10 Tips for the BEST European Christmas Market Experience
Winter is coming. Which also means . . . CHRISTMAS MARKET SEASON IS COMING.
My husband and I often aren't able to fly back to the U.S. to visit family during the holidays due to his work schedule, which is hard--we get super bummed out about it. But one of the things that makes it easier for us to enjoy spending Christmas abroad is visiting the European Christmas markets.
Between the end of November and the beginning of January, villages, towns, and cities across Europe host Christmas markets. Last year was my first experience visiting markets, and it was everything I had ever dreamed it would be: hot drinks, festive decorations, mouthwatering market food, local craftsmen, chestnuts roasting on an open fire (literally, it's a winter street food in Europe). Bonus points for magical snowfall.
I had the opportunity to visit Christmas markets in Austria, Germany, and Belgium last year, and I can't wait to visit more this winter. Confession: I have a "Christmas Market Bucket List" saved in the notes on my phone. And yes, I have updated it regularly throughout the year.
Can you tell that I LOVE Christmas markets? So much so that I think everyone needs to experience a European Christmas market. When visiting Europe in the winter, make room for a market or two on your itinerary.
Here are my top 10 tips for making the most out of your market visit:
1. Dress according to the weather. Since most Christmas markets are held outdoors, make sure you check the forecast before you venture out. I recommend bundling up as much as you can!
2. Bring cash (especially small bills). Most vendors have a cash-only system. It's easier, plus it's a helpful way of staying on budget; my husband and I have a system of only bringing as much euro as we think we might need (for food, drinks, and gift items) and sticking to it. It's dangerously easy to get caught up in spending at markets!
3. Come hungry. You might get disappointed if you show up at the market to all of the wonderful, enticing food smells only to realize you're not hungry at all. There are SO MANY amazing things to eat at Christmas markets! Which brings me to my next point . . .
4. Follow your nose. It can almost be overwhelming if you're at a large market and there are a multitude of food choices in front of you. If I'm having a hard time deciding which stall to visit for a wurst mit brötchen (sausage with a roll) or flammlachs (salted, fire-roasted salmon), I don't necessarily go for the most crowded one. I choose whichever stall smells the best--it's worked well at every market I've been to.
5. Balance your alcohol. Glühwein, a hot wine mulled with spices, oranges, and liquor, is one of the most classic must-try items at Christmas markets. It's usually one of the first things I find upon arriving at a market! But remember that alcohol lowers your body temperature, so while at first you might feel a rush of warmth, you'll wind up getting very cold later. Try alternating an alcoholic drink with a hot non-alcoholic drink, like cider or hot chocolate, to keep from getting chilled down.
6. Return your cup for €. At markets, drinks are served in a variety of different small mugs or glasses (you know, save the earth and all that). You have to pay for the mug up front to receive your drink (this is not optional) but you can return the mug for a pfand (money for returning the mug/glass/bottle). Sometimes you get a token which you must return with your cup to get your € back.
7. Choose your Glühwein mug wisely. Many people choose to keep their mug as a souvenir, which I recommend, but don't just get the first one you see. Before ordering your first Glühwein or hot chocolate, walk around to scope out the different designs, then order from the stall selling the design you like best.
8. Get a clean Glühwein mug before you leave. Once your cup is empty, you don't have to stick that used cup in your bag. I did not know this at my first Christmas market and put my used mug in my purse, which of course resulted in Glühwein residue all over. But then a friend told me that most vendors will allow you to trade in the same mug for a clean one to take home! Yay for no more drink residue in purses.
9. Skip the stroller. If you're traveling with small children, opt for a different child-transport-method. On the busiest days it's often frowned upon to bring a stroller at all, since markets can get very crowded and difficult to maneuver.
10. When is the best time to go? My least favorite Christmas market experiences involve getting stuck like a sardine in large crowds of people. Sometimes crowds are unavoidable depending on your schedule and what market you visit, but I like to go during weekdays in the afternoon best.
Bonus tip: If you're driving to a Christmas market, check the website before you go. Sometimes there's recommended parking areas or alternate modes of transportation that make life a lot easier. For example, some cities (like Cologne and Düsseldorf) have multiple markets, and you can buy tickets on a little motorized train that ferries people from market to market. I did this in Cologne last year and it was a lifesaver!