The Magic of Christmas Markets in Germany
Each winter, plazas and town squares across Germany transform into magical Christmas markets brimming with holiday spirit. These traditional outdoor markets have been a beloved part of German Christmas traditions for centuries.
From late November until just before Christmas, over 3,000 Christmas markets open in towns and cities across Germany. Locals and tourists alike bundle up in hats, scarves and warm coats, braving the cold weather for the chance to soak up the sights, sounds, scents and tastes of the season at these festive outdoor fairs.
The History and Origins of Christmas Markets in Germany
The first "December Market" was mentioned in Munich in 1310. They began as open-air markets in town squares where people stocked up on supplies for winter. Vendors sold food, warm drinks, weapons and tools primarily.
Over time, they evolved to include more artisans and craftspeople selling decorative items, toys and gifts. The festively decorated stalls lining town squares harkened early holiday shopping traditions. Centuries ago, decorations were prohibited in churches during advent as a solemn period of waiting and preparation for Christmas. But Christmas markets allowed people to enjoy a festive atmosphere outside the church.
During the late Middle Ages, many towns hosted weekly markets. Special annual Christmas markets sprouted up around the Advent and Christmas seasons as well. The December markets offered early Christmas gifts, decorations, foods and drinks to get people into the holiday spirit. As they grew in popularity, Christmas markets became crucial events for merchants and townsfolk alike.
Common Features of Classic German Christmas Markets
Whimsical wooden stalls are at the heart of every Christmas market, with skilled artisans and vendors selling unique handmade gifts, regional delicacies and holiday decorations. Here are some classic features you can find:
Festive decorations like sparkling lights, evergreen garlands and wreaths above the stalls set a magical winter ambiance. Figurines and Christmas pyramids with a candle flame spinning tiers of carved wooden angels and winter scenes are common decor elements.
Sweet treats and savory foods like roasted nuts, gingerbread cookies, stollen fruit cake, potato pancakes and charcoal-grilled bratwurst sizzle on grills. The smells will make your mouth water! Hot mulled wine keeps visitors warm while they shop and mingle.
Artisans sell handcrafted wooden toys and ornaments like nutcrackers, incense burners called "Räuchermännchen" carved from the Ore Mountains, pyramids, smoking men, angels, Christmas tree baubles and intricately decorated candle arches. Local choirs, brass bands and musicians spread holiday cheer with free performances of classic carols in the background, adding to the soundtrack of Christmas markets.
The Best Christmas Markets in Germany
With so many excellent Christmas markets across Germany, here is just a sampling from the biggest to quaintest. Each has its own unique atmosphere and claim to fame that make them special places to visit each holiday season.
Nuremberg's “little town from wood and cloth” as it was called when it started in the 1600s is one of the oldest, largest and most famous Christmas markets in the world. Over 2 million visitors come to the main market in Nuremberg's Hauptmarkt central square and the Kinderweihnachtsmarkt children's market at Hans-Sachs-Platz square. A 53-foot high Christmas tree overlooks 180 lavishly decorated wood stalls with traditional handcrafted gifts, toys, blown glass ornaments and savory Franconian bratwurst. At 5:30 PM each day, a golden-winged “Christkind” angel welcomes the excited crowds and narrates the prologue on the balcony of the Church of Our Lady before officially opening the market. There are many special moments to savor in Nuremberg!
Dresden's 586th annual “Stollen Market” claims to be Germany's oldest continually running Christmas fair. Since 1434, its Altmarkt market square fills with festivities centered around Stollen cakes and handcrafted wooden decorations. As the self-proclaimed “city of lights”, Dresden illuminates a 45-foot high “Christmas Pyramid” made with over 3000 lights...and that's just the central piece! Enjoy walking along craft stalls between glittering star-shaped lanterns and festive lights as you take in a cup of Glühwein or rum-flavored Eierpunsch warm drinks.
Cologne Cathedral Christmas Market
Köln Cathedral’s Gothic architecture looming above the twinkling stalls creates a magical backdrop. As one of Germany's largest Christmas markets, seven different themed markets with over 300 stalls surround Cologne Cathedral and museum quarter as well as the iconic Rhine river shore. Traditional wooden bumper cars and a large Ferris wheel entertain kids alongside craft workshops, a puppet theater stage and a real-life Nativity scene.
Heidelberg Christmas Market
Enchanting Heidelberg Castle likewise makes a fairy tale setting for this Christmas market held in the courtyard and along the banks of the Neckar River below. Heidelberg emphasizes craftsmanship with quality over quantity of goods. Unique creations include glass bells, painting glitter balls and engraved candles. Tour the romantic city center nestled by the castle or hit the nearby slopes before warming up by a bonfire with a mug of the market's special vanilla-flavored hot mead.
Rothenburg Christmas Market
Step through Rothenberg’s famous medieval walls to experience another of Germany’s best Christmas markets. Reaching over 1,000 years old, the walled city of Rothenburg looks nearly identical to how it appeared in its Renaissance heyday. Nestled between snow-covered half-timbered houses and Gothic buildings, nearly 200 fir-covered stalls sell traditional Franconian goodies and handmade crafts: intricate wood carvings, hand-blown glass, woven straw tree ornaments and carved wooden smokers are local specialties. Be sure to indulge in hot spiced plum cake washed down with a mug of Rothenburg's trademark Schneeball schnapps made with flakes of edible gold!
Beyond these German Christmas market highlights, excellent markets of all sizes exist from the Black Forest to the Baltic Sea. Exploring Germany's Christmas markets ranks as a magical bucket list trip that gets a thumbs up year after year, even after locals have gone hundreds of times over their lifetime! The singular atmosphere keeps people coming back for more.
When Do Christmas Markets Open in Germany?
Most German Christmas markets open around the first week of Advent and run until December 23rd–24th. A few extend until early January, and the rigorous can even find a couple operating as early as late October nowadays! Here are the typical opening times for German Christmas markets: November 21 – Mid December: Small number of markets opening earliest to launch the season Late November - Advent Weekends: The majority of Christmas markets kick off the weekend before or after the 1st Advent Sunday (four Sundays until Christmas) December 1 – 23: Continually open and at peak activity first 3 weeks of December December 24: Markets usually close Christmas Eve or early afternoon on the 23rd. Only a couple extend later. Late November – Early January: Limited number extend into the New Year Visiting mid-week generally has smaller crowds than the bustling weekends. Early December is a wonderful time as a nice balance before the final crunch near Christmas when markets overflow with last-minute shoppers finishing holiday gift lists!
What to See, Do and Eat at German Christmas Markets
Beyond strolling the stalls hunting for Christmas gifts and cheer, there are lots of activities to enjoy: Sample regional delicacies like gingerbread, stollen, roasted nuts, potato pancakes, candy apples and German sausages Sip steaming mugs of spiced Glühwein mulled wine, Eierpunsch egg-flavored punch or hot chocolate and liquors Warm up around standing fire pits at Baumstammdorf towns made of “tree trunks” Browse artisans and watch skilled demonstrations at glass blowing, woodcarving and candlemaking workshops Spin on old-fashioned carousels, whirling teacup rides and Ferris wheels Skate on outdoor ice rinks at larger markets Enjoy free musical entertainment and live performances Hunt for handcrafted toys, collectibles, decorations and ornaments
Insider Tips for Enjoying Christmas Markets
Beyond being a winter wonderland for holiday shopping, Christmas markets let you experience the season like a local. Here are helpful insider tips: Weekday evenings tend to be less crowded than weekends if you want a calmer experience Arrive early once darkness falls to beat the masses admiring the lights Most markets have covered seating areas to warm up with food and drinks Locals bundle up well with layers, gloves, scarves, hats and heat packs in their pockets and shoes! Validate your parking tickets before returning to your cars to get a reduced flat fee Explore smaller towns' markets beyond the famous big city ones to find local traditions Go at least once in the afternoon and again at night to see the transformation with Christmas lights Confirm opening days/hours in advance as some close certain weekdays Many vendors only accept cash – hit the ATMs beforehand!
Where to Stay for the Christmas Markets
For the full holiday ambiance, book accommodations in town centers near the Christmas markets. Here are some options: Chain hotels like Hampton Inn often have locations downtown or near train stations for easy access Half-timbered guesthouses, quaint B&Bs and historic hotels capture the regional flair Vacation rentals like Airbnbs and HomeAway rent private apartments ideal for groups Riverboat cruises along the Rhine have Christmas market stops built into seasonal itineraries Book early – popular towns fill up fast for the Christmas market season!
German Christmas Traditions and Culture
Beyond shopping the markets, get into the local culture by experiencing these German yuletide traditions: Decorate gingerbread houses then eat them! This creative tradition started in Germany. Drive out to cut down your family Christmas tree at local Christmas tree farms.
Attend Christmas church services like Advent music concerts or Midnight Catholic/Protestant mass on Christmas Eve. Sing along with German versions of classic carols like "Stille Nacht" ("Silent Night"), "O Tannenbaum" ("O Christmas Tree") and "Kling, Glöckchen, Kling" (“Ring, Little Bells, Ring”).
Write wish lists to German Santa Claus, called “Weihnachtsmann” (means Christmas Man), “Nikolaus” (St. Nicholas) or “Christkind” (Christ Child).
Open presents Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day like many German families. Try goose, duck, venison or boar roasts for Christmas dinner instead of turkey or ham. Experience a German Christmas concert with musicians in historic costumes. Taste regional Christstollen cakes, spiced cookies, roasted nuts, mulled wines and schnapps! Whether you are dreaming of an old-fashioned German Dickensian Christmas or a lively party fueled by Glühwein and holiday music, visiting a Christmas market should top any bucket list for winter travel dreams! Bundle up tight and get ready to embrace the magic of the season with German culture and Christmas spirit in its element – right inside the festive wooden huts that bring Christmas markets to life each holiday season across Germany.
Frequently Asked Questions About Christmas Markets in Germany
Get ready to plan your own magical visit to Germany's famous Christmas markets with the help of answers to these common questions:
When do Christmas markets open and close? Most markets open in the last week of November and run through December 23. Some extend a couple days into January too. Market days and hours can vary weekly, so check city tourism sites before you go.
Are meals expensive at Christmas markets? You can find food stalls to match any budget at Germany's Christmas markets. Small snacks like roasted nuts, sweets and gingerbread run just a few euros. Hearty bratwurst meals average 5 to 10 euros. Sit down restaurants nearby offer multicourse meals too but cost more. Brewery tents also have reasonably priced German fare.
Where are the best Christmas markets in Germany? Top picks are Nuremberg, Dresden, Cologne, Stuttgart, Munich, Heidelberg, Hamburg, Berlin and Rothenburg's medieval setting, though excellent markets exist in smaller towns too!
Is it cold at the outdoor markets? Do you need winter coats? German weather turns quite cold come December. Nighttime lows average around freezing but can reach into the 20s Fahrenheit (-6 to -4 Celsius). Pack a warm winter coat, scarf, hat, gloves and comfortable shoes. Multiple lighter layers work well too with all of the walking.
What should you buy at a German Christmas market? Traditional finds are wooden toys and decorations, handmade ornaments like glass bells, nutcrackers, Smoker Men incense burners, pyramids, music boxes and candle arches along with stollen cakes, chocolate, sausages and regional drinks.
Is it worth going to a German Christmas market alone? Absolutely! Wandering solo lets you set your own pace to grab food from stalls as you wish, chat with vendors and take everything in without compromising on what interests you most. It’s very safe and you’ll end up mingling with others there.
How much spending money do you need for Christmas markets? Many vendors only take cash, so having 50-100 Euro per person per day ensures you can buy food or souvenirs easily without needing ATMs everywhere. If planning larger purchases too, add funds accordingly.
Do you need accommodations in advance? When should you book? Yes, popular towns sell out months in advance! Reserve hotel rooms, vacation rentals and B&Bs for prime locations near the best German markets by August or September.
What are the best Christmas markets for families? Nuremberg, Munich, Cologne, Stuttgart and Dresden have excellent kid-friendly activities like children's museums, train rides, bakery workshops, Ferris wheels and carousels rides. All have kid favorites like sweets stalls and toy shops too.
Do all towns have Christmas markets? How do you find good ones? No, but hundreds exist! Dedicated tourists boards showcase their Christmas markets. Search city names with “Christmas market” online to uncover details. The tourism sites showcase dates, programs, maps and highlights to choose ones matching your trip interests.
People Also Ask
Where are the largest Christmas markets in Germany? The largest Christmas markets are in Berlin, Dortmund, Cologne, Nuremberg, Stuttgart, Dresden and Munich based on over a million visitors annually to each.
When do the Munich Christmas markets open? Most Munich Christmas markets open the last week of November and run through December 23, including the large one on Marienplatz in front of the central city hall.
Where is the first Christmas market in Germany? One of the earliest December markets appeared in Munich in 1310. While Dresden's Striezelmarkt began even earlier in 1434 and lays claim as the first, evidence suggests Munich's winter market is likely Germany's original.
What are traditional German Christmas foods? Classic German Christmas foods include roast goose, duck or venison, pork dishes like schnitzel, bratwurst sausages, potato dumplings, sweet yeast stollen cakes often with fruits and nuts, spiced gingerbread cookies in shapes of hearts or Christmas motifs, and rich chocolate confections.
How many people visit Germany for Christmas markets each year? Germany welcomes over 3 million international tourists primarily visiting for the Christmas markets each holiday season, especially from the UK, USA, Netherlands, Italy and Switzerland along with many other nations. Over 30 million German natives visit Christmas markets across Germany annually as well.
The Economic Impact of German Christmas Markets
Christmas markets bring enormous revenue to Germany each year. Over 3 billion euros gets generated during the holiday markets season. With such a short window from late November to December 23rd when most markets close, the four weeks account for around 20-25% of local vendors' total annual incomes.
Towns invest heavily in preparing beautiful Christmas markets to attract tourists and shoppers. It pays off well, even with tight profit margins for expenses like elaborate light displays, civic services and entertainment. Markets brand towns as go-to Christmas destinations. The holiday spirit and nostalgia lure visitors who then also spend money in hotels, restaurants, stores and attractions around town. Studies by the German state bank found each Christmas market visitor spends around $23-30 euros per day in the town itself. Annually over $250 million USD gets infused into local economies by Christmas market tourism. Nuremberg's world-famous Christkindlesmarkt generates over 200 million euros in business annually for the metro area. Over 180 skilled artisans rely on income from the market's 2+ million visitors each year. Germany's Christmas markets support artisan traditions and revitalize small businesses in the modern age. Tax revenue also rises with this seasonal influx of tourism and sales. The positive economic impacts even trickle internationally.Craft vendors export many unsold Christmas collectibles abroad after the markets close, as German wares have avid followers worldwide buying handmade wooden smoking men, glass ornaments, nutcrackers, pyramids and candle arches. Global nostalgia for Germany's old-world Christmas aesthetic makes international retail viable well into the new year.
Environmental Aspects of German Christmas Markets
In recent years, Germany set national goals to make Christmas markets more eco-friendly and sustainable. The abundance of wood craft materials does not align well with reducing waste and protecting forests. Cologne's cathedral market strives to operate with nearly zero waste or carbon footprint by eliminating throwaway cups and plates, providing biogas generators and installing solar panels to fuel the rides and lights. LEDs replaced most other Christmas lights across Germany's markets too. Many towns instituted complete or partial bans on single-use plastics. Biodegradable straws, paper sandwich wrappers and no plasticware accompany the push to make hot and cold drinks only reusable keep cups or recyclable paper cups. It gets tricky to totally eliminate waste with so much food and drink waste inevitable. But ecology drives efforts toward renewable power sources, composting more waste, limiting packaging and reusable drinkware.
Beyond civic planning, visitors can minimize personal footprints through small choices - avoid excess souvenir purchases, bring reusable water bottles and opt for eateries with recyclable takeaway containers over food stalls with plasticware. Little changes make positive impacts when amplified by millions at the Christmas markets!
The Future of German Christmas Markets
Germans rank among the most environmentally-minded populations worldwide, so the push toward greening future markets will continue full steam ahead. Since over half of market visitors are under age 40, already-converted millennials will likely expect and embrace more sustainable practices as years go by too. Finding the balance between reducing waste yet preserving beloved traditions poses an interesting challenge!
More fusion cuisine stalls may sprout to appease modern palates, but bratwurst, stollen and gingerbread will always anchor traditional fare. As classic wooden toys and ornaments remain signature but see shrinking skilled labor to carve them, laser cutting could preserve heirloom designs. In contrast, innovations in engineering animatronics may birth new collectible pieces too!
Christmas markets will surely retain their old-world magic with costumed characters, carols, seasonal decor and festive cheer into the next generations. Market names may change, but locals still dub them affectionately by nicknames, as the Dresdner Striezelmarkt proves with its Stollen nickname held for centuries. Catchy new hybrid names could arise like Berlin’s “WeinachtsZauber Glow” (combining Christmas + Magic + Glow abbreviations in German and English!) But beloved sandstone buildings glowing with Christmas lights will frame market plazas for decades more in this ancient land of holiday traditions. The allure of Christmas magic mixed with medieval ambiance makes Germany’s holiday markets a travel must that exceed expectations and stand the test of time!
Tips for Saving Money at German Christmas Markets
While it's easy to get caught up in the holiday splurging spirit of Christmas markets, you can enjoy them on any budget with some smart planning: Walk around the entire market first before buying so you know what's available and can comparison shop better. Prices and quality vary widely between vendors. Set a souvenir budget cap before going and stick to it. It's very easy to overspend on all the tempting crafts and gifts. Weekday evenings tend to be less crowded so you can negotiate better prices when vendors are eager for sales in slower moments.
Focus more on window shopping and snacking, taking in the lights and music for free. Skip buying fancy crafts you may not really need or use at home.
Share sweet and savory treats to taste all the goodies without breaking the budget. A few small snacks here and there is often enough.
Fill up on lower cost bratwurst, potato pancakes or sandwich stalls instead of sit-down restaurants. Split cheaper food portions like pretzels instead of overspending on heavy plates you can't finish. Buy daily market entry passes on group/family plans or look for special weekday evening promos. Use public transportation passes to avoid parking fees which can add up.
Purchase locally-made gifts and treats at supermarkets for far lower costs instead of the marked-up craft stall specialties. No matter your budget, bundle up in your warmest winter wear and head out to the magical Christmas markets this season! By mixing in free activities with a few special treats and gifts, you can fully embrace the German holiday spirit on any budget. Focus more on the memories made together and less on spending totals to keep that Christkindl feeling all season long!
Pro-Tips for Photographing Christmas Markets
German Christmas markets' charming settings make them photographic wonderlands! Here are some pro photography tips:
- Use twinkling string lights as natural bokeh backdrops behind key subjects
- Capture wide landscape perspectives to emphasize the scale of market squares
- Switch to manual mode so lights don’t blow out scenes’ brightness ranges
- Take portraits of loved ones warming up with mugs of Glühwein by fire pits
- Focus on small details like steaming cups or simmering food that set seasonal moods
- Show scale of towering Christmas trees lit up towering over plazas
- Use fast shutter speeds to freeze action of carousel rides in motion
- Shoot from corners or balconies above to highlight birds-eye views of stalls
- Seek out candid moments of laughter and families enjoying activities together
- Be respectful when including people, ask permission for close ups
Use tripods, remote triggers and timed exposures for night photography Shoot at dawn or dusk when markets light up as days transition to nights
Don't forget to put your camera down now and then to soak up the Christmas magic in real life! But capturing exquisite photos creates lifelong mementos and perfectly packages nostalgic memories of Germany's one-of-a-kind holiday markets to share for generations.