Christmas is coming. The Kelster is getting fat, please put a euro in the old gal’s newly purchased hat(s). If you haven’t got a euro, a cup of glühwein will do, if you haven’s got a glühwein, then God save you.
After visiting more than 30 Christmas markets throughout Austria, Germany and France, I am an expert on sausage, pumpkin soup in a bread bowl, pretzels, waffles, glühwein, chocolate, and Advent wreaths. There is a consensus that once you try one, you have tried them all but I don’t subscribe to that logic. Each market is regionally themed and the crafts and food are a reflection of the surrounding villages and towns. There are many similarities like handmade candles and paper stationary, Nutella crepes, local wines and liquors, and staged stalls constructed around city halls and historic parks and former palaces but the flavor and presentation change from place to place. In Nuremburg, stalls are striped red and white, in Vienna, ice skating rinks wind through the City Hall Rathausplatz and in Strasbourg, the proclaimed Capital of Christmas, colored ornaments and chubby gingerbread fill the shelves and cheese is the topping of choice. The towns come alive with locals and tourists from all over the world visiting the Christkindlmarkts in the four weeks leading up to Christmas. There is music and dancing and eating and drinking. Relive childhood memories and revel in the spirit of Christmas.
Before you go, here are a few tips to make the most of your visit.
1.) Eat everything. There are so many goodies to taste that are special to Christkindlmarkts in Europe. You need hearty food to keep you warm and there are a variety of soups, sandwiches and desserts to fill your tummy.
2.) Drink the Glühwein. Try hot mulled wine with Whiskey or Amaretto and pick the spot with the busiest stall to mingle with locals. Try the Glühwein with a shot of Bailey’s or eggnog liquor once but definitely not twice. Each market has a specifically designed mug for visitors. Keep yours as a reminder of your experience or return it to retrieve your deposit.
3.) Pick a few markets to see. Each village or city throughout Europe offers several themed Christmas markets throughout the area. Don’t try to conquer every market in Europe but select an area you have also wanted to see as a tourist and enjoy the markets as a bonus. If you have children, there is usually one market that caters to kids with rides, treats and fictional characters.
4.) Visit the markets by day and night. The daytime is often less crowded and people tend to grab a drink or quick bite and leave. At night, electricity fills the markets and people browse stalls and linger around glühwein vendors. The alleyways, storefronts and decorations are illuminated creating a romantic atmosphere. There are usually carolers and musicians performing on main stages.
5.) Dress in layers. Expect rain, wind, snow and cold. You will spend many hours outside. Be prepared with boots, gloves, warm hats and coats.
6.) Shop until you drop. Vendors sell ornaments, candles, jewelry, hats, socks, liquors, wine, honey, soaps, local desserts and other items for purchase. Most items are handmade. Consider buying something special to the market you visit.
7.) Learn something new. Each market offers walking or on the bus off the bus tours featuring the destination or even an overview of the history of the market. Several places offer Christmas museums where you can learn about Christmas traditions through the centuries. Take a break from the glühwein and cold and duck into a museum.
8.) Book hotels in advance. Christmas markets are very popular for tourists. If you want a spot nearby the city center or close to the action, be prepared to book early. This is an annual activity for many groups.
9.) Go by foot. Wander through the stalls admiring the skill and craftsmanship of local artists. Grab a pair of skates and twirl around the rink absorbing the sights and sounds of Christmas.
10.) Follow the signs but get lost. Most of the markets take place in the old city or in the center of town and are thoughtfully planned around access for locals and tourists. Follow your nose to one market and the bold and beautiful lights of the next. Just when you think you have seen them all, another market more spectacular will greet you.
German and Austrian Guide to Eating and Drinking at the Markets
Glühwein – Hot mulled wine. Red wine (white wine more traditional in Austria and France) made with spices and citrus fruits and can be spiked with whiskey or amaretto
Punsch – Juice with liquor or without for kids
Heidelbeer-Glühwein – Blueberry mulled wine
Eierpunsch – Hot spiked eggnog liquor. It’s rich and strong with whipped cream
Heiße Schokolade – Hot chocolate with or without whip cream
Brezels – Made to be eaten daily, pretzels are sold in bakeries and shops across Germany, Austria and Alsace, France. Pretzels are plain with salt, covered with layers of dark and white chocolate and other sweets
Kartoffelpuffer – Greasy potato pancakes eaten with salt or topped with apple sauce, sugar or cinnamon
Kaiserschmarrn – My favorite! A traditional Austrian and Bavarian dish named after Kaiser Franz Joseph I. It’s similar to bread pudding with raisins, nuts, plums and apples and topped with vanilla sauce or apple sauce
Spätzle – Short egg noodles with cheese or ham or bacon and onions
Pommes Mit Mayo – Steaming hot French fries with mayo on top
Maronen (Maroni) Marrons – “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire”
Raclette – A large wheel of Swiss cheese that is heated. The top of the cheese is scraped off and put on toasted bread. Bacon can be added
Lebkuchen – German cookies similar to gingerbread
Gebrannte Mandeln – Toasted almonds
Waffeln – Waffles with Nutella, marzipan, powdered sugar
Bratkartoffel – Baked potatoes with all the toppings
Bratwurst / Rostbratwurst – Fried sausages
Stollen/Christstollen – Traditional German Christmas cake similar to a coffee cake with dried candied fruit, nuts and spices. The original comes from Dresden
Betmännchen – Chubby doughy gingerman looking treat made with yeast
Krapfen – A Berliner Pfannkuchen is a traditional German pastry similar to a doughnut with no central hole. Made with sweet yeast dough fried it is filled with marmalade or jam and topped with frosting, powdered sugar or regular sugar.
Schokofrüchte – Chocolate covered dried fruit
Riesen Germknödel – Popular in Austria and Southern Germany (Bavaria) it is a bun shaped sweet dumpling filled with plum jam and covered with a thick vanilla sauce. It’s a traditional dish that locals eat regularly
Baumstriezel – Thin dough wrapped around a baking spit and then rolled in sugar, nuts, chocolate and cinnamon. It has a deep hollow center. It originated from the Hungarian areas of Romania where it’s called Kürtőskalács
In Stasbourg, France
Beignets – A deep-fried pastry similar to a fritter. Can be plain or filled with chocolate or strawberry
Bretzel aux lardons – Hot pretzels with loads of cheese and bacon sprinkles
Tartes flambées – A specialty of the Alsace region, it’s a piece of bread covered with thick cheese or cheese and onions or bacon
Chocolat chaud – Yummy hot chocolate. It’s nearly as thick as pudding
Vin chaud – Hot mulled wine (red or white)