Christmas Markets in 2023 – Better Than Ever!

We just returned from a four-night visit to Germany to visit the Christmas markets! They are popular and the energy level is high! Here is some firsthand feedback from our recent weekend visit.

The European Christmas Markets are always a popular holiday cruise itinerary leading up to Christmas in Europe.

In many of the charming towns and villages in Germany and Austria, Advent is ushered in with the opening of the Christmas markets. Medieval in appearance, they are held in the town square and sell food, drink and lovely handmade gifts from open-air stalls. The history of Christmas markets goes back to the late Middle Ages in the German-speaking parts of Europe- in fact, the Vienna “December Market” was a forerunner of the Christmas market.


Ed. Note: The European Christmas Markets are always a popular holiday cruise itinerary leading up to Christmas in Europe. In many of the charming towns and villages in Germany and Austria, Advent is ushered in with the opening of the Christmas markets. Medieval in appearance, they are held in the town square and sell food, drink and lovely handmade gifts from open-air stalls. The history of Christmas markets goes back to the late Middle Ages in the German-speaking parts of Europe- in fact, the Vienna “December Market” was a forerunner of the Christmas market.

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Travel:

Getting There:

We flew to Frankfurt, stayed four nights and flew back home. If you are taking a river cruise, you will need to get to Europe. Some of our experience will be of practical use.

We flew from New York to Frankfurt on Singapore Airlines. You might ask: “How can this airline have a nonstop flight to Frankfurt? Don’t airlines need to start or end the flight in their country of origin?  This flight is actually a New York to Singapore flight “with a stop in Frankfurt.”  Passengers continuing to Singapore are told to deplane, stand around for 50 minutes and reboard!

You have heard about the decline in standards across the airlines. You may have firsthand experience. We flew in coach. The price was reasonable, even inexpensive compared to other airlines offering direct flights. The food is quite good. They let you know what your meal choice is a couple of weeks in advance and you can preorder your meal before your flight! They serve wine and beer in flight. My gin and tonic was made with Beefeaters and when I asked for a brandy after dinner, they asked: “Is Martell Cognac OK?”

Wednesday, November 29th:

We drove to JFK Airport in New York, parked and headed to the check in desk. Lots of construction at JFK. This was more obvious when we drove out of the parking garage. We checked in at the Singapore Airlines counters. We have no status, since this was our first flight. Check in was fast and courteous. TSA Precheck got us through security quickly.

We are holders of American Express Platinum Cards. For us, the Centurion Lounges are the best benefit. Their JFK lounge is located in Terminal 4, which was our departure terminal. If you have airline lounge access through a credit card or an airline club program, you know the lounges are tiered. You might get into the business class lounge, but not the first-class lounge. The Centurion Clubs are spectacular! The food and drink selection is excellent! This club also has a Speakeasy, a nightclub style lounge with a long bar and lots of seating for two under subdued lighting.

We enjoy talking with people. We met two women in the travel business. When we told them about our Christmas market plans, they started talking about river cruises. They are big fans and told us the many reasons why they love them. It’s a great way to see the towns and cities along the rivers in Europe.

Tip: When you fly, you want lounge access, everywhere if possible. Amex does a good job in this regard. If they don’t have a lounge at an airport, there is usually a reciprocal agreement with other lounges.

Thursday, November 10th:

We arrived in Frankfurt about 10:00 AM, cleared immigration, collected our bags and took the commuter train into Frankfurt City Center. We arrived at our Marriott hotel about noon, The room wasn’t ready, but they let us sit in the M-Club Lounge until it was available.

After a two-hour nap, we headed out to the Frankfurt Christmas Market. This was a taxi ride away in the old town. If you are traveling on a river cruise, you have an advantage. Here’s why:

The first Christmas market took place in Dresden in 1434. They usually take place in the large plaza in front of the big church in any major town or city. This is often adjacent to the river, because in medieval times, the river was an important means of transport. One of the entrances to the Frankfurt Christmas market is at the riverfront. We saw several long, narrow ships tied up.

The Frankfurt Christmas market is huge. Expect to see several hundred stalls, built to resemble wooden huts. Food is a major feature: Stalls specialize. Some focus on grilled sausages, served on buns. Others sell gluhwein, a hot spiced wine beverage. Others sell crepes or potato pancakes.

There is plenty of choice because there and hundreds of booths. Expect to pay about 5 Euro on average for each item you buy. I saw an article about “My 25 favorite Christmas market foods,” so there is plenty of choice.  I also found an outdoor wine bar serving conventional wines like Pinot Grigio, but it was served hot with steam coming off! Prices are pretty standardized on basic food items.

Here is an important caution: Every market has its own Gluhwein mug for that year. It holds about seven ounces. Many people choose to keep them as souvenirs. When you walk up to a counter and buy your mugs of gluhwein, you read the prices as 4 Euro. So far, so good. Two mugs of gluhwein cost us 16 Euro, which came as a surprise! That booth had a deposit of 4Euro per mug. You return the mug and they give your deposit back. We have seen deposits vary from 1 Euro to 4 Euro. Sometimes they give you a plastic coin which you need to return with the mug to get your deposit back.

Not all booths sell food to eat on site. Some sell baked goods, like German Stollen, a Christmas bread. Others sell beeswax candles, handmade wooden ornaments and pottery.

On a Thursday night, the Frankfurt Christmas market was packed! It feels like the entire town turns out! You see people who look like they came from offices, families with their dogs, children in strollers and yes, us tourists. Everyone is having a great time. We walked from one end of the market to the river, then took a taxi back to the hotel.

Tip: Bring cash. (Euros)  These booths work on a cash basis.

Tip: Dress warmly. Wear layers. This is Germany in December. Expect it to be cold.

Tip: There are counters and high top tables where you can eat your food and drink your Gluhwein, but seating is hard to find. Expect to be on your feet 100% of the time.

Friday, December 1st:

After a great night’s sleep, we had breakfast at the hotel and returned to the Frankfurt Christmas market. Both stores and the market open at 10:00 AM. Because these markets are big tourist attractions, expect all the booths will be open. Crowds are thinner in the morning, heaviest at night.

Friday’s major activity was taking the commuter train to Maina, the medieval town associated with Gutenberg and his printing press. This is 40 minutes away by commuter train from the main train station. Tickets are bought through machines, but there are also ticket counters you can use.

When we arrived in Mainz we took a taxi to the Christmas market. The Mainz Christmas market is smaller than Frankfurt. It probably has about 100 stalls. All of the major food attractions are represented. Unlike Frankfurt, the Mainz market has seating. It has a firepit area with picnic tables and small barrel shaped wooden structures, open on one side and each holding about six people. You reserve them in advance.

The Mainz market recalls the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. You remember “Too big, too small, just right.”  Some Christmas markets are big and very crowded. Small towns might only open their markets on weekends. The Mainz market is just right. We have been visiting annually since about 1990. The food is basically the same. One vendor has the most incredible pork sandwiches, featuring a pork cutlet on a bun! We also bought potato pancakes with applesauce, then tried to carry them through the crowd until we could find a table where we could stand and eat. Although these markets are crowded, it’s important to realize everyone is in good spirits and having a good time.

Tip: If seating is available and there are two of you, one holds the table while the other makes trips back and forth to bring food to the table.

Tip: Everyone is having fun. You will find stalls selling Santa hats, Elf hats and other headgear. They are fun to wear and make great souvenirs. We came home with five sets of funny eyeglasses and two Santa hats with blinking lights.


Ed. Note: The European Christmas Markets are always a popular holiday cruise itinerary leading up to Christmas in Europe. In many of the charming towns and villages in Germany and Austria, Advent is ushered in with the opening of the Christmas markets. Medieval in appearance, they are held in the town square and sell food, drink and lovely handmade gifts from open-air stalls. The history of Christmas markets goes back to the late Middle Ages in the German-speaking parts of Europe- in fact, the Vienna “December Market” was a forerunner of the Christmas market.

Christmas Markets Cruise Specials (cruisecompete.com)

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Saturday, December 2nd and Sunday, December 3rd:

Saturday was our day to take the train to Heidelberg, about 90 minutes away on regional rail. You can also do the trip on the national rail service, similar to our Amtrak, but it is considerably more expensive. After arriving about 2:30 PM, we took a taxi from the train station to the Christmas market.

Heidelberg is known as a university town. Heidelberg Castle sits at a height above the city. (The castle used to have a Christmas market, but apparently it scared the bats, or so they say.)  Heidelberg also is said to have one of the longest pedestrian-only shopping streets in Europe, about 1.8 KM or 1.1 miles. The Christmas market runs from one end of the street to the other, primarily organized around several squares. The taxi driver dropped at the far end and we walked to the other end at Bismarckplatz.

The Heidelberg market allows you to combine shopping in (heated) stores along with shopping at stalls. You can stop into (heated) bakeries and (heated) cafes. You can browse the department stores. We found things to buy in Heidelberg.

We took a taxi back to the train station, caught a train shortly after 6:00 PM and were back at our hotel about 8:00 PM.

Sunday was a quiet day, as the tips will explain.

Tip: If walking is not your favorite activity, the Heidelburg Christmas market has plenty of maps along the route. They indicate where the taxi stands are located.

Tip: Large markets like Heidelberg are open daily. Weekdays and earlier hours are better if you want to avoid the crowds at peak times.

Tip:  The Hallmark movie, “A Heidelberg Holiday” is a very accurate representation of the Christmas market in Heidelberg. Portions were filmed in the city and we saw familiar sights.

Tip: Germany tends to close on Sundays. Many restaurants are closed. Stores are closed. Supermarkets are closed. Christmas markets are open.

Tip: Check online for scheduled days and hours for the Christmas markets you would like to visit. The Frankfurt Christmas market opened on Monday, November 27th. We visited on Thursday, November 30th. That might account for the huge crowds this weekend.

Monday, December 4th:

This was our day to fly home. Our flight was at 8:20 AM. We asked the hotel to arrange for a taxi for 5:00 AM. There was no traffic and we were at the terminal in less than half an hour. Check in was smooth. Singapore Airlines departs from Terminal 1, which is primarily the Lufthansa terminal. We did not have lounge access because we were not booked on a Lufthansa flight, but the seating at the gate was very comfortable. We took off on time and arrive at JFK in New York a little early.

Tip: The taxi fare was about 50 – 60 Euro. At an early hour, it can be preferable to taking the train when you have a flight to catch.

Tip: We leave a tip for the person who cleans the room. We tip the concierge. We tip every time we use the hotel concierge lounge and have food or drink. It doesn’t cost much and it makes a difference.

The German Christmas markets are a fantastic destination.


Photos in story courtesy Bryce Sanders


Ed. Notes: CruiseCompete and its member travel advisors provide many curated cruise and land deals, offers and amenities on over 50 cruise lines with over 500 cruise ships sailing all around the world.

Christmas Markets Cruise Specials (cruisecompete.com)

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