In another life I must have been born a princess in a fairytale. Or maybe just a lowly serf dreaming about being a princess in a fairytale. What’s the difference, really?
Owing to an overindulged childhood and an frightfully active imagination, I developed an interest in castles, legends, and knights in shining armor. Nothing sparks my wanderlust more than talk of a well-preserved palace or reading sagas and folklore about a haunted forest. I may or may not plan some of my trips around castles I want to visit or places that ooze quaintness and fairytale charm. One time I even got to stay in a medieval castle, and I’ve even made the Holy Grail pilgrimage to famous Neuschwanstein in Bavaria, salmonella poisoning and all. But that’s a story for another day.
This is one of the many reasons why I belong in Europe and NOT rural Virginia, where the closest I get to a castle is getting invited to chaperone my sister’s friend’s birthday party at Medieval Times.
And what is one of the most famous castle-drenched landscapes in Europe? The Rhine river and southwestern Germany. I had to go. It was not even a question.
5 years ago (holy crap I feel old!) I spent a few months backpacking around Europe on a rail pass. I had a week to kill before going to Norway for Christmas and decided I would check out the part of Germany I had been dying to see. Traveling there right before the holidays meant I got to see the much talked about German Christmas markets (Weihnachtsmarkt) in all their twinkling glory.
Medieval castles? Winter wonderland forests and mountains? Handmade Christmas presents and carols sung 24/7? Hot spiced wine and more Schniztel and Wurst than I could ever dream of?
Two birds, one stone. I was in medieval Christmas fairytale heaven.
So here is a list of my 5 favorite German Christmas markets and towns.
Most of them are lesser-known and relatively off the beaten tourist track. Traveling alone in Germany in winter as an American with 2 years worth of college German under my belt and a cowboy approach to language learning meant that I had no shortage of new friends to share Glühwein and sausages with.
Have you ever been to a Christmas market in Germany or Europe? Are you a fairytale lover too?
1. Freiburg im Breisgau
Freiburg freaking rocks! I loved this city. It was a great introduction to Germany and an area I had been dreaming about for years. The gateway to the Black Forest (hello Grimm Brothers!) this medieval town is all charm and colorful gothic buildings. Super green and eco-friendly, be careful where you step or you might fall in one of the Bächle or open street gutters gurgling around town. The Christmas market runs for a month from November 26th to Christmas sprawling around the old quarter in the shadow of the beautiful cathedral. Many of the stands sell handmade traditional gifts from this region in Germany, like beeswax carved candles, cuckoo clocks and wooden toys.
Tips: you can fly cheaply to Freiburg on Easyjet to the Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg airport straddling the borders of Switzerland, Germany and France. There are buses that take you straight into the city of your choice. The German train company DB sells day passes that let you travel around the Baden-Württemberg region with up to five friends, hopping from Christmas market to Christmas market. The trains even run deep into the Black Forest if you want to get your fairytale on.
I stopped in Stuttgart for half a day on my journey north. Stuttgart was on my radar for 3 reasons: it has one of the oldest Christmas markets in Germany, and there are no less than five castles and palaces to be found around town. Five! Stuttgart is also home to Mercedes-Benz and Porsche. My stepdad would have killed me if I went to that part of Germany and missed those holy automobile shrines.
The Christmas market is huge, sprawling over the central square. Almost everything is homemade and authentic, and the stalls are decorated beautifully; there is even a mini train and ice rink for children (or for the child in all of us). There is a big variety of food sold, including a lot of fish on a stick. Not fish sticks, rather a whole fish cooked on a stick.
Tips: Stuttgart can get super crowded so make sure you schedule in enough time that you don’t feel rushed. Some of the stalls that sell Glühwein (the famous hot spiced wine) also sell the mug it comes it, making great souvenirs.
Heidelberg blew my mind. I arrived at night, checked into an adorable B&B downtown (attic room I had to climb up a ladder to get to, candles, exposed wooden beams, the works) and then I headed to the main square to check out the Christmas market. All lit up, kids were ice-skating, chestnuts were roasting and the famous castle was lit up red overlooking the old town. The next morning I hiked up through the woods to the castle ruins before coming back into town to sample the hot cocoa and peruse nutcrackers and ornaments. Talk about getting into the Christmas spirit!
Tips: Make sure to bundle up. Not stating the blindingly obvious, but all of these markets are outside, and Germany in December isn’t exactly toasty. I always wore leggings under my pants to stay warm. There is nothing worse than being too cold to enjoy an outdoor market!
Koblenz is a a cute little town on the Rhine river where it intersects with the Moselle. This is true wine and castle country, with the Rhineland being one of my favorite areas in Europe. Wide and surrounded by castle-studded mountains, it couldn’t be more beautiful. In December the sun burns through the late-morning mists, leaving the landscape covered in silver frost. It’s the definition of a winter wonderland. There are dozens of little villages and unknown towns to discover, almost all of which have a Christmas market.
Tips: Koblenz is a small town but there are several beautiful medieval castles in the surrounding area worth visiting, like Cochem Castle and Stolzenfels Castle. Sometimes the hours change in winter so it’s worth planning in advance and renting a car. Also you can fly into Frankfurt Hahn airport which is nearby and is close to all the towns on the Rhine, if you can tolerate Ryanair.
Cochem Castle (Source)
Stolzenfels Castle (source)
I finished my tour of the Rhineland and southwestern Germany in Cologne. Boasting not one, but six total Christmas markets, to say it is big is a massive understatement. The main market sits in the shadow of Cologne’s mighty cathedral, the Dom, but by the time I arrived I was already overwhelmed with Christmas cheer. I spent most of my afternoon in Cologne craning my neck trying to see to the top of the fifth tallest church in the world with stuffing my face with German pastries and hot chocolate. Not a bad day in my books. Until I got on the train to Bremen where I had my WORST incident with Ryanair.
Tips: If you are looking for a large, stereotypical German Christmas market, Cologne is the place for you. You could spend over a day there wandering amongst the stalls and taking in the sites. It makes for a good starting point on any trip around the Rhineland and to German Christmas markets.