Simply Sara's European Christmas Market How-To

I have always loved celebrating the Christmas season, and moving to Europe has introduced me to an absolutely wonderful tradition: the Christmas market. For the past two seasons my husband and I have traveled to many European cities during December to experience the burst of holiday cheer and have been anything but disappointed in our findings. 

If you’re off to a European Christmas market, here are 13 tips we've learned firsthand!

1. Find out when Santa Claus is coming to town.
Look into when to plan your trip. Most European Christmas markets start at the end of November, and last at least until Christmas Eve. Many larger cities have markets that continue on for a few days after Christmas, but often are scaled down a bit (for example, just a main market or two still operating, with smaller ones shutting down by Christmas). Be sure to check the dates online as each city is different.

Also, consider which days of the week to visit the markets. Weekends are always more crowded, but there are often more special events happening then. Weekends may also require some advanced planning for accommodations depending on your destination. For instance, Strasbourg, France hosts some of the most well-known and celebrated Christmas markets in Europe, which results in a huge influx of visitors on the weekends (and limited hotels).Also, if you are going to Christmas markets over a weekend and want to have a sit-down dinner at a restaurant, reservations are likely needed as well, particularly in smaller towns with less options.

Santa invasion in Strasbourg, France! 

2. Research the program online.
Many cities publish a program of events for the season on the city’s website or a tourist information board. Once you have your dates, take a look if there are any concerts or events planned during your stay. It’s likely in a smaller town that you will catch performances by chance at the market, but especially for larger cities with many Christmas markets you’ll want to optimize around some free and festive entertainment! 

Look at the schedule for free events at the Christmas markets, like this concert in Nürnberg, Germany.

3. Map it out. 
I didn’t grow up in a family that mapped out an itinerary of which rides to hit at Disney World, I promise. But I do take my Christmas markets seriously, and never want to miss any fun after I make the effort to visit a town for the holidays. As I eluded to before, most towns have more than one market set up throughout town. Figure out where they all are, and also note the dates (and daily operating hours) of each individual market. Not all of them will be open at the same time, and not all markets are the same (some focus on handicrafts, some on international wares, etc).

4. Baby, it’s cold outside! 
Christmastime in Europe is cold, which makes for a perfect Christmas setting. (After all, how can you walk in a winter wonderland without that snow that is glistening?!) So make sure you dress for the part - coat, hat, scarf, gloves, and boots are all necessary to be warm enough to enjoy being outdoors at the markets!

Bundle up with a winter coat and hat, and warm up with a glass of mulled wine!

5. Toast for warmth.
Even if you dress appropriately, the chill in the air will most likely eventually get to you. But have no fear, there is a solution! Look around for the most likely crowded stands selling mulled wine (“vin chaud” in French, “glühwein” in German). Sometimes you may even run into a quite elaborate set-up like the temporary bar we came across in Dresden - an added bonus for extra trapped heat!

Once you find the wine, there sometimes is a choice. Red mulled wine is the most popular and often the only option offered. But sometimes you can find white mulled wine. Seek it out if you are near the Franconia wine region in Germany (in Bavaria) or in the Alsace region of France - both make some great white wine in my opinion, and is a treat to have as glühwein. For an extra dose of warmth, most stands offer add-ins like schnapps or other liquors. (Side note: You may be surprised to see wine in Germany. We’ve been told that it is rare to find German wines outside of the country because most of what is produced is consumed within its borders! So keep it local and enjoy some German wine at the Christmas markets. And glühbier (warmed beer) exists as well, although it is not quite as common as mulled wine.)

This temporary bar at the Dresden Christmas Market was a great find - seating and a barrier from the cold!

6. Pay your deposit for the mug.
The first market we went to in Germany, we were perplexed why we were charged more for our glühwein than advertised on the menu. Before you think you’re getting ripped off as a tourist, be aware of this: many markets charge a deposit fee (often €1-2) for the mug the beverage is served in. (This is especially a popular practice in Germany and Austria.) You will get the deposit back when you return the mug to the appointed place. Have a look around to figure out where that might be - some places have you return the mug back to the stands selling wine and other markets have a separate collection point designated. 

Also know that it is perfectly acceptable not to return the mug if you choose. I started collecting mugs from each city I go to at Christmastime as a souvenir.

7. Get a bite to eat too!
Don’t just go for the mulled wine - Christmas markets offer great food options as well! I often like to eat lunch at the markets because it’s efficient and a great way to save some money instead of sitting down as a restaurant. Dinner for me depends on the temperature (and how tired my feet are at the end of the day). I head indoors to a restaurant if it is frigid outside, but otherwise I like to tough it out and enjoy market food. 

What to eat, you ask? It depends on where you are, but you can’t go wrong with German sausage sandwiches (pretty much anything that ends in “würst”) or kartoffelpuffer, which are German potato pancakes. Also be on the lookout for the Alsatian specialty called Flammkuchen. It's the cousin of the thin crust pizza, but made with crème fraîche, onions, and other toppings (lardon is a common one). But when in doubt, take a look at where the lines are forming and consider checking out what the commotion is all about. It’s how we found the most delicious salmon sandwich I’ve ever had in Cologne, and this…

Sometimes it pays to be a follower - that's how I became introduced to "heurekaner," in Leipzig, Germany. It's hard to describe, but was similar to a calzone filled with cheese and veggies/lardon but baked in a wood-burning oven so it wasn't greasy at all. Take my word for it - hands-down the best thing I have ever eaten at a Christmas market. 

8. Look for international markets.
If you are going to a bunch of European Christmas markets, you will at times need to switch things up a little for variety. There are only so many wooden nutcrackers you can pass by, never mind to say that bratwurst gets repetitive quickly for people like me unaccustomed to eating lots of pork. This is where the international Christmas markets come in. They offer some diversity and a refreshing variety of ethnic foods for those times when you need a break from the traditional markets. 

The Augustusmarkt in Dresden gave us some much appreciated variety. We bought some Polish ceramics, browsed through some Indian scarfs, and sat down with a South African lunch all in an afternoon. 

9. Use the markets as a springboard to explore a new destination.
Christmas markets are magical. But you can’t spend all day at one! So if a Christmas market attracted you to a new city, use the opportunity to explore a little as well. Besides, museums are a great place to warm up in between outdoor escapades. 

The Christmas markets attracted us to Dresden, Germany and had it not been for that, we probably wouldn't have taken the time to add this lovely city to our travel itinerary! (Pictured above: the Dresden Cathedral, known as Katholische Hofkirche)

10. Don’t miss the markets at night.
Christmas markets up their wow factor at night! There’s something extra special with all the lights on that bumps up the holiday cheer to another level. Plus, on weeknights it is fun to see locals in the mix enjoying the markets with friends and family after the workday is over. Refer back to #4 and #5 to prepare for the chilly night time temps! 

In the same vein, know when the Christmas markets shut down for the day. You might assume that the markets will be open late, but often they close up shop by 9/10pm (and that time might be earlier on weekdays). So check the schedule ahead of time!

Vienna's Rathaus really was magical to experience at night.

11. Don’t be in a rush to shop!
There will be stands and stands full to the gills with cute Christmas trinkets to entice shoppers. But take your time and try to avoid impulse buys. There are a lot of the same type of crafts offered in abundance, so take your time to shop around and find what you really like.

12. Bring some cash.
You will need cash to pay for food, beverages, and small souvenirs. Some stands that sell more expensive goods may accept credit cards, but it varies of course. One thing we learned in Germany in general is that cash is king, and credit cards are often not accepted even in stores. (We were shocked in Stuttgart that an electronics store similar to Best Buy didn't even take plastic!) So be prepared and find an ATM ahead of time. 

13. Enjoy “the most wonderful time of the year.”
If you can make the trip to see Europe dressed in her Christmas best, enjoy every moment. My Christmas market trips with Michael (known as “Christmaspalooza”) are some of my fondest memories of life abroad, and an experience I wish I could share with everyone.

Take along a loved one to share the Christmas cheer with!

Have you ever been to a Christmas market in Europe?