Most people think of Germany as a summer destination, but this country really comes alive around the winter holidays and the center of activity are the traditional German Christmas markets.
The season for these special markets starts four Sundays before Christmas, which is celebrated on Dec 24th. Some are open every day (though usually not before lunchtime), others happen on specific days or weekends only.
Christmas in Germany is not about Santa Claus and elves, instead it follows the biblical traditions and also the tradition of St. Nicholas (a 4th century Bishop from former Greece who was known for giving away anonymous gifts, especially to the needy). In fact one will often see St. Nicholas (well, an actor playing the role) wandering through the Christmas markets, offering his blessing to passersby and presents to the kids.
The main attractions at most of these markets are handmade traditional crafts, and local seasonal foods like Bratapfel (baked apple with delicious nut and marzipan filling), roasted Maronen (chestnuts), sizzled Bratwurst and Brötchen (sausage in a freshly baked bread), locally made cheese, and Lebkuchen (gingerbread).
Of course you need some kind of drink with all this delicious food, so the Germans came up with something heavenly called Glühwein (hot mulled wine). And if you want to go one step further (and only when you are not supposed to drive a car anymore), try the devilish Feuerzangenbowle. It’s pretty much high-octane Glühwein. Above the pot where the drink is heated, usually on a little metal bar, you have a sugar cone soaked with really strong rum that they light on fire so it caramelizes and drips down. Take it slow, as it really has a kick!
There is no limit to the number of Christmas markets that one can find across this country. Each is different to the others, so it’s hard to describe them in general. Instead, I’ll give you a little taste of some of my favorites
The Christmas market at the Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin
In the center of Germany’s capital, you find the probably prettiest market in town. In the square in front of the Konzerthaus, in between Französischer and Deutscher Dom, this market is a true delight on a freezing cold Berlin night. Plenty of delicious food stalls will make your taste buds happy, but don’t overlook the large tent that hosts local crafts (and warms you up again). There is so much unique and beautiful to discover, that you will for sure find some Christmas presents for your loved ones.
The Christmas market at the Marienplatz in Munich
The setting of this famous German Christmas market, in front of the beautiful Rathaus, is crowned by one of the biggest decorated fir tree in Germany. The market itself is pretty touristy, and you’ll find a lot of common souvenirs. But like the other Christmas markets, there’s great food and beverages. And as it’s easy to find, so it’s a great meeting place.
The “Artist” Christmas market at the Münchner Freiheit in Munich
Schwabing, the “in” quarter of Munich, hosts the artiest market in Bavaria’s capital. The sheer abundance of handmade crafts will stun you, and make you wish you hadn’t bought all your presents yet. You won’t find any cheesy snow globes here, only high-quality hand made wood, metal, wax, fabric, and whatever creations.
The Medieval Christmas Market at the Wittelsbacher Platz in Munich
This market is really unique. People wearing medieval dresses roast delicious traditional German food over an open fire, and serve Feuerzangenbowle in knight-styled earthenware cups. Just a short walk from Marienplatz, this is where locals like to celebrate the holiday.
The “Romantic” Christmas market in Regensburg
Located in the inner courtyard of the Thurn und Taxis palace, you’ll find many small wooden huts where traditional craftsmen sell their goods. You can watch them practicing the age-old arts of candle making, hat making, manger carving, etc. A cozy locale within a stunning historic site, Regensburg’s Christmas market is worth checking out.
The Christmas market in the monastery of Benediktbeuern
Only held on one weekend during the holiday season, the monastery of Benediktbeuern’s Christmas market is wonderfully traditional and attracts crowds from all over Germany. They have a live manger (people and animals play the biblical story of Mary and Jesus and the birth of Christ Child), and plenty of huts with traditional craft to admire and buy.
The “Waldadvent” Christmas market in Bad Feilnbach
Nestled in a small village called Bad Feilnbach near the Austrian border, this is one of the prettiest markets I’ve ever seen. This forest market, crisscrossed by two small rivers, will enchant you with it’s countless open fires that light the festivities and keep you warm (along with the Glühwein). Traditional Bavarian Christmas music played by a live brass band echoes through this enchanted woodland making you wonder why some people waste their Christmas holidays on a beach.
In some parts of the world, especially the United States, Christmas has become a commercial holiday and lost many of its precious traditions. To get back to basics and remember what this holiday is really about, seriously consider spending Christmas in Germany. This wonderful country is definitely more than just a summer destination.
On that note, while you’re here, make sure you take a few rides on one of Germany’s famous sledding runs. These are not little kiddie hills I’m talking about. In fact you might need a couple glasses of Schnaps just to get up the courage.