Before we moved to Frankfurt, I had vaguely heard about European Christmas markets but I hadn’t given them much thought. As the summer’s heat gave way to autumn and the air turned as crisp as the orange and gold leaves, people started talking about the Weihnachtsmärkte, or Christmas markets, in Germany and other countries.
As far as I could tell, the Christmas markets, varying in size depending on the city/town, featured stalls selling traditional food, Christmas ornaments and items, and other handicrafts, along with carousels and other rides for children. Oh — and glühwein, or hot mulled wine. Lots and lots of glühwein.
There’s a fairly large Weihnachtsmarkt in Frankfurt that is open everyday from Thanksgiving through a couple days before Christmas. The same is true of Christmas markets in larger cities, but many smaller markets in other towns are only open on weekends or even a single weekend.
I asked an American friend who has lived in Frankfurt for three years which Christmas markets are her favorite, and she, with a shrug, said she’d only been to a couple, and that they all seem the same to her — same glühwein and bratwurst, same crafts for sale, same carousel rides for kids. Still, it’s one of those must-do experiences in Germany, so I set off for our first Weihnachtsmarkt prepared to be underwhelmed.
Maybe it was because of these low expectations, or maybe it’s because I love Christmas — I am one of those people who starts listening to Christmas music “around” (read: before) Thanksgiving, and puts decorations up just as early — but I absolutely love Christmas markets. Ask me in four years, and maybe I’ll be shrugging them off like my friend, but for now, pass me a decorative mug of mulled wine and stick Piopio on a carousel, and I’d call that a good day.
Honestly, it probably has more to do with lower/different expectations of fun ways to spend a weekend day, now that we have a toddler, but I think it also has something to do with the fact that — especially during the cold, damp, grayness that is German winter — nothing is more gemütlich, or cozy, than Weihnachtsmärkte.
The Frankfurt Christmas market was not actually our first Christmas market — we visited the Winter Wonders Christmas Market in Brussels over Thanksgiving weekend, which I’ll write about separately — but it was our first German Christmas market (after mistakenly going to Bad Homburg one week too early). The Frankfurt Christmas market is one of the largest in Germany by size and number of visitors, according to the city’s tourism department.
It’s definitely larger than the Christmas markets in Bad Homburg and Heidelberg, but not as large as the one in Brussels, and perhaps comparable to the ones in Nuremberg and Strasbourg. (I told you I love Christmas markets — I made it to six, and went to the Frankfurt one multiple times!) We didn’t visit the Weihnachtsmärkte in Berlin or Munich, which I imagine are larger — but there’s always this year!
The main area of the Frankfurt Christmas market is in the historic Römerberg square, where the iconic Römer building (city hall) is located. But the market stalls are spread throughout the downtown area around the Hauptwache and Konstablerwache U-Bahn stations and the Zeil shopping strip. You could easily spend a couple hours meandering the stalls, stopping for lunch or a snack, and — of course — keeping your hands warm wrapped around a mug of glühwein.
Kail and I took Piopio to the Frankfurt Christmas market right when it opened the first Sunday morning in December. It was the morning after we returned from Brussels, and we (/I) were high on Weihnachtsmarkt feelings. Or maybe it was the glühwein — who knows?
At that hour on a Sunday, the market was still relatively empty of visitors and it was easy to navigate with a stroller. By contrast, I went on a Thursday evening with some girlfriends and it was packed shoulder-to-shoulder in some areas (glühwein lines). Even one random weekday afternoon, I was downtown for an appointment so I wandered over to browse around (OK, I beelined straight to the Kartoffelpuffer stand for delicious fried potato pancakes with applesauce) and it was pretty crowded — enough that I wouldn’t have wanted to be wheeling Piopio around.
We thought we would bring Piopio back, but that first visit ended up being the only one with him, so he didn’t get to ride the double-decker carousel or train. (Kail returned again with his parents, who were visiting for Christmas, one weekday morning when George was in winter camp at school.) But don’t worry — Piopio got his fill of train, carousel, and ferris wheel rides at other Christmas markets, which I’ll write about soon.
Since it was our first Christmas in Germany, we (Kail) wanted to exercise restraint and not buy all the tourist things right away, but instead see what’s available at the different markets before making a purchase. We’re not big into collecting knick-knacks and other dust-collecting items, but we do have several nice nativity sets that we have collected during our time overseas, so that’s something we’ll be eyeing in the future. There are also a lot of beautiful hand-carved wooden Christmas decorations, including Weihnachtspyramide, or Christmas pyramids, a multi-tier carousel featuring different scenes, with a propeller on top.
We did purchase a few small items (some as gifts), including wooden Christmas ornaments carved in a style similar to the Christmas pyramids, a wooden train whose cars spell Piopio’s name (his real name, not his blog pseudonym, although that would be cute!), Christmas garlands, candle holders and these paper star lanterns that are popular window decorations during the holidays.
There’s a permanent (year-round) store near the Römerberg called Handwerkskunst am Römer that sells hand-carved wood decorations — Christmas-themed and other German items such as cuckoo clocks — that a friend showed me during one of my Christmas market excursions, so I won’t need to wait until Weihnachtsmarkt season to start shopping. And other friends pointed out their favorite Christmas market vendors — including a toy shop, a beeswax candlemaker, and a pretzel stand — so I still have much to explore next Christmas.
I really enjoyed the Frankfurt Christmas market and love how it’s just a few U-Bahn stops away from where we live. It’s a great daytime family excursion (stroller mobility notwithstanding) and a fun evening outing with friends (sans kiddos).
Have you ever been to a Christmas market? (Does Bronner’s in Frankenmuth, Michigan count? That’s about as close as I had come before.)