Discovering Germany's best Christmas markets
Walking in a winter wonderland
It isn't hard to make magic happen in Germany during the festive season. Most towns and cities are flanked by towering Christmas trees, twinkling lights that run boundlessly down streets, and brim with smells that can only be described as a heady mix of bratwurst and sweet cinnamon. At the heart of it all are the Christmas markets, glowing little villages that originated in Germany since the 1300s and 1400s, and have been a yearly tradition since. There are currently over 150 Christmas markets throughout the country that mark the start of the Advent, which run from the end of November to a couple days before Christmas.
Yet, those who experience a Christmas market for the first time will find that these markets go beyond singing and dancing, nativity scenes, and the famed glühwein (hot mulled wine). While those still exist as its traditional pillars, today's Christmas markets have a range of food stalls which run the gamut of currywurst to crépes, and hot chocolate to handcrafted items distinct to each region. Some even feature puppet shows and exhibitions for added fanfare.
If you're looking to wrap yourself in the warm spiritedness of Christmas, there's much to behold in Deutschland. There's a distinctive charm, more so than any other time of the year, accompanied by friendly and deeply enthusiastic German stall owners who are always up for a chat. With choirs punctuating the air with song, and live bands taking to the stage, the vibes are merry and bright. Ready to explore? Stay snug, and kick off with a steaming glass of glühwein or hot chocolate to keep your body temperature happy. Below, the four Christmas markets in Germany you have to experience at least once in your life.
Germany's financial and business hub is home to the country's third-most popular Christmas markets, boasting over three million visitors a year — a figure that only trails Cologne and Dartmund. Separated into two expansive squares in Frankfurt's historical old town, surrounded by the Römerberg and St Paul's Square, the Frankfurt Christmas Market — with over 200 stalls — is one of the largest in Germany. Its Christmas fir tree, adorned with red ribbons and over 6,000 light bulbs, remain a proud feature of the market year after year.
The frigid air is dominated by the scent of baked apples, chestnuts, and grilled sausages, as locals and tourists alike mingle under generously-sized huts or soak in the views of the square's traditional half-timbered houses. Popular food options here include bags of chestnuts, sausages in hard rolls, gingerbread hearts, and hot apple wine with cinnamon and cloves. While grown-ups while away their time eating, or poking their head into craft stores, children can delight in merry-go-rounds or wait for Santa to make his rounds.
If you can, plan your trip on a Wednesday and Saturday, as that's when the tower horns trumpet from the balcony of St Nicolas Church, filling the Römerberg with nostalgic yuletide melodies.
If Christmas should look and feel to you straight out of a fairytale, Erfurt is the closest you'll get to your childhood fantasy. The cobbled streets and quaint buildings in the walkable capital of Thuringia paint the perfect picture of medieval charm — and once December rolls around, the town comes to life with fairy lights, festive tunes, and Christmas carts.
Our personal favourite of all the markets, the Erfurt Christmas Market on Domplatz feels like a seamless extension of the city. With a skyline punctuated by the majestic St Mary's Cathedral (which looks more like a castle) and a towering Ferris Wheel which offers a bird's eye view of Erfurt, the village sparkles prettily from afar. Spend the day exploring the nooks and crannies, try their renowned Thuringer sausage, and get your fill of chocolate-covered fruit. Then waltz into the underground floral exhibition, where artists from Thuringia and all across Germany showcase their imaginative festive arrangements made with flowers, twigs, baubles, and candles.
Kids and adults alike spill into the fairytale forest, where all your favourite happy endings come to life. There's also a petting zoo and miniature choo choo train to keep the young ones occupied for hours.
Dresden, the capital of the eastern German state of Saxony, has its fair share of Christmas markets — from a medieval market, to a winter lights market, to one celebrating romance next to an ice skating rink. But the one with most clout, and the oldest Christmas market in Germany, is the Dresden Striezelmarkt. Founded as a one-day meat market in 1434, today's rendition is ablaze with light and is well-known for its stollen (German fruitcake), porcelain trinkets, and coffee filters.
Make a beeline for a cup of feuerzangenbowle, a traditional German alcoholic drink where a rum-soaked sugarloaf is set on fire and dripped into your mulled wine. It's a tad stronger, and also far more exciting, than the traditional mulled wine. At most Christmas markets in Germany, you'll have to pay upfront for your drink and 3 euros for your mug — which is refunded when you return your empty cup.
Apart from food, this striezelmarkt has an emphasis on craft. Look out for a stall selling wooden figurines disguised as incense burners, for these are quirky gifts to take home to your dad or gregarious uncle. Kids are also kept entertained in their own Christmas hut, where craft and games make for a warm, homey retreat.
BERLIN WEIHNACHTSZAUBER GENDARMENMARKT
In the gritty and culturally-rich city of Berlin, the Weihnachtszauber Gendarmenmarkt is a burst of festive cheer in the heart of the hip Mitte neighbourhood. This enclosed Christmas market is the poshest and most atmospheric in Berlin, featuring cosy restaurants, gift shops, and live music in addition to the food stalls. With 186 nationalities residing in Germany's capital, it's not surprising to see a diverse mix of people, also reflected in the food offerings here.
Snack on Nutella crépes, hot cheese balls, and fried apples — surprisingly, there weren't many sausage stands — as you weave through numerous craft stores. Unlike the other Christmas markets, the Weihnachtszauber Gendarmenmarkt has a number of dine-in restaurants for those looking to have a more substantial meal with their crew. Origami and ivory are especially popular here, so be sure to pick up a few souvenirs to take home.
It'll cost you 1 euro to get in, but this beautiful space will deliver hours of great food and entertainment. After which, pop over to the nearby Friedrichstrasse — home to Galeries Lafayette, Quartier 206, and & Other Stories — for a spot of shopping to round up the night's festivities.