Traveling during the holidays isn’t what many would consider a joyful experience. But if you’re headed to the right destination, it can also be magical.
Escaping the holiday hustle and bustle, get into the spirit, and get some shopping done at Germany’s Christmas Markets.
Cologne, Germany, is home to not just one, but about a half-dozen Christmas Markets, making it tough to feel like Scrooge. The markets here attract the likes of two million visitors every year, and it’s easy to understand why. I was on a Christmas Markets on the Rhine river cruise with AMA Waterways, and there were a number of markets within easy walking distance from where the ship docked along the Rhine River. The proximity made it nice because you could wander and come back and take a break when you’d had enough, or wanted to simply warm up. The wooden stalls are loaded with an assortment of goods, including everything from handmade holiday decorations, to pretzels. Ice rinks go up, Ferris wheels and carousels go around and around; it attracts tourists, but it’s embraced by locals.
Cologne’s Christmas Markets can be very crowded, especially on weekend nights. For a quieter take, head down the Rhine River toward Switzerland to Rüdesheim.
With a population of about 7,000 people (compared to Cologne’s million) the experience in Rüdesheim is much different. Artisans working in Christmas stalls will have time to strike up a conversation with you, because they have the time to talk to you. The market isn’t contained in one square or area, it is spread throughout town, making it a fun spot to wander. There will be local kids running through the streets. You’ll hear Christmas music playing throughout the city, and there will be plenty of lights. And again, the heart of Rüdesheim is less than a 10-minute walk from the ship to the center of town, so it’s easy to go back and take a break, and maybe drop off shopping bags when needed. Rüdesheim rolls up the sidewalks pretty early, so you’ll want to enjoy the market sooner in the day as opposed to later in the evening. I went for a walk after dinner around 8:30pm, and I had the place to myself.
Heidelberg comes complete with a photo worthy castle. The Christmas Market here is scattered in squares throughout the old town. A long pedestrian stretch connects one square to the next, but with winding alleys and streets getting lost is part of the enjoyment. Heidelberg has a population of about 150,000 thousand – more than 30,000 are college students. (It’s home to the largest University in Germany.)
There are certain things you can expect at all Christmas Markets like mulled wine, called glühwein, big gingerbread cookies, wooden toys and crafts. But you’ll also notice different things at each market based on holiday traditions and local culture.
Gengenbach’s city hall just happens to have 24 windows, so it does double duty as an advent calendar during the holiday season. The surrounding market was my favorite of the bunch during my river cruise with AMAWaterways because it was everything I envisioned a European Christmas Market would be. Dominated by locals, I met a sister from a neighborhood monastery selling paper stars and baked goods. When I asked one of the artists a question in German, it was the first time someone actually responded in German and kept going. The town has a population of 10,000, but it’s not a popular stop with tour companies.
Review and photos by Dana Rebmann. Her stay was hosted by AMAWaterways, but as always her thoughts and opinions are her own.