If you're pining for an old-fashioned Christmas, get yourself to Germany's Christmas markets — Germany is where so many Christmas traditions originated, after all. The cozy, festive markets — also known as Christkindlmärkte — are a centuries-old holiday tradition of open-air shopping around the holidays, and range in size from dozens to hundreds of booths in tiny towns and metropolitan cities alike. Each serves up Glühwein (mulled wine), sausages, and roasted chestnuts alongside traditional, locally-made decorations and gifts. Here, five destinations that are especially worth a spot on your itinerary.
Romantic Christmas Market at the Thurn und Taxis Castle — Regensburg
Regensburg's historic district is a UNESCO World Heritage Site — a medieval landmark that remained unharmed during World War II — and its St. Emmeram's Palace (the Thurn und Taxis family residence) is one of its most impressive buildings. This is where you'll find the Romantic Christmas Market, which sits in the castle courtyard in the flickering light of candles, fire pits, torches, and lanterns. While there's an entrance fee here, which is unusual for Christmas markets, it's worth the cost. You'll find blacksmiths, glass blowers, and glassmakers not just selling their wares, but making them. Don't miss the hats created by "the hat king" Andreas Nuslan: The fifth-generation, family-owned company has been in the city since 1895.
Münchner Christkindlmarkt — Munich
Though it's one of nearly a dozen in Munich, the Christkindlmarkt at Marienplatz is the original, dating back to the 14th century, making it one of the oldest in Germany. A staggering array of booths (over 130!) cover the square in the heart of its Old Town. Here, an almost 100-foot Christmas tree towers over it all, with the stunning neo-Gothic Town Hall and its charming Glockenspiel (a show of musical chimes and puppets) as its backdrop. Carolers and musicians also regularly entertain crowds from the balcony. Within the massive market, you'll also find 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.
Rothenburger Reiterlesmarkt — Rothenburg ob der Tauber
This walled medieval city — believed to date back to 950 A.D — is known for its half-timbered buildings and Bavarian charm, and creates nothing short of a storybook feel during Christmastime. Not only is the city home to the year-round Christmas Museum, its Christmas market dates back to the 15th century.
The Reiterlesmarkt, which has over 50 booths, sits underneath the Town Hall's Glockenspiel as well as a larger-than-life Advent calendar on its second floor. The market opens on the first Advent every year when the namesake "Reiterle" — a horseback rider — arrives, after which the mayor lights up the giant Christmas tree that thrones at the center of it all. 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.
Nürnberger Christkindlesmarkt — Nuremberg
The Nuremberg Christmas Market is probably the largest Christmas market in the country with over 200 stalls. Dating back to 1628, the opening ceremony remains largely unchanged, with a gilded Christkind (Christmas Angel) reciting a well-known Christmas speech amid breathtaking medieval buildings. While you'll find all the ornaments, jewelry, and trinkets your heart desires, some standouts include handmade toys, lebkuchen (gingerbread), and Nuremberg bratwurst, three things the town is world-famous for. Something else that's unique to Nuremberg is the Zwetschgenmännle, or prune people: You'll find hundreds of different nut-and-prune figurines all over town. Walk up the steps of the Frauenkirche, or “Church of Our Lady," for a stunning view of the market's colorful stalls and twinkling lights.
Bamberger Weihnachtsmarkt am Maximiliansplatz — Bamberg
Bamberg is also known as the Nativity Town, with nearly 400 historical mangers to see at 40 locations around town — including at the Krippenmuseum (or Nativity Museum) and at the Maternkapelle Chapel, considered Bamberg’s most famous one. While the city is home to a few markets, the 21,500 square-foot one in the heart of Old Town's Maximiliansplatz — which, not surprisingly, features a large and ever-changing nativity scene — is probably the most well-known. In a city known for its beer, the wide variety of Glühwein you'll find there is a surprise, though it will keep you nice and toasty. Plus, it's served up in an array of commemorative mugs, unique to different cities and markets, and trying to collect them all is half the fun.