SPIEGEL ONLINE

SPIEGEL ONLINE

12/07/2006 06:36 PM

Frohe Weihnachten

A Visit to Germany's Christmas Markets

Germany's Christmas markets are famous the world over. And it's that time of year again. The mulled wine is brewing, the lights are up, and Germans are spending their evenings strolling through their very own winter wonderland. Here's SPIEGEL ONLINE's guide to some of the best Christmas markets in Germany ... and a few of the worst.

For hundreds of years, merchants have erected small wooden huts in the ancient centers of cities and towns all across Germany at Christmas, where artisans peddle handicrafts, baked goods, regional cuisine and millions of liters of Glühwein (mulled wine) to help keep Jack Frost away. For the month of December, right up to the 24th, and in some cases until New Year's, the country's world-famous Christmas markets offer a sort of mini Oktoberfest all across the country, where dirndl-clad Bavarian bar wenches, beer and pretzels are replaced with Saint Nicholas, Glühwein, gingerbread, fruitcake, speculatius and other holiday delights.

With regular December snowfall, in many Germany cities, a White Christmas is almost guaranteed at a number of local Weihnachstmärkte (Christmas markets) or Christkindlmärkte. The most famous include Nuremberg's Christmas market, which draws millions each year and dates back to the 16th century, and Dresden's Striezelmarkt, famous for its delicious, powdered sugar-coated Stollen fruit cakes.

The markets are a major draw, luring 160 million visitors from around the world to more than 2,500 Christmas markets. These temples to Christmas spirit also provide a needed once-a-year booster shot in the arms of local economies, with total Christmas market-related tourism spending estimated at close to €5 billion per year. Not bad for an oversized crafts and bake sale.

Germany's Christmas markets offer something for everyone -- be it Berlin's upscale Gendarmenmarkt Winter Fairy Tale, Cologne's medieval-themed Christmas market, an "erotic" one catered to adults in Hamburg's fabled St. Pauli pleasure district or even a Berlin-based market with discounted prices aimed at the long-term unemployed.

And despite the focus on commerce, there is something vaguely non-commercial about the country's tradition of Christmas markets. About sharing the pleasure of a mug of mulled wine with friends after work or delicately pulling the shells off roasted chestnuts in a small paper bag. Occasionally, you might even find a gift in the markets, which serve as the perfect antidote to department stores, chain shops and overly commercialized high streets that whip out the Christmas decorations as early as October.

SPIEGEL ONLINE has put together highlights of some of our favorite Christmas markets across Germany. It is by no means comprehensive, and we welcome you to submit your own Christmas market experiences, your Christmas memories, recipes and digital photos to survival_bible@spiegel.de. We will publish the best in our Germany Survival Bible Guide to Christmas in Germany.

There is no shortage of local delicacies in Nuremberg, which has Germany's best-known Christmas market and is world-famous for its Lebkuchen gingerbread cakes and little Nuremberger sausages, served in portions of four, six, eight or 12 with a pile of sauerkraut. Its 180 stalls with red and white striped canvas roofs are lined up in the historic setting of the main market square at the foot of the medieval castle.

The organizers are at pains to prevent the market becoming too tacky. Plastic Christmas trees or branches are taboo, as is the playing of taped Christmas music. You won't find fairground rides either. On the downside, the market's worldwide appeal means it gets extremely crowded, especially at weekends. And queuing endlessly for one's sausage in the drizzle can be a pain.

-- David Crossland

The formerly East German city of Dresden boasts Germany's oldest Christmas market, replete with local treats and traditions. This year, several million Christmas-kitsch enthusiasts will flock to the 572nd Striezelmarkt on Dresden's Altmarkt square.

The Striezelmarkt gets its name from the city's world-famous Christstollen, a bread-like fruitcake that was originally called "striezel" in central German dialects. The striezel was invented in Dresden around 1450 and is still sold today as the Original Dresdner Stollen -- a deserving name, since (in classic German fashion) only authorized vendors who adhere to the "original" recipe may use the authentic label.

Dresden's Christmas market began in 1434 as a one-day meat market for the privileged Electorate of Saxony under Frederick II, a.k.a. Frederick the Gentle. Over time, it evolved into a more dynamic Christmas market for all classes. Not only that: In 1471, church leaders convinced city officials to bestow "a striezel unto the poor on Christmas."

Although the days of free stollen and mulled wine on the house are long gone, anyone with just a handful of euros can enjoy a number of local specialties in addition to the usual run-of-the-mill Christmas kitsch. Most notably, Dresden's Christmas market culminates every year in the biggest striezel-debauchery of all: the Stollenfest. On this noteworthy day, a four-ton mega-stollen makes its way through the old city to the Striezelmarkt, where portions are sold to the general public after an attractive Stollenmädchen (literally: "stollen girl") cuts the giant fruitcake with the traditional "Dresdner Stollen Knife."

-- Alex Bakst

Munich, Berlin and more

Ask a Munich resident what his or her favorite Christmas market in the Bavarian capital is and you're likely to get a number of different answers. But for those who value the time honored tradition of a Christkindlmarkt being a place to stock up on hand-made Christmas decorations and clever arts and crafts sure to brighten any holiday stocking, the Christmas market on Marienplatz, smack in the center of the city, is sure to be the answer. The market sprawls from directly beneath the city hall clock tower into the small streets surrounding the square and includes 156 booths full of Christmassy trinkets, ornaments, candles, wooden toys, Alpine handicrafts, Christmas-cookie cutters, gingerbread and everything else one associates with Christmas. And there's one thing the market doesn't have: an overabundance of stands selling mulled wine and bratwurst. Priority number one for Munich's main Christmas market is stuffing stockings, not faces.

Should Munich be blessed with a bit of pre-Christmas snowfall, there is hardly a place more romantic than the Marienplatz Christmas market, complete with the city's Christmas tree just beneath the famous Glockenspiel. Should the December clouds, as they so often do, dump rain on the city, one is inclined to see the downsides to the market. Jammed as it is in the not-overly-large central square, it can feel incredibly cramped and overcrowded, even when it's not. And the food offerings really are rather wanting.

But that's not a hugely difficult problem to solve. If, after a bit of serious Christmas shopping, you're in the mood for a more chilled atmosphere to enjoy your mulled wine in peace, jump on the subway and head north a couple stops to the Christmas market at Münchener Freiheit. It has art, handicrafts, and plenty of food and drink.

-- Charles Hawley

Many in Berlin say that Gendarmenmarkt in the heart of the central Mitte district is the capital city's most beautiful square, hemmed in as it is by the elegant German and French cathedrals. It is fitting, then, that the square hosts one of the best Christmas markets in the city-center.

Before you go, however, be aware that Christmas markets in the German capital have little to do with their fairy-tale, ornament-packed cousins in the southern part of the country. The emphasis seems not so much on the Christmas spirit as reflected in beautiful, charming decorations. Rather, the markets here seem intent on providing shoppers with a full Christmas shopping experience complete with creative gift ideas, massive quantities of bratwurst and mulled wine, entertainment, and, in many cases, ice skating.

Gendarmenmarkt is no different, though it often pays to make sure you're a long way from the stage before ordering up your wine and brat. What separates the Gendarmenmarkt Christmas market from others in the area is, first of all, it seems to have a bit of class. Rather than the same low-quality crap that seems to get carted from street fair to street fair in Berlin throughout the entire year, Gendarmenmarkt ups the quality, if only slightly. The same holds for the food: no Aldi bratwurst here.

-- Charles Hawley

Berliners have long been renowned for having an attitude, for being rough around the edges, and for having little respect for authority. Which, when it comes to Christmas markets, can sometimes be a good thing. Take the Christmas market on Unter den Linden by the opera for example. The single best reason for visiting this market is the white mulled wine on offer. Not only is it a travesty to the tradition of hot red wine, it is also perhaps the single most delicious beverage you'll ever drink.

The maze-like layout of the market is also charming -- for awhile at least. Getting lost among the endless booths selling scarves, cheap toys, personalized nameplates, door handles, and lava lamps can be fun. But the crowds can also be overwhelming.

A lack of respect for tradition also has its downsides. Like the Christmas amusement park right next to the Opernpalais Christmas Market. What could be more fun, one wonders, than riding a rollercoaster in a cold, wet, December rain? Or a Ferris wheel in a snowstorm? Judging by the generally sparse crowds, it seems that we here at the Germany Survival Bible aren’t the only ones to have asked such questions.

-- Charles Hawley

Christmas in Berlin, of course, would not be complete without a visit to what has to be the least magical of all Christmas markets in Germany. The rag-tag gathering of booths cluttering up Alexanderplatz -- surrounded by some of the most stunningly ugly examples of communist architecture that the former East Bloc has to offer -- is amazing for its ability to zap the Christmas spirit out of the soul of even the most hopeless of holiday romantics.

Should there be any doubts about the purpose of the market, the fact that it is surrounded by department stores and shops on three sides should be enough to clear them up. Fooling careless shoppers into shelling out cash for low quality wares seems to be the market's raison d'etre -- from the chewy pork steaks on sale to the machine-made scarves and industrial jewellery. Even the skating rink is rather pathetic -- so small that even those standing around watching get dizzy.

But still, the market is worth a visit -- or at least it is when it's not surrounded by a construction site as it is this year. There is something uniquely charming about sipping on a watery mulled wine, chewing on a luke-warm sausage and shivering in the center of wind-swept Alexanderplatz.

-- Charles Hawley

Cologne, Frankfurt and more

With its towering (516-foot) gothic cathedral, the Rhine metropolis of Cologne is home to one of the world's greatest man-made wonders. And with its 2000 year-old history as a Roman outpost and its annual carnival celebrations, Cologne is also one of Germany's culturally richest cities. Fittingly, it's also home to one of the country's best Christmas markets. Actually, much of the compact city center is transformed into a holiday market for the month of December. The most-popular is located right on the Domplatz, sprawling between the cathedral and the museums for modern art and Roman history. The others can be found by winding your way though the city's medieval shopping streets until you get to Altmarkt, Neumarkt and Rudolfplatz.

In terms of specialties, the Cologne market is well known for its Spekulatius, a popular cookie that originates from the region. Cookie cutters in the shape of the city's trademark twin spires are ubiquitous. If the Catholic Church isn't your thing, you can also find speculatius that depict the story of St. Nicholas and Christmas. If you're looking for something a bit more substantial than a cookie, you can also wrap your palate around any number of sausages, frikadellen (pork hamburgers) or even Rievkooche -- popular deep-fried potato pancakes served with apple sauce.

A short walk down the Rhine River and you can find two completely different experiences: Markets aboard Rhine cruise ships, like the MS Wappen von Mainz or the the Medieval Christmas market at the Chocolate Museum (Shockoladenmuseum), one of the city's most-popular attractions. There you'll find actors in period costume, acrobats, traveling entertainers and artisans peddling their wares. Our tip: Sip on a steaming mug of Meth (a honey wine that bears more than a passing resemblance to beer) while watching the barges pass by as they traverse Europe's busiest inland waterway. Cologne is known as one of Germany's friendliest and most-outgoing cities, and the famous Rhineland spirit that makes Karneval a destination for 2 million people each year, can also be felt at its Christmas markets.

-- Daryl Lindsey

With its skyscrapers and legions of bankers, Frankfurt isn't the most promising location for a Christmas market, but visitors tend to be pleasantly surprised.

Framed by historic half-timbered facades that reflect the warm lights coming from stalls, a giant Christmas tree and a vintage carousel, it exudes seasonal atmosphere and is far more attractive than many of the sprawling markets offered by Germany's other major cities.

Frankfurt has held Christmas markets in its central Römer square since 1393. Right up until the late 19th century most Frankfurt parents bought all their children's toys there.

Frankfurt doesn't have much in the way of regional food specialities that stand out, so it's best to stick to the Glühwein and eat a bratwurst as you stare at the carousel.

-- David Crossland

Straddling the border between Germany, Belgium and The Netherlands, Aachen, a Roman military spa town that would later become home to Emporer Charlemagne, is another city with a deep holiday tradition. It has its own upscale market that is one of the country's prettiest and its own Christmas specialty. So unique is the "Aachener Printe," a variety of Lebkuchen (gingerbread) baked in the city, that it has even been bestowed the distinction, like champagne or cognac, of being a brand that is given European Union protection. Anything that is marketed as "Aachener Printe" must be made in Aachen according to the original recipe.

Aachen's Christmas market is nestled between the city hall -- which was first built on the ruins of Charlegmagne's palace in the 14th century and later converted into its current magnificent baroque style -- and Aachen cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the final resting place of Charlemagne, who is regarded by many as the "father of Europe" for the role he played in defining Western Europe.

But Charlemagne isn't the only local hero. The city is also home to Lampertz, a company that specializes in Printen cookies that first began baking the rectangular holiday treats back in 1688. Today, it does about €400 million in revenue on worldwide sales of Printen and other baked goods. The company's shops in the city, including an outlet on the town square, keep the Christmas spirit alive in the hilly hamlet year round.

-- Daryl Lindsey

Quedlinburg in the Harz hills of eastern Germany about three hours by train southwest of Berlin is so full of medieval half-timbered houses that UNESCO has declared the whole town a World Heritage Site. Over 1,500 buildings have been placed under historical monument protection. It's a fairytale town of winding alleys lined by crooked little houses lovingly maintained -- the Hausfraus even scrub the facades in the mornings. A Christmas market in a place like this would have to put Polonium in its mulled wine and engage in public kitten drowning to lose its seasonal allure.

The stalls may not have that much to offer beyond toffee apples and Bratwurst and novelty mulled beer, and the range of cheap plastic gifts on offer serve as a reminder that this town isn't enjoying an economic boom. But its setting in Quedlinburg's beautiful market square more than makes up for that, as do the many gift shops offering local handicrafts that include accurate porcelain replicas of the town's best houses.

-- David Crossland

Schneeberg is a small town in the Erzgebirge mountains, a region famous for making wooden Christmas ornaments. If you're looking for rotating Christmas pyramids, Räuchermänner (traditional incense burners) or carved figures for your mantlepiece or Christmas tree, this is the place to get them relatively cheap. The market snakes its way up the town's hill past baroque buildings.

It retains a genuine local feel even though it has become so popular that the town has to offer a bus shuttle service from a giant parking area on the outskirts. The second Advent weekend (December 9 to 12 this year) is especially popular because Schneeberg hosts a light festival on those days.

-- David Crossland

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