Christmas Markets – huge outdoor markets bursting with holiday food, gifts and wine! Really, what more could you ask for? I will never forget browsing around the internet a few years ago and coming across some photos of the most perfect looking festive tents and booths that appeared almost magical. It was a perfect scene, almost postcard like, with twinkling lights and snowflakes dancing around. Anyone that knows me knows my passion for travel, as well as my love for Christmas – and this was it – I was obsessed – and the research began!
Where had I been for the last 40 something years? What I had stumbled upon was the Christmas Markets. Super popular all throughout Europe, these holiday extravaganzas originated in Germany hundreds of years ago and have spread – you can now even find some here in North America. Let me tell you, the pictures did not disappoint, the experience was more than I could have hoped for, and if you like Christmas – this is one vacation you have to take!
These markets usually start around the beginning of December and run right up to Christmas Eve. They sell a variety of things ranging from Christmas ornaments, locally made handicrafts, toys, jewellery, treats and best of all… gluhwein – a spiced wine, served warm in adorable little mugs.
Close your eyes and imagine the sound of Christmas music and laughter, the smell of gingerbread and toasted almonds, the anxiously waiting faces of children for their turn at the carousel, and friends and family gathering for a drink of holiday cheer.
There are a few different ways to do a trip like this. If you’re up for a European adventure, it’s so easy to get around by train, however if planning an itinerary (and all of the logistics involved), makes your head spin – a bus tour or river cruise is definitely the way to go. Due to lack of time in getting everything together, I decided on a 7 day bus tour that started in Zurich, Switzerland and ended in Munich, Germany. I had always wanted to visit Switzerland but the itinerary that I had chosen only spent a bit of time there so I went a couple of days early and ventured off throughout the gorgeous countryside by train. A couple of days in Lucerne was a perfect introduction to Switzerland and a perfect way to start the trip off.
I felt an overwhelming sense of peace when walking around Lucerne. The downtown area was decked out from top to bottom in holiday decor and Christmas cheer. Not only was the city absolutely beautiful, but the people were friendly and I felt incredibly safe everywhere that I went at different times of day and night.
The Christmas Market in Lucerne was my first experience visiting an authentic European Christmas Market and it prepared me for the many more to come during the rest of my trip.
I can’t say enough good things about how fabulous public transportation is when travelling in Europe. It is affordable, efficient and so convenient. Before I knew it, I was back in Zurich, meeting up with my travel group, and we were off…
Like everything else in the world of travel, there are pros and cons to different types of tours. I’ve done a few different bus tours in the past and they are a great way to get around, relaxing, and in my experiences, I’ve met some very nice people. Though I did really enjoy this tour, I found it to be a lot of time on the bus getting from “A to B.” I also prefer to stay right in the city/town, so that you are able to get out and explore during your free (unscheduled) time, and this tour was a little bit “removed” from the markets and points of interest.
You definitely need to check out the Kathe Wohlfahrt Christmas shop in Rothenberg. Though you will find these stores in several locations, the Rothenburg shop contains the Christmas Museum and exhibition and every type of nutcracker, ornament, etc. that you can imagine – definitely is well worth a visit, and if a visit here doesn’t put you in the mood – I don’t know what will.
Just like stepping into a Disney movie set, Rothenburg was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. This quaint medieval village was incredibly charming on its own, but its Christmas markets were equally impressive. The markets in Rothenburg seemed to have a large variety of homemade items.
It would be very difficult to not get into the Christmas spirit during a visit to Munich, Germany. There were several markets throughout the city however my favourite area was the town square area called Marienplatz – this is also home to the Glockenspiel. The Glockenspiel is located in the Town Hall building called the Rathaus and it is basically a clock tower with with an electronic show/performance (with chimes and music). The performance lasts approximately 12-15 minutes, and is scheduled daily at 11:00, 12:00 and sometimes 5:00 p.m. The surrounding area can get very crowded with onlookers but it is definitely fun and worth watching, and as you can see by my picture below – there is lots of shopping you can do while waiting.
This was the surprise of the trip – absolutely gorgeous scenery surrounding a bustling city. Great selection of Christmas Markets here, as well as some of the best streudel that I have ever eaten in my life. They have actual streudel shops here that sell every kind of streudel you can imagine – and I bet – all quite delicious!
Innsbruck is also home to the Swarovski Crystal flagship store – an amazing, massive shop filled with sparkly delights. It’s really fun to browse around the store (and warm up), there is something for almost every budget, and there is plenty to see!
During our 7 day tour we stopped at market after market all throughout Germany, Austria and France and though there were many similarities, each one had it’s own unique feel. Some were quite large, some had a children’s area, and some offered locally made items. In several of the bigger cities (Munich), you would often come across many different markets spread throughout the city.
Although I enjoyed each and every market that we attended, many of the markets sold much of the same merchandise (ornaments, cookies, etc.) Another similarity was that no matter which market I was at (day or night), I was fully immersed in Christmas.
Located in Bavaria, Germany, you will find one of the most beautiful castles in the world. Built in the late 1800’s, Neuschwanstein Castle is said to have been the inspiration for the castle in Walt Disney World. So how could I not visit? Nestled in the Bavarian Alps, this castle is just as beautiful in person as it is in all the pictures. Open to the public, the cost to visit is approx. $20. Tip: Allow yourself enough time to take the horse and carriage ride that will take you close to the entrance.
As I earlier mentioned, this particular tour was mainly by bus and most often on bus tours the tour will base itself out of a certain area for a short time rather than packing up every morning. For this tour, we were based in Oberammergau, a picturesque little German village with several quaint shops and restaurants. This was the perfect place to create a “home base” and offered many options for our free time away from the bus. Very quiet and safe.
I can’t help but think about the Christmas Markets every December as we begin Christmas preparations. Very high on my “to do” list is a river cruise and I can’t think of a better way to visit another part of Europe and experience many more of the Christmas markets.