The Best German Christmas Markets
The best German Christmas markets are easy to spot: hectic, open-air festivals in charming downtowns, where vendors sell everything from food to wares. Known as Christkindlmarkts (Christ child markets) or Weihnachtsmarkts (Christmas, or Holy Night, markets), Germany's holiday markets have been recorded as early as 1310, in Munich. (Only Vienna's "December market" is slightly older, dating from 1294.) Most Christmas markets open the Friday before Advent and run through December 24, Christmas Eve, which is typically the most family-oriented day of the season in German homes (think: tree-trimming and gift-giving). A handful of markets stay open until the Feast of the Epiphany, on January 6.
Christmas markets are great places to discover provincial traditions. In Nuremberg, a local girl (who must meet strict height and age requirements, and who must not be afraid of heights) plays the "Christkind," or Christ child. This angelic figure symbolically opens the market to the public every year. Each market also offers its own custom glühwein mug, which is a cross between an extra-decorative coffee cup and a subdued stein. Pay a little extra, and you get to keep your Christmas mug, making future refills of Glühwein (a mulled wine) cheaper and ensuring you'll go home with a seasonal souvenir. Glühwein is prepared with cinnamon, cloves, star anise, citrus, sugar, and sometimes a shot or two or more of rum or schnapps. Pair it with gebrannte mandeln (toasted candied almonds) or lebkuchen, a kind of gingerbread cookie. The zwetschgenmännle—figures made of prunes—are a little too precious to dismantle for a snack.
Ready for all the glühwein and lebkuchen you can consume? Here's where to go in Germany to experience these Christmastime treats.
What: Nearly 4 millions visitors visit Stuttgart’s sprawling Christmas market every year. The five palaces and castles scattered around the city definitely add to the appeal. Look out for the modern town hall building, which transforms into an Advent calendar, with windows opening every day in December through the market’s end. Check out the market’s live nativity scene, where the state Sheep Breeding Association cares for two lambs, two sheep, a donkey, and two goats. Don’t forget to try the local specialty: steckerlfisch, a whole white fish roasted on a stick.
Where: Spread across several nearby squares—Schlossplatz, Schillerplatz, Marktplatz, and Karlsplatz—in the city center.
When: November 23 to December 23; 10 AM to 9 PM
Rothenburg ob der Tauber
What: A smaller Christmas market in a quiet Bavarian town, but Rothenburg ob der Tauber more than pulls its weight in sheer beauty. Set against the backdrop of another medieval center, the Reiterlesmarkt welcomes the season with its white glühwein and the country’s only year-round Christmas museum. The Reiterlesmarkt gets its name from the “Rotherburger Reiterle,” or Rothenburg horseman: a Teutonic legend who rode through the skies with the souls of the dead. In modern times, the Reiterle has softened up a great deal, and he gives out gifts instead.
When: November 25 to December 23; 11 AM to 7 PM
What: One of Germany’s most traditional Christmas markets, the Christkindlesmarkt is famous for their extra small Nürnberger rostbratwurst (you can fit three to a roll), their Nürnberger Lebkuchen (gingerbread), and the Nürnberger Christkind: a bewigged young woman dressed up as the Christ child. (She'll definitely remind you of Shirley Temple.) The annually-chosen representative opens the historic market with an elaborate ceremony and recited prologue, and she makes frequent appearances throughout the duration.
Where: Hauptmarkt, in front of the Frauenkirche
When: November 25 to December 24; 10 AM to 9 PM
What: Germany’s financial center taps into its inner medieval market town every holiday season with a Christmas market that dates back to 1393. Traditionally held in concert with religious mystery plays, these days you’re more likely to hear live music. Even the Romantic poet Goethe was a fan of the Frankfurt market’s famous Bethmännchen, or marzipan cookies. Peek inside the 300-year-old timber Honey House, which sells pretty much any imagineable honey-related products.
Where: The Römerberg, in the center of Frankfurt’s Altstadt
When: November 23 to December 22; 10 AM to 9 PM
What: On the edge of the Black Forest, Freiburg’s medieval center looks straight out of a Brothers Grimm folk tale. The fair’s merchants, around 115 in total, sell their wares (beeswax candles, cuckoo clocks, blown glass) in the shadow of a 380-foot Gothic spire. The market opens every year with a ceremonial cutting and distribution of a giant Lebkuchen, or gingerbread loaf, to the waiting crowd. Try an apple sauce-stuffed Nonnenseufzer, or nun’s sigh, for a local twist on a donut.
When: November 11 to December 23; 10 AM to 8:30 PM
What: On the shores of Lake Konstanz and the Rhine is the Konstanz Christmas Market, which has a convenient proximity to Austria, Switzerland, and the Alps. (You can see their snowy peaks across the lake on clear days.) These influences show up in the market’s cuisine: pair glühwein with Swiss-style Stängeli fondue, or käsespätzle, a kind of local macaroni and cheese. On calm days, you can actually hop on a Zeppelin to see the market from above.
Where: From the town center to the Konstanz Harbor. The market also spreads out into some boats.
When: November 26 to December 21; 11 AM to 8 PM
What: About 60 holiday markets pop up around Berlin come Christmas time, but perhaps the most unique one takes place in the city’s central Potsdamer Platz. In addition to the regular booths full of craft and food sellers, Potsdamer Platz also features a Winterwelt—essentially an outdoor winter sports center. Try a round of ice skating (lessons free to children 4 to 7 years-old), a 70-meter toboggan run, or even Bavarian curling. It’s no wonder the holiday market receives 2.7 million visitors annually.
Where: Potsdamer Platz
When: November 24 to December 26; 10 AM to 10 PM, except Christmas Eve
What: Erfurt, smack dab in the center of modern Germany, has one of the best-preserved medieval sections in the country. With its picture-perfect backdrop, this city’s Christmas market is especially lovely. Look for the “Enchanted Forest” section of the square, full of fairytale tableaus crafted in 1958 by local artists Hannelore Reichenbach and Kurt Buchspieß. Try the local Thüringian bratwurst with a hot cup of glühwein.
Where: Domplatz, in between St. Mary’s Cathedral and the Church of St. Severus
When: November 11 to December 22; 10 AM to 8 PM
What: Germany’s fourth largest city was relatively late to the Christmas market game, but it's wasted no time catching up. While its angel and gnome-themed Christmas markets are thoroughly charming, we really love its “Christmas Avenue,” the city’s queer holiday market. All are welcome to browse the rows of pink and purple booths that sell food and crafts made by and for Cologne’s LGBT community.
Where: Located between Schaafenstraße und Pilgrimstraße, in Cologne’s “Bermuda Triangle” neighborhood, the center of the city’s gay bar scene.
When: November 23 to December 23; 12 PM to 10 PM
What: Dresden has been hosting Christmas markets for nearly 600 years, as well as the largest number held annually in eastern Germany. The Striezelmarkt, the oldest and largest of Dresden’s markets, takes its name from a type of fruitcake (today more commonly known as stollen). The distinctive Dresden fruitcake is stamped with a seal depicting August the Strong—the city’s 18th-century king—and shaped to resemble the entrance of a mine. A Stollenmädchen, or “Fruitcake Maiden,” carries around a ceremonial loaf to open the fair every year. Another highlight? The monumental Christmas step pyramid, which is more or less a towering nativity scene.
Where: Altmarkt Square
When: November 26 to December 24; 10 AM to 9 PM