Magical Markets: A Bavarian Christmas
The scent of freshly baked gingerbread and hot, spiced glühwein floats on the air along with snowflakes and classic Christmas carols — Europe’s Christmas markets are legendary. Traditional holiday markets showcase time-honored customs and local handicrafts that are quickly being lost in today’s modern world.
Bavaria, located in southeastern Germany, is a state bordered by Austria, the Czech Republic and the snow-capped Alps. A land of classic German images and fairytale castles, the Christmas markets here seem to be magical. Both the Danube and the Main rivers flow through this land, which comprises about one-fifth of Germany.
Perhaps nowhere else can you find so many authentic hand-carved wooden toys and ornaments than in Bavaria’s Christmas markets. Local handicrafts are the star of Christmas markets, but the markets are culinary destinations as well. Markets across the country showcase local and traditional foods and drinks, including bratwurst, roasted chestnuts, “snowballs,” stollen, and glühwein, a traditional German hot, spiced red wine.
Glühwein is so popular that each Christmas market often creates its own customized mug each year to serve the beverage. It’s fun to try to collect as many souvenir mugs as you can while shopping. Not a fan of wine? Ask for mugs with hot chocolate instead.
Christmas Market Tips
Get an early start to avoid the crowds while shopping. Many markets will open before lunch time. Evenings are a beautiful time with the Christmas lights, but you’ll likely be walking shoulder to shoulder with the crowds. Also, confirm opening dates of Christmas markets with your expected travel dates in Bavaria. Not all markets are open at the same time, so you don’t want to be disappointed by missing a market by just a few days. Cities can have several types of Christmas markets, each with different themes. If you’re limited on time, check before you arrive so you’ll know which ones to visit and where to go.
One of the easiest and most convenient ways to explore as many Christmas markets as possible is to sail on a river cruise or take an all-inclusive tour. Viking River Cruises, AmaWaterways and Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection all sail through Bavaria with Christmas market cruises. Trafalgar and Insight Vacations offer land-based tours to various Christmas markets as well.
Bavaria’s capital, Munich, hosts a variety of Christmas markets throughout the city. The largest (and one of the most popular) is located in Munich’s Marienplatz. With both the old and new town halls and an ornate glockenspiel as a backdrop, a large silver fir tree covered with 2,500 lights is the focal point of the festivities. More than 160 booths are open all day and night. Look for the Christkindl post office by the town hall to have your mail receive an original German “Christkindl” stamp. Be sure to visit other smaller Christmas markets in the city, as well. Each has a unique theme, such as the Kripperlmarkt, a tradition since the 18th century. It’s the largest manger market in the country and specializes in nativity sets (known as cribs in Germany).
In Nuremberg, indulging in traditional foods is as much a part of the celebration as shopping. The famous lebkuchen (gingerbread) is a 600-year old tradition. Perhaps enjoy one while taking a horse-drawn stagecoach ride through the market. Nuremberg’s prune people — figures made out of dried prunes and figs with walnut shells for heads — are unique finds in the city, but you can also pick up a souvenir from countries that might not be on your itinerary at the Market of Sister Cities, which sells products from around the world.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber is a town that truly lives up to all of your fairytale images of Germany. Located on the “Romantic Road,” it’s Germany’s best-preserved walled city. The town is small, so let yourself get lost walking among quaint cobblestone streets lined with half-timbered houses. You’re sure to find Käthe Wohlfarht’s shop, a Christmas wonderland year round. Inside you may be overwhelmed with more Christmas ornaments and decorations than you could have ever imagined. The German Christmas Museum is upstairs and showcases unusual Christmas traditions and decorations from the 19th and 20th centuries. Rothenburg’s Christmas market fills the small town square and the surrounding streets. Be sure to stop for a “snowball,” deep-fried dough covered in powdered sugar or chocolate.
In Bamberg, the city is known for a large collection of nativities. Bamberg’s nativity trail showcases 36 locations, including chapels, churches, museums and public buildings, where visitors can see nativity scenes, some that are hundreds of years old. It’s a unique way to explore the city, one of the few that was not destroyed during World War II bombings. Bamberg’s varied Christmas markets are all located near the Old Town, creating an easy day of exploration.
Regensburg offers one of the more unique Christmas markets in Bavaria, with its Romantic Christmas Market at the Thurn und Taxis Castle. The massive castle, which is larger than Buckingham Palace, plays host to the market which is the most magical at night when it’s lit by candles, lanterns and communal fires to warm your hands and make new friends. Traditional craft demonstrations like hat making and wood turning are showcased in the large medieval courtyard. Visitors will also enjoy plenty of shopping and eating on the sprawling grounds. There’s a fee to enter this Christmas market, but the entertainment and atmosphere make it a wise investment for holiday fun. Additional Christmas markets can also be found throughout the medieval UNESCO World Heritage site.
In Rüdesheim, the 120 stalls of the Christmas market boast an international flair. You’ll discover global foods and crafts from 12 countries along the picturesque shopping quarter in the town’s old quarter and beyond. Rüdesheimer coffee, a unique delicacy available at the Christmas market is made with locally distilled Asbach Uralt brandy and topped with whipped cream.
Experience the sights, sounds and flavors of a Bavarian Christmas Market. Stop by your local AAA office or call 800-398-0379 and speak with your AAA Travel Agent.
(photo by Bayern Tourismus Marketing GmgH)
(Go Magazine Nov/Dec 2017)