Have you ever wondered what it would be like to stroll through a winter wonderland? Like all that chestnuts roasting on an open fire stuff? You can see for yourself by visiting Christmas Markets in Europe! Us poor deprived souls in the United States don’t have Christmas markets so this was exciting to experience. Almost every country in Europe has Christmas markets. They are in many different cities within each country and some bigger cities have multiple markets. It’s truly astounding how many exist. Here are some basic guidelines to plan a Christmas market vacation.
I will say right now I am NOT religious but I LOVE the Christmas markets because it is less about religion and more about the holiday spirit and festive atmosphere.I feel that Christmas is focused on shopping and children's activities in the USA, but in Europe, they embrace the decor, the food and the conviviality. It is good old fashioned ADULT fun with lots of ADULT beverages. Click To Tweet
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This may be the hardest part of planning. With so many markets to choose from and so many charming cities hosting them, the options are infinite! You really can’t choose poorly because all the markets are wonderful in their own way. A few years ago I asked some bloggers where they would recommend and came up with this list! You can use this list of the Best Christmas Markets in Europe to get some ideas.
Germany’s markets were my focus because they seemed the most classic and of course I wanted to try gluwein. I also dipped into France since the picturesque region of Alsace is easily accessible from Germany. My itinerary is below.
You should be booking things ASAP because flights may be a bit pricier this time of year as well as hotels. The hotels in the center of the action will be more expensive of course but I think it is worth it to stay close to the main markets, especially in bigger cities. If you are visiting cities with metro systems, definitely plan to utilize those and look for hotels close by. Staying within easy access to a train station is also something I consider.
You may prioritize the country you visit based on where you find a reasonable flight. I actually flew into Amsterdam but then took the train to Cologne and then made my way around Germany and a part of France. Maybe try to find a cheap flight to the country NEXT to the country you want to visit.
If you have an itinerary already set for a short trip, you may not benefit from the Eurail pass. I found that there are good prices at Omio (formerly GoEuro) and you can actually spend less than you would with the pass. I suggest comparing the prices of both for your specific trip. Some of the more popular routes may be full so think about getting your tickets ahead of time so you can get the fastest trains at the best times.
This itinerary starts in Cologne and ends in Nuremberg, which is a short train ride from Munich where there is a major international airport. The route was done by train with no more than 2 hours between the various stops. I am providing this as a suggestion and you can delete, add on and easily customize it to your needs.
Cologne is a beautiful city in the north of Germany and has an easy to navigate metro. The train station is next to an imposing iconic gothic cathedral so basically you will walk out the door of the train station to a Christmas market!
Cologne has 7 different markets but my favorites were the following:
The Old Market is a historic square in Cologne and is truly beautiful without the Christmas market but now is transformed into a true wonderland. My cover photo shows the entrance to this market, also called Heinzel’s Wintermarchen. Legend has it that the Heinzelmännchen (house gnomes) performed all sorts of different jobs for the locals of Cologne and so the winding alleys of the “house gnomes Christmas market” are differently themed, just like the guilds of days past. I love the feeling of nostalgia this scene brings. There is a Scandinavian stave church, an ice skating ring and rustic barns full of handmade items and good food. Considered one of the most beautiful markets in the city.
I loved this quaint fairy tale village in Rudolphplatz. I thought it was one of the cutest that I visited.
This is supposedly the oldest in the city. I recommend this one at night because the lights are really special.
You can’t visit Cologne without stopping by the large market at the magnificent gothic Cologne cathedral.
Cologne’s gay market is tiny but has cute pastel colors, fun drinks and gifts such as “mer-men” ornaments.
Strasbourg is the capital of Alsace, France a region straddling Germany and truly seems like what happens when France and Germany have a baby. You have the half-timbered homes associated with Germany but the culture, wine and cuisine (read: cheese everywhere) associated with France. It is one of the oldest in Europe dating back to 1570 and set in the heart of the Grande Île, which is a UNESCO world heritage site. Nothing says Christmas like the huge majestic tree in Place Kleber.
There are two large markets in Strasbourg (and many smaller ones) including the one near the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Strasbourg. It is a small market with not much food (notice how this is so important to me) but very pretty with holiday music playing and lots of vin chaud. The other one, Christkindelsmärik at Place Broglie is bigger with more food. Both just ok in terms of scenery but the city itself IS the scene with some of the most elaborate and stunning decor I’ve ever seen! I would be happy just wandering around Strasbourg for days and looking at the decorations and lights.
You can choose Colmar or Strasbourg (they are 30-45 min apart by the SNCF regional train) as a base for the Alsace region but I chose Colmar since it is just so darn adorable and it is a bit closer to the smaller villages (Kaysersberg, Eguishem and Riquewihr) AND I stayed in Strasbourg the last time I was in the region so just wanted a different perspective. If you figure out the bus system or have a car you can visit all these villages and more. I spent one day in Colmar and then the other two days in two different villages. Get the bus schedules from your hotel and have exact change ready. It is approximately 2 euros per ride. There may be a Christmas market shuttle available. The bus drivers typically don’t speak English FYI.
Colmar has 2 major markets. One in the center and one near the entrance of the old city which is very small but has excellent food. Scroll to the food section to see what to eat in various places. I’m all about this Christmas market food y’all.
Regarding all the Alsatian villages, the markets were cute, but small and not as scenic as the German ones BUT the villages themselves are worth the trip. The village IS the scene. Here you may duck into cute cafes and cozy restaurants and walk around wondering if you’ve been transported into the fairytale realm.
Kayserberg doesn’t even look real. It feels like a movie set or a Disney village. I could hardly even stand all the cuteness. These towns were MADE for Christmas.
Munich is a charming Bavarian city and hosts an impressive 30 different markets. Pictured below is a Christmas Pyramid, ubiquitous in Germany with roots in medieval folklore. Some say it is a predecessor to the Christmas tree.
I'd say they take Christmas seriously in Munich. You probably need to live here to see all 30 Christmas markets but as a visitor, you can focus on just a few. Here's a quick summary of the ones I enjoyed most. Click To Tweet
This a huge market right in the center of the city and also the most crowded market. It will take you hours to meander up and down the miniature city of wooden booths decorated with fir boughs and sparkly lights. I especially liked this market at night because locals stop after work for a brat or gluwhein and the atmosphere is festive not to mention the impressive background of the Neues Rathaus (town hall).
This market is in a large city park called the English Garden. This seemed very local and set in a beautiful residential park. I loved the ambiance here. It was quieter and less crowded than many other markets and had some unique items I didn’t see elsewhere.
I visited this gay market on a Saturday night and there was barely breathing room. It was LIT! With kitschy gifts, pink lights and a fabulous DJ, this is a must-see.
This was my favorite because as you may know, I’m obsessed with all things medieval. This was like stepping back in time to an era with jesters, knights and drinking out of huge goblets. The location is near Odeonplatz, walkable from Marienplatz.
I especially enjoyed the food here! They actually had good vegetarian options.
For more specific information about Munich’s markets, I suggest looking at this Munich Christmas Markets Guide
Nuremberg is a small medieval city well known for the World War 2 war crimes trials. It is an easy city to explore on foot and full of history and old-world ambiance. The Christkindlesmarkt is one of the most famous in Germany, known for being authentic with handmade crafts from many different countries. Here you can find the famous “prune people” figurines which, to be honest, I found creepy.
Nuremberg is only 1 hour by train from Munich and can even be visited as a day trip if you don’t want to move around as much.
If you have more time in Germany you should consider a day in Dresden’s Steizelmarkt which is the oldest Christmas market in Germany. Another city that is too charming for words is Rothenberg ob der Tauber. This walled medieval city looks like Christmas all year and feels like a walk into the past. It is a 2-hour train ride from Nuremberg. Augsburg (45 min by train) has one of Germany’s oldest Christmas markets dating back to the 15th century.
Comparing Germany and France (well just the Alsace part of France), I found the French villages themselves WERE the destination. They are all impeccably decorated and tiny to walk around. The German markets were larger with more variety of food than the French markets.
I guess the moral of the story is I can’t say which ones I liked better, both were amazing in different ways. Luckily you don’t have to choose since Alsace is SO close to many German cities!
Ok let’s talk about the best part of this whole deal. Warning, the food is pricey at the markets but satisfying and filling. You will hardly need to go to restaurants if you graze all day at the markets.
The prototypical Christmas market alcoholic beverage is glühwein (mulled wine). In France, it’s called vin chaud. This is warm wine with sweet spices and sometimes a bit of spirit such as brandy or cognac added. It’s delicious and addictive. I kept asking if there was actually alcohol in it. There is a white variety availkable also called Weiss or Weiß glühwein. In general, I preferred red in Germany and white in France. My professional opinion after MUCH research. In some places in Germany, there was a blueberry flavor, which was delightful. And yes, I DID take a picture of every drink I had.
As extra research, I tried other drinks as well such as apfelwein (apple glühwein) and also brombeerwein (blackberry glühwein) The apple was too sweet for me but the blackberry was yummy. Eierpunsch is egg punch, similar to egg nog. Not my thing. If you are not an alcohol consumer not to worry because apple cider and good old hot chocolate is also available.
In France they sell these magic spices, called Pain D’Epices. Buy them and go home and impress your friends with your mulled wine skills. I’m now the official Christmas wine bitch of my family and proud!
You pay 4-8 euros for one glass but you get half back upon returning the mug. If you want to keep the mug as a souvenir, you can. Very cool system and you don’t see plastic or styrofoam cups anywhere. The word in German for this deposit is “pfand” and in French, it is “consign“. Many will do this for the plates and cutlery as well.
Honestly, I kind of like that nothing is written in English. You have to figure out what various food and drink items are and the stall proprietors are always happy to explain. It is more authentic that way and you get to learn new words!
This may be the best thing about Christmas in Germany. It took me days to learn how to pronounce it. (Foy-er-sangen-boh-le). The name translates literally as fire-tongs punch. This is glühwein on steroids. Some genius decided to set a rum-soaked sugar block on fire and let it drip into the glühwein. The sugar is all melty and caramelized and adds more sweetness and alcohol to the mulled wine. BRILLIANT! Once I tried this I was done with regular glühwein. Pictured below is an entire mini-market I stumbled upon in Munich (near Isador metro station) dedicated to this delightful drink.
Here are some food items you should not miss. Throw your diets out the window because there is nothing the least bit healthy about the food but it is incredibly satisfying on a chilly day.
I think this was my favorite. It is available in Germany and Alsace, France although in France sometimes with different cheese and the ubiquitous “lardon” (little pieces of bacon). It’s little egg noodles in a cheesy sauce and fried onions on top. So. Freaking. Good.
Well duh, if you’re in Germany this is a no brainer. It’s so good and I hate sausage and hardly eat meat. They also serve these in France (at least in Alsace) but called Saucisse Blanche and served on French Bread of course. I like mine with sauerkraut and mustard.
Do not miss this if you see it. This was not available everywhere but when it was I grabbed it!
This potato finger noodle is similar to gnocchi but lighter. I had it with cheese sauce and also with sauerkraut and creme fraiche and herbs. It’s good anyway they decide to prepare it.
Can’t deny I LOVE saying this and many other German words. Also called reibekuchen. Eat with applesauce and try not to burn your mouth off because they are served hot straight from the frying pan.
These are essentially gingerbread cookies. The most authentic ones are supposedly in Nuremberg. I love me some gingerbread and would probably eat my own family if they were made of gingerbread.
Some other noteworthy items include:
Flammenkuchen (Tarte Flambee in French)
Sort of like pizza. Very thin flatbread with either Emmenthal or Munster cheese and often or salmon.
In France, they change it up with their French flair. They offer crepes, waffles, baguettes, quiche, saucisse blanche (white sausage, similar to bratwurst) saucisse Strasbourg (a local sausage) and one of my faves tarte l’oignon. Of course plenty of wine and cheese booths, and bretzel with cheese (Emmenthal or munster with or without lardons (bacon)) or with raclette!
This could be a whole post but it doesn’t have to be because it’s quite simple. It doesn’t really matter what you wear because you will be in a coat and other outerwear the entire time. You will be outside all day and at night in WINTER so it will be cold. You also should be prepared for rain.
I suggest a very simple combo of base layers (top and bottom) and then a sweater and jeans followed by outwear. As I said, nobody will see what’s under your coat so save your luggage space for pretty scarves and hat to add color and style. Bring a warm coat and a rain parka or a warm waterproof coat if you have.
You can find many matching combos in fun colors.
These are some of the warmest and economical that I’ve tried so far.
A lightweight wool sock that wicks moisture are ideal. Make sure your sock is not too thick for your boot or your feet will be compressed and this can accelerate frostbite.
If it is rainy, the wetness will creep in and make your socks wet. Wetness increases coldness and therefore frostbite. I almost lost a toe. I have pictures to prove it. These boots are comfy, waterproof and cute!
Bring an umbrella or rain poncho. Europe in winter can be rainy.
I hope you have all you need to plan a Christmas Market vacation to Europe. I am obsessed if you can’t tell and want to go every year. What questions do you have? Tell me what markets I should visit next!
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