So you’re planning a trip to Europe during winter and want to know some tips about visiting the Christmas Markets.
The first thing you need to know is that “to Christmas market” is a verb in Europe. It is the act of going to any Christmas market with friends, enjoying food and drinks and leisurely shopping the vendors gifts on a free evening. The second thing is that there is nothing better to get you in the Christmas spirit than drinking glühwein and eating local classics at the Christmas markets. The first day that the markets open is like the official introduction to the holiday season. The main market in Cologne opens the Monday after what us Americans consider Thanksgiving weekend and I’m pretty positive that people take the day off of work. I have seen people running to the markets yelling “GLÜWEINNNN”. Needless to say, there is just a spirit in the air once the markets are open for the season which is oh so great and joyful!
The Christmas Market Basics:
- The biggest and best markets are in Germany, Austria, France, Switzerland, Croatia, the Czech Republic and Hungary. Others can be found in Brussels, the UK, Poland, Spain, Italy, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia – so there is a good chance where ever you are visiting this Christmas you will be able to enjoy a famed European Christmas market.
- There is no fee to enter the markets, but do bring cash for your food and drink purchases. It is possible to find vendors that take credit cards, but not always, and in Germany, it’s less than 50%.
- Not all markets are alike. Each one has its own theme for the year and while most will be selling the same types of food or gifts, we have found that the smaller markets tend to be more unique and local.
- Most markets have published times detailing how long they are open each day and how far into the season they run. If you are traveling over Christmas Day, most things will be closed, but depending on the city, the Christmas markets may be open through December 31st. For instance, we spent our Christmas day last year in Vienna hopping from market to market because it was one of the only things that was open, and they were quite crowded.
Some German words to know that will work in Germany, Austria and Switzerland:
- Guten Tag or Gute Nacht – “Good Day” or “Good Night”. Gute Nacht is a typical greeting in Germany, where as in the US its typically only a salutation.
- Tschüss or Ciao – “Bye!”. Ciao is easier to pronounce and is extremely common amongst all Europeans.
- Bitte – “Please”
- Danke – “Thanks”
- Dankeshcön – “Thank you very much!”
- Ich hätte gerne… – “I would kindly like…” This is one way to start off your purchase or order.
- Einmal – “One of”. Another way to order one of something would be pointing and saying “Einmal (bratwurst) bitte!”
- You never just order one Glühwein, so go ahead and learn zwei “two”, (pronounced: stvi), drei “three”, (pronounced: dry) or vier “four”, (pronounced: fear) Glühwein, bitte!
What to order:
- The glühwein is the key to getting into the holiday spirit and a must to keep yourself warm while walking around the markets. This is best described as hot mulled red wine and is basically Christmas in a cup for adults. You will find glühwein in some fashion at every market you go to, but some you can experiment with “weisser glühwein” or white glühwein or even adding a extra shot of rum.
- Most cups of glühwein are 6 EURs and if you return the festive mug, you get about 2 EURs back that you paid upfront called the “pfand” or deposit. We often opt to keep the mugs as souvenirs!
- There is also a drink called feuerzangenbowle which literally translates to “fire tongs bowl”, and is a cup or bowl of glühwein topped with a suspended rum-soaked sugar cube that is set on fire and caramelizes before dripping into the wine.
- A full meal can be made out of a trip to a Christmas market. There are the flammlachs (smoked salmon on bread), pretzels, sausage variations mostly in a bread roll, kartoffelpuffers (fried potato pancakes with some type of sauce), roasted mushrooms, and flammkuchen (flatbread pizza typically with cream cheese, onions and bacon) to name a few.
- There are tons of sweets, but the most famous are the lebkuchen. Lebkuchen are biscuits which taste similar to gingerbread and are frequently sold in the shape of a heart with icing decorations and a string to wear them as a necklace. They are most closely associated with the Nuremburg Christkindlesmarkt and there are even rules around who can produce THE original Nuremburg Lebkuchen. You will also recognize these heart shaped cookies from Oktoberfest.
What to buy:
- Hand-painted glass ornaments from Vienna and hand painted egg shells from Salzburg
- Kölsch beer glasses, the local beer drinking glass, with the Christmas logo from Cologne, Germany
- Rauschgoldengels (gold-foil angels with wax heads, which are very traditional-looking but shiny and beautiful), so-called “prune men” (made from actual dried fruit) from Nuremberg, Germany
- Traditional wooden nutcrackers and nativity scenes from Bavaria, Germany
- When in doubt on what to buy, keep your Glühwein cup as a souvenir
We can’t wait to try out a few more Christmas market classic locations this year!