Rekindle Childhood Magic at a German Christmas Market

Plan your visit to a Christkindlmarkt at dusk, when lights begin to twinkle and live music strikes up. |©JUERGEN SACK/iSTOCK

By KK Stuart

No one does Christmas quite like the Germans… probably because they’ve had lots of practice.

Originally, German Christmas markets were secular "December markets," intended only to liven dark winters. But, cleverly, the Catholic church encouraged markets to be held near churches in order to increase attendance.

The association between Christmas masses and December markets solidified in 1434, when the first true Christmas market took place in Dresden’s town center to mark the end of Advent fasting.

The trend caught on in German-speaking Europe, and many markets began calling themselves christkindl ("Christ child") markets.

In fact, most of our Christmas traditions, from lit Christmas trees to advent calendars, originated in Germany (and transferred to the English-speaking world when German Prince Albert married Queen Victoria of England).

The Brothers Grimm—the famous German fairy tale writers—gave us the gingerbread house, thanks to the story of Hansel and Gretel. Northern Germany, known for its craftsmanship, originated ornaments and nutcrackers. Even "Kris Kringle" is a corruption of the German christkindl.

Today, Germany still does Christmas right. From late November until Christmas Eve, big cities (like Dresden, Munich, and Nuremberg) to smaller towns (like Bamberg, Klagenfurt, and Weimer) showcase traditional foods, crafts, and music in medieval town squares.

Twinkle lights and antique stalls decked in holly brighten the early nights while roasted chestnuts, gingerbread, and mulled wine scent the air.

One evening is enough to convert even a Scrooge.

You can take your time sifting through handcrafted goodies, including nutcrackers, hand-painted Christmas ornaments, and Nativity sets. Modern and mass-produced items are strictly prohibited in most markets… There’s even a special police squad that patrols the markets, making sure nothing inauthentic slips through.

And for those not in the "shopping spirit," there’s plenty to keep you busy. Take a spin on some of the country’s largest open-air ice rinks… or sample some typical German fare.

Most food stalls have standing tables to set your plate while you eat. Food stalls offer everything from bratwurst to handbrot (bread stuffed with meat and cheese), which you can finish off with stollen (fruitcake) or my favorite, mutzen (deep-fried pastries dusted in powdered sugar).

Best of all are the drinks. Try glühwein, a hot mulled wine, or eierpunsch, a warm eggnog.

Both are sure to keep you toasty throughout your evening at the market… and one evening is enough to convert even the most cynical of Scrooges.

And nearly every town in Germany hosts a market—there are over 2,000—so traveling the country through the month of December is a must.

Read about my favorites below…

Munich’s Old World Christkindlmarkt

In December, towering trees and Christmas pyramids are added to Germany’s skylines.
In December, towering trees and Christmas pyramids are added to Germany’s skylines.|©iStock/pwmotion

The German state of Bavaria is the king of Christmas: snowcapped mountains, storybook villages, and fairytale castles are the perfect backdrop for some of the biggest and best markets in the world.

So it makes sense that Munich, the capital of Bavaria, is the place to be for Christmas.

There are 16 holiday markets throughout the city, but the main market, found in the marienplatz (town center), is the most jaw-dropping.

Here, the glockenspiel, a gigantic musical clock with lifesized figures towers over the market, and an equally enormous Christmas tree glistens with 2,500 candles.

A few steps away is a kripperlmarkt (market of the holy manger), which offers hand-carved wooden figures.

Ride a Ferris wheel or walk in a fairytale forest…

Further on is Bavaria’s largest Nativity scene. From there, you can skate in one of the world’s largest mobile ice rinks and enjoy a variety of performances, including traditional folk music, brass bands, and choirs.

And if you’re lucky enough to be at the market the Sunday following St. Nicholas’ saint day (Dec. 6), you’ll also witness the traditional Krampus run, where hundreds of masked krampusse (the beast-like devils who accompany St. Nicholas to punish naughty children) stalk the Christmas market… frightening everyone in their path.

Collect Glühwein Mugs in Cologne

North of Bavaria in the Rhine region, you’ll find Cologne, famed for its towering Gothic spires and Kölsch beer.

Like Munich, Cologne has many different markets… rolled into one big festive party.

My favorite is the Kölner Dom, where a towering 80-foot-tall Christmas tree towers over the stalls, which offer food from grilled salmon to sausages to dumplings.

Just around the corner is the Advent Village Market, with a giant wooden Christmas pyramid… that doubles as the market’s bar.

Vendors sell traditional gifts like Christmas smokers (a type of incense holder), nutcrackers, and Russian nesting dolls.

Plus, there’s a playground for the kids that transports them to the fairytale world of the Brothers Grimm.

The best part of visiting the different markets in Cologne: each one has its own glühwein mug for you to collect.

You’ll have to pay €2–3 as a deposit. You can return it for a refund… but I love to collect them as souvenirs.

Sample Local Specialities in Germany’s Second-Oldest Market

Leipzig, located in the German state of Saxony, has hosted its Christmas market since 1458, making it Germany’s second oldest.

Leipzig has the typical food favorites—bratwurst, glühwein, and stollen—but it also offers a few local specialties. Kräppelchen, a deep-fried dough, is similar to a beignet, while the Leipziger waffle is filled with vanilla cream.

As the birthplace of Wagner and home of Bach and Mendelssohn, Leipzig embraces its musical heritage at its annual market by hosting Christmas carolers and classical concertists alike. You can also ride a Ferris wheel or walk through a fairytale forest, filled with light displays and animatronics inspired by the tales of the Brothers Grimm.

Even the town hall is transformed into a giant Advent calendar, revealing a new Christmas surprise daily at 4:30 p.m., ranging from giant sweets to characters from children’s books. On Christmas Eve at 11 a.m., the final door is opened.

See a 40-Foot Christmas Pyramid in the "City Of Towers"

Erfurt, as one of the best-preserved medieval towns in central Germany, wins my vote for the best Gothic backdrop to a Christmas market.

The imposing St. Severus Church and St. Mary’s Cathedral have watched over the town since the 13th century, and Martin Luther, who became a monk here, called it the "city of towers." But a brightly decorated giant tree and Ferris wheel brighten the town square, and the life-sized wooden Nativity scene is nearby.

My favorite part of Erfurt’s market is the 40-foot Christmas pyramid, with each section hosting life-sized wooden figures based on the Nativity or the natural world. Woodwork is a specialty of the nearby Ore mountain range… and it shows.

Every night, there’s live music, which you can listen to while munching on the popular thüringer bratwurst, renowned for its fine mincing and local spices. A surviving recipe from the early 17th century is kept in the Weimar city archives.

When to Visit Germany’s Christmas Markets

Most markets are open all day, but check hours and dates before visiting. The best time to truly experience the market is when the sun goes down, the lights begin to twinkle, and the live music begins.

Don’t forget to come hungry.