Before we lived in Germany, I didn’t even know Christmas Markets were “a thing” but I soon found out that they are on many people’s bucket lists — and for good reason. While Germans (& perhaps most Europeans) don’t decorate their houses and streets the way American’s do — you won’t find someone in the news for their neighbors fighting them about their house being so decorated it causes traffic concerns — that doesn’t mean they are humbug about the season. Instead, they use the holiday season as a way to concentrate all of the Holiday fervor in the city centers — which is brilliant since it requires far less individual effort and all the money not spent on house lights can instead be spent on gluhwein and hot chocolate!
Christmas Markets are like entering a Hallmark Christmas movie… beautiful, satisfying, and exactly what you expect them to be. While there are slight variations from market to market, you can always count on beautiful decorations, delicious food, mulled wine, and little shops for decorations, stocking stuffers, and more.
There are SO many Christmas markets to choose from that it can be overwhelming and if you pick one you aren’t “WOW’d” by, you can feel a pang of regret/FOMO (fear of missing out…on a better market). To help you avoid that, here are my tips for curating the perfect list of must-see markets for you!
1. Plan to go to more than one market
Markets open up on different weekends starting around 20 November with most of them open by 1 December (and stay open through New Years) so checking out the dates is key when planning the order of your markets. You really want to prioritize your favorites and weekends along with what else you have going on. One market is simply not enough. For one, like I said, they are all slightly different, but beyond that, if you know you will head to other ones you wont feel as pressured to see every single stand and stay out in the cold just to get your trips worth. 2-3 hours is about all I have ever spent at a market. Which brings me to my next point.
2. Pick a city where there are other things to do, or do along the way
Christmas markets CAN be a destination in themselves but when you are driving longer distances, I think it is best to try and add details to your day beforehand. The markets are best at night and any time after 4 is when it starts getting dark enough to appreciate the lights so you actually have a whole day to take in all of the other sights! When we went to the Nuremberg market (constantly mentioned as one of the best), we headed to several WW2 museums and monuments during the day to take in the history of the famous city first. When we headed to one in France, we used it as an opportunity to head to our favorite French grocery store that is an hour away. Most cities with large markets will have things to see and do during the day like churches and museum so it is worth checking on Trip Advisor first to try and lay out a plan
3. Pick one of the largest markets for the middle
The first ever market we went to (Koblenz) was a bit of a let down for us. It was beautiful but it felt a bit like any other festival. Experiencing the smaller one first made me appreciate the larger city-center ones we have been to since even more. If we had started with a massive market, my perspective would have been skewed on all of them. If you do some smaller ones and build up to a large one, you will really be able to appreciate the differences, and then you will be able to go back to some smaller, less crowded ones after and still feel satisfied
4. Pick markets in different countries
We have been to markets in Germany, France, Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic, and Scotland, and while they are all similar in the intent, they are different in the shops they have, food they serve, and activities they have. Most German festivals have small carnival rides like carousels and bumper cars but the ones we have been to in Austria and Scotland had full on carnival rides like ferris wheels, massive spinning towers, and “towe of terror” type thrill rides. The food in France was SO different (& far superior) from the food in Germany — they had oysters, foix gras sandwiches, escargot & champagne in addition to the expected brats & fries. In Scotland, they more additions to the gluhwein & hot cocoa than you would think to create. The small gifts and teas we found in Prague I have never seen at any other markets. I think it is definitely best to check out the markets in other countries so you can see something a little different and check off a trip to another country at the same time!
5. Do your research & take advice
There are tons of articles on “the top European Christmas Markets” or best ones in Germany, etc. Read them! Most of them will say the same thing – Nurenburg, Berlin, Paris, Vienna…and they are not wrong. These major cities host major markets and they are fabulous. But keep reading smaller news sources and blogs (like this one!) and you’ll find info about other gems to hit, or ones that aren’t worth the hype. Sankt Wendel (St Wendel) isn’t a place most have heard of but it is only open for 10 days each year and always steals a top spot in peoples favorites. Rothenberg is a must-see for Christmas fanatics — the town looks like a Christmas village most of the year so when it is actually Christmas you feel like you may as well be in Who-Ville! Thanks to Facebook and local articles, I have found out about several markets that I would have never known about if I stuck to the mainstream pieces. (Keep reading for my top markets!)
Extra facts & tips for your visits
– Check out the mugs. One of my favorite things about the markets are the unique gluhwein mugs they have for each market each year. They come in all sorts of shapes and designs and often say the city and year to commemorate the time. You can return them when you are done drinking and get your $2 back (a “pfand” or deposit) or you can keep them and use them for gluhwein at home or even for cute gifts!
– Dress warm and bring hand warmers. No matter how you cut it, it will be cold. You never know when it could start raining or snowing this time of year either so it is best to be prepared! Gluhwein keeps you warm from the inside-out but those extra layers don’t hurt either.
– Bring cash. Most vendors don’t take card and it can be a pain to find an ATM so I would recommend keeping 100-150 euro on you for buying food, drinks, and any gifts you may want.
– Leave pets at home. I have seen so many people who end up carrying their small pets because the streets get so crowded. With bigger dogs you have no choice but they can easily get scared or scare people around them so it is best (& less stressful) to just leave them at home.
The Markets I have seen (in order of preference)
Nuremberg – Overwhelming crowds but worth the hype because it is something you won’t see anywhere else. Be sure to go to the top of the church to really take it all in
Prague – I love the Old City Market Square, which is where this one is. It is small but beautiful
Metz – Not much shopping but there was amazing food, ice skating, and ice scultpures!
Bernkastel-Keus – This is more like a city well decorated with small vendors scattered about. Plan to do dinner in a restaurant and then wander and take it in
Edinburgh – Lots of good energy and a range of food from Germany, Belgium, and France. They “import” the idea and booths but they do it well!
Mainz – Just a few minutes from Frankfurt but they had beautiful decorations and lights and wine barrels to sit in and eat
Colmar – This is one of the towns used for inspiration for Beauty and the Beast but it is actually better to see in daylight because the market actually blocks some of the beauty
Frankfurt – Frankfurt was huge but the decor didn’t blow me away. They did have gluten free things for me though which gets them higher on the list!
Kaiserslautern – A local one that always has awesome mugs! (Don’t put it on your list though unless you live nearby)
Vienna – This was massive and beautiful. We caught it before New Years but I could tell it was a great one
Koblenz – The city has several “markets” spread all over, but each one seemed just like the others so I wasn’t blown away
Budapest – The one we caught here was mostly vendors lining streets, so nothing too special or different to make it stand out. I may have missed the big market, not sure
Markets I have not been to (yet) but are on my list as must-sees
Rothenburg ab Tauber – Everything you want in Christmas…they even have massive Christmas stores and a Christmas museum!
Cologne – Large cities have really impressive markets and this is one of the top ones
Sankt Wendel – This is a medieval town and less crowded than some but everyone says it is one of their favorites. Its only open for 10 days each year though!
Have you been to Christmas markets? Which ones are your favorites?
Happy Holidays and Happy Christmas Market hopping!