What to See in Germany
Christmas Markets in Germany
Even at this time of year, hiking in Central and Northern Europe can be fun – until about 3 p.m., that is.
By which time, at the best of times, the pale sun is getting even paler and slowly begins to set while the temperature drops another couple of degrees. This is nature’s way of telling you: Quick! Search shelter! Look for something warm and dry!
Happily, at this time of year, most towns in Central and Northern Europe that greet the weary travellers after an exhausting day on the road also have just the right recipe to lighten their mood: food, hot drinks and music, all served in a convivial atmosphere of good spirit and festive cheer
It almost makes you wonder: what were our Decembers like before they invented the Christmas Market?
Here are just some of the Christmas Markets that cheered us up after our recent hikes. (They are all located in North Rhine Westphalia, Germany’s most populous Federal State.)
Most people will probably agree that Christmas Markets are best enjoyed in old Cathedral towns, surrounded by timber framed houses and networks of narrow medieval lanes.
Not all German cities, however, are blessed with this type of Old Town, certainly not all cities in North Rhine Westphalia, Germany’s (former) industrial heartland.
This is not necessarily a bad thing: having to compensate for their lack of a “traditional” Christmas Market scenery, these towns and cities are forced to look for fresh and innovative solutions and may come up with concepts that the more complacent cathedral cities would never have dared to implement.
Oberhausen is such a “New Town”, and its Christmas Forest – featuring a generous amount of real pine trees – is actually quite a good idea, somewhere along the lines of “less tack, more authenticity”. I am less sure, however, that it works that well in practice.
Let us just say: good ideas alone are never enough if you do not have the resources to implement them properly.
Christmas cheer rating: One candle
Essen is another city not blessed with ancient buildings, but it is a vibrant, busy and energetic place and has somehow managed to shape a Christmas Market in its own image, one that reflects its drive and sheer bustle.
Essen is certainly the brightest and loudest of all the markets we have been to and also the most youthful. This is what Christmas Markets in the US must feel like.
Christmas cheer rating: Two candles
For people who like their Christmases more traditional, Hattingen is almost certainly the best bet in the entire Ruhr area. The whole town is decked out in lights, starting with the street that leads you from the train station to the historic Town Hall. And in the dusk, the Old Town looks as if had been conceived by a Hollywood set designer for a Christmas movie.
Hattingen is a small town, and the fact that everybody and everything in sight appears to revolve around Christmas (all of the town’s shops and businesses have festive decorations, and practically every shopper seems to be a visitor who has come here for the Christmas Market alone) creates an almost magical atmosphere.
If you can visit only one Christmas market in North Rhine Westphalia, make it this one.
Christmas cheer rating: Four candles and the whole Christmas tree
Of course, North Rhine Westphalia also has its own Cathedral Towns, none more famous than the ancient city of Cologne (in the south of the state) whose Cathedral is one of Europe’s largest (and incidentally Germany’s most visited building, too).
Inevitably, Cologne’s main Christmas Market resides in the shadow of the Cathedral, nestled against its tall and somber walls. It is, nevertheless, a surprisingly this-worldly affair, more neon light than candle light, more “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” than “Silent Night”.
It is very large, too, very bright – the market is covered by a tent-shaped network of light bulbs – and extremely busy.
Christmas cheer rating: Two candles
The state’s other great Cathedral Town is Münster, about 80 miles to the north.
Münster has always prided herself in being “a cut above” her neighbours, and the city’s Christmas Market – divided between the Prinzipalmarkt and the courtyard of the historical Town Hall – reflects this, offering a much wider variety of arts and crafts than all the other markets that we saw (including the market in Cologne, a city three times Münster’s size).
If you are looking for an original souvenir, something that you will not be able to find anywhere else, Münster is the place to go (even if it is a little out of the way).
Christmas cheer rating: Three Candles