5 Tips You Should Know About German Christmas Markets

Wow, it's been quite a while between blog posts, hasn't it?  I've been so busy with tours, and anyone who's ever started a blog knows how easy it is to fall behind.  But it's a very exciting time of the year for us at Stuttgart Steps so I figured I'd share some of my hard-earned tips from my six seasons of Christmas Market-ing!  

1. Not all Markets are created equal!

The Christmas market of the Ravenna Gorge 

The Christmas market of the Ravenna Gorge 

I've visited, by my count, nearly 50 markets throughout Germany, Austria, and France, but that doesn't mean they're all the same or equally worth your time and travel!  Some of the most-visited markets can seem like carbon copies of each other, while other, less famous markets are unique and distinct.  

Luckily for us in Stuttgart, some of the most unique markets are right in our backyard - such as Esslingen's "middle ages market" and the beautiful baroque market of Ludwigsburg.  In the nearby Black Forest, you can even experience a market in the beautiful Ravenna gorge.  And don't forget that Stuttgart's market, with it's elaborately decorated booths, is considered to be one of the very best in Germany.

2. When possible, take public transit

Stuttgart's "staus" or traffic jams, are actually rated the worst in Germany, and with high numbers of visitors, Christmas markets make an already bad problem worse.  Then there's trying to find parking or navigating a car into the tiny spaces of German parking garages.  With an excellent public transportation network, there's no reason to drive!  Plus drinking "gluhwein" (mulled wine) to warm up is one of the great pleasures of these markets, and no one wants to risk a DUI.  

Just go to the English-language trip planner of the Stuttgart's regional transit authority (VVS) or better yet, download the app on your smartphone!  For long-distance trips, consult the Bahn.com.

3. Speaking of Gluhwein...

Firedancing at the Esslingen Middle Ages Market

Firedancing at the Esslingen Middle Ages Market

Gluhwein is a real highlight of my visits to the markets, but like the markets themselves, not all Gluhwein is created equal.  Some booths simply take pre-spiced bottled gluhwein and dump it in a cauldron.  These tend to be sweeter and not as delicious as booths that make the gluhwein from scratch with their own special recipes of spices.  If you come on one of my tours, I'll sure and point out my personal favorite gluhwein stands, as well as point out other options, like hot apple cider or the famous (and hard to pronounce) "feuerzangenbowle" a special alcoholic punch.  

Because it's so warming, it is easy to overindulge in gluhwein, so do take it easy and keep in mind the high sugar content tends to lead to nasty hangovers if you have too much.  Don't forget to drink water or switch to equally cozy glasses of "kinderpunsch" if needed.

4. Check the dates!

Larger cities have markets that run the entire advent season, usually until the 22rd or 23rd, but smaller markets may only run on weekends, or in certain cases, only one weekend.  So be sure and check the dates before you go!  Booklets (in German) with information on all the Christmas markets in Baden-Wurttemberg are available at many local kiosks (the stores that sell tobacco proucts and lottery tickets) and there are many websites that also contain this information.  

Keep in mind that some markets in Alsace, France stay open through the New Year, making for an ideal day trip when much of the businesses in Germany are shut down.  Strasbourg and Colmar are especially worth visiting for a day trip!

5.  Overwhelmed?  We can help!  

For the first time ever, Stuttgart Steps has created a tour to help you visit 3 of the best markets Southern Germany has to offer in one fun-filled day.  No need to worry about dates or how to navigate public transit or how to find the best food and drink - I've done the legwork, all you have to do is sign up, show up, and follow me.  

And as always, if you have any questions, want recommendations, just drop me a line!  

The Baroque beauty of the Ludwigsburg Market - easy to visit on my Christmas Markets tour!

The Baroque beauty of the Ludwigsburg Market - easy to visit on my Christmas Markets tour!

5 Things To Know About Christmas In Germany

1. Everyone is outside.

Definitely not an American.

Definitely not an American.

It may come as a shock to Americans from colder parts of the U.S. that Germans don’t use the cold, dark winter weather as an excuse to settle into their Snuggies and binge-watch “Orange is the New Black.”  Nope, they go outside.  Yes, they go to the Christmas Markets, but they also just go shopping, strolling, sometimes you can even spot people eating ice cream in freezing weather, or sitting outside at a cafe wrapped in a blanket.  The fact is, if the famously outdoorsy Germans waited until the weather was perfect to get outside, they’d only do so 9 days a year!  I’m half-joking - we had actual months of sunshine this year - but grey and cloudy is the Stuttgart norm more often than not, no matter what the season.  So don’t use weather as an excuse - get outdoors!

2. Santa Who?

There’s more than one character in German-speaking countries that may bring gifts to good children.  For instance, the O.G. Santa, St. Nicholas, brings good children small presents and goodies on the evening of December 5th, sometimes left in the children’s shoes which are put outside the front door for this purpose.  In some regions, St. Nick is accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht, his assistant, who would levy some old-school style punishment on naughty children by beating them with a sack of ashes, but these days he’s more likely to leave coal or sticks in the shoes of kids who have misbehaved.  

What the heck, Germany!

What the heck, Germany!

And if that love isn’t tough enough for you, in some parts of Germany and Austria, St. Nicholas eve is also associated with a scary but fun figure, that of the Krampus. He’s a hairy demon who  rattles rusty chains all around town on the night of December 5th, threatening to kidnap naughty children and take them into the forest or his mountain lair.  

In some families, the Weihnachtsmann (Father Christmas) does bring presents to children on Christmas eve and this figure is closest to the American Santa Claus, deriving from a strange combination of old German paganism and later attempts by Lutherans to stop the vernation of all Saints, including St. Nicholas, while keeping a similar figure around. Similarly introduced during the reformation, the “Christ Child” may be the present-giving figure.  Letters are written to either depending on the family’s tradition.

I’d think if I were still a  kid I’d profess belief in St Nicholas, Father Christmas, and the Christ Child - might as well maximize those presents!  Hopefully that greed wouldn’t put me at risk of a visit from the Krampus!


3. Christmas is more than just one day!

Germans love to celebrate, so it's no surprise that the Christmas season is especially long here.  It starts the last weekend in November with “Advent” in which the countdown to Christmas officially begins, and this is the weekend that the bigger Christmas Markets open.  

The formal Christmas celebrations begin on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, which is traditionally when presents between families are exchanged after a big dinner (goose is traditional!)  But most Christmas markets and even some stores and restaurants begin closing anytime after December 21st, so take note and don’t expect to be doing last minute Christmas shopping on the 24th - nearly everything is shut down.  Christmas Day and the 26th are both official holidays here as well, meaning virtually nothing will be open but gas stations.  Oh,and the 27th is a Saturday, so the next day will be closed too, meaning this year we’ll have nearly 3 ½ days of enforced family time.  Need a break?  Stuttgart Steps tours will be available for private tours during this period.  Starting at just 40 euros (for up to 10 people) this is a great deal and might be a good way to get the in-laws out of the house for a few hours.  

Even then, the season isn’t officially over until January 6th, known as Three King’s Day, or Epiphany, commemorating the day when the three wise men brought gifts to the baby Jesus.  This is also a public holiday so prepare appropriately!  If you ever wondered when exactly the 12 days of Christmas are...that’s your answer.


4. Christmas Markets are Awesome!

Just forget a little about the “market” part as I’ve found that most markets don’t necessarily offer the best shopping.  For practical items like clothes, gloves, and hats, the prices will be higher than in a normal store.  For ornaments and candles and knick-knacks, the selection between markets is often incredibly similar.  What the markets are really about is socializing, enjoying a hot beverage and some of the best festival food ever, and the beautiful decorations.

However, some markets are better than others and those of us who live in Stuttgart are very lucky in that regard.  The Stuttgart Market is incredibly large (and seems to get bigger every year).  Chances are that even if you think you’ve been there, you’ve probably missed parts of it.  There are people who’ve lived here for years who don’t know about the Finnish Christmas Village at the Karlsplatz, for instance - with it’s warm, fire-heated teepees and delicious smoked salmon.  The Stuttgart market is also unique in that every booth has unique and charming roof decorations, each more elaborate than the last!  

The Ludwigsburg Christmas Market

The Ludwigsburg Christmas Market

But we’re truly privileged in that two unique markets are just a short S-Bahn ride away: the Ludwigsburg Baroque Christmas Market, with it’s classy, beautiful white lights, and the Esslingen Medieval Market, which recreates the feel of a middle-ages street festival in the shadow of 700-year old half-timbered buildings.  I’ve traveled extensively to Christmas Markets all over Germany and Austria, and these three markets are still my favorites.  For an insiders view, complete with opinionated recommendations for the best food and gluhwein, take a tour with Stuttgart Steps in Stuttgart or Esslingen in December!


5. There's more to hot beverages than Gluhwein!

Anyone who’s visited Germany during Christmastime knows the traditional Gluhwein, or “glow wine”, a hot, spiced red wine.  But there are literally dozens of other beverages to try.  Did you know that many stands also have white gluhwein?  It’s delicious!  But there’s also apfelwein or gluhmost, which is hot spiced (alcoholic) apple cider.  And let’s not forget about eierpunsch, made with an egg-based liquor, not dissimilar from egg nog.  There is also Gluhbier which is exactly what it sounds like - hot, spiced beer.  (It’s not for everyone!)  You can find gluhwein made from the juice of various berries (look for anything with the word “beere” in it - that means “berry” not “beer”!).  If you’re especially cold, you can ask for your gluhwein “mit schuss” or with a warming shot, typically amaretto, rum, or cherry brandy - but be careful, lest you end up feeling like you’ve been beaten by Knecht Ruprecht the next morning.

That's one classy beverage!

That's one classy beverage!

My favorite hot holiday beverage is the tongue twisting “Feuerzangenbowle” (fire-tongs punch).  The punch is basically gluhwein, but through various devices a rum-soaked sugarcube is lit on fire, allowing the caramelized sugar to drip down into the punch.  With Feuerzangenbowle it’s as much about the spectacle as it is the taste.  The best feuerzangenbowle is in Ludwigsburg, where you are given an elaborate, giant goblet (pfand: 10!) and an individual sugarcube for your own flaming fun.  If you really want to get into the spirit, head to Tubingen on Friday, December 12th, where the now cult-classic German film bearing the name of the drink is shown at the Haagtorplatz while everyone imbibes.  

Looking for more fun Christmas facts, or just want to explore the Christmas markets with a knowledgeable guide?  Sign up for a public or private tour at Stuttgart Steps this season!

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

I'll be honest with you: when I left the United States, I dreaded Christmas.  That's not exactly a unique feeling for a lot of people these days, I realize, but I really dreaded it.  It was an excessively stressful time of year.  And my complaints are just as unimaginative: the excessive commercialization, the obnoxious constant stream of carols, the traffic, the inevitable lack of funds...Christmas had lost a lot of its magic for me as an adult.  

But my first Christmas in Germany changed that, because in Germany - and indeed, much of Europe, the dreary weather, constant lack of sunshine, all of that vanishes thanks to the Christmas Markets, or Weinachtsmarkten.  And why not?  For a month in the bigger cities, and at least for a couple days in even the smallest villages, everything is transformed.  Adorable huts selling ornaments, candles, and crafts spring up.  The smells of sizzling wurst, roast chestnuts, and spiced almonds fill the air.  Oh, and did I forget to mention Glühwein?

Stuttgart's Alte Schloss at Christmas

It seems silly to complain about commercialization while celebrating what is a market, where one goes to spend money, but there's something different about the European Christmas feeling.  It's not that you don't hear carols on the radio, or have sales in the malls, because that's inescapable, but the cozy feeling you get admiring the booth decorations while warming up with a beautifully decorated mug of glühwein or cider, chatting with friends and family in the cold but bustling night is something really special.

Vin Chaud is just Gluhwein by another name!

Vin Chaud is just Gluhwein by another name!

Stuttgart's Christmas market starts on November 27th, and runs every day until December 23rd.  Sadly, I'll have to suspend my regular tours of Stuttgart during this time, as the market takes up most of the route of my tour through the Mitte, and it's just crowded and narrow to navigate a group through.  I'll still be available for tours during weekday mornings, however, when crowds are more manageable.  It's a great idea for an activity if friends and family are visiting this holiday season, and I'm available on both the 24th and 25th (when most everything else will be shut down).

Esslingen's amazing Christmas Market

Esslingen's amazing Christmas Market

The exciting news is that I am starting my new tour of Esslingen, but only as a private tour reserved in advance.  Regularly scheduled public tours will begin right after Christmas.  You can reserve by contacting me or by sending me a message on Facebook!

In the meantime, you can keep up with my own travels through the regional Christmas Markets by watching this blog, or following me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter!  Have a great holiday season!