Bring the magic back to Christmas with mouthwatering bratwurst, a mug of glühwein and a train tour of Europe’s best Christmas markets.
When department stores and shopping malls start playing canned Christmas music as soon as Halloween is past, it can be pretty hard to feel excited about the season. Our solution for jaded Christmas shoppers? Plan a Christmas market train trip with the German rail pass—you’ll see the best of Europe’s twinkling, gift-laden Advent fairs while travelling on comfortable high-speed ICE trains.
Here are our favourite Christkindlmarkts.
Greatest variety: Berlin
Visit Berlin, Germany’s capital city, for access to some 60 different Christmas markets from late November through December. Among all the choices, you’ll find a traditional Christmas atmosphere at the Spandau Christmas market, with its live nativity scene and Old-World buildings, or a more modern, environmental slant at the 21st annual Environmental Christmas Market on Sophienstraße.
Germany’s oldest: Dresden
Take the train to Dresden to soak up the atmosphere at Striezelmarkt, a Christmas market that’s been running since 1434. Today, over 250 stands offer gifts and traditional fare from intricate wooden tree ornaments and candle pyramids to edible plum-paste figurines and gingerbread. You can also walk and shop along Dresden’s modern Christmas Mile on Prager Straße throughout the Advent season.
Most unique: Konstanz
In addition to 130 vendors in the market square of this lakeside city, you can browse the floating stalls aboard the Christmas ship for old-fashioned ambiance and gift shopping. The best thing? You’re on the shores of the Rhine River and Lake Constance, in southwestern Germany—72 km away, across the lake, are Switzerland and Zurich.
European Christmas markets continue to grow in popularity and size from one year to the next, but Stuttgart’s is said to be the biggest and oldest. Over 300 stalls are open from November 23 to December 23 to sell traditional ornaments, homemade gifts, wooden toys, sizzling sausage and, of course, the ever-present mulled wine.
Best Christmas market for kids: Esslingen
We think that children will be enchanted by the thousands of fairly lights and gingerbread smells at any European Christkindlmarkt, but there is something special about Esslingen’s Medieval and Christmas market. The city’s half-timbre architecture and merchants dressed up in Middle Ages clothing will give your children a taste of another time.
Best Christmas markets beyond Germany
The German Rail Pass even includes travel on selected services to some top cities in neighboring countries, so why not explore Christmas markets in Austria and Belgium for example? Continue on to Innsbruck, where the formidable Alps provide a striking backdrop to several Christmas markets that offer children’s activities, gifts and delicious foods.
Or stop at the border town of Salzburg, famous for Mozart, The Sound of Music and the Hohensalzburg Castle. The historic Christmas market is located at the foot of the castle, where it has been held for over 500 years. A unique twist to this Christkindlmarkt is the presence of wandering masked goblins carrying birch switches to “frighten” children. These young men and women are disguised as Krampus and Perchten, traditional Alpine characters that accompany St. Nicholas to punish the naughty, while St. Nick rewards the nice.
And last but not least a city that shines bright, visit Brussels and its Winter Wonders, where it’s hard to find a more perfect setting than the Grand-Place central square. The surrounding exquisite buildings come to life with light shows, music is playing and there’s a magnificent fir tree in the center of it all. An ice-skating rink and a Ferris wheel add that extra special touch to this world famous Christmas market, consisting of 240 stalls open from November 25th until New Year’s Day.
If you’re catching your return flight home from Frankfurt International Airport, the train will get you there from Salzburg in just under six hours. But you can always detour to some of Germany’s other magical Christmas markets along the way; Munich, Nuremberg and Cologne and just about every smaller city in between host magical festivities during the Advent season.