah, I love a Weihnachtsmarkt, or German Christmas market. Such a lovely way to beat back those cold winter days and nights. Every city in Germany will have at least one market, and the bigger cities have many. Since the 17th century, Germans have been buying their gifts and festive sweets at special winter markets. Wandering around looking at wooden toys and ornaments, with a mug of Glühwein in hand, it’s nice to think of people doing this the same thing for hundreds of years, in these same Old Town market squares.
Check online for opening dates, but generally most markets open for the period of Advent, which begins in late November – in 2017, the lots of markets open the week before Advent begins on December 3rd, so Monday 27th November. There are a few things to know before you visit one of these famous markets.
What you will find at a German Christmas Market
Each market is different, but they generally all have food stalls, glühwein (mulled wine) stalls, toy stalls, and decorations stalls. There isn’t necessary a clear organizing structure, often some of the food stalls will be together, but not all of them. It’s worth doing a circuit around the market to get the lay of the land, as it were, and decide where you’d like to eat, and what you’d like to see. Often there will be at least one carousel for kids, if not several rides. Some markets even feature an ice rink. If you’re looking for a place to get Santa photos, you won’t find them – this isn’t a tradition in Germany.
What to wear
This sounds like odd advice, but visiting a Christmas market in Germany will mean a lot of walking in the cold. These are big places, and even when you eat, you will be standing around outside. Wear comfortable shoes or boots, and good warm socks. Gloves, scarves and hats are a must, because you will be spending several hours outside in the cold. It’s a shame to have to go early because your toes are about to fall off!
- Bring a reusable shopping bag for your purchases. Many of the stallholders won’t have any bags, so to avoid wandering around all evening juggling ornaments and toys, bring your own bag.
- Bring some paper napkins. For your dinner, because you never seem to be given enough to contain the overflow of ketchup or mustard from your average wurst. But also for cleaning out your glühwein mug in case you’d like to pack it home in your reusable shopping bag. If you do decide to keep it, it’s nice to be able to dry it instead of finding the inside of your purse smells like glühwein for weeks. As festive as that is.
- Plan to arrive by transit. The Christmas markets close off streets and make regular routes challenging, as well as usually being located deep in the windiest, smallest streets of any given town. Do yourself a favour and arrive by bus or bike. Not only does it allow for a bit more glühwein consumption, it means you won’t spend ages trying to get in and out of the area, ruining the festive mood.
- Buy a couple of brezeln (those big soft pretzels) when you first see them. That way, when your small people suddenly lose their minds/decide they won’t eat wurst/will die if they don’t go on the carousel RIGHT NOW/refuse to walk another step even though the food stalls are about 40 metres away… you are prepared.
Eating and drinking
You will definitely find grilled wurst (sausage) served on a bun, and sometimes grilled steak too. In southwestern Germany you will find flammkuchen (a thin flatbread with soft cheese, onions, and bacon as the traditionally toppings, though you can get other kinds too) for sure. Crêpe stalls are popular too with both sweet and savoury options. I’ve seen everything from Chinese noodles to Indian curries, so have a wander. Keep in mind that anything you buy you will be eating standing up, possibly with a table, but maybe not!
Glühwein, or mulled wine, will be in separate stalls. Be prepared to pay a deposit for your mug, usually €2-€3 which will be printed with a festive design. You’re welcome to bring it back when you order your next glühwein (which will be considerably cheaper now that you’ve paid your deposit), or just bring it home. You can also bring it back to the same stall you ordered from when you’re finished and ask for your ‘Pfand’ (deposit). If you’d like a bit more of a kick in your Glühwein, you can ask for it ‘mit Schuss’, which will net you a shot of rum or whisky in your mug too. If you’ve got kids with you, every Glühwein stall will have Kinderpunsch, which is a warm spiced fruit juice. Glühwein isn’t always made with red wine, so hunt around a bit to see if you can find some made with local wine, or rose or white versions. Be on the lookout for Feuerzangerbowle, a warm punch made with spices, sugar, and rum. You’ll be able to spot the stalls selling this drink by the cones of sugar on fire above a kettle of punch – traditionally this is the way they add the sugar to the drink, so it’s got an almost caramel taste to it.
Alongside hot food stalls, there are usually a few bakers selling their wares, both for eating straight away and packaged in little decorative bags for giving as gifts. My son’s favourite stalls are the giant candy ones, packed to the rafters with bulk candies, sweets, and loads of Lebkuchenherzen (gingerbread heart cookies) hanging on ribbons with cute sayings on them. The candy stalls also sell warm praline-covered almonds, handed over in a paper cone, which are one of our favourite market treats.
German Christmas ornaments
These are not the cheesy decorations you find at local church fairs. There are artisans that work all year just to sell their wares at the Christmas markets, and they are impressive. There are the intricate winter scenes cut out of thin wood, often backlit by a candle. If you have a mantle you’d like to decorate, the small houses to create a miniature village are everywhere, both with a little light inside and not. My favourite is the miniature versions of the Glühwein stands you see in the markets with the giant rotating pyramid. The miniature versions have tealight holders, so when lit, the heat from the candles will turn the pyramid. These are often quite expensive, but also very detailed. I have heard many stories from my German friends about the pyramids their families have had passed down for generations.
A traditional, and quite affordable, German Christmas ornament is the Christmas star lantern. Traditionally, homes hang these lighted star lanterns in their windows during Advent. I love finding the stalls selling these, as they are a riot of colour and light.
Finding great gifts at German Christmas markets
Beautiful German Christmas ornaments make good gifts, but there’s more to find. There are often stalls full of gorgeous wooden toys at remarkably reasonable prices – everything from little puzzle games to swords to animals. Another traditional stall you’re likely to see is the sheepskin and wool products – keep an eye out for cozy sheepskin slippers. Wearing slippers inside is a major thing here in Germany, everyone takes their shoes off and changes into Hauschuhe as soon as they come inside. Proper sheepskin booties are on my list to buy for myself and my husband this year for sure! If you’re thinking about bringing things back for friends, I’ve also written about the best things to buy as souvenirs in Germany, and where to find them.