If you’ve always dreamed of walking in a winter wonderland, then the Christmas Markets in Bavaria are your dream come true. The idyllic state in southeast Germany is home to some of the oldest Christmas Markets in the world — dating back to the Middle Ages — and is the inspiration for countless fairytales (Hansen and Gretel, the Brothers Grimm, and more). But, although everything may look like a fairytale, there are some precautions you should take in order to avoid a Grinch-like attitude while perusing the markets amidst the frozen ice and snow.
I explored Bavaria’s beautiful Christmas Markets this past December and came away with as many tips for future travelers as I did with wooden ornaments. The first rule? Don’t try to do it all. Select your favorite towns to visit, and take it from there, driving through the Bavarian countryside. Herewith, here are our four favorite Bavarian villages to visit for the annual Christmas Markets, with a travel guide and suggested gifts for each one. Read on, and may your days be merry and bright!
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Christmas Market: Munich Christkindlmarkt at Marienplatz (Marienplatz Christmas Market)
Location: Marienplatz (main square) and in the Fußgängerzone (pedestrian street)
Dates: November 27th to December 24th
Christmas Market: Medieval Christmas Market
Location: Wittelsbacher Platz, Briennerstrasse 6-10
Dates: November 27th to December 23rd
Start your adventure in Bavaria’s capital of Munich, the third largest city in Germany, which is home to over a dozen Munich Christmas Markets, including seven in the Old Town (which we highly recommend visiting, given its history). Of these, our favorites are the Munich Christkindlmarkt at Marienplatz and the Medieval Christmas Market. During December, the streets of the city are entirely overtaken by Christmas Markets, so the best way to travel will be by foot or public transit. Cabs are hard to find, and Uber is notoriously unreliable — I waited, fruitlessly, for an hour waiting for my ride to come, so be sure to stay in a central location.
The massive Munich Christmas Market at Marienplatz is a sparkling delight of lights and sounds, and smells of gingerbread — albeit with the accompanying chaos you’d expect from the largest Christmas Market in Bavaria. This is Germany’s largest nativity scene market (and Munich is home to the country’s largest nativity scene, and, as such, this market is the largest nativity scene market you’ll encounter on your trip. It’s also a hub of old crafts — the market has roots dating back to the 14th century — and you’re likely to discover debonair nutcrackers of King Ludwig II. Expect 2,500 lights to adorn the majestic Christmas tree, illuminated against the dramatic backdrop of the Neues Rathaus (new town hall).
Another unique market to visit in Munich is the Medieval Christmas Market in Wittelsbacher Platz, where dozens of wooden huts and merchants in historic garb evoke the Bavaria of the Middle Ages. Grilled sausages are sold by vendors, a street food take on traditional cuisine which you’ll find across all the markets in Bavaria. Visitors should be sure to taste the glühwein (mulled wine) and begin their collection of souvenir cups, which vary from town to town in color and design — so, in case you don’t find a holiday trinket at a specific market, you’ll always have a built-in souvenir (and a method for keeping warm).
Munich Travel Tips:
- Hotel Excelsior: Ultra-luxurious hideaway that feels like a glamorous retreat right in the city center. The central location in Hauptbahnhof is very convenient during the holiday season when the streets are overtaken by Christmas Markets, and walking is often the fastest way to get anywhere.
- Louis Hotel: Another festive hotel in an ideal location (Marienplatz) featuring a lively, chic lounge bar (perfect for post-market nightcaps).
- Xaver’s: A must-visit spot serving traditional Bavarian food amidst a celebratory atmosphere of tourists and locals alike (call in advance, as it’s likely to be packed).
- Kennedy’s: The Saturday night karaoke is not to be missed, and the friendly, loud environment turns strangers into fast friends, as evidenced by the bar’s tagline: “Your home away from home.”
- Bavarian National Museum: Stay on theme by visiting Germany’s largest nativity scenes at the National Museum, and learning more about the evolution of Catholicism over the centuries.
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Christmas Market: Christkindlmarkt (Christmas Market)
Location: Richard-Strauss plaza
Dates: November 24th to December 23
Head to the northern Bavarian Alps to explore Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a historic village located along the Austrian border. The town is known as the Winter Sports Capital of Germany — a nickname earned during the 1936 Olympic Games — and winter is most certainly the season to visit. Head into the Christmas Market in Richard-Strauss Plaza in the evening to explore a holiday scene that is lively yet cozy (and far less overwhelming than our previous selection in Munich). The markets are open daily from noon to 8pm, and the smaller market has become more popular in the past decade.
The wooden houses lining the streets are painted with ornate murals, and the market is the ideal place to stock up on your ornament collection, as hand-carved, wooden selections abound in the market and are reflective of traditional Bavaria. Garmisch-Partenkirchen is also known for its chocolate — offering varieties you won’t find in Munich or Berlin — and tools made out of chocolate are popular presents for fathers from the Christmas Market. Alpine Pop Art is also a popular art form, and a picture-perfect souvenir to bring home.
And, word to the wise: Prepare to be cold, throughout the trip. Pack heavier items than you’d imagine necessary, and layer as though you’re skiing, with an emphasis on wool and water-resistant items (the rain is sometimes just as likely as the snow). Luckily, wool socks and mittens are traditional items of clothing sold in the Christmas Markets throughout Bavaria. And, speaking of attire, you can also expect to find traditional German clothing items, such as Bavarian jackets, lederhosen, and dirndls (so you will be over-prepared for your next Oktoberfest). Prost!
Garmisch-Partenkirchen Travel Tips:
- Hotel Garmischer Hof: A cozy, festive hideaway with a Christmas light-adorned bar serving the “Munich Mule” (just replace the vodka with gin).
- Elmau Castle: A 20-minute drive from Garmisch-Partenkirchen, the castle in nearby Mittenwald has hosted such luminaries as Obama and Angela Merkel — and, maybe, one winter, you, too.
- Gasthaus Alpenrose: Traditional restaurant, also in Mittenwald, where servers wear traditional dirndls and lederhosen in even the coldest winter temperatures.
- Gasthof zur Schranne: Enjoy a traditional breakfast in the elegant, wood-paneled environs.
- Hotel Pflegersee: A lakeside dinner here is perfect on a winter evening.
- Olympic Stadium Garmisch-Partenkirchen: Visit the impressive ski jump — an annual ski jump competition is watched globally by over 100 million people on New Year's Day.
- Partnach Gorge: Embark on a torchlit walk along the famous gorge and behold the sights and sounds of the water below.
- Runst Atelier Rieger: Visit the Alpine Pop Art in the atelier of Lüftlmaler artist Bernhard Rieger, who modernizes a centuries-old cultural tradition of fresco painting with bright colors and modern iconography.
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Christmas Market: Nördlingen Adventmarkt (Nördlingen Christmas Market)
Location: Nördlingen Old Town
Dates: December 1st to 23rd
This traditional Christmas Market is in the walled medieval city of Nördlingen, which is located along the historic Romantic Road (a 286-mile scenic byway full of castles, mountains, and scenic valleys). The cobblestone streets of this ancient village are the perfect place to experience a Bavarian Christmas. More than 70 stalls set up in the central part of town — from the Marienplatz to the old corn warehouse — are open from 11am until 7pm on Fridays and 9pm on Saturdays. Just be sure to stay in the Old Town for accessibility, as the newer part of the city is an inconvenient distance from the winding streets of the historic city center.
While shopping, consider purchasing an advent calendar (Nördlingen is known for its advent city tours), and order some local hops — Gestachelter Weizenbock is a German beer, sometimes sold from vendors in hot variations, which is tastier than you might imagine. To warm up, Winterzauber is another delicious option — the concoction is a blend of apple, cinnamon, and mead. Of course, trusty Bavarian Christmas mainstays are prevalent throughout the markets, including gingerbread, and spiced tea with rum.
Most importantly, as you continue to venture deeper into the Bavarian countryside, be sure to withdraw cash from the available ATMs, as many stalls and vendors don’t accept credit cards — and, trust us, you will want to bring home some souvenirs. I found that many ATMs in the countryside were incompatible with my American debit card, so I recommend either visiting a bank in Munich or withdrawing cash in your home country and transferring to Euros upon arrival in Bavaria. More money, less problems.
Nördlingen Travel Tips:
- 2nd Home Hotel: The ideal accommodation in the Old City, cozy and easy walking distance to the Christmas Market.
- Daniel Tower: Climb up the 365 steps of Daniel Tower for a glorious view of the surrounding city.
- Meteorite Hike: In case you’re looking to up your step count, you can opt for a multi-day hike following the remnants of a meteorite that crashed into Nordlingen a mere 15 million years ago.
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Christmas Market: Romantischer Weihnachtsmarkt (Romantic Market)
Location: Schloss Thurn und Taxis (Thurn and Taxis Palace)
Dates: November 24th to December 23rd
Our final selection is set in the grandest of locations: Within the walls of Thun und Taxis Palace, a Christmas tree set in the center of the courtyard, with Christmas lights adorning the castle’s facade. The most romantic Christmas Market in Bavaria is also among the most historic, as the gorgeous city of Regensburg is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Open Monday to Thursday from 3pm to 10pm, Friday and Saturday from 12pm to 11pm, and on Sunday from 12pm to 10pm, the market has a weekend fee of 10.50 € (trust us, it’s worth it).
The market stalls vary in selection (and century) from the global and cosmopolitan (Moroccan leather, African baskets) to the highly traditional (mistletoe, mini-houses, finial glass tree-toppers). The food and drink err towards classic Bavarian specialties, with traditional “Regensburger Knackersemmel” (Regensburg sausage served in a bun) and an array of mulled wine varieties, including “Fürstenkelch”, “Blaublut”, “Feenzauber”, “Prinzen Trunk,” and “Kutscher Glück.”
In all, there are six Christmas Markets located in Regensburg — and, though the Romantic Market is our favorite, the variety of options rewards a longer stay for even more avid shoppers. Just remember one of the most important pieces of advice for Christmas Market travelers – pack a heavy tote to carry to the markets. Given the chance of rain and snow, the plastic bags offered by vendors are unlikely to hold the weight of your treasures after more than an hour outside in the elements (speaking from experience). And don’t trust your day-to-day purse or backpack to carry everything, so it’s better to be over-prepared. Who needs Santa?
Regensburg Travel Tips:
- Hotel Luis: An ultra-chic hotel with a vintage design reflecting the artistic heritage of Shoreditch, London, in the center of Regensburg.
- Gaststätte Röhrl: The oldest inn in the world, run by innkeeper Muk Röhrl, is a must-visit for a hearty lunch.