As we are now just days away from Christmas, I thought it was about time for a post about the Christmas markets! Germany, I think, is truly one of the best places to enjoy and experience the Christmas season, and the Christmas markets are a big part of that.
Beginning in late November, the Christmas markets give you plenty of time to get into the Weihnachtsstimmung – or Christmas spirit! Christmas markets exist in just about every major city in Germany, and many of the smaller ones, too. Last weekend, I traveled down to Freiburg to visit Marieluise, my former exchange sister, for a lovely weekend of Christmas-related activities! On our first night there, we visited the Freiburg Christmas market, where we enjoyed a nice dinner of Christmas market food and listened to a few members of Marieluise’s orchestra playing Christmas music in the market! Later in the weekend, we visited the Ravennaschlucht Christmas market. Besides these two, I have personally visited the Christmas markets in Bonn, Cologne, Siegburg, Hamburg, and Heidelberg. Of these, I think Ravennaschlucht and Bonn are my favorites. Ravennaschlucht is quite a unique Christmas market experience; located in a smaller town, it has a massive bridge that is lit up and soars over the entire market, making a lovely scene. The setup is also quite nice, with stands all around a giant circle, and more open space in the middle for you to enjoy standing by a fire or enjoying a Glühwein (more on that later)! Many thanks to my Marieluise for introducing me to this particular market! This one is definitely on the list for a future Christmas market trip.
Obviously, I have an utterly unbiased perspective when it comes to Bonn…but really and truly, I think Bonn is one of my favorite Christmas markets! It’s a nice size, with just about everything you could want, but not too much to be overwhelming, all set in the pedestrian-zone central area of Bonn. I very frequently walk through the Christmas market after work, even if I don’t need/want anything, simply because it’s so much fun to walk through and enjoy the atmosphere! The other Christmas markets, of course, are also very nice. Hamburg’s I can’t say too much about, as I did not spend much time in the market there (Thought I’ll have to tell you about that stay in another post – I got to meet up with my fantastic German tutor from this summer in his native city!). Heidelberg is beautiful, and this was a very fun trip as I was joined by two friends – Anita and Stefan – visiting from their studies in Cambridge, England! Heidelberg’s Christmas markets are nice, but rather small. I had heard very good things about the Heidelberg Christmas market, and Heidelberg itself is a lovely city at any time of year, but personally I think the Bonn Christmas market is perhaps slightly superior to Heidelberg’s. Siegburg has a smaller Christmas market, but an interesting one to visit because it’s medieval-themed! Cologne has quite the variety of markets – smaller and larger, more touristy and less so, even a Gay Christmas market – and they are quite nice, too; my only complaint is that I frankly found the Cologne Christmas markets a bit overwhelming. Both in terms of general size and number of people around, I find the Bonn Christmas markets to be slightly more manageable than Cologne’s, but it is certainly true that Cologne offers a wider variety of foods, knickknacks, and stands than can be found in Bonn (pros and cons!).
On that note, the offerings at the Christmas markets are quite diverse! First up: Things to eat and drink! (Or rather, drink and eat – I’m going to start with the drinking!) Glühwein – a classic German Christmas drink of mulled red wine – is a given at any Christmas market, as is Kinderpunsch („children‘s punch“) – the alcohol-free version (and my personal preference over Glühwein – a minor heresy here). Other drink options include hot chocolate, Eierpunsch (a little bit like alcoholic egg nog; I was not a fan), Met (honey wine; I was also not a fan of this – I should really just stick to my Kinderpunsch and hot chocolate!) and Feuerzangenbowle, an exciting, flaming drink that basically consists of Glühwein, but with a rum-soaked sugar cone that is lit on fire to melt into the drink! I still personally prefer the taste of Kinderpunsch or hot chocolate, but Feuerzangenbowle is definitely still fun to see and experience, at least once! One fun thing about the Christmas market drinks, is that the different markets – and sometimes the different stands within a single market – have different Christmas mugs! Many of them are very cute and fun, and I’ve started a little collection! Food offerings vary depending on the market, but include all kinds of things, sweet and savory. Christmas market foods I have personally tried include (prepare yourself!):
- Roasted chestnuts: these reminded me a bit of boiled peanuts, which I tried for the first time in Georgia this summer!
- Reibekuchen: Fried potato pancakes! The name for this food depends on the region of Germany, as I learned when I visited Freiburg! “Have you tried Kartoffelpuffer?” Marieluise asked. “Huh, no I’ve never heard of that. Wait, that’s Reibekuchen! Of course I’ve tried Reibekuchen!” Whatever you call them, these potato patties are a very classic Christmas market food, most often served with applesauce, but sometimes also with a savory/garlicy sauce (I’ve tried and enjoyed both!).
- Potato-on-a-stick: I can’t remember what this is officially called, but it’s essentially a roasted potato, spiral cut and fried on a stick, to make fresh, delicious potato chips!
- Bratwurst: We are in Germany, after all, so naturally, every Christmas market offers a plentiful selection of sausage options. There are too many options for me to describe them all, but they come in all different shapes, sizes, and colors (red, white, brown; long and skinny, short and fat), sometimes there are options filled with cheese, and sometimes they are served with sauerkraut on top! Basically all of them, I’m quite certain, are very good; I don’t think Germany is capable of producing bad Bratwurst.
- Fries: Naturally, to go along with your Bratwurst, there are plenty of stands that serve Pommes (fries), usually with your choice of mayo or ketchup.
- Champignons: Mushrooms sautéed in butter and garlic in massive pans, usually topped with some kind of garlic sauce, these are incredible! Definitely high on my list of favorite Christmas market foods!
- Raclette: This is a definitely a fun one to watch! Basically a giant half wheel of cheese is placed under a burner, and then the top of the wheel is scraped to top a bread with warm, toasted, melty cheese! I tried the usual raclette on bread, and also a version that topped potatoes with the cheese, and served tasty pickled vegetables on the side. Both were quite good!
- Backfisch: Fried fish! Tasty, usually served with on a Brötchen (small bread roll) and with some kind of tasty sauce.
- Strudel: This isn’t found in every Christmas market, but certainly in larger ones, such as those in Cologne. Sweet options such as apple or nougat exist, but I tried one with ham and sauerkraut!
- Handbrot: Another top food, found in Cologne, this is basically warm bread filled with cheese and either mushrooms or ham. It’s all wonderfully toasted together, so every bite is a mouthful of warm bread and gooey cheese – the description really doesn’t do justice to the pleasure of this food!
- Schupfnudeln: Potato noodles, usually served with sauerkraut and ham! This was very tasty, and most often found in southern Christmas markets, I believe, such as those in Freiburg.
- Gulasch: a delicious stew of meat and vegetables, this was a warm and welcome dish on the chilly evening Marieluise and I spent in Ravennaschlucht!
- Flammkuchen: Sort of like a thin-crust pizza without the tomato sauce, and most often served with a light sprinkling of cheese, ham, and onions, this is always a winner of a dish.
- Roasted almonds: in all kinds of delicious flavors like vanilla, amaretto, or Nutella! You can also find roasted macadamia nuts, cashews, peanuts, and even pumpkin seeds!
- Baumstriezel or Chimney cakes: originally Hungarian, this cylinder-shaped pastry is roasted on a spit, making for a soft interior, and crisp, cinnamon-sugar-sprinkled exterior!
- Dampfnudeln: A giant, sweet, steamed dumpling, usually served with cherries, plums, or poppyseeds, and vanilla sauce! A good dish to share, for sure, but delicious to try!
- Muzen: small fried donuts, quite similar to American mini donuts. Tasty, but not my favorite. Beware of being covered in powdered sugar after consumption of this food!
- Schneeballen (Snow balls!): I’m still not entirely clear what these are, but they appear to be balls of baked dough topped/filled with various ingredients. This was tasty, but much as I was intrigued to try this strange-looking food, it wasn’t my favorite. For sweets at a Christmas market, I think there are better options!
- Crepes: I tried a Christmas crepe in Bonn with Lebkuchen – a softer form of gingerbread – and Nutella; delicious!
I am probably forgetting a few things of tried, but there’s a nice round-up of the majority! Other foods I have not personally tried in the Christmas markets (there‘s always still time!) include Käsespätzle (cheesy noodles), Flammlachs (roasted salmon), churros, chocolate covered fruit, Poffertjes (tiny Dutch pancakes), Schokoküsse (giant chocolate covered marshmallows), waffles, and more!
Besides food, Christmas markets offer plenty in the way of Christmas gift possibilities and fun curios to glance at! There are honey stands, and chocolate stands, and Spekulatius (a typical German Christmas cookie) stands (oh wait, that’s still food… Whoops!). There are all kinds of beautiful candles and candle holders, Weihnachtspyramiden (spinning Christmas candle holders), Christmas ornaments, Christmas curios of all shapes and sizes, scented things, Children toys, wooden spoons and cutting boards, board games, socks and knitted items, and I could go on… You’ll really just have to go and see for yourself! Some of the markets also have skating rinks! I visited one near the Bonn market with my German “Study Buddy” (a great program at Uni Bonn that pairs foreign students with German students to help them adjust) and her friend, and we had a great time chatting and skating together!
Alongside our Christmas market adventures, Marieluise and I also took part in some other Christmas-themed activities on our weekend together! We enjoyed a day full of Christmas cookie baking – one American recipe (Molasses Crinkles/Ginger Snaps) and two German ones (a butter/sugar cookie flavored with a hint of lemon, and a hazelnut-citrus cookie with a texture and shape similar to coconut macaroons). The highlight of this experience – besides listening to Christmas music, cutting out cute cookie shapes, and eating the tasty finished products (and unfinished dough, too!) – was that Isi had real American measuring cups! No looking up conversion factors for every single ingredient between cups and grams for my molasses crinkles – I just measured them like I do back home in Minnesota! You probably don’t understand just how incredibly refreshing and enjoyable this experience was for me – but it really was! As a side note, I would love to know why different countries – or rather, the U.S., since it’s mostly just us – have different baking measuring systems? But then I don’t entirely understand why the U.S. doesn’t simply switch to the metric system and to Celsius and those are basically all the same question… In any case, I know when I am back home I will appreciate my access to American measuring cups for making American recipes much more than I ever did before coming to Germany!
In addition to our baking forays, Isi and I also enjoyed listening to plenty of Christmas music, singing a bit ourselves, and watching several Christmas movies. All in all, it was a fantastic Christmas weekend – one highlight of the fantastic Christmas season I have enjoyed in Germany thus far! Another recent highlight back home in Bonn, was our WG Weihnachtsfeier last night! Former residents of the WG came back to visit, and we enjoyed a lovely leisurely evening of Raclette together! This kind of Raclette is different from the one I mentioned above – basically, you have these little cookers on the table, and each person has an individual mini pan for the cooker. There are all kinds of ingredients set out – potatoes are usually the base, and cheese usually goes on top, but then you can also add zucchini, peppers, peas, corn, feta, cranberries, ham, salami, bacon, and much more! You have to wait for your pan to cook a bit though, so it’s a great form of social eating, and a traditional German meal around Christmastime! I definitely hope to return in future Christmas seasons, perhaps to experience new Christmas markets as well as old favorites (and perhaps to return to the WG party!), and hope you all find the opportunity to do so as well! Germany is a lovely place to be any time of year, I think, but it’s an especially lovely place to be around Christmastime.