Monday, November 27, 2017

My Top 10 Tips When Visiting European Christmas Markets

Christmas market by Lake Geneva in Montreux, Switzerland
For almost 20 years, during holiday times, I have roamed the Christmas markets of  Germany and many in France, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, and Austria. After years of sampling regional specialties and purchasing lovely local gifts, I've also learned visiting Christmas markets is a mini-history lesson on the city itself. 

Discovering the holiday traditions and uniqueness of each city makes the visit and purchases a more meaningful experience. 

Harbor Christmas Market on a ship floating on the Rhine river, Cologne, Germany
When I visit a Christmas market, I usually spend the entire day in that city, traveling by train roundtrip from my home in Germany or where I am staying. Over the years I have developed a routine on planning a Christmas market visit from what to pack to how to shop.  
Scenes from Christmas market in Maastricht, Holland
Of the local specialties offered at a Christmas market to buy or to eat, some are specific to Christmas. That's a good thing to research before you go. You may not want to eat or buy what on offer but most have an interesting history that is connected with the soul of the city. Knowing a bit about the soul of the city makes the visit a richer experience.

Local salami specialty at a Christmas market in Lausanne, Switzerland
Here are my top 10 tips for visiting and shopping at European Christmas markets:


Do some research beforehand: If you don't want to miss special appearances or performances like the Christkind at the Nurnberg market, make sure you check the website of the Christmas Market for performance times and plan your trip accordingly. Double check the hours of the market or markets you want to visit as well. 

Christmas Market at Place l'Ancienne Douane, Colmar, France
Check the weather but be prepared for anything. Living in Germany for so many years, I learned to never leave the house without sunglasses, an umbrella, and an extra scarf. Often I've used all three in one day.

It is likely, if you are just visiting a city for the market, you will be spending several hours there walking outside (comfortable shoes alert!).  Make sure you check the temperature upon your arrival time and planned departure time and dress accordingly. Bring an extra scarf or glove liners, or heat packs if necessary as t
he temperature can change drastically. No one wants to go home early because even filled with copious amounts of glüwein, they consume, they are still freezing.

Sword fighting demonstration at the Medieval Christmas market in Munich, Germany


Visit other attractions - Research of other attractions you would like to visit in the city. Most of these I knock out in the morning when I arrive and then I visit the Christmas markets. Or I take a break between daylight and evening visits. You also do not want to miss the markets at night, when they are all it up and become the most magical. So plan another circle back (perfect excuse for a glühwein) as evening descends. Prioritize the list into "must visit" and "would like to visit". Note their hours. If you have time, you can always circle back to your "would like to" list. 

Living light sculptures at the Tollwood Christmas market in Munich, Germany
Get maps. when you arrive at the train station, visit the tourist information booth. Most likely, there will be two maps, one of the city and one of the Christmas Markets. Often there are several Christmas markets within the city, the main one, and several offshoots. Some are themed. Sometimes there is a Christmas market at the train station as well. Pick up both maps. The Christmas Market map is usually a lot less detailed than the standard city map. I've often found myself referring to both to get around. 

View of the Cologne Dom from a Christmas market in Cologne, Germany
Also, pick up a transportation map. Usually, you can walk to the Christmas market from the station but double check at the info booth and ask how to get there by public transportation if the market is too far away to walk to. Make sure you ask HOW you purchase a transportation ticket. If you will be running all over the city, buy a day pass. 

Christmas Market located under the arches of the Grand-Pont
(Le Marché du Terroir et de la Vigne des Arches) in Lausanne, France
Note: Many public transportation systems in Europe are on the honor system. Meaning, you purchase a ticket and get on the bus, tram, train etc. No one or nothing punches the ticket. However, there are transit police attired in uniforms and plainclothes riding these modes of transportation all day to perform random checks of riders. They will ask to see your ticket and check its validity. If you are caught "riding black" without a ticket, there are steep fines upwards of 60 Euro that often has to be paid on the spot (bye bye shopping money.) The transit police will also throw you off the vehicle. Fun times.

The fabulous Gay-friendly Pink Christmas market in
Munich's Glockenbachviertels, Germany
While you are at the train station, check the locations of the other attractions you want to visit to plan your day efficiently. 

Make sure you have the times and platforms of the return train times, especially the final one before you leave the station so you have flexibility in deciding when to return. 

Christmas Market in the Velvet Cave in Valkenburg, Holland
Shop carefully and creatively: Even my friends who swear they are are not shoppers can't resist picking up a few items. I find the best items to be unique to the place. Handmade or regionally, locally produced items make great souvenirs. Before buying an item, ask yourself  "Can I get this back home?"  If it is something you can easily find at a store home, why bother having it take up room in your suitcase?  I'm all about the suitcase real estate. Check where the item is manufactured. If it says "China", I usually put the item back unless I need it for a specific purpose. 

Traditional Bavarian straw Christmas ornaments, Christmas market, Munich, Germany
I also like to buy handmade ornaments, preferably nonglass ones that are easily transportable. Ornaments are easy to pack, a great memory of your Christmas market visit and they make wonderful gifts. A bonus is they do not take up a lot of suitcase real estate.
Vintage Christmas ornaments for sale at a Christmas market in Cologne, Germany 
Tour the entire market first, then circle back to buy the items you've had your eye on. Many booths sell the same types of goods and you might find something similar you like better or at a lower price at another booth. The only exception is my "one left" policy. If there is only one left, and I love it, I don't pass it up in case I cannot find it somewhere else.

Käsespåtzle at Tollwood Christmas Market in Munich, Germany
Bring a Backpack - I usually wear a cross body bag with easy access to my cell phone, money, tickets, personal essentials like lipstick and antibacterial wipes. I wear my camera around my neck. I also bring a lightweight backpack that contains two lightweight shopping bags with long handles so I can sling those over my shoulders if I run out of room in my backpack for my purchases. I store my extra outer gear and umbrella in the backpack as well. 

If you decided to visit another attraction that does not allow backpacks, you can check the backpack and still have all your valuables in the crossbody bag.
Christmas market in Strasbourg, France
Bring Small Money - You will make better friends with the vendors if you do not routinely hand them large bills for them to change. Make sure you are carrying small denominations of the local currency. This can also speed up the process of paying if there are many people at the booth waiting to purchase goods. 

Strip Tease tent at the Santa Pauli Christmas Market at St. Pauli,
the Red Light District in Hamburg, Germany
Ask vendors Before You take pictures of their goods: - This specifically applies to booths selling handmade items. I learned this the hard way at a marzipan stand at the Nuremberg Christmas market selling delightful creations like fruits, vegetables, and figures sculpted out of marzipan. I started excitedly snapping away until the vendor screamed at me. Loudly. I was stunned. 

When vendors (especially older, not social media savvy ones) see people taking pictures, they are fearful of others stealing their ideas and making those items on their own to possibly sell them themselves. Now I always ask before I snap at these types of booths. If it's I am making a purchase, I ask after I have paid. My way of buttering them up a bit before I ask.  

Nutcrackers like these on display at a Christmas market in Hamburg, Germany are always a lovely gift.
Don't ignore the local stores: After your time spent at the Christmas market - if you have some to spare, visit some of the local stores. I focus on the ones that are not part of a chain, like local home goods stores. I have found some of my favorite unexpected holiday items and gifts in these places.
Christmas market entrance in Aachen, Germany
depicting the city's famous Printen spiced cookies
My Travels to European Christmas Markets:


A Christmas Market with a Conscious - Tollwood in Munich, Germany
Aachen, Germany Christmas Market

Cologne, Germany Christmas Market
Freiburg, Germany Christmas Markets

Hamburg Has the Sexiest Christmas Market in Germany
Munich Christmas Market Roundup
Munich - Tollwood, A Christmas Market with a Conscious

Colmar, France Christmas Market
Strasbourg, France Christmas Markets


Maastricht, Holland Christmas Market
Valkenburg Holland Christmas Market in the Caves


Basel, Switzerland Christmas Market
Geneva Switzerland
Lausanne, Switzerland
Montreux, Switzerland

Musicians/Carolers at a Christmas market in Freiburg, Germany

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