If you’ve never experienced European Christmas markets, you have missed out on some of the most fun and festive places to visit during the holiday season. Here are six German cities that should be on your must see wish list to make your Christmas dreams come true.
I have visited many other Christmas markets in both Germany and Switzerland but this was my first trip to these cities’ markets, which included Frankfurt, Koblenz, Trier, Heidelberg, Rüedesheim, and Wiesbaden. Typically, the markets are set up about three weeks prior to Christmas in one or more locations around town. They go all out with colorfully lit, festive wooden huts selling everything from locally made handicrafts and decorations, and, oh my gosh, the food! Bratwurst on crispy rolls with spicy mustard, potato pancakes with applesauce, flavored candied almonds and…well, you get the idea. So, let the celebration begin!
I started my trip in the town of Koblenz, a short train ride from the Frankfurt Airport. Situated at the confluence of the Rhine and Mosell Rivers, this city has a history dating back 2000 years starting from when it was a Roman settlement. This is vividly captured in a sculpture located within a fountain in the center of the Görresplatz. The 10 meter pillar depicts the history of Koblenz starting with the Romans (bottom of the sculpture) and moving up through the Crusades, the French Revolution, the Second World War, and up to present day.
The Christmas market, located in the old quarter, had 130 wooden huts and extended from the Church of Our Lady to various other squares. Dusk is one of the best times to visit these markets. The sky turns cobalt blue and all the lights come on in the booths illuminating merchants and customers in a warm glow.
These markets are not just for visitors, as friends and family use them to meet up and enjoy each other’s company over a hot cup of Glühwein. Probably known better as mulled wine here in the U.S., Glühwein is usually red wine mixed with various spices and served hot. This was just the thing to warm me up during a crisp winter’s eve and a good starting point for exploring the markets.
f you are visiting at any other time of the year, there are walking and bus tours, boat trips down the Rhine and Mosell and a number of interesting attractions in and around the city. Not to bemissed would be the cable car ride to the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress that overlooks the town and the Kauf-und Danzhaus (now an art museum). The exterior clock of the latter has a face of the Eye Roller, which commemorates the robber baron Johann von Kobern. At certain times of the hour, he also sticks out a red tongue.
One nice thing about Germany is that trains are always close and efficient. My next stop via rail was to Germany’s oldest city, the town of Trier. Once the Roman imperial residence, Trier is located on the Mosell River and close to the Luxembourg border.
My hotel was located directly across from the impressive Porta Nigra (Black Gate). Constructed by the Romans as the city gate, it is the largest such gate north of the Alps and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Fortunately, for me, most of the shopping areas and beautifully adorned Christmas market were located just beyond the gate’s entrance. The medieval backdrop of the Hauptmarket Square was one of the more beautiful I have ever seen. There were 95 decorated huts, each serving up food and crafts as well as a glimpse into Germany’s rich heritage. Here, I tried some freshly made, steaming hot pomms (French fries). Walking around with a camera on one arm and a cone-shaped bag brimming with fries and ketchup does take some practice, but then, I am a professional.
You never know what you might find at these booths. At Trier, I saw beeswax candles and soaps, cozy tiny houses lit from the inside, Christmas ornaments, toys, and all manner of beer, wine, and what I call snackage.
During the day, take time to explore the Imperial Throne Room built by Constantine in 310 AD and the oldest bishop’s church (Dom St. Peter) north of the Alps. Then, take a tour of the well preserved Roman baths from the 4th century. These were ingeniously constructed with underground service tunnels and even a boiler to provide hot running water.
Located due south of Frankfurt, Heidelberg was the next stop on my yuletide route. Old and modern might be a good way to describe this city and they are both integrated into the town’s infrastructure. Pedestrian paths with cobblestone streets line the main shopping areas with church steeples and a towering city gate still majestically guarding the entrance to the town.
The 12th century Heidelberg Castle is perched on a hill above the city and is a great place to get a bird’s eye view of the entire town. The castle was destroyed in earlier days but the ruins are well preserved and colorfully lit for the holidays. After a short funicular ride, you can stroll the grounds and view the world’s largest wine cask, which was apparently enough to keep 5,000 guests and castle dwellers in, shall we say, good spirits.
The large Christmas market here spreads out over several squares. Assuming you still have room in your suitcase, you will have a huge assortment of items to purchase, both from the individual stalls as well as from retailers lining the streets. I found an ample supply of lebkuchen, a traditional Christmas treat that resembles gingerbread, in one of the shops and worked it into the folds of my carry on.
Heidelberg is also a romantic city. Tucked away on one of the side streets at Haspelgasse 16 is a tiny shop called the Café Knösel. Still in operation after generations, they sell a wonderful chocolaty, cookie item called a Student Kiss. Students would purchase these for the objects of their affection back in the day with hope for future romance. Today, this shop does a huge business so, of course, I had to find a bit more room in the luggage.
Other sights that should be on your must-see list while here include the Old Bridge spanning the Neckar River built by Prince-Elector Carol Theodor in the late 1700s as well as the Student Prison. Yes, you heard right. Any minor infraction would land students of Ruprecht-Karls University in what amounts to a modified detention for a few days—at their convenience, of course. Today, you can tour the jail and view the artwork created by the guests that adorn the walls and ceilings.
Another quick rail trip took me back to Frankfurt, a bustling metropolis and an important financial center of Europe. It is also a pedestrian friendly city with much of the downtown area fully accessible on foot.
The city is truly remarkable in terms of its diversity and a blending of old and modern architecture. You can do some serious shopping at the sprawling MyZeil shopping mall and walk to the top deck where you can get a commanding view of the city skyline. This is most vibrant at dusk when all the colored lights of the skyscrapers come to life and provide a perfect photo op.
In addition to the shopping opportunities, there are numerous restaurants and pubs serving traditional German fare as well as a local favorite beverage—apple wine. This is a fermented apple beverage and something you should try. If, like me, you are used to something a bit sweeter, you can have them add some flavored soda. (Fanta® seemed to be the preferred choice.)
Of course, my main interest was to see one of the oldest (1393) and largest Christmas markets in the country. With more than 200 stalls, this one is the granddaddy of them all. Although it was a bit crowded, that just seemed to add to the festive atmosphere and I never had any trouble sidling up to the counters to buy something to eat or take back home. One booth offered 75 flavors of candied almonds while another had humongous chocolate-covered pretzels. If you go home hungry from here, it’s your own fault.
From a large city to a small town, Rüedesheim is as cozy, charming and picturesque as any town you are likely to find in Germany. Located in the Upper Middle Rhine Valley, the area is known for its wine growing and vineyards. But, as with most places I visited, there is much more to see and do here. You can explore nature by walking along many excellent and scenic hiking trails that overlook the Rhine, visit ancient castles and sample some of the finest Riesling and pinot noir wines in the region.
The town’s meandering lanes look like something out of a fairy tale with half-timbered houses, hidden courtyards and small hotels and eateries. Here, you can make arrangements to actually sleep in a large wine barrel (cozy but more spacious than you might think)!
Of course, sightseeing always makes me hungry so planning my next meal is always high on my priority list. At Bruer’s Rüdesheimer Schloss, owner Susanne Breuer makes every guest to her hotel/restaurant feel like one of her family. She insists on only providing the best in fresh, local ingredients for her meals. I had a delightful lunch of seasonal lamb here that was tender and delicious. Make sure you also try the Rüedesheim coffee, a local specialty that you won’t want to miss—even if you aren’t a coffee drinker!
The Christmas Markets of the Nations are placed in the old quarter of the town and feature 120 stalls from the traditions of 12 countries. Here, you will find jam made of cloudberries from Drosselgasse, a Mongolian yurt tent and Europe’s largest Nativity scene.
Wiesbaden was the last stop on my whirlwind Christmas tour. Known for its spas, it is one of the oldest spa towns in Europe. With 26 hot springs originally used by the Romans, it is still a sought after destination for its health resorts, parks and gardens, musical concerts, wine festivals, and Twinkling Star Christmas Market.
The old quarter of the town was designed in the shape of a pentagon. The oldest building located there is the Old Town Hall, constructed between 1608-1610. On the northern side of the square is the palace of the dukes of Nassau, once used as the residence of Kaiser Wilhelm II. A stroll through here is a stroll back in time.
Trendy shops and cafes line the streets adjacent to the main square, and you will want to make sure you bring your camera to capture the grandeur. One of the pictures you will want is the Market Church clock that towers 98 meters above the town and chimes out the time every quarter hour. Guided tours are held all year round.
Another curiosity is located on Kaiser Frederick Square which boasts what they call the world’s largest cuckoo clock. The façade is indeed a cuckoo clock and the story goes that the owner wanted more business after the war so in 1946, he constructed the façade to bring in American GI’s who had plenty of dough to spend.
The Sternschnuppenmarket (twinkling lights market) is set in Schlossplatz Square against the old and new city halls. Even the lights are shaped like the city’s coat of arms as the residents are clearly proud of their city and its rich history. Hand blown glass, items made from olive wood and sweet temptations are offered by friendly local merchants, many of whom speak English.
While the holidays and Christmas markets are some of the best times to visit Germany, this certainly shouldn’t keep you from coming at any time of the year. There are tours and special offerings during the spring and summer months, including cruises down the river, cycling, museum visits, and a host of other activities.
If you do decide to visit the Christmas markets, the time to start booking your visit is now as hotel space becomes more limited during this season. From Frankfurt Airport, there are trains, rental cars and taxis that will take you to magical places that you may have thought only existed in fairy tales.
Where to stay:
Ghotel Hotel & Living (www.ghotel.com) Modern, sleek and efficient.
Mercure Trier-Porta Nigra (www.accorhotels.com) Modern and right across from the Black Gate.
Hip-Hotel (www.hip-hotel.de/en/) Amazing theme hotel. Down Under room has furniture on ceiling.
Crown Plaza Hotel (www.crownplaza.com) Centrally located near main squares.
For other hotels and more information about Germany, check out www.cometogermany.com and
FTC Disclosure: All of the hotels, meals, attractions, and product review were sponsored by the German National Tourist Office, their partners and the Select Comfort Company. No money changed hands in any of these venues or offerings nor were the businesses promised any sort of positive review.