Germany’s Christmas markets are the highlight of the holiday season for many, but as a traveler coming from the United States the experience was extra special. Walking along cobblestone streets, admiring the carefully crafted ornaments and savoring the local fare transported us from our daily lives to a magical, Christmas filled world. Visiting Germany’s Christmas markets is a treat for the senses, but there are some important things you should know before you go.
We spent two weeks in Germany over the Thanksgiving holiday and were fortunate enough to visit seven different Christmas markets. My ancestors are from Germany, so I wanted to teach our children how they would have celebrated, where they would have lived, and how life is different in Germany. We were able to travel to the city where my great, great grandparents lived and the children enjoyed walking the same streets as their ancestors, exploring the same buildings they would have known. The Christmas markets would have been there as well, but today they tend to attract larger crowds. The larger crowds aren’t the only thing that’s different these days, here are some of our tips for visitors.
What You Need to Know Before Visiting Germany’s Christmas Markets
1. The Christmas markets start on different days.
Christmas markets typically run in accordance with the Advent calendar, usually beginning the first Sunday of Advent (usually that last weekend of November) and ending just before or just after Christmas day (although most end on Christmas eve). I expected most to open the Sunday after America’s Thanksgiving, but was pleasantly surprised to find most opened the day after Thanksgiving (November 27) or sooner. This calendar is very helpful.
2. Each market has a collectible mug.
Every year each market has its own collectible mug in which it serves the traditional hot alcoholic beverage glühwein. (You can also get a non-alcoholic version known as kinderpunsch). When you buy a mug you pay a deposit for it and you can choose to return it and get your money back, or keep the mug. The deposit varies between 2-3 Euros, and we thought they were nice souvenirs to keep. If you decide to return the mug there are usually depositories located throughout the markets set up for mug returns. We managed to collect one from every market except Freiburg, so hopefully we can return to add one more to our collection.
3. Some markets are more kid friendly than others.
My kids will tell everyone they meet that their favorite Christmas market was the one in Nürnberg. The reason? It was the most kid friendly because there was a Children’s Christmas market (Kinderweihnacht)! There were rides, a Playmobil building room, a place to etch glass to take home, a candle making station, and their favorite, a cookie making station. I don’t know any kid that wouldn’t love that! Most markets were very kid friendly and not too crowded, but my kids were in love with Nürnberg and would recommend it to all families.
4. A town can have multiple markets in different locations.
This is when it comes in handy to know a local. There was a hidden Christmas market in Munich we would not have found without our photographer from Localgrapher. The market opened prior to the major Christmas market in the town center, so we enjoyed it for a few days before the crowds came. It’s also helpful to enquire at the local tourism office because they often have maps of the different Christmas markets to help you find your way.
5. There are many different stalls. Make time for them all.
Every market will have food and beverage stands, but they all feature different types of food. Of course there will be different types of sausage and glühwein, but there will be regional specialties as well. In Freiburg, we tried flammkuchen which a delicious flat bread pizza with lots of onions, cheese, and bacon. In Nürnberg the specialty is lebkuchen (similar to gingerbread). It is everywhere! Other stalls will have wooden ornaments, cuckoo clocks, chocolate covered fruit, clothing, candy, and crepes. Come hungry! Also, most stalls prefer cash, but the ones with higher priced items will accept credit cards.
6. Some Christmas markets in Germany have entertainment.
Most children don’t enjoy shopping for hours on end so it’s a good thing many markets have diversions. Some will have carriage rides, carolers, musicians, or performers. Stop and watch them for awhile so the kids can have a breather and then head out to spend more money.
7. Markets can get crowded.
This can happen in the blink of an eye, so have a plan in place in case someone in your group gets lost. The Christmas market in Munich went from being pleasant and comfortable to crowded and claustrophobic in less than fifteen minutes. We decided to call it a day and head back to our hotel because it was wall to wall people. Next to the food stalls there are standing tables for eating and drinking, so use those if things get too crowded and you feel like a fish swimming upstream.
8. It can be cold, wet, windy, and gray.
It can be all of the above on the same day. During our two weeks in Germany, there was one day we needed sunglasses. The rest of the time it was overcast, rainy, or snowing. Dress accordingly. We had one day in Rothenburg ob der Tauber where we were miserable because we were not properly dressed for the cold. I would highly recommend long johns, gloves, a hat, fleece, and a good winter coat. Pack a rain coat and umbrella because we saw a lot of rain as well.
9. Restrooms might be hard to find.
For some reason, one of our children always seems to have a restroom emergency. Many times we had to find a café near the Christmas market and once we found a public toilet next to the market. The bad news, you had to pay for it, with Euro coins, and we didn’t have enough coins for everybody. So back to finding a café, which can be difficult during crowded times.
10. Markets have different starting times depending on the day.
In larger cities most markets open around 10 or 11 in the morning Monday through Saturday, in small cities they usually don’t open until later in the afternoon (like this one we went to in Dinkelsbüehl). On Sundays, most markets open later, so check with the tourism office before making plans.
11. Buy things at the Christmas markets in Germany; don’t wait until you get home.
Chicago has a Christkindlmarket and we have gone there every year. After traveling to Germany, I can honestly say the prices there are better abroad. Maybe it’s the Chicago city sales tax, but everything there seemed very affordable compared to prices in the United States. Do yourself a favor and don’t go home empty handed. Grab some lebkuchen, stollen, star lanterns, and Käthe Wohlfahrt ornaments and consider it a successful vacation.
Every Christmas market is different, but there are some similarities as you can see. Hopefully these tips will help you prepare for a successful visit to Germany’s Christmas markets. Fröhliche Weihnacten!
For more posts about Christmas markets, check out: German Christmas Market Itinerary for Traveling with Kids or Holiday Activities in Holland