As November ends, Weihnachtsmärkte—Christmas markets—pop up all over Germany. The Advent tradition stretches back to the late Middle Ages, when folks stocked up on goods as winter approached. Eventually, the festive shopping experiences spread further throughout the German-speaking world. Today, you can even find German-style Christmas markets around the rest of Europe and in places as far-reaching as New York or Montreal. As beautiful as they are, though, the German Christmas market experience can be a bit overwhelming for newcomers. Here are 10 top tips to help make the most of your Weihnachtsmärkte experience, the first time through:
Make the perfect market match for you
With markets seemingly stuffed into every nook and cranny in Germany, it can understandably be hard to choose. If you’re looking for a traditional market, try Nürnberg’s Christkindlesmarkt, which is held on the city’s main square. Its stalls, made of regional spruce, and stagecoach rides lend a vintage charm to the outing. For striking views, seek out the markets held in the main squares of Köln or Erfurt, where Gothic cathedral spires provide a picture-perfect backdrop to shopping pursuits. Looking for a bit more excitement? Berlin’s Gendarmenmarkt boasts fire-eaters and jugglers, who perform in one of the capital’s most beautiful squares.
Time your visit with care
Hours vary from market to market, but they generally stay open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and busiest on weekends. (Remember that the sun sets just after 4 p.m. in Germany in winter.) David Mahsman, a seasoned German Christmas market guide who leads his own tours from the United States, advises, “Go during the day, sure, but don’t miss going after dark. The lights add to the sounds, smells, and good humor of the crowds.”
Learn some local market lingo
You don’t have to be fluent in German to make it through the markets, but here are a few phrases to get you in good graces with the vendors (tip: click on the links for help with pronunciation):
- Pfand: This is a deposit made in exchange for the cute little glühwein (mulled wine) mugs. Return the mug, get the pfand back. If not, you’ve already paid for a souvenir!
- Frohe Weihnachten!: “Merry Christmas,” or, if you’d prefer a more secular option, say Frohe Festtage (“Season’s Greetings”).
- Mit Schuss: Add an extra buzz to your glühwein or hot chocolate by asking for it “with a shot.”
Dress for the weather
Christmas markets are held outdoors, in Germany, in the dead of winter: Accordingly, there’s no escaping the cold, but you can avoid the worst of it by donning gloves, a scarf, thermals, and a hat. And be sure to wear boots to keep your feet warm and dry in wet conditions. Mercifully, most markets have heated tents where you can catch a bit of a break from the bone-chilling cold, too.
Try some glühwein (and other tasty drinks)
You can’t go wrong with seasonal drinks like eierpunsch (eggnog), Bock-style beer, or nonalcoholic options like kinderpunsch (hot punch) or heisse schokolade (hot chocolate). But a Christmas market experience simply isn’t complete until you’ve tried traditional glühwein. Taste different variations: with berry flavors, mit schuss, white, or white mixed with coconut water (kokosglühwein). Or, for a fun twist, opt for a feuerzangenbowle: These “fire-tongs punches” feature a rum-soaked sugarloaf that’s set on fire before being dropped into a cup of mulled wine.
Eat, then eat some more
Because it’s cold outside, food and drink at the markets lean toward the warm-you-up variety: think roasted chestnuts, hot sausages, and spiced wine. Sample a selection of the country’s wurst (sausage), and don’t pass up seasonal treats like apfelkücherl, a cinnamon fried doughnut with gooey gobs of apple on the inside. There are also wood-fired, pizza-like snacks with various toppings to choose from: flammbrot, holzofenbrot, fleckerl, and rahmschmankerl. For freshly roasted nuts, locals suggest hanging out by the nut stand until the vendor pours out a fresh batch of the piping-hot maronen (chestnuts) because they’re best when served warm.
Get gifts for people on your “nice” list
Keep your eyes peeled for authentic, handcrafted wooden pyramiden (traditional, pyramid-shaped German decorations), nutcrackers, and räuchermännchen (incense smokers)—but know that such gifts can be pricey. You’ll need to be willing to drop at least 25 euros on even the smallest of these fine artisan-crafted accents. Cheaper, edible choices include lebkuchen cookies or a werkzeuge (tool) made of solid chocolate. Just remember to carry cash, as a lot of stalls don’t take cards, and to bring a tote or knapsack along, since the bags from the stalls are famously flimsy.
Soak up the overall ambience
There may not be actual visions of sugar plum fairies dancing at these Christmas markets, but the atmosphere is pretty darn close. Sounds of laughter and music from merry-go-rounds fill the air. Families stroll together and eat treats. The aromas of spiced wine and fresh evergreens waft through the air. So before you get too stressed about what to eat, drink, or buy, remember why you’re ultimately here: to relax, step back, and soak up the scene and wonderful mood.
Seek out more unusual shopping experiences, too
Sure, savor the classic Christmas markets on main squares, but don’t overlook some more unusual retail environments, too, like wandering the medieval bazaars in numerous German cities, catering to your inner Viking at Stuttgart’s Finnish market, or reveling in Köln’s gleaming and glittery Heavenue LGBT market.
Don’t miss the rest of Germany
While it’s easy to get caught up in all the market hoopla, don’t miss the opportunity to galivant around the rest of Germany. Consider planning your trip in a region that has not only an exceptional Weihnachtsmärkte but other attractions to keep you busy, as well.
Some organized tour groups, such as the ones run by Bavaria and Beyond, offer market tours paired with excursions in places like Bavaria, Luther Country in Thüringen and Sachsen-Anhalt, or the Rhine River region. Another way to travel to multiple Christmas markets is with a cruise line: AFAR Travelers’ Choice Award–winning companies such as Viking and AmaWaterways offer just-the-ticket, Christmas market-themed itineraries.