German Weihnachtsmarkt How-To Guide
As you know, part of Fahr + Away’s heart is in Germany (see our What’s in a Name page). Jordan has friends all over the country, which has afforded her the opportunity to travel Germany extensively and get to know it from natives’ perspectives.
Every season in Germany is beautiful but Christmastime is magical. In terms of Christmas magic, America has New York City. Germany has Germany. The winter weather is perfectly crisp, and every store front, hotel, church, and street is lavishly decorated with quaint decorations.
But the thing that really elevates Germany as the Christmas magic capitol of the world is its infamous Christmas Markets.
Last year, we spent two weeks in December experiencing different Christmas markets around Germany. In honor of this being the opening week of most of the German Weihnachstmärkte we are sharing some tips and photos from our trip. We hope you find them helpful – we will accept tokens of appreciation in the form of Lebkuchen and Glühwein Gewurz.
Fröhliche Weihnachten ihr alle!
History of the German Christmas Market
The German Christmas Market, referred to as a Christkindlmarkt (literally translates to Christ Child Market) or Weihnachtsmarkt (“Christmas Market”) can be traced back to the Holy Roman Empire. The first one can actually be dated back to 1298 in what is now Austria (thx Wikipedia). The first one in Germany was in 1310 in Munich.
The Christmas Markets traditionally coincide with the four weeks of the Advent (so, for us Americans who are planning a trip, that generally puts them opening the week after Thanksgiving).
The cornerstone of all German Christmas Markets is Glühwein. Glühwein translates to “glow wine” and is, befittingly, warm mulled wine. So, it’s glowing and, after you drink one, you are, too. Ya dig?
Glühwein is kind of a polarizing thing for first-time tasters. Joe loves it, Jordan does not. Whether it sounds good to you or not, it is an absolute must for first-time Weihnachtsmarkt goers. You will have plenty of opportunities to work up the courage, as there is a Glühwein stand roughly every twelve feet at any given Weihnachtsmarkt in Germany.
Glühwein is most often made with red wine, but every once in a while you might be thrown off with a choice of red – rot – or white – weiß. We suggest trying red first, since it’s the most traditional.
Another important thing to note about the Glühwein experience is the Glühwein mug. Every Christmas market has its own Glühwein mug design and the design changes every year, so they are something of a collectible item.
When you order a Glühwein, the price of the mug is included, so go ahead and keep the mug if you want a quick and easy souvenir. BUT, if you’ve already got all the souvenirs you can carry, you can take the mug back to the Glühwein stand and ask for der Pfand (“deposit”) and they will give you the cost of the mug back – usually around 2-3 euro.
Helpful Glühwein Vocab:
Glühwein – Traditional Christmas market drink of warm mulled wine
Mit Schuss – Translates to “with shot”. You can opt for an additional shot of liquor – usually rum or brandy- in your Glühwein.
Rot (pronounced “wrote”) – Red
Weiß (pronounced “vice”) – White
der Pfand – Deposit
Okay, you tried your Glühwein and you’re ready to move on. The Weihnachtsmarkt has you covered. If you’re still looking for something boozy and warm, many markets sell Glühbier which, in the similar vein of Glühwein, is warm, spiced beer.
Then, there’s Eierpunsch, which is basically egg nog spiked with white wine. What can we say? The Germans love their wine.
Lastly, there’s Feuerzangenbowle. This drink is sweeter than Glühwein – although it does use Glühwein as its base – because it is made by lighting a rum-soaked sugar block on fire and allowing it to melt over a vat of Glühwein. Served warm, of course.
For the less boozy crowd, all the classic choices are available: Beer, sodas, and, if you’re still looking for something warm, a lovely hot chocolate.
Helpful Hot Chocolate Vocab:
Heiße (pronounced “hice-uh”) Schokolade – Hot Chocolate
Mit Sahne (pronounced “zaah-nuh”) – With Whipped Cream
If you plan to visit a Weihnachtsmarkt, we suggest you show up hungry. For every stand selling adorable German Christmas trinkets, there is one on either side of it hawking traditional tasty treats. Different regions will have different special things on offer, but there are some universal staples.
Lebkuchen – German gingerbread – may be the most recognizable. Lebkuchen takes many forms, but you probably know them as the quintessential heart-shaped cookies with quick little messages scrawled on them.
If you’re a potato lover, Germany is the place for you. French Fries – Pommes Frites or the more colloquial, abbreviated Pommes – can be found at any Weihnachtsmarkt. Generally there are a few dipping sauces to choose from, but the standard – much to many Americans’ horror – is mayonnaise. Lean in, and learn to love this heartclogging – er, heartwarming – European twist on the western world’s favorite comfort food.
If you can’t stomach the idea of potatoes and mayo, wander around until you find a stand selling Reibekuchen mit Apfelsoße. These aren’t necessarily a Christmas-specific treat, but they are a perfect toasty snack for a cold day. Reibekuchen are potato pancakes, akin to latkes. Make sure you get them slathered with apple sauce.
Gebrannte Mandeln – roasted, candied almonds – are as foundational as Glühwein at a German Weihnachtsmarkt. Most Mandel stands have many varieties of nuts – Nüsse – if almonds aren’t your thing.
Warm Waffeln – waffles – can also be found at all Weihnachtsmärkte. Pile them high with Nutella and Sahne (whipped cream).
The best thing we ate at any Weihnachtsmarkt, and also possibly ever in our entire lives – we went back for multiple servings – was Champignons Mit Knoblauchsoße. This snack consists of two things: button mushrooms and creamy garlic sauce. It was the best savory lunch/dinner we could have hoped for. Honestly, we aren’t sure if these are a staple at all Christmas Markets because we only had it at the one in Cologne, but if you see a sign advertising Champignons Mit Knoblauchsoße, you absolutely must try some.
Jordan always makes a point of researching souvenirs before we visit a place. The idea of leaving Iceland without the perfect wool sweater or a Parisian pharmacy without an armful of the most highly rated French beauty products is unacceptable.
In that spirit, we want to make sure you know what to buy at the Weihnachtsmarkt. As we’ve already asserted, Germany is the Christmas magic capitol of the world (we’re always happy to throw a gauntlet – get at us, dissenters), and the souvenir selection lives up to the same standard.
Starting small, the Glühwein mugs are an inexpensive collectible, compact enough to squirrel away a few for yourself and for anyone who may be a little bitter that they couldn’t visit the Weihnachtsmarkt with you.
If you, like Joe, can’t get enough Glühwein, make sure you snag some Glühwein Gewurz – mulling spices – to take home with you. We also tried the Glühwein Gewurz in apple cider once we got home and it was excellent. Ein “crossover hit”!
Mentioned above, the festive Lebkuchen make a “sweet” souvenir for the folks back home. Make sure you pick one with a heartfelt message iced on.
Helpful Lebkuchen Vocab:
Frohe Weihnacht – Merry Christmas
Ich Liebe Dich – I love you
Mein Schatz or Meine Liebe – My Sweetie or My Love
Liebe Grüße – Lots of Love
One more traditional food item that can travel well is the traditional German fruitcake, Stollen. Stollen can usually be packed in a travel-friendly box that will keep it from getting banged around too badly en route to your appreciative friend or family’s cake stand.
No trip to the Weihnachtsmarkt will be complete if you don’t come away with some handmade wooden Christmas trinkets. We suggest a candle pyramid or an incense smoker.
The pyramids are little merry-go-rounds that are powered by the heat from candles around the base. You can see a gigantic version of one in the picture above from a Weihnachtsmarkt in Cologne, but they come in all shapes and sizes.
The final thing we’ll recommend are the smoking men – little characters made out of wood that come in two pieces. You rip their little bodies apart and stick a cone of incense inside. When you put them back together, the smoke from the incense streams out of the characters mouth and it looks like it’s smoking and it is DAMN cute.
Okay, honestly, this post took a lot out of us and we don’t have the capacity to come up with a cute conclusion paragraph so…it’s over.