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. Especially if it’s your first visit; always the most magical, but also the time when a few nuggets of knowledge might be of use.
Choose Your Market Destination
There are, literally, hundreds of Christmas Markets in Germany. Depending on your preference, time constraints and budget one market might be a better fit than another. It’s better to seek out a destination based on your preferences, rather than just heading to one of the best-known destinations.
Some markets are more commercial than others. Some have a specific theme, often based on the heritage of the location as in the fairy tale city of Kassel or the historical, rat loving Hameln. Markets in the bigger cities tend to be quite tourist focused, whereas heading to smaller cities and towns like Paderborn, Bielefeld or Soest will find you a more authentic German experience.
If travelling between Christmas and New Year, check market dates. Some German Christmas Markets run beyond the 25th, but many run during Advent and so begin early and end on Christmas Eve.
Dress for Time Outdoors
The atmosphere might be warm and fuzzy, but the weather is likely to be cold. Possibly wet, and if you are very lucky, snowy. Dress for it. You might think I’m stating the obvious but a few years in Germany taught me that we Brits tend not to be that good at dressing for Winter.
Think thick soled, waterproof boots, good socks and thermals if it’s going below zero. A warm and waterproof coat with a couple of thin layers underneath. Then just add hat and gloves and you’re good to go. Outdoors, for as long as you like.
I know some people like to take pictures in pretty, if impractical, outfits but I think it’s better to dress for warmth and be able to enjoy the full Christmas Market experience for as long as you like.
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. All the cosy and comfortable things that you’d need to celebrate Advent and cosy up for 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 almost impossible to buy in the UK now. For me, it’s certain food and bath products and my favourite German wines.
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.
Be Prepared to be Social
There’ll be plenty of places to stop for a drink or a bite to eat. At the grill, at the bar, for a crepe. Seating, you will notice, is set up to be social. From long trestle tables to cosy benches in giant wine barrels, it’s not unusual to share a table. Learn a few words of German, smile and enjoy the experience. Prost!
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 nuisance. Only carry what you need, 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 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 might get to pee for free. An odd note to end a blog post on. But,real life. We’ve all gotta go at some point, best be prepared.
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.