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The German Christmas Markets (known locally as a Weihnachtsmarkt or Christkindlesmarkt) are a magical experience for kids of any age. We planned to hit some of the biggest and most unique markets over the course of a two week stay in Germany. Most markets start at the tail end of November and run until Christmas Eve, so we arrived December 1 with our two boys, Oscar (3 years old) and Leo (1 year old). In all, we went to 9 unique markets in 6 different cities. There was a fair bit of “been there, done that” by the end, but we were pleasantly surprised by the diversity between the markets.
Traveling internationally in cold weather with two small children held some new challenges (a lot of luggage despite packing light) but both boys got to experience the wonder of Christmas and play in the snow for the first time. As usual, our plans were a bit more ambitious than reality. But we have learned to be flexible when traveling with kid and enjoy the experience in front of you!
On any international trip with kids, the biggest hurdle is always the “getting there.” We opted for a direct, 13-hour flight from San Francisco to Frankfurt. With a 3 year old and a 1 year old we knew things hand the potential to get ugly, so we brought some tools to help.
First, entertainment. Some parents like the iPad, we have the Kindle Fire Kids with the excellent FreeTime subscription. For the young one we decided to bring our lightweight car seat for the plane (and some long connecting train rides) which can be strapped into our Mountain Buggy Nano. The 3 year old was more of a challenge. We have been happy on several flights with the CARES harness for keeping him in his seat, but for sleeping on the plane we needed another solution. We tried the Fly Tot inflatable cushion which led to a successful nap (yes!) but took up a fair amount of carry-on space for the cushion and pump (boo!).
Our second hurdle was moving to Munich. We hemmed and hawed about spending a night in Frankfurt on arrival but on the advice of a local friend, we decided to go for broke and train Munich from the airport after a 13 hour flight. What could go wrong?
Somehow, nothing went wrong! Oscar slept and Leo… read the paper? We got a German Twin Rail Pass through Rail Europe but it was all very confusing, so I should mention how we got a good deal. I ended up booking over the phone with Rail Europe. If you go on Rail Europe’s site directly, they don’t show the Twin Pass, but I found you can buy it from Bahn.com directly. The Twin Rail Pass gives you a discount for two travelers but you MUST always both be traveling together. Also the Twin Rail Pass states it allows “max. 2 children between 6 and 11 years travel for free” – they actually permit children of any age to have their own seat, you just need to provide the child’s name and list their age as 4 (if they are younger than 4). Which means for a 7 day flexi pass (allows 7 traveling days within a month) for all four of us cost 560 Euro, which is quite a bargain. And that was for 1st class tickets.
There are some complications, though. The rail pass needs to be mailed to you before you leave the country and stamped at the train station before you first use it. If you have a Flexi Pass, you also need to write in the date of travel on each pass before you board the train. Also, if you want guaranteed/reserved seats on an ICE train you need to book and pay for the reservations separately through the website or phone app. They don’t make it clear, but you simply pick the train you want, select your seats then there is an option to reserve the seats without paying for the tickets, which is about $8 per person for the long distance ICE trains. I would highly recommend getting reservations beforehand because the trains do fill up and with kids and luggage you don’t want to hunt for seats. Also, there are different areas of the train and you can potentially reserve a private booth for 4, which we had on one leg of our trip.
Munich’s main Christmas Market is centrally located at Marienplatz, the site of the famous Rathaus-Glockenspiel. Bedraggled and jetlagged, we began our first Christmas Market in the late afternoon. Upon exiting the subway station our boys were immediately dazzled by a large storefront display of teddy bears and castles.
The stalls of the market were lined up along the stone walkways surrounding the Glockenspiel. The market itself was fairly big but not nearly as atmospheric as some we went to later. Still, our first market had many unique stalls and was exciting to explore. The crowds were thin at the time we went, around 3pm on a weekday.
It was time to take the plunge and try the much anticipated Glühwein (a warm, spiced wine). On paper, it did not sound appetizing to us, but in the cold of Germany it was delicious!
One interesting and unexpected element of the Christmas markets was the unique Glühwein mugs at every different market (sometimes more than one mug design in a single market!) If you just want the wine you put down a 3€ deposit when you get the mug and get your money back when you drop off the mug. Or you could be like us and get a unique memento of each market! If you don’t like the Glühwein itself you can simply buy a clean mug from the stalls as well.
Oscar was immediately drawn to one of the many colorful stalls selling treats and snacks. This began our pattern of eating terribly unhealthy food at the markets. To be fair, there are very few healthy or benign options at the markets besides an occasional grocer selling fruit.
I’ve heard that Eskimos have hundreds of different words describing ‘snow’ and the same could be said for Germans and their sausages. We never knew exactly what we were ordering, so we eventually resorted to pointing at whichever sausage looked the tastiest.
As the sun began to set, we ran around the market trying to take it all in. It was a short market adventure for us, but we had at least gotten a taste of what was to come. Still jetlagged, we retreated to the hotel room to rest and get ready for the the day ahead. We previous booked a private day trip in Salzburg, which was just a two hour drive from our hotel in Munich, but we were to leave the hotel at 8am the next day. As a family, we needed to rest and gather our strength for the day ahead.
We pulled ourselves out of bed and down to breakfast at the hotel. Being from San Francisco, dressing the boys for cold weather was not second nature to us (or them) so it took some extra time. Only a little late, we left our hotel in a large, 3 row van with plenty of room for a bigger tour.
Our tour of Salzburg was a general tour of the city, but the Christmas market was part of it. Salzburg is widely known as the site of The Sound of Music and as the birthplace of Mozart. Much of The Sound of Music tour was obscured or not interesting beneath the winter snow, but for us the Christmas market made up for the lack of flowery gardens.
We were soon crossing a bridge to the heart of the city. Like in Paris and many other European cities, the bridge we crossed was dotted with red locks promising commitments of love. We got a nice view of the city from the bridge.
Salzburg was Mozart’s birthplace, but the music lives in Vienna. We opted out of the tour of Mozart’s old house but we did see plenty of Mozart-themed tourist goods. Aside from the composer rubber duckies, the Mozartkugel (or Mozart balls) are a Salzburg specialty: chocolate balls with marzipan in the middle. There are two different versions for sale throughout Salzburg, the heavily-advertised red balls (with cardboard cutouts of Mozart to sell them) and the classier sliver-foiled balls sold only in specialty chocolate shops. We preferred the silver balls!
Oscar was focused less on the sights and more on the snow that covered Salzburg. We realized this was our children’s first experience in snow! We showed Oscar how to make a snowball and he simply walked through the city carrying it everywhere. Eventually we had to go in a building and his snowball was lost. To keep the peace, we upgraded to a larger snowball and he was all smiles again!
By now, the cold was starting to take its toll so we decided to retreat to a café for a coffee and hot chocolate. We entered the beautiful Café Tomaselli and were overwhelmed by it’s rich wooden interior and amazing menu. Our guide told us it was a family-run institution that had been in operation for over 300 years! It was daunting to have coffee there with our two boys, but they were well-behaved and well-accepted (not our experience in fancy American dining establishments!). We had a great time and highly recommend a stop there.
Now refreshed, we got down to business. The Christmas market!
Compared to Munich’s market, the market in Salzburg fit more naturally in the city center and wended it way through the heart of the city. We asked our guide if he liked Christmas markets and he said “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.” Not true! Certainly there is plenty of repetition in the food/drink options and several of the booths, but we found unique elements to every market we toured.
The key attraction for Oscar was this small toy train track set up in the middle of the market. Something like this wouldn’t survive in a larger market, but in Salzburg it was a big draw for the little kids. And with real snow on it!
Alicia found a nice warm hat for herself at this market, too. Every city and town had their own version of a Christmas market, and we found it to be an interesting lens with which to view the character of the place. Salzburg was small but rich with history, full of touristy elements but also with real warmth. We only had a few hours to spend in Salzburg but it was a great introduction to Austria and a special way for Oscar and Leo to see their first real snow!
At the edge of the market, we got this famous view of Hohensalzburg Fortress. We decided not to take the trip up the hill to see the inside of the fortress. We figured the kids were too young to appreciate it and we weren’t that interested. Sometimes the best decision you can make while traveling is to not do the thing you are “supposed” to do. We had had a full day in Salzburg, the kids were tired and we were ready for our drive back to the hotel: a success!
Nuremberg’s Christmas market is known as one of the best in Germany and we got to see why! We took a short train ride from Munich (an hour, maybe?) and walked right over to the market.
The St. Lorenz Cathedral served as the center point of the market while neatly-lined booths branched out in all directions over an old cobblestone road. The market was big, but the medieval architecture and homey booth design kept the market feeling quaint.
We went to the Nuremberg market with very little information, but there was a lot of imagery of the Christkind (Christ-child), a golden-robed version of Christ that acts suspiciously like Santa, giving presents to kids under their Christmas tree. We saw the Christkind image here:
And then we saw a woman dressed as the Christkind in front of the stage by the front of the cathedral, flanked by archangels. There was an itinerary of events happening throughout the day, but we happened to arrive right when she was meeting fans. Oscar got a picture with her, and a free candy! Other more focused travelers might time their arrival to see some specific events (like the children’s choir that began singing when we left) but we were content to take what came to us rather than trying to adhere to a schedule with two young boys in tow.
Aside from the entertainment, the Nuremberg Christmas market brought some interesting new booths. It took a minute to realize one place that seemed to be selling old tools was actually selling edible fakes. They were made completely of chocolate!
We avoided buying chocolate tools but couldn’t avoid buying a Schneeball for Oscar. What is a Schneeball, you ask? A monstrous ball of fried dough and sugar. Oscar chose the strawberry one:
He slowly gnawed on the Schneeball for the remainder of the day but made little progress. As we wandered around we came across a giant nutcracker and had to take a photo. It stood outside a store that specialized in wooden German figurines that I thought were reminiscent of (and maybe the inspiration for) those Rankin-Bass Christmas specials from the 70’s, like The Year Without a Santa Claus.
The wooden figurines were quite expensive but the store was packed with customers. We came across several Käthe Wohlfahrt in Nuremberg (and a few elsewhere) but the one with the nutcracker out front was the biggest/best one we found. Of course, we continued our new tour tradition by drinking Glühwein and collecting more mugs.
In all, we had a great time in Nuremberg and felt like we were finally acclimated to Germany and the Christmas markets. Our plan was to have a couple of hubs (Munich, then Cologne) and take day trips to various locations, which our rail pass made cheap and easy.
The timezone shift took a couple of days to overcome (an 8 hour shift) but we found taking a day trip was a good length of time out with two little kids. We woke up, had breakfast, hopped on a train for an hour or two, toured the city for about 4 hours (the baby napping in the carrier) then back to the hotel around 3 or 4 pm for afternoon nap then we could go out for dinner then have an evening stroll, go food shopping for snacks for the kids or even visit the local Christmas market to try at night.
The next day would be our 2nd chartered tour in Austria, this time to Innsbruck. We chose that location because part of the tour included a visit to the Swarovski headquarters, which has some very unique attractions.
Before getting to the Innsbruck Christmas market we stopped by Swarovski Crystal Worlds which is a very unique museum/outdoor art exhibit/headquarters. We were greeted first by the Swarovski Giant, a large face embedded in a hillside with a waterfall pouring from his mouth:
The outdoor giant set the mood for the rest of the Crystal Worlds. Before exploring the grounds, we went inside to see the museum.
The first room of the museum had a series of animatronic dancing pants, shirts and mannequins. It felt like being inside a certain 1980s music video. A walkway lets you walk around and through the exhibit to see things from different perspectives. It was a weird start to a museum I was expecting to be focused on Swarovski crystals, but interesting nonetheless. The next room was a half-dome of mirror that was much more impressive to our 3 year old:
The focus on crystal became clear through the rest of the museum, but wasn’t an element of every exhibit. There were many visually stunning rooms, but Oscar’s favorite (by far!) was the train room. A model train runs through a large snowy mountain in the middle of a room that felt like the inside of a Russian onion dome. We spent some time admiring the train before continuing outside to see the rest of the grounds.
Once on the grounds, we saw some beautiful views of both installation arts and the surrounding Alps.
The grounds were great for running around with kids. They even had a full playground on the property, but the cold weather made it less inviting. Our guide told us that part of the hill would be blanketed by flowers in the spring. As it was, we enjoyed our visit even though our 3 year old had a minor meltdown (first of the trip)! Next, we continued on to Innsbruck, which we were viewing as a bonus stop after the Crystal Worlds.
Innsbruck has the feel of a ski town, nestled in a valley between the Alps. Walking around the market on a clear day, the mountains seemed to overwhelm the small city, which gave the Christmas market a very unique feeling.
There were two small Christmas markets separated by a single road. First we went to the children’s market, which focused on rides, ponies and toys for children. It was hard to distinguish from most other Christmas markets, except for it’s small size! Tucked in the side there was a small stage where they had some performances lined up, but we didn’t have time to see anything. The first market had the feeling of a small town fair, and in that way it felt very cozy and personable.
Next we crossed the street to the main market. The Old Town of Innsbruck has some interesting features including a building with a golden roof (the Goldenes Dachl) that was built to celebrate the marriage of Emperor Maximilian I. We (and the kids) found the Giants of Innsbruck more interesting. A few large sculptures loom over the Old Town that commemorate the weird history of some very tall people that once lived in Innsbruck. Our guide told us there are even a few houses that were built abnormally large to accommodate these giants!
As we continued exploring Innsbruck we came across two archangels that were giving out Christmas treats and coloring books. The Christkind and archangel tradition was unfamiliar to us but was much more prevalent than Santa Claus. Oscar was excited for the free gifts!
Some traditions are older than others. Just as we found and collected our next pair of Glühwein mugs, Oscar continued to forge his new tradition of finding and begging for a ride on a carousel. We had begun to realize that carousels are not rare treats at these Christmas markets but a fixture as common as a Glühwein stall. The carousel Oscar found in the children’s market was particularly old and rickety, but had a unique charm all its own.
After a few day trips on the train and almost a week in Germany, we felt comfortable heading into a 3-4 hour ICE train ride to Cologne from Munich. Our hotel was close to the train station (a great convenience with kids!) and despite our loads of luggage, we were able to pile into the train without too much headache.
Once we arrived in Cologne, we were immediately frustrated by the train depot. To get from our platform to the exit we had to go down a long staircase, under the tracks and then back up. Despite looking up and down the platform, we could find no elevator. This meant our carefully piled stack of luggage needed to be lugged up and down a bunch of stairs while the other parent (and kids) waited with the remaining pile. Not a fun introduction to Cologne.
Once we exited the train station, exhausted from moving our bags we realized we had made a Terrible Mistake. Cologne has two train stations, about a half mile (and a large bridge) apart. We took an ICE train to Köln Messe instead of Köln Hbf and now our hotel was on the other side of the Rhein. Ugh.
Rather than struggle back down the stairs with our luggage to take a local train to the other station, we decided to simply walk over the bridge. There was a long ramp onto the bridge walkway so we simply rolled our bags up. It was a long walk with luggage, but once we were moving it was easy enough. As we walked, though, clouds loomed overhead, threatening to dump rain or snow on us. The kids were getting grumpy and the sun was setting. We were thankful to get to the other side… until we realized there was no ramp down to the street level here, just 4 flights of stairs down to the road. UGH.
With the sun fully set, we arrived at our hotel right before the rain started. It turned out to be a longer and more grueling travel day than we intended, but we were glad to have planned only two hub locations. The next time we would move would be to take a one hour train back to Frankfurt for our flight.
Our hotel was next door to the amazing Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom) which meant we were also right outside the Cathedral market. The Cathedral was truly impressive, both inside and out. It was hard to comprehend the scale and detail of the cathedral (which took hundreds of years to construct) but we had plenty of opportunity to marvel at it.
This was our first time being next door to a market and it held some advantages. Munich’s market had been a few train stops away from us, but now being so close meant we could run over for a quick snack whenever we wanted. It also allowed us to see the market at both day and night. The Cathedral Market is in the shadow of the Dom, which gives it a very grand atmosphere, especially at night.
This market turned out to be one of our favorites. There were many booths, good food, lots of Glühwein, rides and a stage for entertainment. It wasn’t the most unique market but it was large and a very complete market. Because it was so close, we learned the in-and-outs of the booth locations and how best to skirt around the crowds at night and on the weekend.
After a lot of near misses, we were able to catch one of the music acts on stage at night. The market tended to get very crowded at night, especially on the weekend.
The Cathedral Market also featured our favorite booth out of the entire trip. Heading into this adventure we weren’t sure exactly how the markets would be, but we had some vague expectations of finding fancy wooden toys and hand-carved ornaments. There were plenty of booths selling the same tourist gifts but our favorite booth featured a ton of ornaments and colorful wooden Christmas decorations that were hand-made in Germany.
One interesting thing about Cologne was that it features not one or two big Christmas markets but six(!) major markets, each with a unique perspective. We didn’t visit all of them (the best laid plans don’t have children) but we did visit a number of them during our stay.
One thing Oscar was very excited about was the Bimmelbahn, a mini-train that took passengers from market to market. While great in concept, it simply didn’t work well for us. First, it was fairly expensive for a pass, which allowed one loop of travel. But there was a sizeable line when we tried to take it at the beginning of the day and a 15 minute wait between trains. The loading of the train was something of a free-for-all and we felt lucky to get seats. Then it took quite some time to get to the first stop, which happened to be the Old Market. After walking through the Old Market we were stunned to realize it winds its way right next to the Cathedral Market! Rather than waiting and fighting for seats, we could have simply walked over, at least for that first stop. Nap time and a rain storm prevented us from using our pass again that day and we decided to save time and hassle by using the subway the next day.
The Old Market is one of the more atmospheric Christmas markets we visited, and one that had some of the most interesting features.
The theme of the Old Market is gnomes. Many of the booths catered to the theme with a variety of wooden, porcelain and felt gnomes of different shapes and sizes. And the booths all had a mossy trim that gave the market a very woodland feel.
As we explored, we realized the Old Market was bigger and more unique than we had imagined. The next thing we came across was an ice skating rink with what looked like a curling rink.
Oscar was excited to try ice skating so we went around the rink a few times. The Old Market was also the only market with a small Ferris wheel. It was an impressive market and we were sad we didn’t get to spend more time there.
At this point we realized we had only seen two of Cologne’s markets and weren’t sure what to expect at the others. Next we went to the Angel’s Market, but there was a complication: snow!
The snowfall was wet and heavy but we decided to power through it and get to Neumarkt. After all, part of the Christmas market experience was the Christmas weather! Neumarkt is a big downtown shopping area with a wide walking path that made it feel like an outdoor mall. The Angel’s Market itself was in a large lot by the Neumarkt train stop.
Although we didn’t fully explore it because of the snow, this market seemed less remarkable than the Cathedral or Old markets. The market did have an “angel” theme that some of the booths focused on, but it was much less prominent than the Old Market’s focus on gnomes and the market was smaller. After Neumarkt it was hard to see this market as anything more than a Christmas extension of the shopping district, though the overhead star lights were unique and pretty in the snow.
Just one train stop away at Rudolfplatz was an even smaller market, this one focused on St. Nicholas.
A large Christmas sleigh with reindeer stood above the Glühwein booth, right by the entrance. We saw a man greeting the crowd as St. Nicholas, not Santa: he was dressed in red robes and carried a scepter! Although the market was small, it was very cozy and another interesting perspective of Christmas that we hadn’t seen before.
On the recommendation of a German friend we decided to make our last day trip to Aachen to visit their Christmas market, the Aachener Weihnachtsmarkt. Our initial concern when arriving was the rain. We got a few showers from time to time but for the most part the weather held. The more challenging element was finding the market! Most markets we had been to were right by the train station or easy to find. We assumed Aachen’s would be similar, but it took some Googling and a little more than 1 km (almost a mile) along a series of windy roads to get to the Cathedral where the Christmas market was held.
In some ways, the Aachen Market felt like our victory lap. There were plenty of unique features to this market, including a strong focus on Christmas cookies, but we also enjoyed some of our new favorite Christmas market traditions:
Oscar found himself one last carousel as well:
The market of Aachen curled around the city’s cathedral and went on for a ways down a small hill. There were regular shops along the way that seemed to tailor-made for the Christmas season. Much of our Christmas market tour felt like this – Christmas wasn’t just a day of the year but an integral part of the winter season. After going from market to market we started to realize that we weren’t just experiencing different markets but the differences of each town or city as experienced through their Christmas markets. For example, Cologne’s Cathedral Market was a big party all the time while Aachen’s cathedral market felt much more historic, like a proud showcase of Aachen’s character.
Touring these Christmas markets was a unique way to experience Germany (and parts of Austria). Every city and town in Germany has their own Christmas market but each market is slightly different, with different products, attractions and attitudes. Each Christkindlesmarkt was a celebration and although they could sometimes run together for us, our kids were always excited to see another brightly lit tree or ride another carousel!