Tip of the week: Your guide to visiting German Christmas markets

Tip of the week: Your guide to visiting German Christmas markets
Stuttgart's busy Christmas market on its opening day of November 28th, 2018. Photo: DPA
From deciding which ones to visit, to what to buy, to staying warm enough (with or without a 'Glühwein' in hand), here's our complete guide to German Christmas markets.

Christmas market shopping can be overwhelming. However, if you plan your visit properly, these shopping excursions are also a mini-history lesson on the city itself. Discovering holiday traditions and uniqueness of each city makes your visit and purchases a more meaningful experience.

Here are 10 tips for visiting and shopping at German Christmas markets designed to make the most of your time. 

SEE ALSO: 8 of the most beautiful German Christmas markets

1) Do your Holiday Homework:

Check the website of the Christmas Market for scheduled events and plan your trip accordingly. Don’t miss out on special appearances or performances like the Christkind at the Nurnberg market. Double check the hours of the market or markets you want to visit as well. 

Often there are several Christmas markets within one city, some with different themes. For example, there is a dog-themed Christmas market in Berlin's Grunewald or a medieval-themed market in Esslingen, near Stuttgart.  We break down the best German Christmas markets, and their specialities, by their regions.

'Barney' poses at a special dog-themed Christmas market in Grunewald. Photo: DPA

Some local foods and products are specific to Christmas. Many have interesting history connected to the soul of the city. Knowing a bit beforehand makes your visit a richer cultural experience.

SEE ALSO: What are Germany's holiday food favourites?

2) Check ALL the weather:

You will be spending several hours walking outside (comfortable shoes alert!). Check the temperatures of both your planned arrival and departure times. Make sure to note any rain or snow showers in between. Dress accordingly. Bring an extra scarf, glove liners or heat packs as temperatures can change drastically. 

3) Look First, Buy Later: 

Tour the entire market first, then circle back to buy the items you’ve had your eye on. Many vendors sell the same types of goods and you might find something similar you like better, in a more desirable color or at a lower price at another booth. The exception is the “one left” policy. If there is only one unique item left, and you love it, purchase immediately.

4) Gear Up:

Wear a cross body bag that protects and provides easy access to mobile, money, tickets, maps and personal essentials like antibacterial wipes. Hang DSLR cameras around your neck. A lightweight large backpack can store an umbrella, extra clothing layers and a few lightweight shopping bags with long handles. The handle length makes the bags easy to sling over your shoulder. 

If you visit another attractions that don’t allow backpacks, you can check it and still have all of your valuables in the cross body bag.

5) Bring Small Money:

It goes without saying that you should bring along cash to Christmas markets, even though some more upscale ones will now accept cards for more expensive purchases such as jewelry. There will often be ATM machines on hand, as well, but with a steep fee.

Vendors appreciate not having to constantly break large bills. Carry small denominations of of cash. This also speeds up the process of paying if there is a line at the booth. A time saver for everyone involved. 

Also keep in mind that many Christmas markets will charge anywhere between one to five euros for an entrance fee. Usually these costs aren't in vain, considering many markets also offer music, arts and crafts for kids and samples of regional food and drinks. 

Do buy things and support local vendors if you can! Often people visit Christmas markets for the Glühwein, overlooking the unique rows of German goods. 

6) Inquire Before You Insta:  

Ask vendors permission before taking pictures of their handmade goods. Older and not social media savvy sellers are sometimes fearful of others stealing their ideas. Always ask before snapping or you might get snapped at.  

7) Bring a Thermos:

Most Glühwein will be served in a special ornamental mug. You'll be charged an extra fee for a deposit, but if you fancy a fancy cup, simply hold on to it and keep the cup.

Yet if you aren't keen on keeping another mug, simply return your cup and your deposit will be returned to you. If you're on the go, tuck a small empty thermos in your bag. If short on time hopping your return train, buy a Glühwein, transfer it to the thermos and enjoy it on your train ride home.  

The 2018 mug for the Stuttgart Christmas market. Photo: DPA

Tips for if you're visiting Germany, or another city than your own

8) Map Out: 

If you're visiting a new German city this winter (or even want to get a better sense of your own), stop by the tourist information booth. There are usually two maps available, sometimes each in several languages. One is the city map and one of the Christmas Markets. Pick up both maps. The Christmas Market map is usually a lot less detailed than the standard city map. 

Also, pick up a transportation map. Make sure you ask HOW you purchase a transportation ticket. Consider buying a day pass if you are covering a lot of ground.

Before you leave the train station, make sure you have the times and platforms of several evening return trains, especially the final one. This gives you flexibility in deciding when to return.

9) Step Outside the Christmas Market Box:

If you can spend the entire day in the city, visit other attractions. Explore these first in the morning or take a break between daylight and evening market tours by visiting a museum or church. Also, if the weather turns bad, you have an indoor plan.  Prioritize the list into “must visit” and “would like to visit” while noting operating hours. If you have spare time, you can always circle back to your “would like to” list.

However, don’t miss the markets at night when they are lit up and become the most magical. Make sure you circle back through the markets as evening descends.

10) Shop carefully and creatively:  

Handmade or regionally, locally produced items make great souvenirs. Before buying an item, ask yourself  two questions. First, “Can I buy this back home?”  If the answer is “yes”, walk away.  Second, “Can I carry this back home?”  Non-glass Ornaments are easy to pack, a great memory of your Christmas market visit and they make wonderful gifts. Tree ornaments are light items to carry around for the day and do not take up a lot of suitcase real estate.

Lora Wiley-Lennartz is an Emmy nominated television producer and a food/destination blogger who splits her time between Germany and New York City. Read her blog Diary of a Mad Hausfrau or follow her on Facebook for traditional German recipes with a twist.

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