Usually the theme for a weekend away for us is a city. The city becomes the theme. The citizens become the players. The story then unfolds. For a weekend away before Christmas, we wanted to immerse ourselves in the season. We wanted Gemutlichkeit, the German word for coziness.
To find it, we flew into and out of Frankfurt, Germany, and we identified three base towns in the area that had well-known Christmas markets. From there, we improvised and included stops in towns along the way. This post covers Nuremberg, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Heidelberg, Karlsruhe, Baden-Baden, and finishing in the “Capital” of Christmas, Strasbourg.
Despite the cool sprinkles of rain (rather than snow), we enjoyed every single moment of our trip fueled by gluhwein and wursts of all kinds. This trip covered 6 different Christmas markets in 3 full days, crossed a border into France, and racked up 800 kilometers on the autobahn. It was also one of the only trips that we encountered people abroad that we needed to converse with using another language than English. At bottom, not every Christmas market is alike and each has its own unique customs, culture, and feeling. In reviewing this trip, we can’t pick a favorite and would recommend each market to visit.
The granddaddy of the German Christmas markets. The Nuremberg market is one of Germany’s oldest Christmas markets, dating to 1628. In advance of arriving in Nuremberg, we read all of the criticisms of the market – that it is too big, too crowded, too full of tourists. But Nuremberg was anything but overwhelming. Indeed, the large number of people made us forget about the cold dampness of the rain as we drank gluhvein from a Nuremberg mug and ate all types of sausages and pork products.
Organized in neat rows with candy cane striped awnings, the main market area spans the length of the Hauptmarkt outside of the Frauenkirche. There are several other market areas beyond this including the Children’s market, the Sister Cities market (featuring goods from the sister cities to Nuremberg), and various stalls throughout various squares in the city.
On a Friday night, three French horns play Hallelujah, the neighborhood comes out in droves to sip steaming gluhwein, and handfuls of tourists make conversation with shopkeepers selling their German-origin wares. Here you can find foil folded Christkinds (the symbol of the market), German handcrafted smokers, and prune people (another Nuremberg original) made of prunes with walnut heads.
The joy of the market comes in the food. Here we didn’t stop the fun for dinner, but instead grabbed as many sausages and pork shoulder and potato pancakes as we could handle.
The market closes at 9pm but the party continues in a walkway just by the river Pegnitz where we found the “World’s Largest Punch Bowl” so designated because it is the largest steaming cauldron of gluhwein you would ever see.
Nuremberg is imminently walkable and features great art in the local churches. We stayed at the well-appointed dasPaul Hotel, which is conveniently located close to a city parking garage. We also highly recommend Hausbrauerei Alstadthof near the castle and Barfusser just passed the St. Lorenz Kirche.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber
This medieval town, just an hour westward from Nuremberg, is undoubtedly filled with Christmas spirit all year round. This not surprising considering that the town is the global headquarters of Kathe Wohlfahrt, which produces over 30,000 different German-made Christmas decorations including nutcrackers, smokers, and Schwibbogen, historic German wood candle pieces. It was cold and rain swept in periodically, but that did not dampen the Christmas spirit. The market was small and resembled more of Nuremberg in that the stalls featured a green and red awning and were otherwise well-organized.
This is truly the quintessential traditional Bavarian Christmas that we all think of. We only needed about a half of a day to explore the shops and walk the ramparts.
Some of our favorite shops in addition to the Kaethe Wolfahrt included the Teddy’s Rothenburg (a teddy bear shop) and Leyk, which produces enamel painted tea candle holders in the shape of German timber-framed houses.
We’re told that tourists flock to Heidelberg, in part because of its inspiration for the German Romantic movement and for its well-preserved Schloss (Castle). But a trip in the middle of December finds us surrounded by locals, including the thousands of university students taking a study break at the end of the semester. The benefit of coming to Heidelberg is that it exposes us a completely different style of Christmas market stand. The huts here all feature extravagant decorations. Where Nuremberg and Rothenburg ob der Tauber were more generically decorated, the huts in Heidelberg were all unique. In addition, whilst the Nuremberg market was focused on large open-air squares, the Heidelberg market stretched over 2.2km along six medium-sized squares. Finally, a stereotype is that the markets all sell the same thing; untrue. Each market is slightly different and has something unique to that town. Likewise, the food offerings are very different in taste and preparation.
These markets are a joy to experience at night when the local community comes out in force and the gluhwein keeps you warm.
Named for Charles III of the region, who created the city in 1715. The city is defined by the sundial design of the city planning with the streets fanning out from the central palace and all of the streets in half circles intersecting with the radial streets. Also distinctive are the yellow buildings, built upon the local limestone reserves. Coming here for the market on a Sunday afternoon meant no tourists and all locals. The main square had a large skating rink in sight of the palace and the market square featured wood chips on the ground for that additional warming feeling. The decorations on the huts was very familiar to us from Heidelberg.
The famous spa-town of the region, this was a short afternoon stop on our way to Strasbourg. Situated on the park in front of the Casino Baden-Baden, this is another locals-heavy market. One of the unique features here was the nightly concert events as well as the local competition to create the best crèche for that year’s theme.
Our trip to Strasbourg was simply amazing. The lights sparkling and twinkling across the city. The massive cathedral jutting above the teddy bear festooned timber buildings. The city was packed on an early Sunday evening and there were 9 markets for us to explore. In each corner of the old city, light emmenated upward, guiding us from market to market and into the back alleys of the city.
That night, we decided to enjoy some market food – Finnish grilled salmon – but thought we earned our way to a dinner inside on a table covered with a tablecloth. The folks at L’Oignon fit us in to an already packed restaurant where we enjoyed escargot, beef carpaccio, Alsatian duck, and gorgeous beef. The folks there recommended a beautiful Alsatian Pinot Noir to accompany our meal.
From there, we took our appreciation for wine from the Alsace region to a cozy wine bar called Au PiF.
On the next morning, we spent a few extra hours exploring the city, which is an absolute jewel among European treasures.
Fast-forward 48 hours and after we’ve returned to the States, some crazy person brandishes a gun and kills two people participating in the festivities. We were lucky to be 6,000 miles away but we were so saddened that a city we thoroughly enjoyed was yet another city that experienced unnecessary violence.
All in all, this was a wonderful trip full of amazing memories and one that was so perfect to round out our 2018.