Germany does lots of things well… beers, bakeries and outdoor swimming pools, for example. But the thing I think it does best is Christmas. Well, the Germans did pretty much invent Christmas as we know it, didn’t they? The German Christmas markets, or Weihnachtsmarkt, are a fixture of the German festive season. The place where everything feels warm and fuzzy, no matter how cold the weather actually is. If you are planning to visit a German Christmas market in the next few weeks , I hope this post will help you get the most out of the experience.
Count in COVID
There’s no getting round this, so let’s just get it out the way. Covid has led to the cancellation of the seasonal markets in some parts of Germany for the 2021/22 season. Brandenburg and Bavaria, for example, have cancelled altogether. In other areas, such as Berlin and Aachen, markets will go ahead under a 2G rule. In Hamburg, flexible rules are allowing market organisers to set the conditions of entry, which can mean 2G rules or a divided market with separate rules for different areas.
All of that to say, check the specific rules for the market you wish to visit ahead of time. Don’t be disheartened. The rules and lack of spontaneity might dampen the spirits a bit but it’ll be worth it to wander the wooden huts under twinkling lights with the scent of mulled wine and caramelised nuts in the air.
Do Some Research.
There are, literally, hundreds of Christmas Markets in Germany. Some are more commercialised than others. Some are spread over multiple sights across the city as in Hannover. Some have a specific theme, often based on the history of the location as in the fairy tale city of Kassel or the historical, rat loving Hameln . Depending on your preference, time constraints and budget one market might be a better fit than another.
If travelling between Christmas and New Year, double check market dates. Some German Christmas Markets run beyond the 25th , but many are a celebration of Advent and so begin early and end on Christmas Eve.
Look For ( and in) the Dom.
Christmas Markets are steeped in history and tradition, and that is a big part of the attraction and charm. Historically, the markets would spring up around the cathedral or church square and this still holds. As a general rule, to find the hub of the market, find the Dom. And when you find it, take a look inside. Whatever your religious or spiritual leanings, these buildings are things of beauty and full of ornate decorations and interesting touches, like this Pied Piper stained glass window in Hameln.
Browse The Stalls, But Spend Wisely.
Markets can vary in quality when it comes to shopping. You will find some beautiful pieces to take home, but a lot of over priced tat also. The best buys tend to be traditional or locally produced goods like Printern from Aachen. Also all the cosy and comfortable things that you’d need to celebrate Advent and cosy up for a harsh winter. Think traditionally crafted Christmas decorations, animal hide and wool products, candles, honey and bees-wax based goods.
Post Brexit, it’s also a good time to pick up any local brands or regionally protected products that are either expensive to import or nigh on impossible to get to the UK now. For me, it’s certain food and bath products. I’m not starting on about Brexit though!
If you want to shop for authentic German Christmas decor, sweets or souvenirs without the Christmas Market price tag, look to the local German shops. Stores like Kodi, Kik, Rossmans and Ernsting Family can be found in most towns and cities. These are also the places to go if you need, say, an umbrella or a pair of gloves. Just a little FYI.
To avoid making questionable buying decisions, do your shopping before you…
Get Your Gluhwein.
Or the non alcoholic version, Kinderpunsch. Or hot chocolate. But whatever you get, you’ll get it in a charming Christmas Markets mug. You almost always pay a deposit or pfand on these so don’t dump it when your done. Either take the mug back and get the refund, or take it home as a reasonably priced keep sake.
Lots of German Christmas Markets have animals of some description, be it a few donkeys in a pen or a full on live nativity scene . It’s a bit of a novelty and a nice diversion, particularly if you are travelling with children. If you are visiting Germany with little people, read my post 10 Things to do with Kids in Germany.
Not everyone is there for Christmas Spirit.
Sad but true , especially in the bigger and busier places. Markets mean crowds and distracted shoppers and this attracts the opportunist criminal. Pick pockets in particular can be a bit of a nuisance. Stay aware, take a bag that fastens securely, don’t leave your phone on the table. Don’t be put off, but do take sensible precautions. Should you have an issue the German police are generally helpful and will generally speak good English.
Spending a penny, costs a penny.
On a practical note, don’t be caught short. Most markets will have portaloo style toilets generally kept in good order. This is because they have a toilet attendant. However, the service doesn’t come for free and you can expect to pay 50c or so for using the loo. Public toilets will be much the same, and nicer cafes and restaurants will likely also charge. Bakeries and fast food places, you are more likely to pee for free. An odd note to end a blog post on. But, hey, real life! We’ve all gotta go at some point, best be prepared. Especially in Covid times, who routinely still has small change cash?
Finishing up with a trio of cheerful images from various German Christmas Market trips, because I ended the post talking about toilets, and nobody needs a visual on that.
Let me know what you are doing to get in the festive mood this year, have you been to any Christmas markets? Let’s chat in the comments.