Lifestyle & Culture

Treasures and tchotchkes: Dispatches’s list of our favorite Christmas markets

One of the real pleasures of living in Germany for years was proximity to some of Europe’s best Christmas markets, from Trier to Basel.

I know … you’re a busy expat executive or techpat. What are the odds you’re going to dedicate a weekend trip to drinking Glühwein? Well, you should, because there is so much more to it than that.

Come on, get a life!

But be warned … there are Christmas markets (almost every city and town has one), and then there are Christmas markets. A lot of the small city markets in Germany are just okay, with booth after booth of the same products, and some are really great. We’re going to help you avoid the “meh” markets and concentrate on the fab. Because if going to a great Christmas Market doesn’t put you in the Christmas spirit, get someone to check your pulse.

One of the greatest nights of my life was spent freezing in Trier’s alt stadt with our friends Taylor and Becky and all our kids. I look up and coming through this giant crowd, I see Taylor (who at 6’5″ towered above everyone) with Glühwein for everyone. Well, not the kids. We got the sugary nuts and roast boar.  The sauteed mushrooms. Then we washed it all down with Glühwein, the traditional mulled wine of Christmas.  Under the spell of the magical scene – the lights and the music of the season – we spent a boat load of money on ornaments and gifts. It was worth every euro. We were in an ancient German city for Christmas!

Running around in the fresh air for hours, the kids slept all the way home.

A magical night … and at Christmas, we still carefully unwrap the ornaments we collected – at least one from every Christmas Market – and relive those days.

• Basel

I have always loved Basel, which is sort of the ugly stepchild of Swiss cities. It has everything that’s great about Switzerland (except mountains), but without the overbearing perfection, insane prices and haughtiness of Zurich and Geneva. It’s a very artsy city, and an American expat couple we met told us Basel has more cellists than in any other city in the world.

So, it figures the Basel Christmas market is large, attractive, well organized and curated, with artisans selling expensive crafts instead of miles of cheap wooden toys.

There are about 180 artisans selling out of small, rustic “wooden chalets,” according to the Basel Christmas Market website, so it’s large.

We spent a lot of money there back in the day, and we still have two souvenirs … an elaborate icon and a molded lead Swiss maid. If I remember, the maid was probably 3o Swiss francs, and the icon at least 50 Swiss francs. I’m sure we bought a bunch of overpriced ornaments, but those are the two keepsakes we keep in our case of sentimental treasures.

The market is in the Münsterplatz in the middle of the incredible alt stadt. So, even if you don’t buy anything, it’s a visual treat at Christmas to see the 400-year-old Rathaus and all the activity in the center square of the city.

The details:

Basel Christmas Market runs from 26 November through 23 December. It’s open daily from 11 am to 8:30 pm

• Trier

This is the real deal, about as authentic a German Christmas market experience as there is. Trier is a old, old Roman city on the Moselle River in west-central Germany, a 45-minute drive from the military communities around Kaiserslautern. Its Christmas Market takes up the entire alt platz, which is huge, spilling over into the area around the Porta Nigra, one of the best preserved Roman city gates in the world.

Going to the Trier Christmas Market is about more than drinking Glühwein. Trier is one of the most remarkable small cities in Europe, with original Roman, Gothic and Baroque architecture, and the most atmospheric old town in southwestern Germany.

You won’t just be pigging out on the fabulous traditional foods, including sauteed mushrooms. You’ll be submersing yourself and your family in the essence of 2,000 years of culture.

A note: This Christmas Market has excellent ornaments and a lot of handcrafted clothing including alpaca sweaters. None of it is made in Germany, but the quality is still high.

The details:

Der zauberhafte Trierer Weihnachtsmarkt findet vom 23. November – 22. Dezember 2015 auf dem mittelalterlichen Hauptmarkt und vor der imposanten Kulisse des Trierer Domes statt.

Our feeble German translation: The magical Trier Christmas Market will be from 23 November through 22 December in the Medieval central market under the imposing scenery of the Cathedral of Trier.

In 95 Holzhäuschen, festlich dekoriert, werden weihnachtliche Waren wie Weihnachtsschmuck, Holzspielzeug, Kerzen, Gläser, Geschenkartikel, Keramik und vieles mehr angeboten. Für das leibliche Wohl sorgen Bratwürstchen, Reibekuchen, süße Sachen sowie heißer Tee und Glühwein.

In 95 booths –huts, they’ll be a whole bunch of stuff for you to buy and eat including Christmas decorations, wooden toys, candles, glass goods, mugs and etc. For the whole body (guessing they mean the cravings?), there will be Bratwursts, Rebekuchen (latkes),  sweets, hot tea  and, of course, Glühwein.

Frankfurt

This is a big one, located in Römerberg and St Paul’s Square just off the Main River that runs through Frankfurt. In fact, the Frankfurt tourism website claims it’s one of the largest in Germany, and one of the oldest, dating back about 600 years.

The location is amid some of the few authentic old buildings that survived the World War II bombing, and the atmosphere is genuinely festive.

There are at least 200 vendor stalls. But, this might be a better Christmas Market for drinking, eating and hanging out than it is for shopping.

Walk over the Eisener Steg bridge, and soak in the impressive might of Frankfurt’s central business district, known as “Mainhattan.” It’s Mainhattan because of its New York-like cluster of skyscrapers, a mighty skyline no other city in Europe really has. And there’s lots more to do in Frankfurt if you get bored with the market.

A lot of the hotels in Frankfurt offer special Christmas Market packages that include the room as well as goodies at the market. Or you can book one through the tourism bureau starting at 61 euros per person, double room.

The details:

The Frankfurt Christmas Market run from 25 November through 22 December.

Location
Römerberg, St Paul’s Square and Mainkai (Main Quay)

Hours
Monday – Saturday 10 am – 9 pm
Sunday 11 am – 9 pm

• Colmar

Colmar is a small, charming Medieval trading town on the Alsatian Wine Road between Strasbourg and Mulhouse in eastern France along the German border. Colmar doesn’t have just one market. It has five themed Christmas markets in five different squares, including one just for fabulous local Alsatian products such as wines, spirits and foie gras.  There are about 180 vendor stalls in all.

Decked out in lights and decorations, with incredible architecture, including authentic half-timbered buildings, along its wonky street, you’d swear you were back in the 16th Century. Well, you would if there weren’t masses of people in contemporary clothes, and all the high-end restaurants. But if you want a memorable first Christmas Market experience, this is the place. Also, Colmar has one of the most elaborate Christmas merry-go-rounds in Europe AND an ice skating rink. So, this is a kid’s winter paradise.

And a tip: Book a room at one of the great hotels, and try the grand, but expensive, restaurants.

The details:

Colmar’s Christmas Market(s) run from 20 November to 31 December.

Hours are

– Monday to Thursday: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

– Friday to Sunday: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

– Friday 20 November: 2 p.m. to 8 p.m.

– Christmas Eve: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

– Christmas Day: 2 p.m. to 8 p.m.

– New Year’s Eve: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

• Strasbourg

Full disclosure: Strasbourg may bill itself as “The capital of Christmas,” with the oldest Christmas Market, but this was our least favorite market. The Strasbourg Christmas Market is so big – 300 vendor stalls in 12 locations around the city! – it’s fatiguing to try to see everything. And there’s a lot of repetition, and not that much great stuff. But, Strasbourg has a great website, so you can sort of center in on what you’re after, because all the markets are arranged by category – treats, local craft products, etc.

Also, at 300,000 people, Strasbourg is a seriously large, busy city, not a hamlet like Colmar or Trier. So take that into consideration and scout out parking areas ahead of time. Again, the website has lots of info. Strasbourg also is one of the culinary centers of France along with Lyon, Paris and Bordeaux, with three Michelin-starred restaurants! So you might want to plan your visit around a destination restaurant.

27 November to 31 December 2015

Opening hours and dates

  • 27 November, from 2:00 to 9:00.
  • 28 November to 23 December, Sundays to Thursdays from 10:00 to 8:00, Fridays and Saturdays from 10:00 to 9:00.
  • 24 December, from 10:00 to 6:00.
  • 25 December, from 2:00 to 6:00 (Some stalls may be closed on Christmas Day).
  • 26 to 30 December, from 10:00 to 7:00.
  • 31 December, from 10:00 to 6:00.

• Saarbrücken

Another favorite of ours, Saarbrücken’s Christmas Market is tiny compared to the others listed here, with 80 vendor huts on the main square, St. Johanner Markt. But it’s in a swank, wealthy little German town just north of the French border. How swank? Saarbrücken has a huge Prada store! This is also an arts town, with its own opera company, so the music is excellent.

One of the most memorable moments for our kids was when Father Christmas and his reindeer-drawn sleigh flew over the market (on a high wire), telling the Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer story. Seriously. If you’re four years old, this is high (no pun intended) drama!

The booths aren’t bad, either, with lots of traditional food and some collectibles. And you’ll have to get your Saarbrücken ornament to complete your collection. But get there early and take advantage of some of the best upscale shopping in Germany!

There are also package hotel/Christmas Market deals available.

Dates for the Saarbrucken Christmas market are 24 November through 23 December 2015

Hours are:

Daily 11:00 am to 9:00 pm
29 Nov. & 30 Nov. 11:00 am to 11:00 pm
13th Dec 11:00 am to midnight

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