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 Ways to Make January Bearable in Stuttgart

Well, it's January. The most depressing month of the year no matter where you are. The holidays are over, the kids are already somehow bored of their new presents, the weather is yucky, and the nearest holiday to look forward to is the anxiety-inducing rigamarole of Valentine's Day.

It's not a great time to be an expat in Germany. Travel often grounds to a halt, because who wants to experience a wonderful place during bad weather? And worst of all, there's no holidays or festivals of any interest happening until Fasching (Carnival)! But fear not, we at Stuttgart Steps have some ideas to keep yourself entertained during the bleakest part of the winter.

My tip is to become a local tourist. When you live somewhere, it's easy to put off exploring your own area, with the idea that you'll "do it later." Do it now! Here's some ideas to say goodbye to the winter doldrums:

1. Become a museum nerd

Maybe you think of museums as boring and associate them with dreadful field-trips as a child. Well, you're a grown-up now and it's time to revisit museums. Because they're awesome!. My personal favorite is the Landesmuseum Wurttemberg in the Alte Schloss  in Stuttgart. The museum went through a major renovation a couple years ago, and covers the history of human civilization in the Wurttemberg area. Now that might sound dull, but when you're looking at Celtic armor, Roman swords, and jeweled crowns you get a visceral sense history that reading a book can’t convey.

Other museums that are worthwhile in the Stuttgart area

Stuttgart's museums are also architectural germs!

Stuttgart's museums are also architectural germs!

  • The Mercedes-Benz Museum: Easily the best car museum in Germany, and that’s saying something!
  • The Staatsgallerie: A museum covering nearly 1,000 years of art, but small enough to enjoy without developing "Louvre syndrome" where you become exhausted and everything starts to blend together.
  • The Schweinemuseum: Yes, the pig museum. It's weird, it's kitschy, and it's a must-see in Stuttgart. Afterwards, you can eat all the pork you want at the good in-house restaurant.
  • Kunstmuseum: Known locally as "The Cube" you've probably admired this beautiful building from 2005, but have you bothered to go inside?  


2. Go to the spa

Warm, healing waters...

Warm, healing waters...

Did you know that Stuttgart sits on the second-largest complex of mineral springs in Europe? The water is supposed to be beneficial for many aliments, but most importantly, it's warm.  For families, it's hard to beat Das Leuze not too far from Robinson Barracks.  For couples, why not try it like a local and go au naturale at the amazing Schwabenquellen near Kelley Barracks?  Or you can wait for one of their monthly bathing-suit days if you're modest. I'll make a post about mineral bath etiquette and tips in my next post so you won't have to feel too intimidated.


3. Cozy up at a Weinstube

Eat and drink like a local!

Eat and drink like a local!

Winter is by far the best time to enjoy the pleasures of the too-heavy-for-the-summer local Swabian cuisine. And then there's the wine! Within Stuttgart there are dozens of Weinstube (wine pubs) that focus on local specialities and regional wines, served in the proper "viertele" (quarter, as in, a quarter liter!) glass with a handle. These restaurants are cozy, usually cutely decorated, with good service and excellent food at a good value. On my Stuttgart walking tours I point out my three favorites in the downtown area for you to visit on your own or you can always take one of my food and wine tours, where I take guests to my favorite wine pubs and a great restaurant and explain the local varietals and dishes.


4. Visit a palace

This is just 45 minutes from Stuttgart!

This is just 45 minutes from Stuttgart!

In addition to the fact that Stuttgart has two palaces right next to each other - the previously mentioned Alte Schloss and Neues Schloss - the region doesn't lack for royal residences.  If you still haven’t taken a tour of the wonderfully preserved “Swabian Versailles” Ludwigsburg Schloss, now’s a great time!  It's one of the most "blinged-out" places imaginable!   Then there's also the rebuilt Hohenzollern Schloss, which is even more beautiful in winter.  Both are must-sees, but poke around a little bit and you'll find even more castles and palaces in the Stuttgart area.

5. Take a tour

Yes, it’s cold outside.  But the Germans have a saying: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.”  So put on those layers and get outside!  Walking tours help you stick to those New Year’s Resolutions about being more active, and you’ll learn tons of fun facts and secret places in your own city.  Stuttgart Steps’ schedule for the rest of the month is online and we’re doing all our regular tours plus a special Food & Wine tour on the upcoming U.S. Federal Holiday on 19 January.  There’s only a couple spots left, so reserve today!

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!

Hello Winter, Goodbye Wine Hikes

Making new friends while tasting local wine?  Yes please!  

So I'm more than a little sad that it's time for my last Vineyard Wine Hike of the season tomorrow.  I premiered this "tour" in April and it's quickly become my favorite for a few reasons.  For starters, it's quite informal.  Instead of the typical city tour where I walk, a group follows, I talk for 5 minutes, we walk on, I stop, talk, etc. the Vineyard Wine Hike is far more unstructured and variable.  And we're spending hours walking together, drinking wine, eating - which gives me a chance to get to know my tour guests.  Instead of feeling like the tour "leader" it's a more relaxed experience.


I also love it because it's enabled me to enjoy new places.  I always try to include at least one "Besenwirtschaft" on the tour, but because of the seasonal and ever-changing schedule of these types of institutions, I sometimes have to get creative about our route to the new besen that's open this week, which means it's as much an adventure for me as it is for the tour guest.

View to the Royal Mausoleum on 8 November 2014 hike.  The colors are amazing!

The third reason is hey, I get paid to drink wine and nerd out about history.  That's pretty much my idea of a dream job.

But the weather is changing, the harvest is over, and most of the vineyard besenwirtschaften are closing until Spring.  So tomorrow's special Veterans Day Wine Hike is probably the last one until next April (unless we get a string of just awesome, unseasonably warm weather!)

And there's still space left on the tour!  Better yet, for former and current servicemembers, there is a 10 euro discount on the cost of the tour!  The tour includes transportation to and from the Stuttgart Hauptbahnhof as well.  

The vineyards are absolutely lovely, and some sun is predicted for tomorrow, so go ahead and make a reservation!  I'm accepting reservations until 9:00 a.m. tomorrow morning!  


How To Survive The Esslingen Wine Walk

Another wine-related post?  Well, it is that time of year!  And instead of my typical boring post just telling you what something is, I'm going to give you actual, practical advice you can use for one of the most popular events in the Stuttgart region: The Esslingen Wine Walk.

For those who aren't familiar, however, the wine walk (or weinwanderweg in German) is an event where the local winemakers set up booths in the vineyards where the grapes are grown, over a course of several miles.  For a refundable fee, you are given an adorably tiny wine glass (complete with cord to hang it around your neck!) and let loose to hike from station to station, sampling wines as you go.  At the end of the route, there is a huge fest with a traditional band, wurst, and even more wine.

Sounds great, right?  It is - but a lot of first (or let's be honest, second or third!) timers make some basic mistakes, and end up in rough shape afterwards.  So I'm going to give you some important tips to making sure you have a great time.

  1. Choose the right outfit.  Spring weather in Stuttgart is notoriously changeable, as you can see from the picture above, and we all know how accurate the forecast is here!  Dressing in layers is a must.  And tick season is in full effect, meaning pants are your best option.  This is a hike, so forget the cute shoes and wear something sensible.
  2. WEAR SUNSCREEN.  Then bring more with you.  I'm serious about this!  Also bring water, and buy more along the way.  Dehydration isn't fun for anyone.
  3. Go early or late!  This event seems to get more crowded every year, with 6,000 participants expected.  This means long lines to sample wine and feeling a bit like cattle as you slowly move from one station to the next.  You can avoid this by starting between 11:00-12:00, or waiting until the main rush has passed by starting after 15:00.  Another way to avoid the crowds is to do the hike "backwards" by starting in Mettingen (although if you want to join in the fest at the end, you'll have to take the S-Bahn one stop back to Mettingen)
  4. Try to stick to one taste per station.  The tasting size may seem small by local standards, but think of it this way - if you have one glass per station, you'll have drank nearly a full bottle of wine by the end of the hike, and you want to be in good shape for bench dancing at the party after!
  5. Some people decide to buy bottles along the hike, which can save time standing in line, but can also lead to drinking too much, too fast.  It's best to go this route only if you're with a large group of friends.
  6. Take public transit.  The wine walk is considerably less fun for a designated driver, and it's hard to tell just how much you're drinking along the way, so avoid any chance of a DUI.  The hike starts and ends within a 10 minute walk of the S-bahn line.
  7. Eat!  I can't stress this one enough.  Start with a big breakfast or lunch, and get a snack at one of the booths along the way.  
  8. Avoid shortcuts.  Sure, it might be tempting to walk down the hillside through the vineyards, or even down one of those ancient narrow staircases, but given all the rain recently, the steep ground is likely to be slick, and after a few glasses your coordination may not be the best.  Just stick to the path!
  9. Don't forget to get your stamps!  If you have one taste at every station, you are entitled to a free tasting at the fest at the end.  
  10. Take my brand-new Esslingen walking tour before the wine hike!  We'll start at 10:00 a.m., and finish at the starting point by 11:30 - perfect timing!  You'll learn about the origins of one of Germany's oldest cities, why Esslingen was bigger and more important that Stuttgart for nearly 1,000 years, and all about the local wine culture.  Impress the new friends you meet on the weinwanderweg with this trivia!  Did I mention that this tour is 2 euros off the regular price per person?  What a deal!

That about sums it up!  If you'd like a little more information on why Esslingen was so important, read about Free Imperial Cities in this previous blog post. Hope to see you either at my tour or up in the vineyards on Sunday, May 18th!