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Visiting Schwäbisch Hall

Visiting Schwäbisch Hall

I regularly peruse German instagram tags looking for new places to visit, and I had noticed one place kept popping up: Schwäbisch Hall. I remembered passing the exit on the Autobahn quite a few times, and somewhere in the back of my mind I knew it was a cute Fachwerk (half-timbred) town, but not much else. One Sunday, we went to investigate, and am I ever glad we did.

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Who can resist these cute Fachwerk houses along the river?
Who can resist these cute Fachwerk houses along the river?

Schwäbisch Hall history

I had assumed that the town was named for a building, but in fact the ‘Hall’ refers to the West Germanic word for ‘drying something by heating it’ and by extension the saltworks that was the town’s min industry for hundreds of years. Possibly. To be fair, no one is exactly sure, and the town itself was just called ‘Hall’ for much of its history. The ‘Schwäbisch’ bit refers to Swabia, a linguistic and cultural region of Germany that includes much of this south west corner of the country – but isn’t actually a state or officially delineated on maps. It has its own German dialect and a very specific (and incredibly good, I should add) group of foods and dishes.

A cold snowy day in Schwäbisch Hall
A cold snowy day in Schwäbisch Hall

The town itself has been the site of salt production since the 5th century when the Celts started boiling off the water from the local saltwater spring, and the last saltworks shut down only in 1925. Before the advent of refrigeration, salt was an absolutely critical substance, allowing people to preserve and dry foods to last over the winter – think sauerkraut, sausages, bacon, pickles. Salt was also used to clean kitchen equipment and surfaces, preventing the spread of bacteria. You can see why a town like Hall would become very prosperous as the centre of salt production.

Colourful houses face the Marktplatz
Colourful houses face the Marktplatz

What to do in Schwäbisch Hall

This gorgeous town survived the Thirty Years War and the Second World War mostly intact when it comes to Fachwerk buildings. Just wandering through the old town is a good few hours activity. The town is set into a little valley around the river Kocher. The Marktplatz is up the hill a bit, and features these three colourful houses you can see in my photo above, as well as an impressive staircase leading up to the church of St Michael. These steps have quite a history of their own, as this is the site of a great outdoor theatre festival that has been running since the 1920s. In the summer you can catch the weekly farmers market here on Wednesday and Saturday mornings until midday, and during Advent the Christmas market is here as well. The South German Cheese Market takes place here at the beginning of May as well.

Checking out the ducks, who knew full well where the food comes from at this time of year!
Checking out the ducks, who knew full well where the food comes from at this time of year!

Wander down the winding streets towards the river, and you will find a couple of covered bridges, a park, playground, and the rebuilt Globe Theatre. Down along the river you will also find the Hallisch-Frankisches Museum. For free entry you can learn about the history of salt production, the open-air theatre, and marvel at the piles of historic artefacts from medieval torture chairs to remnants of Celtic stonework.

On the other side of the river and up the hill is the big art gallery, the Kunsthalle Würth, with a rotating exhibition schedule (check their website). This is no small town gallery – when we were there, they had works by Botticelli, Rembrandt and Rubens. There’s the Firefighting Museum (Haller Feuerwehr Museum), which we missed out on with our visit unfortunately! If you’ve got a small person into fire engines, this place will be a huge hit.

We also took a couple of hours in the Großcomburg Monastery on a hill above the town, and it’s so worth the short bus ride.

The covered bridges are particularly cute.
The covered bridges are particularly cute.
The 'new' City Hall, which replaces an old half-timbred one destroyed by fire sometime in the 17th century.
The ‘new’ City Hall, which replaces an old half-timbred one destroyed by fire sometime in the 17th century.
You can see the hills rising up beyond the town here.
You can see the hills rising up beyond the town here.
The famous St Michael's church with it's front steps used for open-air theatre productions.
The famous St Michael’s church with it’s front steps used for open-air theatre productions.

 

What to eat in Schwäbisch Hall

We didn’t have a chance to have a proper meal in town but living so close to Swabia, I can definitely share with you some excellent Swabian dishes you absolutely should try.

Maultaschen are a bit like big ravioli, but much denser. Traditionally filled with meat and cheese, these pasta pockets are called ‘God-cheaters’ in Swabian, referring to the story that the monks would eat them during Lent, hiding the meat from God by covering it in pasta dough. Now you can find Maultaschen of all varieties, from vegan to chicken. The classic way to have it is in broth with chives, but you may also see it served pan-fried. If you go into a grocery store in this region, you will find entire chiller cabinets filled with Maultaschen. They are definitely a favourite in our house.

A bowl of steaming Maultaschen I made at home.
A bowl of steaming Maultaschen I made at home.

Käsespätzle is a glorious glorious thing. Spätzle are little egg noodles made fresh by rubbing the dough over a pot of boiling water. Käsespätzle involves taking those freshly cooked little noodles and layering them with mild cheeses and butter, then topping the whole melting mass with crispy fried onions. You can get this as a dish to itself, or as a side with something else.

Potato salad is a German specialty, of course, but the Swabian version is famous. Instead of a mayonnaise dressing, the Swabian potato salad involves vinegar and onions, it’s quite sharp tasting and a good foil to the richer dishes.

How to get to Schwäbisch Hall

By car, you can reach Schwäbisch Hall in about two and a half hours from Frankfurt or Munich. By train, it’s about three hours from either Munich or Frankfurt, involving a change or two of trains as Schwäbisch Hall is on a smaller branch line.

You can book your train right here, in English:



Hotels in Schwäbisch Hall

We didn’t stay overnight, but for a small town, Hall has a fair amount of cute little places to stay. It’s worth keeping mind that the Goethe Institut runs a popular German language programme here, so book your accommodation as early as you can.



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Heidelberg Castle

Heidelberg Castle

Living in Heidelberg, the castle is a constant presence. Every morning on the way to school, my son and I see it up on the hillside as we cross over the River Neckar. My son goes with his school to see plays there in the summer, and we even had his birthday party up at the Heidelberg castle – which was possibly the coolest thing I’ve ever pulled off as a parent.

This post contains affiliate links. Should you click on one, I will get a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thank you for supporting my work!

My son's birthday party playing knight's tag up in one of the ruined castle buildings (with a guide).
My son’s birthday party playing knight’s tag up in one of the ruined castle towers (with a guide).

So let me share with you the best ways to experience this amazing spot, from someone who has been there many, many times.

Photo taken the time I decided to climb the stairs to the castle the same day I went to the gym. Never do this.
Photo taken the time I decided to climb the stairs to the castle the same day I went to the gym. Never do this.

Planning your trip to the Heidelberg Castle

There are many bus tours that offer a trip to the castle as part of a day trip. If at all possible, spend a night in Heidelberg and experience a bit more. Reading posts about the castle, everyone wishes they had more time to explore the city as well. I’ve collected our favourite things to do in Heidelberg with kids, so start there! Unlike many other German castles, Heidelberg Castle is right in the town, so it’s easy to visit without a car. There is the famous stairway, but it is quite an uphill trek, and you will be doing lots of walking when you’re up there. I’d recommend getting the funicular railway from the old town – you can get a ticket which includes your entrance to the castle, and find out when the next guided tour leaves.

There’s a hiking route that begins at Heidelberg Castle, Joe at Without a Path has all the details on how to follow this beautiful route.
A tumbling down romantic ruin indeed.
A tumbling down romantic ruin indeed.

Heidelberg Castle history

Like many castles, this one has been built, destroyed, and rebuilt many times. There aren’t many records pertaining to the first castle structure higher up on the Königstuhl, but the current castle complex’s history seems to start around 1200. Ruprecht made the first enlargement that you can still see evidence of today, and in fact he and his wife Elizabeth of Hohenzollern (her family has some amazing castles too) are buried in the Church of the Holy Ghost in the market square. Frederick V, who took the position of Elector Palatine in 1610, has a special place in the hearts of Heidelbergers. He married Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of James I of England and Scotland, and by all accounts he was quite besotted with her. Look for the Elizabeth Tor (gate) in the gardens, which was carved and created in pieces and then assembled in the garden overnight to surprise Elizabeth on her birthday. The extensive formal gardens that were started, but never finished, were also the work of Frederick, ostensibly to entertain Elizabeth. Unfortunately, he accepted the crown of Bohemia right at the beginning of the Thirty Years War, and could not hold it for more than a season. Frederick and Elizabeth lived the rest of their lives in exile, earning them the titles the Winter King and Winter Queen.

The Elizabeth Gate at Heidelberg Castle is just the thing to post on Valentine’s Day. The Prince Elector Palatine Frederick V had stonemasons build this garden arch in pieces, and then assemble it overnight as a birthday surprise for his wife, Elizabeth Stuart (yes, daughter of James I of England and Scotland) around 1613. I thought that was possibly the most romantic thing ever, don’t you think? // Das Elisabethtor am Heidelberger Schloß ist die perfekte Post am Valentingstag. Die Kürfurst Freidrich V. ließ diesen Gartenbogen in Stücken bauen und über Nacht als Geburtstagsüberraschung für seine Frau Elizabeth Stuart (ja, Tochter von James I. von England und Schottland) um 1613 zusammenbauen. Ich dachte, das wäre die das romantischste überhaupt, denkst du nicht? . . . . #gofurther #dreamoflivingabroad #showthemtheworld #familytravels #familytravelblogger #letsgosomewhere #letsgoeverywhere #wanderwithme #familytravelblog #tinytravels #exploringfamilies #takeyourkidseverywhere #almostfearless #fearlessfamtrav #familyadventures #familytraveltribe #havekidswilltravel #familygo #familytraveler #familyjaunts #castleheideblerg #mytinyatlas #living_destinations #myeverydaymagic #pathport #abmtravelbug #visitbawu #visitbawü #historynerd #valentines

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Perkeo is another personality associated with the castle. Clemens Pankert was a buttonmaker in South Tyrol, where he met Prince Charles III Philip. When Prince Charles became Elector Palatine in the first half of the 18th century, he brought Pankert up to Heidelberg with him. It was here that he was nicknamed Perkeo, because his response to being asked if he’d like another glass of wine was always ‘perché no?’ (why not)? Perkeo was a dwarf, and was essentially an entertainer at court in Heidelberg, though apparently he knew a lot about wine besides how to drink vast quantities of it. The legend goes that he drank nothing but wine through his entire life, but when he was sick and he drank water, at the behest of a doctor, he died the next day. To be fair, most people didn’t drink water at that point, it was quite sensible! You will notice pubs and restaurants named after Perkeo around town.

I was surprised to learn on my first visit that none of the damage was the result of the Second World War. All those tumbling down walls and half-collapsed towers are the work of the invading French army in the 17th century, lightning strikes, and the local populace making off with stones.

After the Elector Palatinate gave up on the constant rebuilding of the castle in the late 18th century and moved the court to Mannheim, the castle buildings fell into disuse. Heidelberg residents started to take the stones, metal, and wood to rebuild their own houses. But the pile of disintegrating red Neckar Valley stone was stirring the hearts of Romantic poets and painters, who started to arrive in droves, just to experience the atmosphere. Goethe, of course, and William Turner, are some of the most famous visitors, though Turner’s paintings of the castle involve quite a bit of creative license when it comes to the surrounding landscape. We can thank, ironically, a Frenchman for saving the castle ruin when the government of Baden wanted to knock it down. Charles de Graimberg volunteered as a castle guard in the first half of the 19th century, and his many sketches of the romantic ruins brought tourists to Heidelberg. His residence was near the entrance to the funicular down in the Altstadt, off the Kornmarkt, I point it out in my audio tour. 

There’s a wonderful animation of how the castle has looked at various points in its history made recently, it’s worth a watch.

Heidelberg Castle tour

There are audio guides available, and they will share with you much of the history I’ve detailed above, and more, including the story about the world’s largest wine barrel in the basement of the castle. However, it really is worth doing the guided tour. Like most German castles, you can’t see the inside of the structure without a guided tour. It takes about an hour, and you tromp all over the place, so bringing kids along isn’t as much of a chore as you’d think. The guides are lovely, quite keen local historians, and they have lots of stories to tell that you won’t find in the guidebooks or on Wikipedia. If you think you only have time for either the audio tour or the guided tour, I would do the guided tour. Ask at the ticket desk when the next English language tour leaves. Do remember to wear warm clothes (if it’s autumn or winter) and sturdy shoes, as you will be climbing many imperfect steps, and the castle buildings are unheated.




Can you imagine dusting all those jars?
Can you imagine dusting all those jars?

German pharmacy museum

Tucked into the basements of one of the Schloss buildings is the German Pharmacy Museum. If you’re with older children, and you don’t read German, you will get more out of this corner of the castle with the audio guide. However, it’s also quite a fascinating place to wander through even without a guide, so if your travel companions are running out of steam, it’s still worth a quick visit. Inside, you’ll find several apothecary shops set up nearly in their entirety, as the museum has been bequeathed a number of shop interiors. It’s fascinating, seeing all the many drawers and jars and bottles that would have been the stock and trade of a pharmacist not all that long ago. There’s a Kinder Apotheke (children’s pharmacy) where younger kids can pretend to examine someone and give a prescription. It’s worth noting that it’s very cool down here on hot summer days, and heated in winter. Entrance to the museum is included in your castle entry ticket.

Half the joy of the Pharmacy Museum for me is wandering around in these vaults.
Half the joy of the Pharmacy Museum for me is wandering around in these vaults.

Restaurants at Heidelberg Castle and nearby

While there is a fancy Weinstube (wine tavern), little cafe in the basement, Backstube (bakery restaurant) in the castle courtyard, and a cafe with Bratwurst in the garden, I would suggest eating your main meal down in the town first. The cafe is adequate for a coffee and cake, or an ice cream, but the staff is disorganized and harried. I highly recommend Mahmoud’s for a great falafel or döner, tucked down a side street with a view of the beautiful red sandstone catholic church. If you’d rather do easy Italian, Vapiano (opening summer 2018) across from the big church in the main square has a solid and affordable kids menu. Hans im Glück, also in the main square, is a local burger chain that has a really neat interior full of birch trees. They don’t have a specific kids menu, but it’s easy to find something most children will eat. If you’re looking for dinner, Hans im Glück fills up fast, but you can make a same-day reservation online here. Most of the other restaurants in the square are tourist traps, best avoided. If the weather is good, your best bet will be to pick up sandwiches at a bakery, or a few big soft brezeln, and picnic in the gardens. We had a picnic after my son’s birthday party, and the staff told me it’s perfectly fine – so don’t panic if you don’t see anyone else doing it! The closest bakery to the foot of the funicular is the Mantei Bakerei, but there are many further along the Hauptstraße (the main pedestrianized street with all the shops).

I’ve got a full post on the best restaurants and cafes in Heidelberg here, too.

Opening hours and getting to Heidelberg Castle

  • Entrance to the castle courtyard and Pharmacy Museum (doesn’t include the castle interiors, you need to go on a guided tour to see that) costs 7€ for adults and 4€ children, and this ticket includes the funicular railway up and down from the castle to the Old Town
  • The castle courtyard and the Great Barrel is open daily from 8am – 6pm, with last entrance at 5:30pm, with special times on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, and closed on Christmas Day
  • The Pharmacy Museum is open daily from 10am – 6pm (1 April – 31 October), and 10am – 5:30pm (1 November – 31 March), with special times on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, and closed on Christmas Day
  • Guided tours are about 1 hour in duration, and in the summer (1 April – 31 October) English language castle tours run every hour from 11:15am – 4:15pm on Mondays – Fridays, and 10:15am – 4:15pm on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. In the winter (1 November – 31 March) English language castle tours run every hour from 11:15am – 4:15pm on Mondays – Fridays, and at 11:15am, 12:15am, 2:15pm, and 4:15pm on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays.
  • Guided tours cost an additional 5€ for adults, and 2.50€ for children, though there is a family rate of 12.50€

The great thing about the Heidelberg Castle is it’s right above the old town, so there’s no need for a tour bus out to a remote site. Heidelberg is very easy to get to from Frankfurt (Frankfurt-Heidelberg), it’s about an hour by train. From Munich (Munich-Heidelberg), it’s about three hours, so you would want to stay overnight here. That’s not a bad idea, as the comment I see most is ‘I wish I had longer to explore the city!’ when I’m reading comments from visitors. From the Heidelberg train station, you hop on one of the many trams just outside the station. There is a tourist information booth right outside the station as well, and the people there can help you get your bearings. Once you get into the old town, you will want to take the funicular up to the castle itself, the station is just around the corner from the Kornmarkt square.

You can drive to the castle, but there is very limited parking nearby. You can walk up to the castle, but I think it’s worth saving your energy for exploring the castle and grounds and taking the funicular instead.

Book a train right here, in English:




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Get the local's guide to how to visit the beautiful Heidelberg Castle in Germany. It's a beautiful ruin that has inspired writers and artists for centuries.

 

Love castles? Me too! Here’s my list of the best castles to visit in Germany that aren’t the super popular Neuschwanstein.

 

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Visit Germany with kids

Visit Germany with kids

There’s so much to do here with kids, and as we live here now, we’ve been doing loads of exploring. I’ll keep updating this page as we discover more about our new home country.

This post contains affiliate links. Should you click on one, I will get a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thank you for supporting my work!

Who could resist this candy stall at a magical German Christmas market?
Who could resist this candy stall at a magical German Christmas market?

When to visit Germany with kids

Germany is a huge country, so you’ve got things to do at any time of year really. It gets very hot down in the southwest, so you’ll find quite nice temperatures down there in the spring. For summertime, German schoolchildren have either August or July off (they rotate it through the different areas of the country, so about half the kids will have that month off at any given time), and the smaller towns just don’t seem to be jampacked. Trier, even at peak tourist season, was half empty. Plan a visit in early December or late November (check when Advent begins) for the German Christmas markets, and you will not be disappointed. It’s absolutely magical.

The huge brezeln are a big hit with kids.
The huge brezeln are a big hit with kids.

Where to go in Germany with kids

We live in southern Germany, so most of our exploring has been down this way. I’ve collected the best things to see in Heidelberg with kids, what to do in Munich, and days trips to take from Frankfurt or day trips from Stuttgart. If you’re keen on history, the beautiful Rothenburg ob der Tauber is breathtaking, the old Roman Gaul capital of Trier is surprising, and the Black Forest Open Air Museum is magical. And of course our very own Heidelberg (with it’s famous castle), I’ve even got a GPS-enabled walking tour for you!

Also, playgrounds are everywhere, and they are, on the whole, terrific. If you’re looking for one nearby, search ‘spielplatz’, and you’ll find one. It’s a lifesaver when you’re travelling with small people who get ants in their pants. Which is all of them, really.

 

 

My son in front of the Elector’s Palace in Trier, with the Roman Imperial Throne Room behind it to the left.

Thinking about a visit to Germany with kids? From castles to Christmas markets, I've got your covered with loads of great places to visit and things to do.

The breathtaking Burg Hohenzollern
The breathtaking Burg Hohenzollern

Where to see castles in Germany

There are so many castles. I’ve even made you a list of the best castles to see in Germany that aren’t the super touristy Neuschwanstein. Our very favourite, Burg Eltz near Trier (pictured at the top), is hard to match for fairy tale atmosphere (definitely take the tour inside!). Burg Hohenzollern near Stuttgart is a bit of a new build in the grand scheme of castles, but it’s hard to beat photos from across the valley – and my Burg Hohenzollern post gives you all the details on how to get to the best photo vantage point. Of course I would be remiss if I didn’t mention our own local castle, Schloss Heidelberg.

The dramatic market square in Mainz.
The dramatic market square in Mainz.

Should we rent a car or take the train in Germany?

This entirely depends on what you’d like to do. The public transport system is excellent, and clean, fast trains run to nearly every mid-sized town in Germany. If you need an overview, The Man in Seat 61 is the best site. However, it isn’t cheap to buy tickets at the last minute. Definitely check out the special tickets you can get for specific regions – for instance there are special tickets for each German state over the weekend for bargain prices if you only take regional trains. Look for ‘Sparpreis’ which means saver fares. The Deutsche Bahn site is really helpful, you can navigate most of it in English. If you sign up for an account, you can get alerts for special deals. Here’s a link to saver fares in English to get you started:
Saver fare for as little as EUR 29,90.


Or you can book your specific route or ticket right here, in English:






There are also some cool routes you can take through the countryside, like the Black Forest High Road, the Fairy Tale Route, and the Romantic Road. You can only do these with a car, though you could always just pick a few spots on the route to visit by train as well. If you’d like to see a specific out of the way castle, they often have bus tours leaving from nearby cities, or you could take one of the popular hop-on, hop-off Rhine boat cruises. The plus side of renting a car, is checking out little places along the way like Ulm or Mainz.

My son jumping for joy at Ibis Styles hotel in Aachen. It might have had something to do with the make-your-own pancake machine downstairs.
My son jumping for joy at Ibis Styles hotel in Aachen. It might have had something to do with the make-your-own pancake machine downstairs.

Hotels to stay in with kids in Germany

I’m not an Airbnb person, so I would skip that in favour of looking for holiday apartments, or Ferienwohnung in Germany. These are often incredibly affordable, particularly in smaller towns and cities. I recommend using Fewo Direkt (it’s in German, so use Chrome with the Google Translate plugin if you don’t speak the language) to find anything from a cozy apartment on a farm in Bavaria to a historic house in a town on the Wine Road in the Rhineland.

If you’re leaning more towards a hotel in a bigger city, let me mention our favourite hotel chain in Germany, Ibis. They are clean, modern and kid-friendly, and whenever I’m not sure or only need a quick stopover on a road trip, I check Ibis first. If there isn’t an Ibis near, I go with the cutest Gasthaus I can find, often they will have a restaurant on the ground floor, and handy triple and quadruple rooms as the buildings are not a standard size. They often have breakfast included in their rates, and you can have dinner right there too. I’ve had many good experiences at these Gasthäuser, they will often make your little person something special if you ask, too. The best place to find them is on Booking.com as everyone seems to use it here in Germany, just check for a restaurant on site.

If you’re thinking about planning a trip to Germany with kids, you should follow me on Instagram. Lots of castles, pretty buildings, and things I find in the grocery store over on IG Stories.

 

PS – Need help with packing for Germany? I’ve got you covered for packing for your Germany trip in spring or summer.

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What to do and what to eat at German Christmas Markets

What to do and what to eat at German Christmas Markets

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.

Vintage carousels are a common feature of German Christmas Markets
Vintage carousels are a common feature of German Christmas 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.

Mini train at the Heidelberger Christmas Market
Mini train at the Heidelberger Christmas Market

 

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!

Carousels and gift stalls at a German Christmas Market
Carousels and gift stalls at a German Christmas Market

Pro tips

  • 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.
Candy stalls are a regular feature at German Christmas Markets
Candy stalls are a regular feature at German Christmas Markets

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 and Flammkuchen are our favourite foods at the Christmas Market
Glühwein and Flammkuchen are our favourite foods at the Christmas Market

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.

Who can resist the Zuckerwatte (cotton candy)?!
Who can resist the Zuckerwatte (cotton candy)?!
Yum! You can smell these fire-grilled wurst stands all over the markets.
Yum! You can smell these fire-grilled wurst stands all over the markets.

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.

I love these lantern stalls, they are so beautiful.
I love these lantern stalls, they are so beautiful.

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.

These wooden toy stalls are my son's favourites. This one is full of puzzles.
These wooden toy stalls are my son’s favourites. This one is full of puzzles.

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.

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The Black Forest High Road

The Black Forest High Road

The Schwarzwaldhochstraße, or Black Forest High Road, is a beautiful driving route through Germany’s Black Forest region that takes you over the ridges of the low mountains in southwestern Baden-Württemberg.

The road runs from the spa town Baden-Baden in the north to Freudenstadt in the south, taking in all sorts of little sights and viewpoints along the way. We chose to make this a full Black Forest weekend break, but you could definitely do it in a day if you are not as keen on stopping all the time. We had the incredible bad luck to do most of this drive in rain and fog, so we missed out on most of the gorgeous views. However, the Black Forest lives up to it’s name in that weather, and I was sure we were going to run into an old witch from the fairy tales at any moment, so maybe it wasn’t a bad thing at all!

History

This route was formalized in the 1930s as holiday car trips began to be a popular way to spend holidays. The Black Forest itself has always been a popular hiking destination – with a local milliner opening up one of the first ever tourist offices and publishing hiking maps in the late 19th century. If you stop for a little walk on the many trails, you will see the very old trail signposts, many still dating from this period. The Black Forest itself takes its name from the Roman legionaries tasked with exploring it, and their experiences in the unfamiliar towering trees, as well as the habit of the local tribes of leaping out and attacking out of nowhere. The Brothers Grimm added to the mystique by publishing their books of fairy tales, generally researched from the local people throughout the region. Every time we set foot in the Black Forest it feels like the beginning of a fairy tale, I have to say!

Where to stop on the Black Forest High Road

Cute Baden-Baden
Cute Baden-Baden
Baden-Baden

This beautiful little spa town reminds me of Bath, in England, and for good reason. Like Bath, it was originally built around tourists coming to ‘take the waters’ to cure everything from the hysterics to a bit of melancholy. Gambling became a lucrative second industry for the town, as the French liked to nip over the border for a spot of legal game-playing. The rumour is Dostoyevsky learned how to gamble at the tables in Baden-Baden. If you’re traveling with kids, you’ll probably skip the casino, as we have.

A wander down the picturesque high street is plenty, with a pit stop at the cute Buchhandlung Straß book and toy shop. We had dinner at the sprawling Löwenbrau outpost around the corner, which is a Bavarian brewpub. It sounds strange, not being in Bavaria, but there’s lots of room and their location here is a riot of flowerboxes and has a gorgeous patio complete with a mini carousel. The kids can have a plate of tender spätzle (egg noodles) and you can have a giant Maß of beer (those comedy 1L beer servings) if you so choose. If you’re only passing through for lunch, I highly recommend the Peters Gute Backstube. It looks like just a bakery from the outside, but they have a nice lunch menu including schnitzel, pasta and sandwiches. We had an excellent lunch here, and my son’s spinach ravioli with cream sauce was incredible. Be prepared to point and gesture a lot if you don’t speak any German, though the staff was lovely, friendly, and helpful.

Burg Hohenbaden
Burg Hohenbaden
Burg Hohenbaden
Burg Hohenbaden
Burg Hohenbaden

Just above Baden-Baden are the ruins of the Hohenbaden castle. There’s quite a bit to clamber around on here, and it’s free to visit. When we stopped by, there was one other couple just leaving, so we had the place to ourselves. You can climb into one of the ruined towers and look out over the valley below. I love these ruins, where there’s enough to imagine where things were, but not so much that you’re not allowed to touch anything. It’s a good place to stop and let small people run around and blow off some steam before another stint in the car.

About to head up the hill to whizz back down
About to head up the hill to whizz back down
All-year-round bobsleigh

You may have seen the viral videos going around the socials of various trips down these bobsleigh tracks. I can tell you, it’s so fun. There are a few in the Black Forest, but the Mehliskopf is the only one actually on the Black Forest High Road. It’s part of a larger recreation area, but you can choose to just do the ‘Bobbahn’ if you like. You get on a structured cart with seatbelts, with a seat in the front for kids on the same cart, and it tows you to the top of a loooooong hill. Once you start going down, you can control your speed with a handbrake, and you zip in and out of the trees on your way down. It’s super fun, pretty cheap – two of you can go down for under €10 a go. There’s a cafe on site as well. Do check the website ahead of time, as they are not open everyday.

I loved this little red truck.
I loved this little red truck.
The Mummelsee is there! I swear!
The Mummelsee is there! I swear!
Mummelsee

As you come up to one of the highest elevations, you’ll suddenly find a hotel and a little lake. This is the Mummelsee – mummel means water lily, and see means lake. It is nearly perfectly round, and of course there’s a perfectly gory myth to go along with it. Apparently, water sprites live in a beautiful castle at the bottom of the lake, and they come out during the day to help the surrounding farmers with their chores and look after children while the mothers work (where are these sprites and can they come to my house?!), but of course one fell in love with a local lad, stayed out too late, and then the king of the water sprites killed her. Lovely! Anyway, there is a nice playground, rental boats, cafe, and many little tourist shops here. It makes a good place to break your journey.

Just one corner of Schiltach
Just one corner of Schiltach
Cute little owls spotted in Schiltach
Cute little owls spotted in Schiltach
A picture perfect German half-timbered town

Schlitach, which is a bit out of your way but well worth a stop, is one of those perfect little half-timbered German villages. It’s situated on a hill, and the Black Forest rises up beyond it, and you can imagine any number of fairy tales beginning in the little market square. An hour or so here is really all you need, but do get out of the car for a little walk around. It’s been a town since the 11th century, generally used as a central meeting place for the surrounding farmers, and as a stopping point for travellers coming through the Black Forest.

The lovely cozy Gasthaus we stayed in, in the Black Forest
The lovely cozy Gasthaus we stayed in, in the Black Forest
Black Forest hotel experience

If you’re used to travelling in bigger cities, you’ll have to get used to the Gasthaus experience. This is the small-town German set up of a restaurant with rooms upstairs. Often there is no front desk, you just enter through the restaurant and the staff will give you a key. We lucked out with a lovely place in Mühelnbach, deep in the Black Forest. The Gasthaus Ochsen is a bit like the King’s Head or the Red Lion in England, there is one in every town. Regardless, we checked in, had a lovely meal downstairs with local wine, a huge plate of buttered spätzle for our son, and a dish of salmon, chanterelles and pasta I still dream about. The breakfast was lovely and traditional – think proper Black Forest ham, boiled eggs, endless types of bread, müsli, and the best hotel coffee I’ve had in awhile. The little canal beside the Gasthaus was rushing like a major river after all the rain, and the church bells from across the road made for a beautiful wake up call.

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PS – If you’re looking for another great Black Forest adventure, we love the Open Air Museum. It’s not on the Black Forest High Road route, but it’s well worth a detour.

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Find out how to do this famous route in the Black Forest, Germany. From Baden-Baden to Freundenstadt, check out fairy tale half-timbered houses, waterfalls, hikes, forest walks and more in this picturesque corner of southern Germany. #travel #germany

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