Christmas time, the most wonderful time of the year. Lights everywhere, cozy nights by the fireplace, snowfall and of course… cookies. =) As you may already know, I currently live and study in Germany and would like to, therefore, introduce you to the German Christmas Markets.
Christmas Markets usually open at the end of November – the first Advent – and remain open until Christmas (in Europe, the 24th of December). You’ll find one in nearly every major German city, as well as many small towns. Larger cities will have one major Christmas Market, in addition to smaller “satellite” markets throughout the individual city districts. There are also individual neighborhood Christmas Markets that open for a single weekend only. Those are relatively small, covering only a street or two, but the vendors there are from that particular neighborhood and sell homemade foods, drinks and goods. Talk about shopping small. Make sure to check the event calendar for the city in which you’re staying, and its neighborhoods.
Most Markets are open from around 10am until 9pm. If you have never been to a Christmas Market before or if you just want to wander around and see what the individual vendors have to offer, I’d suggest going during lunch hours. Christmas markets aren’t nearly as crowded during that time, which really gives you the opportunity to explore. But either way, you absolutely have to visit the market at night as well. That’s the only way to experience the lights, the beautifully decorated Christmas trees and the festive atmosphere. At night, when it’s the coldest, is also the prime opportunity to try a signature German Christmas drink: Glühwein.
Glühwein is an adult Christmas drink that’s available, in different variations, throughout Europe. In Germany, it’s typically made of red wine, whereas the Italians prefer a white one. It’s enjoyed hot and is cooked with spices – mainly cinnamon, cloves, oranges and star anise. Larger booths will offer not only your red- and white variants, but also others, such as Apple- or Cherry-Glühwein, made of apple cider and cherry wine, respectively. If you had a really long day and need to kick it up a notch, there are also Rum, Brandy, and Liqueur “enhanced” versions. Those are then called Punsch. Another great Christmas drink is the Feuerzangenbowle; also a hot red wine supplemented with spices (similar to Glühwein), but with a rum-soaked sugarloaf placed directly over it. The sugar is then ignited, caramelizes, and drips into the spiced red wine. This procedure gives this particular drink its unique flavor. Just keep in mind that warm, alcoholic beverages enter your bloodstream much quicker than cold ones do, so ensure to have a plan to get back to your hotel safely. German Police (Polizei) are fully aware of the amount of alcohol consumption and set up checkpoints accordingly, so your best bet is public transportation, of which there is plenty to choose from in Germany.
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I personally love Christmas Markets just for the food =). Give me a Glühwein and something to eat, and I even forget how crowded it gets. You’ll find a great variety of different European foods at the Christmas Market. Some of the common ones are, of course your German Bratwurst – a grilled pork sausage served in a roll with mustard. If you prefer beef, like me, the Rindswurst is more for you. Then there’s Nackensteak, a pork chop served in a roll, as well. Meat isn’t your thing? Try Kartoffelpuffer or Reibekuchen, very similar to hash browns and eaten with applesauce or a garlic-yogurt sauce. Fried fish (Backfisch), Calamari, Shrimp or Herrings, again, served in a roll, are also very popular, in addition to different soups and stews. Now the good part: the sweets! Besides waffles, crêpes and cotton candy (Zuckerwatte), there are sugar roasted almonds (gebrannte Mandeln) and hot, roasted chestnuts (heiße Maronen). Nothing beats freshly roasted chestnuts! Popular German and Austrian desserts, Dampfnudeln and Germknödel, are also widely available. Both are yeast dumplings served with vanilla sauce, but the latter is also filled with plum sauce. Next to gingerbread (Lebkuchen), which is rarely consumed and is more for decoration, no Christmas Market is complete without Stollen, Christstollen or Weihnachtsstollen. Different terms for the same thing; a cake made of yeast dough and dried fruits, usually raisins, topped with powdered sugar. Different variations can also be filled with marzipan or poppy seeds.
Image courtesy of flickr.com.
Next to food and drinks you can also buy all kinds of homemade and regional merchandise. Candles, Christmas decoration, wood crafts, homeware, herbs, spices and teas are most common, in addition to gloves, scarves, beanies, sheep wool clothing, jewelry and bags. Don’t settle for the first item you see that you like; chances are that another vendor will offer the same, or similar, item for a different price. You can also bargain with some vendors, just keep in mind that it’s not a bazaar, where bargaining is an, almost, expected part of the transaction. So I recommend to be modest when you do make an offer, as the vendor will probably not conduct business with you if he or she finds the offer “offensive”.
Be aware of pickpockets. Christmas Markets do get crowded, especially at night, so pickpocket thieves are automatically attracted. As far as restrooms, nearby department stores will be your best bet. You’ll find Porta Potties as well, but I would only suggest those as a last resort.
The old time rule applies at Christmas Markets: cash is king! You’ll be hard pressed to find a vendor that accepts plastic of any kind, and when they do, it’ll only be Giro cards or V Pay, which are European debit cards. No points earning potential here, unfortunately, but on the positive side, cash makes haggling much easier. So it’s important to plan ahead and have cash on hand. Remember to always look around for low-fee, or no-fee ATMs, especially if your own bank charges out-of-network and foreign transaction fees.
Have you ever been to a Christmas Market in Germany? How was your experience and what are the similarities/differences to the ones in the U.S.?