Two Weeks of German Christmas Markets! Ja! Bitte!


Christmas Markets in Germany – A Sampler

What comes to mind when you think of Christmas? Christmas Trees? Nutcrackers? Mulled wine? Many traditions of the Christmas season that we hold dear in the USA have a very German origin.

As I mentioned during the discussion of the Austria adventure, I had spent some time in what was then West Germany back in the late 1970’s as a member of the US military. One of the highlights of that time was seeing how much the locals enjoyed Christmas. The entire month of December became idolized in Advent Calendars. Wooden decorations, decorated trees and bright candles appeared in even the humblest and most unlikely of places. Despite many lovely Christmases in the USA, Germany had taken this holiday to a whole new level. Even then I was driven to open my wallet as part of the experience, resulting in my still having a rather expense ($80, a lot of money to a single GI in 1979) nutcracker that I purchased at the Kaiserslautern Christmas Market, smartly dressed with his Prussian uniform and his real human hair.

After surprisingly little discussion, and perhaps driven by a desire for a more complete vacation than the week in London that we had spent with our son Austin, Diane and I decided somewhat spontaneously to spend two weeks immersed in a German Christmas. Diane had never seen much of Germany besides Cold War era Berlin, so I thought perhaps southern Germany would be a nice counterpoint to Berlin. A quick Google showed Nuremberg to be one of the oldest and largest Christmas Markets, so I decided that Nuremberg was the one location that had to be on the list. (Please note that I will use the English spelling for German cities due to an English keyboard and an intrinsic laziness.)

Where to experience Christmas in Germany in addition to Nuremberg?

In a departure from previous Tom’s Travel Adventures, I decided to forego my trusted Rick Steves guidebook and instead looked to the broader internet for ideas. TripAdvisor, Frommer’s, Fodor’s and Rick Steves websites (yes, I couldn’t leave Rick completely) provided a wealth of information. Gradually I leaned more and more towards Bavaria’s famous Romantic Road and the areas not too far from Nuremberg.

I suppose there are three approaches to this sort of adventure. One notion is that you can spend lots of time travelling from one location to another and see Christmas in the major cities, such as Berlin, Cologne and Munich. Another thought is too see as much as you possibly can, spending one or two nights and then moving on. I don’t like either of those options. I prefer to go fewer places, spending more time at each. Those places do not have to be big – just interesting.

The closer international airport to Nuremberg is Frankfurt (on the Main River), so I decided to make a loop of sorts that would begin and end in Frankfurt. Munich would probably have worked as well, but in the interest of less travelling time and more exploring time, Frankfurt was the airport of choice.

Knowing that the first day involves lots of jet lag, I picked a mid-sized city that I was reading great things about and appeared to have nice Christmas Market (Weihnachtsmarkt), Wurzburg. Indications were that it was a quick one hour Inter City Express (ICE) train ride from Frankfurt, and so should not be too painful after a night of flying. It appeared to have a nice old town (Altstadt) area and decent accommodations.

Next up would have to be the target, Nuremberg. My parents had visited me while I was stationed in Germany in 1979, and we had done a road tour of southern Germany in September of that year. That trip was guided almost entirely by a dog-eared copy of the Michelin Road Guide. There was no internet back then, of course, so accommodations were very much on a catch-as-catch-can basis. One of the cities we visited was Nuremberg, and the towers of the old town and its imposing fortress are still a vivid memory, though at that time much of the old landmarks were still being reconstructed after the devastating Allied bombing during World War II. Back then we stayed at the unknowingly famous Deutscher Hof Hotel (Hitler stayed there). The Deutscher Hof is no longer a functioning hotel, but thanks to the internet there are plenty of options in or near the old town.

Another classic near Nuremberg is Rothenburg on the Tauber River. As with Nuremberg, I had visited this small but very medieval city with my parents those many years ago. It is such a unique town, much like Colmar in Alsace with its timbered buildings, but even more so with the surviving town wall and towers. I wanted Diane to experience that atmosphere, despite Rothenburg’s popularity as a tourist destination. There’s a reason why certain locations are popular with tourists, and that reason is often good enough for me.

I agonized a bit over the last spot. So much of even northern Bavaria and Central Germany is worth seeing that choosing can be difficult. There are famous cathedrals in Speyer and Worms, famous spas in Baden-Baden, and lovely small towns basically everywhere. Again, I opted for a safely popular location that I knew Diane would enjoy – Heidelberg. Heidelberg has gotten a bad rap in recent times from Rick Steves and others, marking it as an over-hyped and over-touristy cliché. I knew, again from having visited with my parents in 1979, as well as other visits with friends while stationed nearby during that same timeframe, that Heidelberg has a lovely old town and truly picturesque Castle ruins that still overlook the city. I also saw that it was known for its Christmas Market, so that sealed the deal for me.

Reading that Frankfurt itself has a popular Christmas Market in the reconstructed old town area of Romerberg, and in keeping with my idea that the last night of an adventure should be spent at or near the airport, I decided to make the last two nights at Frankfurt.

The choices looked good on the map, creating a triangle of sorts, anchored by Frankfurt, Nuremberg and Heidelberg. Theoretically no train times should be more than a couple of hours. I was feeling pleased with myself. Who needs Rick Steves, anyway? I do, of course. I used his website often in the planning.

The Time of the Year to Visit German Christmas Markets

Well, naturally the best time to visit German Christmas Markets is during December. I wanted to be back at my home in Florida for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and I wanted to give the Markets a chance to be in full swing by the time we visited.

How to Travel to Germany

Despite our success with flying Virgin Atlantic from Orlando to London on our previous adventure, I opted for the more traditional flight from my little Destin airport to Atlanta, then Atlanta to Frankfurt. There’s always that unknown of weather, so I was gambling that Atlanta would not have any early winter difficulties. Delta again had the cheapest options on that route, so I stuck with the known good service that Delta normally provides (our previous adventure to Scotland notwithstanding when we spent the night at JFK).

Our Itinerary to the German Christmas Markets

Since airfare tends to be cheaper during the middle of the week, and two weeks still seems to be the best length for a visit, I chose December 3rd, a Tuesday, as our start date.

As with other adventures, avoiding an automobile is often one of the best choices you can make. My Florida driving skills would probably not measure up to a snowy country road, so the obvious choice seemed to be the Deutsche Bahn government-owned rail system.

We were flying in to Frankfurt, but I was saving the Romerberg Market to the end of the visit. The ride to Wurzburg should only take one hour on the Express.

Knowing the first day is sometimes too lagged out to enjoy, I decided three nights in Wurzburg would be good, with perhaps a day trip somewhere close but well thought of, such as Bamberg.

Given the many sights in Nuremberg, plus the large Christmas Market, plus a possible day trip to Regensburg, I guessed that three nights would be required.

Being a small town and relatively close to Nuremberg, I estimated two nights for Rothenburg. Unfortunately I did not realize until after booking the hotel that there is no direct train from Nuremberg to Rothenburg. The circuitous route back through Wurzburg would take 3.5 hours.

I figured three nights in Heidelberg, with another potential day trip to Speyer. So then again, I did not realize that despite the relatively close geographic proximity of Rothenburg to Heidelberg, the train would be required to backtrack again to Wurzburg. This resulted in an even longer train time of 4 hours.

Thus the final itinerary for our German Christmas Market Sampler, at the risk of being redundant, was:

  1. Fly in to Frankfurt International Airport (FRA)
  2. Take a 1.5 hour Express train from the airport to our hotel in Wurzburg, stay 3 nights with a possible day trip to Bamberg
  3. Take a 1 hour Express train from Wurzburg to Nuremberg, stay 3 nights with a possible day trip to Regensburg
  4. Take a 3.5 hour regional train from Nuremberg to Rothenburg, stay 2 nights
  5. Take a 4 hour regional train from Rothenburg to Heidelberg, stay 3 nights
  6. Take a 1 hour train from Heidelberg back the FRA airport, stay the last 2 nights at the Hilton Frankfurt Airport

Hotels in Germany (or anywhere else, for that matter)

One of the important things to resolve quickly, and I’m afraid I don’t emphasize it enough, is to book your lodging quickly after deciding your itinerary. This is especially true if you are planning a trip less than six months in advance. I started planning this adventure in August for a December execution. Already many of my first choice hotels were not available, even going a bit off season. I did manage to get some good ones, as I will discuss later, but the point is that once you know your dates, book your hotels as quickly as possible.

The Big Question: Will the weather hold? We had not traveled during December in Europe in decades. Would Atlanta get shut down by a winter storm? Would the trains continue to operate in Germany if a big storm hit? I knew from previous experience that European trains could be relied on, barring disasters. I knew that I could count on most Europeans, especially the younger ones, to know at least enough English to get through the basics (unlike my German, the mention of which reminds me of our Austria adventure and likewise provides a good segue to the next topic).

There’s that Language Thing

Answer: Once again, time to brush up on some German! I replayed much of our previously purchased Fluenz German coursework, although I’ll admit being somewhat jaded by our previous adventures to the point where I knew that I would end up relying on the Germans with their much better English skills. I don’t want to say that I feel entitled as an American, but I’ve seen too many examples of English being used as the common tongue between people whose native language is not English. Still, it never hurts to brush up on the basics.

How the Itinerary to the German Christmas Markets Played Out


Before The Trip:

When planning a large, expensive excursion, there is such an investment of time and money that it takes a significant event to consider aborting said excursion.  The human mind wants to rationalize anything less as a simple inconvenience. When I woke the long-awaited morning of the BIG DAY, the mild sniffles greeted me quickly snuffed by a dose of antihistamine.

The delays from our earlier trip to Scotland were still foremost in our thoughts.  Luckily the weather cooperated and our initial hop into Atlanta sustained only a few minutes of delay.  Before we boarded the flight for Frankfurt, I became aware that the antihistamine was wearing off and the sinus issues of the morning were returning.  I bought some over the counter medicine and decided that a simple common head cold was not going to deny our Christmas Market experience. 

The Flight To Germany

: The long flight to Frankfurt was thankfully uneventful as long flights go. Delta lived up to my expectations of plenty of food, drink and entertainment, though the wine did not flow as freely as it had on previous Atlantic crossings.  That was fine, though, since I had no wish to re-experience that slightly hung-over feeling upon arrival that we had dealt with on our trip to France. My cold symptoms were lingering but not obvious as we deplaned.

Customs in Germany

: Getting off the plane always results in the big funnel of all arriving passengers to go through official entry point for that country. German customs were quick and efficient, in keeping with the German cliché. When asked why we were visiting Germany, Diane and I both responded with “Your amazing Christmas Markets!” That brought a smile from the customs official and an “Us too!” from fellow American passengers nearby.

Frankfurt International Airport (FRA)

: This airport reminded me of de Gaulle with its size. After such a long flight, there is a challenge to have the mental facilities to cope with the next step, which is getting to that first hotel. Since the plan was to do only public transportation, we made our way to down to the trains and a Deutsche Bahn (DB) ticket machine.

Taking the train from FRA to Wurzburg

: At FRA, two German men who were nearby the DB machine, realizing we were new to this way of buying tickets, were extremely helpful and walked us through the steps for the purchase. I did not see my expected option for a “couples” ticket, so instead of the expected price of EUR 40, we instead paid EUR 84 for the privilege of taking the ICE express train to Wurzburg.

The Wurzburg train station (Bahnhof) was a busy but reasonably nice post-WW2 station. We decided to walk to the hotel, which seemed like a good idea at the time. Unfortunately being jet lagged, dragging large bags in the downtown of an unfamiliar city, and a bit of drizzle can make for a less than enjoyable experience. An exaggerated tourist map of Wurzburg did not help us find the hotel, making the walk longer than it should have been. In retrospect, we should have taken a taxi or the tram, but the less-than-obvious methods of doing so were daunting to my tired brain.

The young ladies at the desk of the Hotel Rebstock (unexpectedly a Best Western affiliate) were extremely understanding of our exhausted condition. It still took some effort for my befuddled mind to figure out where our room was since it was not in the main building but rather next door. I had hoped to see some of Wurzburg that first day, but once we got to our rooms we immediately went to bed, sleeping till 7pm local time. The hotel is very close to the Marienkapelle church, and therefore to the Christmas market. We ventured out into the cold night air to hopefully sample some warm gluhwein, but were denied as the market shops closed early on weeknights.

Montage of Sites in Wurzburg, Germany

Montage of Sites in Wurzburg, Germany

Visiting Wurzburg


Wurzburg eventually became one of our favorite cities. Like most German cities, it was mostly destroyed during the war, but since has been faithfully reconstructed. The Old Bridge on the river Main (Alte Mainbrucke) with its statues of former ruling Bishops was a real treat. We spent at least part of our remaining two nights imbibing that comforting gluhwein on the cold but beautiful bridge.

The stunning Festung Marienberg dominates the west side of Wurzburg, overlooking the city and the old bridge. We enjoyed our hike to the fortress despite the frost on the walkways. The fortress museum was pound for pound as good as any such museum I’ve seen, with its collections of art and military history.

The Wurzburger Cathedral (Dom) was mildly interesting, as was the Marienkapelle church. Both are worth seeing if you have the time.

The city is also very palate friendly. We enjoyed multiple meals at the Wurzburger Ratskeller, especially enjoying the sauerbraten. Good breakfast food was available on the west side of the bridge in the form of Cafehaus Bruckenback.

Hotel Rebstock was in a nice central location to the old town and the Christmas Market. Our room was a bit on the noisy side, as a service alley was just outside our windows that was frequented in the early mornings by various delivery trucks. The room was modern and clean, and the personalized Christmas slippers were a nice touch. I would definitely stay with the folks at Rebstock again, though I would request a quiet room.

Our First Christmas Market

: The Christmas Market itself was large and interesting for city the size of Wurzburg. By day most of the stalls were closed, but at night the market came to life. Lots of locals were gathered around the gluhwein stalls, obviously enjoying themselves. The savory smoke from the many sausage (wurst) vendors added to the carnival-like atmosphere. It was an invigorating combination of warm drink, warm food, and freezing temperatures.

I didn’t know that each Christmas Market has its own collectable cups for the gluhwein. Because of this, each vendor charged for the cup as well as the wine for the initial purpose. A small coin-like token from that vendor would be given with the cup. If you wanted to keep the cup, you simply did not return it. Otherwise, you had to take the cup and its associated token back to that vendor who sold you the cup, who would then refund your cup deposit. Refills for a cup already in hand were naturally charged only for the wine, regardless of the vendor.

One of the favorite moments of my life is sitting on a stone bench with Diane on the Alte Mainbrucke. It was clear and cold, with an amazing view of the Festung Marienberg highlighted by a bright moon and a chorus of stars. The statues of the old bishops lining either side of the bridge seemed to approve of the festivities. We had our steaming Wurzburg cups full of local gluhwein, enjoying the crowd strolling the bridge as the market wound down for the night. Everybody’s breath was visible in the chill. Even the natives were cold, as one departed with a smiling comment “sehr kalt!” Wurzburg will always hold a special place for giving me that memory.

Montage of Sites in Bamberg, Germany

Montage of Sites in Bamberg, Germany

Visiting Bamberg

: Despite losing part of our time in Wurzburg to jetlag, we felt we had seen enough of the Wurzburg Alte Stadt (old town) to be able to take a day trip to Bamberg.

I thought I had an understanding of the Deutsche Bahn (DB) rail system based on all my previous background reading. Instead I found myself relying entirely on DB ticket offices and the English skills of their employees to decide what tickets I needed. Luckily there was at least one English speaker in each office that we used. Despite the common language, I still managed to not make it clear that we wanted round trip tickets (always cheaper) to Bamberg. The result was that we paid almost twice as much for our rail fare because it was two sets of one way tickets instead of a single set of round trip tickets (one set purchased in Wurzburg to get to Bamberg and another set purchased in Bamberg to get back to Wurzburg). It was another lesson learned the hard way.

Bamberg itself is a very pretty town. We walked the quaint streets and visited the town’s well-done museum. The river running through the town was glorious, reminding us of Strasbourg. A big reason to visit Bamberg is the cathedral that dominates the center of the old town. Unfortunately there was an exclusive event taking place on the day we were there, so no tourists were being admitted inside. I overheard irate German tourists arguing with church representatives, but it was to no avail. Another disappointment was the Christmas Market, though in fairness being there during the day meant that the best time for the Bamberg Christmas Market (evening) was missed.

The train back to Wurzburg was super crowded, due to our timing coinciding with the children taking the local train home from school. Perhaps if the Cathedral had been open it would have improved the overall impression of the visit, but as it was, I would rather have stayed in Wurzburg.

What we missed in Wurzburg

: By spending most of our second full day in Bamberg, we missed several notable sights in Wurzburg. Among those were the Residence Palace (Residenz) and the nearby Schloss Veitshochheim.

Montage of Sites in Nurnberg, Germany

Montage of Sites in Nurnberg, Germany

Visiting Nurnberg


We were delighted to find the old town and our hotel, the Hotel Drei Raben, a short distance from the train station. The city walls loomed large and imposing as we dragged our luggage over the cobble stones into the old town.

German FOOD!!!

It’s been a while since our trip to the Christmas Markets in Germany. Given the travel issues associated with COVID-19 during 2020, we feel so lucky to have gone when we did. This year we’re celebrating our trip by cooking up a German meal for Christmas that includes Homemade German Spaetzle, Traditional German Rotkohl (Sweet/Sour Red Cabbage) and Christmas Stollen – using homemade candied fruit skins and Marzipan! Yum! A very Merry Christmas 2020 to all!