Each year in November and December, many cities throughout Europe celebrate the holiday season with a very old tradition: Christmas markets.
These markets are characterized by wooden huts, twinkle lights, regional foods, Christmas trinkets, and a festive spirit that has made these markets popular all around the world. Christmas markets generally coincide with Advent, beginning four weeks before Christmas, and usually lasting up until Christmas Eve.
And nowhere are these markets more popular than in Germany, where the Christmas market tradition has been a holiday staple for centuries.
Last December, I spent a week Christmas market-hopping mostly in Germany. If you find yourself at any of these amazing markets this year (or any that are German-inspired elsewhere in the world), here are five things you absolutely have to do:
5. Pick up some decorations
While it's true that some market stalls these days sell cheap trinkets made in China, the best German Christmas markets still have hand-made decorations for sale, too. If you're looking for something special to take home to remember your Christmas Market adventure (or maybe looking for unique gifts for friends and family), keep an eye out for hand-made ornaments, nutcrackers, Santas, and more.
4. Buy some Lebkuchen
Along with ornaments and other Christmas knick-knacks, a feature you'll notice at just about every single Christmas market you visit will be Lebkuchen. These are large round or heart-shaped cookies decorated with frosting and wrapped up in plastic, often displayed hanging from the eaves of market stalls. They are essentially a type of gingerbread that often include things like honey, coriander, cloves, cardamom, nuts, and candied fruit.
To be perfectly honest, I think Lebkuchen looks a lot better than it tastes, but it's still a Christmas market must!
3. Eat market food
Speaking of food, you'll definitely want to visit German Christmas markets with an appetite! The food on offer will differ from market to market, but a couple of things you're almost certain to find include sausages and Kartoffelpuffer/Reibekuchen (or potato pancakes). Also keep an eye out for Spätzle (egg noodles) and Stollen (fruit cake). My favorite market food is definitely Kartoffelpuffer with applesauce!
2. Drink glühwein
Glühwein is a Christmas market staple, and is essentially a hot mulled wine spiced with things like cloves, star anise, cinnamon, and citrus fruit. Red glühwein is the most common, but you can also find white glühwein and occasionally a non-alcoholic version that's close to hot apple cider. (And for the kids you can almost always get hot chocolate, too.)
I'm not a big fan of wine (or any alcohol, for that matter), but I do have to say that glühwein done correctly can be quite tasty!
1. Collect market mugs
And speaking of all that glühwein you'll be drinking… in Germany, nearly every city (and sometimes even every market) will serve its glühwein in a collectible market mug. Some of these are beautiful and festive, and they make great souvenirs.
When you order your glühwein (or cider or hot chocolate), you'll pay for both the wine and a deposit on the mug. If you return the mug, you'll get your deposit back. But if you want to keep your mug for the price of the deposit, you can take it home as a souvenir. And the good news? A mug deposit is usually only 2-4 Euro, making these mugs great value as souvenirs!
I told myself I would just keep one or two mugs on my first Christmas market trip in Germany… and then ended up coming home with five! Oops…
If you're considering your own Christmas market-hopping trip this year (or any other year), some of Germany's best Christmas market cities include:
I also loved the Christmas markets in smaller towns like Speyer, Heidelberg, and Rüdesheim.
Just be sure to leave room in your suitcase for all those market mugs!
Have you ever been to any of Germany's famous Christmas markets?
*Note: I visited many of these markets last year on a Christmas market-focused river cruise with Viking River Cruises. As always, though, opinions (and market mug obsession) are 100% my own.