This is my first winter living in Germany, and nearly everywhere I’ve visited since late-November has brought me to a Christmas market, often called Weihnachtsmarkt or Christkindlmarkt. They’re characterized by a few telltale signs: clusters of small wooden huts and aromas of roasting chestnuts, grilled sausages, and spiced wine (or gluhwein).
Germany’s markets, which date back to the Middle Ages, vary according to many factors: geography, location, time of day, and day of week. But they share a few commonalities, too: handmade toys, nutcrackers and smokers, local delicacies, and groups of friends and strangers huddled around tables with steaming mugs wrapped in their hands. As with any festival in Germany, you’ll pay a pfand (deposit) for the cup, stemware, or mug your drink comes in. You can get your money by returning the empty cup (or keep it as a cheap souvenir).
Most markets begin the weekend before the first Sunday of Advent. But places like Oberwesel—a small town on the Rhine—hold a market solely on the first weekend of Advent. And don’t make the same rookie mistake I did: The fifth Sunday before Christmas is Totensonntag, a German holiday. Even though Sundays in Germany are notoriously quiet—nearly everything is shut down—Christmas markets are usually the exception to this rule. I learned the hard way that some markets, like the one in Koblenz, shut down on Totensonntag.
With thousands of villages and cities to choose from for this story, I decided to visit markets in areas that I wanted to explore for other reasons, too. While some are sizeable enough that you could spend an entire day browsing (and re-browsing) booths, usually a few hours of exploration will suffice. I also confirmed the obvious advice to go during the week and visit early (but not too early; especially on Sundays, many booths get a slow start). Of course, when you avoid crowds, you also miss out on a certain holiday cheer that only comes from (unintentionally) bouncing off of your neighbors’ puffy jackets.
Of the literally dozens of markets I scoped out (and drank the gluhwein to prove it—all for you, faithful readers), these are the ones that stood out.