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Helpful Christmas Market Tips For Your First Visit

Europen Christmas markets are straight-up magical, but if it’s your first time you may be wondering how they work. My hope is that after you read this post full of Christmas market tips you’ll be prepared to have the best first visit ever.

Make the most of your winter in Europe with these helpful Christmas market tips. This post will be a handy guide for a great experience.
This mug is from Cologne’s “Heinzel” or “Gnome” market!

While going to a Christmas market is pretty straightforward (you can literally just show up*), there are several things I wish I had known before experiencing my first market season.

*A few of the smaller Christmas markets, like this one at a romantic German castle, do require a ticket, so just take a peek at their official website before you plan on visiting.

But First, A Quick Look at Christmas Markets

Pictures from Schloss Merode in Germany

If you’re reading this Christmas market guide, you’re likely about to experience a market for the first time, so if you’re wondering what a Christmas market actually is, here’s a quick rundown:

A Christmas market in Europe is like a cross between an arts and crafts fair and a street market, but in the middle of the Christmas season, it’s also sprinkled with a whole lot of that holly-jolly magical feeling.

From lights twinkling everywhere to the delicious scents wafting in the air, you’ll totally fall in love with the market ambiance.

They’re traditionally held in a town’s square/center and you’ll find delicious food, tasty warm drinks, and fun seasonal and local items for sale out of rustic stalls decorated for the holidays.  

When do Christmas Markets start in Europe?

pictures from the Aachen Christmas Market in Germany

If you’re wondering when Christmas markets start in Europe, here’s the short answer: Every Christmas market has a different date for when they open and close, but they typically begin around American Thanksgiving (so just before or after the last Thursday of November).

By 1 December, Christmas markets all around Europe are in full swing.

EXTRA CHRISTMAS MARKET TIP

Blogs are great (obviously!), but I highly recommend seeking out specific info from the Christmas market website directly that you want to visit. So if you want to know when a specific Christmas starts in Europe, it’s as simple as putting “city + Christmas market” into Google and finding the city link or an actual market link. Many blogs try to update info each season, but as we all know with the pandoozy, things can change at a moment’s notice. Info directly from the source is the way to go. Plus, they sometimes have maps…and maps are fantastic!

pictures from Christmas Market Obernai in France

While you might find one here or there open, the majority shut down for Christmas and/or the 24th/26th, and some may close for good the week of Christmas and the New Year.

On the flip side: You may be lucky and find some open just after the new year like the Valkenburg Christmas market held in a cave.

As you can see, there’s no set-in-stone timeline for when Christmas markets start (or stop) in Europe, but generally, a good rule of thumb is that they’re open between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

EXTRA CHRISTMAS MARKET TIP

Skip the crowds and go on a weekday as soon as it opens (usually around 10 am or 11 am). The vibe is completely different than visiting when it’s dark, but it’s also pretty empty and nice not being squished like a sardine!

Smaller Christmas Markets

Some of the smaller Christmas markets (like at castles or in small towns) will not be open during the week. They typically only open on the four weekends of Advent—you’ll need to double-check with the specific market to see if Fridays are included in their schedule; some are and some are not.

A lot of these smaller markets (especially at places like castles) also require tickets for entry, so pre-planning is also required.

The Best Christmas Market Tips

So let’s get this started! I’m eager to share a whole bunch of helpful Christmas market tips to help make your season a huge success.

Christmas Market Tips: The Drinks

We’re starting with one of my favorite things about Christmas markets in Europe, because let’s be honest, it’s most likely going to be pretty chilly, overcast, and dark.

There’s nothing better than walking around a holly-jolly market with a warm drink in hand!

The Mugs

from left, clockwise: Essen Christmas Market, Colmar Christmas Market, Obernai Christmas Market, Schloss Merode, Cologne Christmas Market (main), Cologne Christmas Market (gnome)

Did you know that each* Christmas Market has its own customized mug or cup? They typically have the name of the town, city, or market on them along with the current year**.

And here’s the cool thing: you can keep the mug!

Here’s where things get a little wonky and it’s nice to have someone sharing some inside Christmas market tips with you:

In Europe (specifically in Germany), there’s something called a pfand system. Essentially, you pay a little more for your drink up front, and if you end up returning your mug/cup you’ll get that extra cost back. If you don’t return your mug/cup, you basically just bought your drinking vessel and get to keep it.

The cost pfand cost typically ranges from 2-5 euro.

I feel obligated to tell you that you’re technically supposed to return your mugs. They’re not for keeping. BUT…many, many people do keep them and many of the mug stalls will even let you see what other mugs they have.

Here’s another Christmas market tip: if you decide to keep your mug after drinking its delicious contents, you can go back to where you bought it and they’ll exchange it for a clean one. That way you don’t have to lug around a dirty/wet mug!

Schloss Dyck, Valkenburg Christmas Market, Dortmund Christmas Market

One more note about the mugs: some markets will actually have more than one limited-edition/specialty mug. So if you’re collecting mugs during your Christmas market season, you may want to scope the scene first and see what your options are.

For example. Each market in Cologne has its own theme. And within each section, there might be multiple mugs. The “Gnome” market had a least a dozen different images to pick from! Choose wisely.

*Mugs are typically found in Germany. Other countries (France, I’m looking at you), have reusable plastic cups. Some Christmas markets in other countries will have mugs, but don’t be surprised if you get a cup instead of a mug.

**Christmas markets in Europe are still recovering from the pandoozy, so you might get a mug with a previous year on it. For example, in 2021 we got some mugs that said 2018 or 2019 on them. They need to get rid of their past stock first.

The Drinks

from left, clockwise: Aachen Christmas Market, Dortmund Christmas Market, Dortmund Christmas Market, Cologne “Angel” Christmas Market

EXTRA CHRISTMAS MARKET TIP

There are lots of drink options besides glühwein, so don’t feel pressured to get it and/or like it! (Been there, done that, and I’m speaking from experience). Try something new.

You’ve probably heard of gluhwein (or vin chaud when in France): a hot mulled red wine drink that’s super popular at Christmas markets.

There are lots of other warm-drink options including a hot mulled white wine or rose. You can get hot chocolate (with or without alcohol like Baileys), eierpunsch (similar to eggnog), hot fruit punch, coffee, etc.

My point is that there is more to Christmas market drinks than just gluhwein.

Christmas Market Tips: The Food

Oooohhhhh Christmas market food is the best! It’s basically like carnival food but taken to the next level because Europe is amazing.

pictures are from the Dortmund Christmas Market and Cologne’s Angel Christmas Market

EXTRA CHRISTMAS MARKET TIP

Go with friends who are willing to share their food with you, and show up hungry. There’s so much deliciousness at the markets, and in order to try as much as possible, share with each other!

Here are some of my favorites; I apologize for making your mouth water (I could do a whole post on this…and maybe I should!):

  • Champignons (cooked in garlic butter. Always say yes to their creamy sauce to go on top.)
  • Pasta cooked in a wheel of parmesan
  • Salmon smoked right in front of you
  • Lángos (reminds me of Native American fry bread, but served almost as a pizza).
  • Raclette. Cheese. Delicious cheese is served on everything from baguettes, mixed in with pasta, or spooned in with potatoes and onions.
  • Potato pancakes. (Get it with sour cream and applesauce. Scope out the booth first and make sure they’re not too greasy—nobody’s got time to deal with too-greasy food while you’re at a Christmas market!)

That’s just a small smattering of what you’ll find, and I didn’t mention the common things like flammkuchen, brats, currywurst, etc.

One thing is certain: You will not go hungry at a European Christmas market!

Christmas Market Tips: What to Wear

EXTRA CHRISTMAS MARKET TIP

Dress in layers and bring a backpack to hold all the layers you shed and anything you buy. Plus, throw a reusable bag in there in case you buy even more than your backpack can carry. Also, pack some paper towels or napkins so you can put your market mug in there without having it get everything else wet.

Since Christmas markets happen outdoors during winter, you can assume that it’ll be chilly. However, you’ll be walking around drinking warm drinks and tasting food. As cold as it may be outside, you’ll also stay fairly warm.

So here are my Christmas market tips for you, and your kids: dress in layers and make sure you’re comfortable.

Once you go to a market or two you’ll probably find your groove for what you’d like to wear. Here’s my go-to outfit:

  • Leggings with pockets: bonus if they’re fleece-lined for the extra cold days (like these; I have them and love them)
  • Warm, wool socks.
  • Scarf. Check out this one that has a hidden pocket!
  • Beanie. (Although I overheat if my head is too hot, so I only have this if it’s raining/snowing. This winter headband is a great alternative)
  • Good, comfortable waterproof shoes. If it’s going to rain or snow I’ll wear these boots or these boots. But honestly, if it’s not snowing or raining outside, I prefer to wear my favorite winter Birkenstock sandals. Y’all, I promise you the comfort is worth looking awkward, and yes; I even wear my socks with them. When in Germany, right?
  • A vest with a hood. If you’re prone to getting hot, and it won’t be pouring rain, this is a great option.

Christmas Market Tips: Bringing Kids

European Christmas markets can be super kid-friendly. There are stalls with candy and treats*, fair-like rides for them at some markets (carousels, Ferris wheels, rides, etc.), and some markets have their own kinder sections.

Christmas markets start around 10 or 11 am in Europe, which is the perfect time to take your kids. It’s not busy yet, lines for rides are non-existent, and everyone can still have fun!

EXTRA CHRISTMAS MARKET TIP

Want to skip the crowds and bring a stroller without fear of causing a traffic jam? Go as soon as they open (especially during the week) and you’ll have the whole place to yourself.

If you have little kids, consider wearing them in a baby carrier or bringing a stroller. But also take your market location into consideration.

Heading to a market at a castle, you may want to skip the stroller since there could be mud and harder places to push it.

I asked my nine-year-old daughter for a tip and she said, “When you go to a Christmas market, make sure you close your eyes so you can’t see all the candy, because you’ll want ALL of it.” Do with that informaion as you will.

EXTRA CHRISTMAS MARKET TIP

At a market with kids? If you order hot chocolate it will come out SCALDING. Ask for them to make it a little bit cooler, and then put it in a travel mug so you can walk around with it while it cools off. Just keep that heat in mind.

Have a plan or a meeting point, especially if you’re going with older kids.

Since there will be a lot of people at these markets, either make sure your kids know your phone number, write your number on one of their arms in case they get lost, or invest in some of these temporary tattoos with your number.

Christmas Market Tips: Transportation

If you have the option to go to a Christmas market via public transportation, I highly recommend it. Not only can you drink alllllllll the warm delicious adult beverages that you want, but then you don’t have to worry about driving home afterward.

Taking your own car? See if you have friends who want to go with you and carpool. Not only is it more fun with friends, but you’ll have a designated driver with you, too.

If you do drive (not all markets can be reached via public transportation), pull up Google Maps and locate the town’s center since that’s typically where the markets are hosted. Then look for parking garages nearby for a secure place to park. Save the spot in your maps so you can find it again at the end of the day.

EXTRA CHRISTMAS MARKET TIP

If you’re stationed at a military base in Europe, check with your travel department (RTT/ITT, and spouses groups), because they often have excursions to different Christmas markets where they’ll rent out buses and you can claim a seat for a fee.

When you’re at a large Christmas market, like the Cologne market, they might even offer transportation options between their markets (like a train)!

Christmas Market Tips: Other Tidbits

Here are a few more tips to make your first Christmas market trip a success:

Bring cash. And by “cash” I mean coins. You’ll need them to use the restroom and it can be a lot faster to pay with cash for your food/drinks. Of course, places will take cards, but have money on hand, too.

Bring a backpack + extra bags. A backpack is super handy for storing your clothing layers, your mugs, and any other souvenirs you get. Have an extra reusable bag in there, too…just in case you buy a little more than anticipated. I love this anti-theft backpack for days at a Christmas market.

Plan time to explore wherever you are. Each town, city, or castle is still worth checking out, so veer away from the hustle and bustle of the market and see what the rest of the place has in store for you!

If you have any Christmas market tips, I’d love to hear them; feel free to share them in the comments. And if this post helped you, I’d love to hear about that, too!

Happy Christmas market season!


More Christmas Market Fun

Check out my guides for Christmas markets in Europe:

14 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing! Your pictures are beautiful. Any tips on bringing children? Childrens clothing? Are strollers doable? Danke! We just moved to Germany and we are so excited for the markets. 🙂

    1. Excellent question, thank you for asking. And I’m shocked I didn’t include that…I’ll add a section ASAP. But the short answer: have them wear layers similar to adults. Strollers are fine during the day, but things get pretty crowded in the bigger markets at night or on the weekends. I’d suggest checking them out during the day when things are emptier, especially if you have multiple kids!

  2. This is SO great! I want to jump into every photo and I am SO excited for the Xmas markets now! Thank you for writing this Jessica and making it so aesthetically appealing 🤩 🎄

  3. Thank you for this – such great information. Those leggings look perfect! Going in December so figuring out all the things now… some places say they have children’s markets. Are those worth going to with little kids?

  4. Love your information! We’re visiting the Christmas Markets in Germany, Switzerland, and France this December. Can’t wait!!

  5. are there things like carriage rides, toboggining, folk dancing , ice skating…. that you can just find while walking or preschedule times for these activities at Chrismas markets. I haven’t seen anything to suggest this other than a picture of ice skating at Cologne market.

    thank you

    1. Hi! Ice skating, yes! Many markets will have little ice skating rinks, but that’s pretty much it as far as other activities. Some will have little pop up carol singers or a stage for music, but I haven’t seen anything else like you mentioned.

  6. Thank you so much for all these tips and info. What were some of your favorite purchases? I want some Christmas decor but would love to know what to look for. We move to Germany in July.

  7. I’m not a big eater and hate to waste food . Do markets have to go boxes ? Can we buy it and take it back to our hotel ? We are going 2024 . I appreciate your help !

    1. Hi! You can certainly take food back with you. If you’re planning on doing that I would bring containers with you to put them in. While you’ll get your food in a take-away style plate, it’s intended to eat right there.

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