Christmas Markets – Weihnachtsmarkts

Weihnachtsmarkts, or Christmas markets, are a spectacular part of Christmas in Germany.  A must-see for any traveler to Europe between the end of November and the New Year.  In some cities, the festivities last for the entire month of December; in smaller towns, a market might last one or two weekends.  Even the smallest of towns have a Glühwein circle where, on weekends throughout the Christmas season, people stand around tables out in the cold, keeping warm by consuming Glühwein and other hot beverages.  Even shivering on a December evening, a giant candle standing behind you in the Marktplatz fountain and laughter surrounding you brings true yuletide cheer.  As does the steamy Glühwein.  Glühwein seems to be the reason for the Weihnachtsmarkt season.

Here’s a list of Weihnachtsmarkts and glühwein circles we’ve visited over the past two years, by town.  We’ve been making our rounds.  We enjoy medium-sized markets in traditional towns, but are trying out markets of all shapes and sizes…

DARMSTADT

Darmstadt offers a relatively small market, for a city.  There is a small section of kiosks on Luisenplatz, but the main part of the market sits around the Schloss.  On the corner there is a children’s area, then across the street is the main market.  Most stands were very commercial and many items were not German crafted.  Most of the market centered around the holiday festivity of sharing food and drink.  The center of the market features a tall pyramid and a small carousel for young children.

DIEBURG

Dieburg has a Glühwein circle in the Marktplatz every weekend throughout December.  (Actually, Dieburg gets in the spirit of Glühwein a little early with Martinsmarkt.)

ERBACH

Erbach sits just a kilometer up the road from Michelstadt.  Michelstadt holds a large Weihnachtsmarkt; Erbach is small but adorable.  There is a Marktplatz with a major Schloss, and a few side streets worthy of visits every time you pop into town.  One important building Erbach has: an Odenwald visitor’s center chock full of good info about the region (they also sell books and souvenirs).

One noteworthy aspect about Erbach from a Christmas shopping standpoint is an important thing to know about the town in general: there is a courtyard of wood carving shops that sell German crafted items.  Not imports and not just the typical souvenirs.  Yes, there are a few rows of nutcrackers.  They sell Christmas pyramids, arches, etc., including giant, high-euro pieces.  Their smoking men are a bit different from some of the rows of smoking men at souvenir kiosks.  They also offer German wooden toys for babies, toddlers, and young children, at normal German prices.  They sell large wood carvings and tiny miniature items–some from collections you see at other shops, others I’ve not seen elsewhere.  Some of their offerings are unique to the area.

The market was small but lovely, set to the beautiful backdrop of Erbach.  A choir sang, a wooden nativity scene greeted us, and there was plenty of Glühwein cheer!

What I brought home: a bag filled with wooden items from the shops, nothing from the market but a Glühwein mug that was emptied of a Heisse Oma.

HAMELN

This was a charming market in a beautiful fairy tale town.  The centerpiece was the Glockenspiel.  The windows of the Hochzeithaus were numbered as an advent calendar window like the main building of some towns.  Christmas aside, its regular Pied Piper show is the highlight.

What we brought home from the Hameln Weihnachtsmarkt: a clay ornament of a rat (it’s home of the Pied Piper, people); a round glass votive with a winter scene in a fachwerk town painted on it.  What we also saw: Nicer wood carvings than in other smaller markets.  Also…

We really enjoyed the timeliness of blowing our own glass ornaments at the glassworks, the Glashütte Hameln.  We watched a demonstration of how the glass is blown (albeit in German with English kindly translated as much as possible for our benefit), then each went down to the floor to create our own ornament.

HANAU

This is the first Christmas market we happened upon, by chance, when we embarked upon our Märchenstraβe road trip.  It’s a good size for the family to enjoy.  It was compact, but in a large Marktplatz and set up in a circle, so there was room to navigate.  Rides, food, drink; and although I did not check it all out, there were items for sale.  We were there early in the day on a weekday, so it wasn’t very crowded.  The  Christmas Pyramid in the center of the Marktplatz was awesome, doubly so because it was the first giant one I’d ever seen.

KASSEL

Kassel Weihnachtsmarkt

Kassel Weihnachtsmarkt

After reading about the size of the Kassel Weihnachtsmarkt and its fairy tale theme, I was looking forward to this Christmas market more than any other.  I was especially interested in the fairy tale theme and hoping to pick up something special to bring home from our Märchenstraβe road trip.  I left with mixed feelings about this market.

The fantastic:  My absolute favorite part of this market was the long department store window display of a Steiff winter scene.  It was unbelievable.

I did enjoy the fairy tale themes, with handmade fairy tale characters on display.  I would have liked to have seen more, though, since we were on our Grimm adventure.

Good rides for the little ones.  The ferris wheel was huge.

Plenty of food and drink to go around, and it was all yummy.

The mediocre:  This is a city, so downtown stretches kind of far.  It’s not one compact Marktplatz.  I had a map of the kiosks and rides and I was still a little confused about where they were.  I was a little disappointed in the vendors.  I expected more of a variety of handcrafted items, but I didn’t see a single thing that I couldn’t buy at a smaller market.

The ugly:  Parking was an absolute nightmare, so plan accordingly.  Seriously.  Nightmare.

What we brought home from Kassel: nothing.  I couldn’t find anything I really liked.  Well, I did buy a 5€  scarf, if that counts, but that’s because I was freezing my butt off.  There were a ton of  small wooden ornaments, pyramids and other Christmas decorations–they basically had what you find everywhere else, in larger quantities.  Disclaimer: I might have been jaded because I was disappointed about not being able to find “just the thing” for a fairy tale Christmas buy.    

MICHELSTADT

Michelstadt and neighboring Erbach are already adorable Fachwerk-heavy towns right out of a fairy tale.  Add a Christmas market and you’re walking right down Christmasstrasse.  This was our FAVORITE CHRISTMAS MARKET OF 2013 based purely on its charm.

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The beautiful Historisches Rathaus presides over town; a choir and brass band members gathered underneath and gave a wonderful performance during our first visit to the market.

Michelstadt is a sprawling market with Glühwein stands down every alley, vendors on streets and in cellars.

But I wasn’t drinking Glühwein in Michelstadt–I was drinking the Heisse Oma.  The ‘hot grandma’ is hot cocoa with amaretto and whipped cream.  Y-U-M.  Grandpa’s manly Heisser Opa contains rum instead of amaretto.  I also sampled Feuerzangenbowle, which I’d read about in a Germany, Ja! post, in the name of science.  It’s pretty strong.  I’m sticking to Granny’s hot cocoa.

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All over town stood large nutcrackers and wooden figures typical of the Odenwald.

For the kids there was a train and a carousel.

You have to pay attention in Michelstadt–it’s full of cul-de-sacs and alleyways, and it is very easy to get turned around.  Otherwise, it’s just wonderful.

What we bought: a wooden ornament, socks, cookie cutters, and some Jack Wolfskin products from one of the several well-stocked outdoor wear stores in town.

MÜNDEN

This was an absolutely lovely fachwerk town with a nice little Weihnachtsmarkt in the Marktplatz.  Just a few vendors, but the important ones were there: brats, crepes, candy, glühwein, beer, and a few handcrafted items.  A well-done nativity scene and a couple rides, all with the backdrop of a lovely fachwerk town.

What we brought home: full bellies.

NÜRNBERG

The highlights: There are some unique aspects to Christkindlesmarkt.  A favorite was the horse-drawn Deutsch Post wagon ride that took you on quite a long ride through the walled city of Nürnberg.  The horses clip-clopped through narrow, Fachwerk-lined streets, backing up traffic and drawing tourist shutterbugs.  It was awesome.

There was an entirely separate Kinderweihnacht set up for the kids in a different area of the city from where the main stage, heavier concentration of Glühwein stands, and most rows of vendors are.  Vendors are set up around the children’s area, but not heavily.  There are only a couple of rides, but one is a double-decker carousel.  I rather liked the separation.  In one workshop, kids could write to Santa or Christkindl and mail the letters via Deutsch Post boxes in the shack.  Santa and Christkindl were posing for photos with the kids in another shack.

Drawbacks: the main market is narrow, cramped, packed.  If you are claustrophobic, have any fear of your child being out of sight for one millisecond, or get slightly annoyed by pushy crowds who will shove you right past the kiosk where you were about to stop, this might not be the market for you.  The stampede detracted from all the great things about the market for us.

What we brought home: a couple ornaments for ourselves and gifts, a cool new Nürnberg Glühwein mug, a scarf and super-warm socks for Paul. 

ROTHENBERG OB DER TAUBER

This is a town known for Christmas.  Its market is robust: indoor and outdoor vendors, food or drink of some sort every few steps, rides, an impressive nativity scene, and, well, a Christmas museum.  We didn’t have time to cattle chute through the Christmas museum because we were visiting with friends and family, but I’ll probably return at some point.  There’s a large Käthe Wohlfahrt shop in town as well; the company is headquartered in the city.

What we brought home from Rothenburg ob der Tauber: wood burned basket, small wooden ornament.  We saw a wide variety of Christmas decorations and other works–jewelry, glassware, crafts made from gems–but we actually were not there to shop.  This market was one of the most robust I’ve seen.

RÜDESHEIM

This was my FAVORITE CHRISTMAS MARKET OF 2012.  Nothing was missing–there were even pony rides.  The nativity scene was very nice.  Food and drink in the Rheingau.  Winding our way through the narrow cobblestone paths of Rüdesheim.  Rides for the kids, bunnies in a little village, lights, candy…just wonderful.  Different areas are set up like different regions of the world and vendors offer quality regional wares.

What we brought home from Rüdesheim: I bought a lovely Nordic scarf and hat set, and I’m pretty sure I’m forgetting something.  We also brought home awesome memories.

SANKT WENDEL

St. Wendel’s medieval Weihnachtsmarkt was adorable and unique.  There was a live enactment of the Christmas story,

and there were ample vendors and Glühwein stands, carolers, and random activities going on throughout the day and evening.  However, one must stay alert and not go by what internet sites might give as a schedule.  I don’t know if Santa visited while we were in town, but I know that he was not at either main Weihnachtsmarkt area–the medieval section or the Marktplatz–during the time showing online.  No one around town (working the market or just visiting) seemed to know if or when he would be showing up.  Santa is said to show up with live reindeer.

The pyramid in town featured miniature scenes in its base.

Specifically for the kids, there was a small carousel; a short tubing run with snow brought in from the Alps (melting on the day we went, a rare 50 degrees); a nativity scene with live animals to pet; camels to visit when the live Christmas story was not taking place; archery and other medieval activities; miniature nativity scenes; and for the whole family, a fire show.

What we brought home: Sequoia purchased a felt purse and we both brought home ceramic items.

WIESBADEN

This one is a Christmas market shopper’s delight, and I’d recommend more than one day of meandering past all these booths.  It’s another robust market.  If there’s a hand crafted Christmas item you’re looking for, chances are you’ll find it in Wiesbaden.  They also have nice indoor tents for some of the larger manufacturers.

The rides do not disappoint.  The ferris wheel is monstrous and offers a beautiful view of Wiesbaden from up top.  There is also a multi-level carousel.

What we brought home from Wiesbaden: a ton of Christmas ornaments for us and for gifts; wooden pyramids and other decor.  And I popped into the Jack Wolfskin store for a new full-length down winter coat!

FIVE BEST THINGS ABOUT WEIHNACTSMARKTS

  • the Glühwein – and what exactly is Glühwein?  Hot, spicy wine.  They give you a little mug of wine and might ask for a deposit (Pfand) that they will return when you turn in your mug.  If so, you’ve pretty much paid for the mug.  These are small mugs, sometimes shaped like a boot.  If you are at a large market and don’t swing back around, you can either turn the mug in to someone else selling Glühwein, or take home the mug and not feel too terrible about it.  Some towns have their own mugs–we collect them as souvenirs of markets we visit.  Some have pictures of the town painted on them, others are etched; some are boots, others regular mugs; some are ceramic, others frosted, others clay.  Meanwhile, scroll back up to the Michelstadt market for more drink ideas or do yourself a favor: get a shot of apple (Apfel) Glühwein with whipped cream (Sahne).  You’re welcome.
  • the food – Must.Have.Bratwurst.    Also: crepes of all kinds.  Kids are not at a loss for choices in candy and treats.  I’m not a fan of the cookies the size of my dog, but Sequoia is.
  • the atmosphere – Nothing will give you the Christmas spirit like walking down Fachwerk streets, especially when it snows, among hot drinks and laughter and ornaments and nutcrackers and lights and cookies and carolers.  It is just plain special.
  • the giant pyramids – I just love the town centerpiece pyramids, usually with a nativity scene theme.  I also like the smaller ones you can buy for home.  I sent a few back to the States as Christmas gifts, and in two separate cases there were people explaining to one another that you can’t  use battery-operated tea lights, or the propeller won’t spin.
  • the vendors – If you’re just looking for “something to take home”, you’ll have no problem.  Gifts for friends in America?  Many choices.  If you’re looking for something specific, you might need to hunt at different markets.  Fortunately, larger markets offer brochures and maps on the street, at vendors, and online.

If you’re looking to book a hotel room to visit a market, some of the larger cities book up fast and then prices rise for the rooms that are left, so get on it!

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