If you're pining for an old-fashioned Christmas, get yourself to Germany's Christmas markets. In the country that gave us so many of our Christmas traditions, the festive markets range in size from dozen to hundreds of booths. They're sprinkled through tiny towns and metropolitan cities alike, all serving up gluhwein -- the popular mulled wine -- and roasted chestnuts for crowds seeking traditional, locally made decorations and gifts. Here, four destinations that are especially worth a spot on your itinerary, plus what to buy there.
Known for its half-timbered buildings and Bavarian charm, this medieval town creates nothing short of a storybook feel during Christmastime. Underneath the glockenspiel, visitors can explore the decorations from years gone by at Reiterlesmarkt -- home to the German Christmas Museum -- before shopping the pine-covered booths. Look for Käthe Wohlfahrt, which has become a worldwide ambassador of German Christmas traditions. While the flagship store in Rothenburg offers more than 30,000 decorations, the curated selection at their market booth is probably less overwhelming to browse. Ornaments from €9 (about $11).
In a city known for its beer, the wide variety of gluhwein at the Bamberg Christmas market in Maximiliansplatz is a surprise. Variations from pairings with the city's craft brews or other liquor will leave you feeling toasty warm. But what we love the most is that they're served up in an array of commemorative mugs, unique to each city and market, and trying to collect them all is half the fun. This one isn't a souvenir as much as it is an experience, but we say that good memories are a great gift to yourself. From €2.50.
Sightseeing bonus: Bamberg is also known as the Nativity Town, with nearly 400 nativities to see -- including an impressive collection at the Krippenmuseum.
Four unique markets can be found in this UNESCO World Heritage site, a highly popular port for river cruises. Especially recommended is the Thurn and Taxis Palace, which at night takes on a romantic atmosphere with paths illuminated by torch lights, fire pits, live music, and even a champagne hut overlooking the castle. There's a €8.50 entrance fee, but the atmosphere is worth the cost -- just as a wool hat crafted by Andreas Nuslan at the Hutkonig is worth the €60 price tag for someone ramping up for a brutal winter. (The fifth-generation, family-owned company has been in the city since 1895!)
Christkindlmarket is the oldest market in the city, dating back to the 14th century (though it's one of nearly a dozen in Munich). A staggering array of booths line the streets leading to Marienplatz, where a 100-foot Christmas tree towers over the main square. Within the massive market is the Kripperlmarket, likely Germany's largest manger market. Everything you could possibly want for a nativity scene is found at booths selling hundreds of tiny items, from donkeys to angels. From €2.90.