Who travels to cold places in the winter? Lots of people, specifically those seeking out Christmas markets for an infusion of holiday cheer. Many river cruises stop at the right European towns. Major port cities often have them too. Should this be on your 2020 vacation agenda?
Where to Go
The Europeans approach the weeks before Christmas differently. Maybe they do less shopping and more celebrating. Some Internet research will let you know virtually every European country is on this bandwagon. Personally speaking, my wife and I prefer the German Christmas markets. For the past 20+ years, we’ve been taking a long weekend annually to drive around the German markets. You could easily get the same experience getting to them via a river cruise.
What’s a Christmas Market?
Translated into “American,” it’s a pop-up shopping village, erected in the town square, usually in front of the Cathedral. These pedestrian-only zones consist of purpose-built wood or metal huts, laid out on little streets. These aren’t one offs. Vendors bring their own structures in by truck, erecting them virtually overnight. They stay up for the duration of the season. After Christmas, they disappear. We met a woman whose family has been doing this almost forever. She “married into the business” about thirty years ago.
The “season” aligns with Advent, the four Sunday period we associate with the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Major cities will have multiple markets. Cologne has at least six! Towns will often have one major market, setup in that big square.
What about hours? Generally speaking, they are open seven days a week, from late morning to about 9:00 PM. Some towns might do them only on weekends, but expect bigger places to be making the most of every day.
Who goes to these markets? Tourists? Imagine your own town or neighborhood setup a month-long festival in the center. Now imagine everyone in town turning our almost every night to stand around, relax and socialize! That’s a Christmas market. Now, imagine certain towns are tourist hotspots and thousands of people saying “It’s a sunny Saturday. Let’s drive in and walk around the Christmas market!” Now you’ve got the crowds.
What Do You Do in a Christmas Market?
That’s easy. You shop and you eat. Those lines of booths sell stuff. Generally speaking, it’s food, drink and gifts. They’ve got a few amusement park rides, like a carousel.
- Sausages are a favorite food in Germany. Lots of booths selling sausages on rolls, pork sandwiches or sliced sausage on paper plates. They sell French fries. Potato pancakes too. Crepes. Pastries. Nuts. Here’s a unique feature: In most cases, each stand sells only one thing. The sausage guy doesn’t sell crepes. The potato pancake folks don’t sell sausages. You can only get a crepe from the girls with the crepe stand. If the market has 100 stands, there’s lots of repetition. You don’t need to seek out one, standing in a long line. This format gets you walking and grazing. You eat outdoors, standing at high top tables or sitting on picnic benches. Everyone is friendly.
- Glühwein is the official beverage. It’s a mulled wine, served piping hot in coffee mugs. It comes in red or white. I think the alcohol is boiled off. This is a major benefit. Lots of people are drinking, but I’ve never seen anyone drunk. You can get shots added as an extra. There must be soft drinks somewhere. I’ve never looked very hard.
- Most are handmade, like etched glassware, soaps, beeswax candles and pottery mugs. They sell festive breads and pastries you might give as a gift. Nuts and dried fruit too. There are usually a few places selling baking supplies. It’s more craft store, less department store. Christmas tree ornaments are popular too.
5 Markets We’ve Seen, Some Favorites
Over two decades, we’ve seen many. We keep going back to the same ones. Here are some favorites.
- A medium sized town outside Frankfurt. It’s our favorite. With about 120 stalls, it’s the Goldilocks story. It’s not too big, not too small. It’s just right.
- It’s laid out along a pedestrian only shopping street. You get the Christmas market experience plus retail therapy. It’s smaller than the big city markets.
- They’ve got that iconic Cathedral that took 400+ years to finish! The main market is around the Cathedral. The train station is right across the street. There are at least five other markets within walking distance. The main market is BIG! We went on a Saturday morning. It was wall to wall people.
- Another huge market. Very festive. Although a market is huge, that doesn’t mean the range of food items is much bigger. You tend to have the same items, just more people selling them.
- Their market is huge! They have a good tram system too. We had a memorable moment one evening, when a light snow was falling. A line of musicians with long horns appeared at the top of a church and started playing Christmas music. It was magical. We also saw a guy who was a walking sausage seller. He had a gas grill hung from his neck by a strap and a gas cylinder on his back. That looked dangerous!
7 Christmas Market Tips
Here are a few ideas that will make the experience better.
- They are less crowded on weekdays. The crowds are heaviest in the evenings. Check the hours. Visit a market at lunchtime. Weekends are always crowded.
- No credit cards. Everything is pocket change or small bills. Get lots of coins. Fives, tens and twenties too.
- Deposit on mugs. Each town has a signature mug. Glühwein runs about 3 Euro per mug. They will charge you more. You will think you’ve been shortchanged. No. There’s a 1 – 3 Euro deposit on the mug. Hand it back and they give you back your deposit. Judging by the quantity of empty mugs sitting on tables, lots of people don’t understand how this works.
- It’s chilly, maybe close to freezing, but we’ve found it’s not that bad. Wind hasn’t been a problem for us. Bundle up. Bring a hat, scarf and gloves.
- Talk to people. Most people in Germany are fluent in English. They are friendly too. They will be thrilled you came a distance to visit their Christmas market.
- Closing time. The Germans are efficient. If the market closes at 9:00 PM, 15 minutes beforehand, security staff start erecting barriers, stands stop selling food and booths start to close up.
- You will be doing a lot of it. Be prepared. All ages frequent the market. People bring strollers. Dogs too.
Visiting the German Christmas markets is a worthwhile experience.
Editor’s Note: The Christmas market cruises book early and quickly, so don’t wait too long. CruiseCompete offers many specials posted by agents that you can choose from here: https://www.cruisecompete.com/specials/holiday/christmas_markets/1