(Editor’s note: Dispatches Co-CEO Cheryl Boyd contributed to this post on the Cologne Christmas Market.)
Amid the lights and sounds and aromas of the Cologne Christmas Market, I had an epiphany: No one does Christmas markets like the Germans. Not the Austrians or the French. Neither the Belgians nor the Swiss and certainly not the Dutch.
While all the other countries across Europe put on Christmas markets that certainly have their charms, if you want the authentic Christmas experience – the kind of grand, overdone symphony of sentimental sensory overload – it has to be Germany.
Of the German markets we’ve been to, from one end of the country to the other, the Cologne Christmas Market is the best even on a cold, windy and rainy night. Dispatches photog/travel writer Jackie Harding has written about the Cologne market in detail, which you can read here. But we wanted to see it for ourselves.
First of all, the scale is operatic. There are seven separate markets all over the center of the city and going down to the Rhine River. We only made it to two, because, well, we went through 100 euros pretty quickly on food, glühwein, beer, more food, more glühwein, ornaments and Christmas-y souvenirs. Second, the city and its romantisch streets make it fun simply walking from market to market..
A pleasant surprise it’s even open
I have to say I’m surprised to even be writing this. Over the years, Dispatches has done dozens of posts about Christmas markets, but we’ve held off this year thinking they’d all be canceled. Again. And some in Germany are. But the Cologne Christmas Market is a go. And you really should seize the moment.
We went in early December amid warnings of rising COVID infections and the new Omicron strain. But I felt like I did a couple of years ago when we went to the Brussels Plaisirs d’Hiver markets after the 2019 Berlin Christmas Market attack … if we lose this, we’ve lost European culture.
So, off we went from Eindhoven to Cologne for our first Christmas visit not knowing quite what to expect. We didn’t know how tight the pandemic restrictions would be enforced, so we had our tiny Honda Jazz laden with different types of masks. We have our European vaccination passport and our daughter and her Italian and French college friends in tow.
(For the record, I asked Italian friends Carlo and Frederique how the Cologne market stacked up to Christmas Markets in Italy, and they agreed Italy doesn’t have anything like this.)
A 10, maybe an 11, on the scale of German Christmas markets
The Cologne Christmas Market turned out to be (slightly) less crowded than we expected … and just so beautiful. We’ve lived in Germany and we’ve been to markets in Aachen (sort of a mini-Köln), Trier (excellent), Duisburg (forgettable), Frankfurt (ehh … you know), Saarbrucken (small but charming), and others. But the Cologne market has a serious wow factor at night. The lights and music and general gemütlichkeit really put me totally, blissfully in the Christmas spirit … and I’m Jewish. Of course, so was Jesus, right?
The thing about Cologne is, it really can’t be anything but a 10 because of the setting. The first market we visited was aside the towering Köln Cathedral. Big win. The second was the Heinzels Wintermärchen, about four blocks way toward the Rhine.
While the Cologne Christmas market is big, it’s really the little things and the nuances that set the Cologne Christmas Market apart. Things like an amazing culinary experience, with a variety of great food like no other market.
Things like the live big band in the center of the cathedral market playing 1940s American Christmas music. Like the lights and decorations. Like the elaborate gates at the entrance and exit of each market. Like with a spinner on top of a full size Christmas Pyramid that’s actually a cocktail bar. Like the elaborate handmade crafts for sale including those glass dragon ornaments (44 euros).
Like everything! And like no other Christmas market.
Now, we haven’t been to the market in Nuremberg or to Düsseldorf. So, we’re keeping an open mind. But at this point, Cologne is a winner.
• The Cologne Market is open through Christmas eve. Most of the markets are open Sunday through Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday, they’re open until 10 p.m. But check to make sure it’s open at all as Germany is seeing rising infection rates.
• Okay, this is our one complaint. In the Netherlands where Dispatches is headquartered, we never use physical money. Every transaction – even at Christmas markets – is done via chip card scanners. At the Cologne Christmas market, it’s cash only.
• We thought the prices for food and whatever were very reasonable. I got a duck breast sandwich with cranberries for 8 euros. I could not make it past the Krustenbraten stand, German crusted pork roast, and a big sandwich with pickled cabbage was 8 euros. A Kölsch – the light, festive beer unique to Köln, not the Danish EDM DJ – was 2.50 euros and a glühwein was 4 euros with a 3 euro deposit for the ceramic mugs (we kept ours.)
• Be sure to use the elaborate tourism website for reference as to where everything is. Because the markets are quite a distance apart. Also, Cologne is an amazing city, so you might want to make it a weekend.
• About those COVID measures. Köln requires masks inside and outside, and we got stopped because we didn’t have ours on as we walked down the shopping street from the Quincy Mall to the market. Now, here’s the weird thing. At the Christmas market, the people at the booth only check your vaccine passport when you buy something at the first booth. Then you get a hand stamp you can show the rest of your visit. But what if you don’t buy anything? Theoretically, you can go to the market unvaccinated, which is not a reassuring thought.
Here’s a quick reference for a few of the Christmas markets – open and closed – in Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium:
• Aachen: open
• Dusseldorf: open
• Essen: open
• Den Haag: closed
• Dordrecht: closed
• Utrecht (Kasteel de Haar): closed
• Haarlem: closed
• Maastricht: open
• Valkenburg: open (but closes at 5 p.m.)
• Amsterdam Winter Palace: open
• Antwerp: closed
• Ghent: closed
• Leuven: closed
• Brussels: open
• Bruges: open
See more here from Dispatches’ archives about Europe’s Christmas markets.
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.