Contrary to what most British tabloid newspapers would lead to you believe, it is possible to be British and a Europhile. I love Germany almost as much as I love Christmas and I even chose my university degree based on Christmas market options. (I opted to spend a winter semester in Bavaria and my dissertation was fuelled by mulled wine).
I’m off to Barcelona in December, but I do hope to squeeze in a Christmas market or two in the meantime. Yes, I love Germany, but I’m just as fond of the markets in Belgium and I hear Poland is equally enchanting.
Get it right and Christmas markets offer magical memories for a lifetime. Get it wrong however, and you’ll be bah humbugging over your frostbite from your overpriced hotel room.
If you’re planning a festive market trip, here are my top tips:
- Think small. People tend to choose the largest, most famous German Christmas markets, but I actually found these the least enjoyable. Crowds can get so busy it feels as if you’re stuck on a conveyor belt with no emergency stop button. Visiting a few markets over a couple of days in smaller German cities or other European towns is so much smarter. The Liege market in Belgium is a personal favourite and celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.
- Avoid weekend evenings. Cruise ships dock around early evening and the crowds descend shortly afterwards. Weekdays tend to be a lot quieter, but do check in advance – some close on Mondays or other days of the week.
- Wrap up warm. German winters tend to be colder than ours. In Berlin I underestimated the chill and ended up wearing three coats. ‘Would you like onion on your veggie sausage, Fraulein? Oh no, you already are one….’
- For the children. Some markets offer children’s themed activities, so check at your hotel. I lived in Munich and its Weihnachtsdorf (Christmas market) in the Kaiserhof Residenz courtyard with St Nikolaus, magical fairies and Christmas elves is really magical.
- Toilet stop. Keep some coins to spare if you need to use the services of a local cafe or restaurant. Even if you’re dining in a respectable establishment, you will often still need to pay 20 or 50 euro cents, even just to change a nappy. Don’t bother arguing that you’re going to spend hundreds on just a few sausages, you’ll be taken for a Scrooge and will leave with an empty stomach (and a full bladder).
- Special diets. Christmas markets are a veritable heaven for carnivores, but speaking from experience vegan and even vegetarian options tend to be rather limited. The Viktualienmarkt in Munich offers some fantastic treats for all types of diets, in for other cities it might be worth eating before you go and keeping market time as a feast for the eyes.
- Glühwein dos and don’ts. Glühwein (mulled wine) is generally served in earthenware mugs for which you pay a deposit (‘Pfand’). For the kids go for ‘Kinderpunsch’ (children’s punch), but beware the sugar content – a calming nightcap this is not. For adults in need of a kick, add a ‘Schuss’ (shot) of whisky or other liquor. In my book, it’s totally acceptable to dunk a ‘Lebkuchen’ (gingerbread biscuit). If you’re not a fan of sickly sweet mulled wines, most cities offer their own local ale. ‘Augustiner’ can only be found within Bavaria and even a beerphobe like me must admit it’s rather good. And perhaps I’m just a fool, but I didn’t realise the glühwein was quite so alcoholic. Like most wine, it’s around the 8-13% mark. When you’re so cold and the wine is so sweet and warming, it can be easy to forget. Until the following day.
- Book now. Hotels get booked up well in advance and smaller, family run hotels often close in the run up to Christmas. Consider Airbnb or a house swap if you’re coming as a family and need more space. If you’re staying out of town, check if hotel transfers are running as normal – sometimes roads are closed off for the whole month.
- Beware of pickpockets. Don’t get hung up on security, but bear in mind that foreign tourists with cash are easy pickings for thieves. I’ve had friends lose mobile phones, cash and handbags as the holiday spirit and mulled wine kick in.
- Leave the clutter. Yes that snowy scene trinket looks so adorable in that mulled wine / local ale holiday haze, but chances are it’ll be overpriced and detested the moment you get home. In my book, Christmas markets are for food, fun and family time.