Outside the train window, bare tree branches wore a rock-candy coating of ice. Field furrows curving into view were planted ankle-deep in snow. A bird of prey surveying its kingdom against a glare of grey sky. Village whistlestops took on passengers – and the sub-freezing chill of winter that hounded them into the compartment all the way to their seats. Nothing sounded more comforting than a long soak in a hot bath once I got to town – after town, after town.

I was touring the Christmas markets of Germany. Not all 2500 of them, you understand – even the German National Tourist Office doesn’t recommend that – but as many as I could fit into a seven-day trip and still savour the atmosphere, sample the refreshments and maybe do a little shopping.

Germany’s 32-page English-language guide to the Christmas markets pares the list of towns to about 100 countrywide. I needed to cut that to only seven or eight.

Should I give up shopping the booths aboard a Cologne riverboat in favour of hearing the boys’ choir in Regensburg? Or forego the 857m2 Advent calendar in Leipzig in order to buy Christmas cards printed at the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz? Would the half-timbered houses in Hildesheim be more quaint than those in Quedlinburg?

I was one of the 160 million visitors a year to Germany’s Christmas markets, doing my part to generate the equivalent of over €6.5 billion in annual Christmas sales. Only a few time-honored market items can be bought for less than €10: things like small beeswax candles, tree ornaments made of straw and dolls made of fig bodies with prunes for arms and legs and walnuts for heads. The preponderance of market goods are of the highest craftsmanship and considerably more expensive: €50 and up for hand-painted nutcrackers and hand-painted glass ornaments; at least €100 for the nicer ‘pyramids’, candle-powered windmills that revolve angels or shepherds or reindeer round and round inside a multi-tiered, conical frame.

All of the shopping is most delightfully done in the evenings, from dark until 9pm, when you get the full effect of the lights and the camaraderie of local people who stop by after work. That leaves the days free for sightseeing and getting from town to town.

Rothernburg Ob Der Tauber
Village Europe doesn’t get any more villagey than this: cobblestone lanes, medieval walls, turrets, towers and half-timbered houses. String quartets and horn duos commandeer street corners, and the iron shoes of crochet-harnessed draught horses ring in time on the cobblestones. Rothenburg is the home town of a good market, Kathe Wohlfahrt’s Christmas Village and the adjacent German Christmas Museum.

You know you’ve got a successful market when the clergy start complaining. One of Nuremberg’s men of the cloth once lamented that he couldn’t hold afternoon church services on Christmas Eve because all his parishioners were out shopping – and that, so the story goes, was way back in 1616.

These days, the market attracts some two million visitors each season. The sort of person who organises the sock drawer and sees beauty in perfectly balanced ledger sheets should most enjoy the Christkindlsmarkt, or Christ Child’s Market here.
In what was once a Jewish ghetto until the pogroms of the mid-1300s, vendors are regimented into 190 booths covering 2500m2 of the Hauptmarkt, below the Gothic spires of the Frauenkirche, or the Church of Our Lady.

The old town has a craftsmen’s market at Kings Gate, literally in one of the gate houses in the city walls, and a separate children’s market, with modern amusement rides, on the ‘back’ side of Frauenkirche in Hans Sachs Square.

At the market in the main square, stalls are decorated with garlands of real fir boughs. Cardboard boxes can’t be shown. Recorded background music is forbidden. Mulled wine must be served in ceramic cups. Only time-honored market items such as nutcrackers, prune men, candles, glass ornaments, nativity sets, cookies and sausages – make that regulation Nuremberg sausages – may be sold.

They say Munich’s Christmas market goes back about as far as its beer breweries, which would date both enterprises to the 14th century. Christkindlmarkt in Marienplatz is the place for people who like to wander aimlessly and feel that they’ve made wonderful discoveries in the process.

Crowds stroll through the Christmas stalls of Marienplatz down to the nativity-set booths in Rindermarkt, swinging back around to finish among the butcher shops and bakeries of the Viktualienmarkt, or victuals market.

Historically, Munich’s central Christmas market – there are several elsewhere in the city – was held outside the Frauenkirche, whose twin towers, topped with what looks like giant blueberry souffles, define the city’s skyline.
In the 1970s the market moved a couple of lanes over to the Marienplatz. The stalls here are neither as orderly as Nuremberg’s nor as cosy as Rothenburg’s.

But Munich’s trump is the ornate neo-Gothic New City Hall: both backdrop and star attraction, imposing and comforting all at once.


An hour west of Munich by train, Augsburg lowers 24 living angels once a week from the rooftop of City Hall, which is transformed into a giant Advent calendar for the season. Heidelberg has several markets; one by the university sells things like natural-bristle brushes, trinkets from Tibet and scarves from Tunisia.