German Christmas Markets: What to eat, drink, and shop for

Before I tell you about the depth of my love for the German Weihnachtsmarkt, you should know that Christmas isn’t even my favorite holiday (it’s Halloween)! That’s how powerful the markets are. Germans excel at Christmas. I’m not entirely sure they gave us the Christmas tree and Santa Claus as we know them today, even though that’s the rumor. But what I do know is that they’ve engineered their way into perfect Christmas…maximalist without being annoying or gauche about it. 

Even if Christmas isn’t really your thing, you won’t regret a trip to Germany specifically for market season. You might even recapture some of that holiday magic you thought you lost a long time ago. Markets are a place for friends and family to gather and eat comforting fair food, drink festive drinks, and pick up holiday gifts and trinkets. They’re where you go for Gemütlichkeit and Christmas spirit. I recommend going early in December as soon as the markets open, before the crowds get too big. Going early means you can come back home in time for your own Christmas celebration armed with loads of European gifts. Bring an extra suitcase.

Each market is a little different. Regions/states will have different takes on common food, feature different local specialties, and have signature gifts and souvenirs, or a special market feature (e.g., the largest market Christmas tree, chocolate-covered lebkuchen, or a regional export or craft). Do some research on the different markets before you go, so you can select the right one for your expectations. Here’s a list of some of the top Christmas markets in Germany. Now, let’s get down to business… 

Champignons (mushrooms in a creamy garlic sauce)

Eat 

Here are my top Weihnachtsmarkt foods that I’ve either tried myself, or was told to try and observed them from a distance. I’m not going to bother saying that each one is absolutely delicious…just know that they are. This is next-level fair food, folks. Not the typical midway fare we grew up with.

Currywurst: This comes in a few different forms and is exactly what it sounds like–curry-flavored sausage or, most often, sausage smothered in curry catsup with extra curry seasoning on top. If it’s served in slices, you eat it with a cute, tiny fork.

Grünkohl: This is a comfort dish involving kale, potatoes, and bacon, cooked down into a stew or paste-like consistency; often served alongside sausage. Don’t let its appearance turn you away. Look for the stall with the vendors stirring something with a very long spoon in huge cast iron skillets.

Champignons (mushrooms in cream sauce): Sauteed whole cremini mushrooms topped with a thick, garlicky cream sauce and scallions. This is a dish I frequently try to replicate at home. The linked recipe is pretty close. 

Fried camembert: No explanation needed. Any of the fried cheeses are worth having.

Cheese wheel pasta: I didn’t eat this one, but this is quite popular. Hot penne pasta rolled around in a hollowed out wheel of parmesan cheese. Fun to watch. 

Lebkuchen: A contender for my favorite Christmas cookie. Everyone and every market has their own version of this, but think very dense gingerbread cookie, sometimes soft like a molasses cookie, heavily spiced, and topped with a crispy, glazed-donut-esque frosting. My favorite recipe is linked.

Thuringian sausage: One of the many types of sausages/wursts sold at the markets. This one you can find served as a very long, thin sausage in a small bun, which is fun. There are a lot of special rules around making and serving this sausage. 

Stollen: German fruit cake. Waaaay better than the fruitcake we’re used to in the states. Lighter and fluffier, with more interesting fillings and a crispy, crunchy top dusted with confectioners sugar.

Kartoffelpuffer: A potato pancake with a fun name. These are deep fried and served with either applesauce or garlic cream sauce.

Käsespätzle: German/Austrian mac and cheese. Dense, stubby handmade egg noodles topped with gooey, earthy cheese (gruyere, emmenthaler, etc.).

Marzipankartoffeln: There are tons of wonderful marzipan treats at the market, but these are my favorite. They’re just so silly. Dense balls of almond paste, lightly dusted/painted with cocoa until they resemble tiny potatoes. 

Drink

One of my favorite things about the market was going home with souvenir mugs. This is a thing. They change every year and are different for each market. You can get these whether you’re drinking alcohol or not. Fun to give away as gifts (stuffed with treats), or keep them for yourself to break out at Christmas and fill with one of the tipples below. Make sure you load up your belly with food before you start drinking any of these.

  • Glühwein: Hot, mulled red wine
  • Feuerzangenbowle: The above served with a sugar cube soaked in rum, which is set on fire and allowed to drip into the mug. You heard me.
  • Eierpunsch: German style eggnog. A mixture of eggs, white wine, brandy or other liquor, spices, citrus juice or tea, topped with whipped cream. Much more delicious than it sounds.
  • Grog: Hot water with rum (blech)
  • Jagertee: Black tea with rum
  • Schokolade mit schuss: Hot chocolate with a shot of rum or anything else of your choice. And you can ask for an extra schuss in just about anything.

Shop

Shop with care. Much of what you’ll see may be cheap, mass-produced junk. But you will find some hidden gems and handmade crafts. You’ll be able to tell what’s what. Bring cash…Germany is generally a cash culture. But many stalls do accept credit cards, and there should be ATMs nearby. Here are some of the things I saw and/or bought:

  • Sterne: Or, stars. Based on the small sample of residential houses and yards that I saw, I am under the impression that Germans are more fond of decorating the insides of their windows for Christmas than they are fond of outdoor lights displays. One of the things that was in most everyone’s window was a star of some type. The two most popular types were paper star lanterns in every color you can imagine. And Moravian stars. You will want to buy one and, when you do, note that you may need to buy a light separately, or a light that works with the type of wall plugs and outlets in your country.
  • Ornaments: Carved, wooden ornaments were the most popular and unique ones that I found
  • Nativity: See carved/wooden. Lots of different price points on these.
  • Schwibbogen: See carved/wooden. These are super interesting with a cool history. They can get very intricate. I’d say that more than half of the houses I saw had one of these in the window. I fell in love with them, but the ones I saw at the market were hundreds of dollars. When I got back, I was able to find one on Amazon for around 60 bucks.
  • Candles (natural beeswax): The beeswax candle stall will often include a wide variety of honey and honey liqueur as well. 
  • Wooden crafts and toys
  • Schnapps and liquor

Watch

First, watch your pockets. As with any large gathering of people and tourists, the market is the perfect place for pickpockets and aggressive beggars. But while it’s a reality, it wasn’t a big problem for me. Next, go find the rest of these things:

  • The town square: Markets are often in the center of town, near the oldest buildings, churches/cathedrals, and other incredible old world architecture. Make sure you hit all quadrants of the market and see everything.
  • People watch: Early in the evening, stake out a spot on an upper level of a gluhwein stall and watch the people stroll by. You’ll learn a lot and soak in the good cheer and warmth of the crowd, and maybe make a friend. 
  • The Christmas tree: Go find the central tree. Depending on the size of the market and what they’re known for, the tree might be massive. Worth a photo op no matter what.
  • The Weihnachtspyramide: Or, Christmas pyramid. Chances are you have a grandparent or other relative who owned a small one of these that was powered by candles. Fascinating history, from the Ore mountains region where the Schwibbogen originated. The ones at the market can be several stories tall.
  • The stalls: Most wooden stalls are wonderfully and painstakingly decorated, gingerbread-looking, old-world confections. Some even incorporate animatronics. 
  • Music: Don’t miss the music stages playing Christmas classics, child choirs, or the “oom pah” music you were hoping for. 

If you’ve been to the markets yourself, or if you have questions, we’d love to hear from you!


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