The Christmas market originated in what is now Germany. Open-air street markets have a long history dating back long before anyone celebrated Christmas. In Europe in the Late Middle Ages special winter markets, often open only for a day or two in early winter, offered townspeople a chance to stock up on food and supplies to tide them over in the cold months. An example is Vienna’s Dezembermarkt, first held around 1294/1296. Similar “Wintermärkte” also took place elsewhere in Europe, but they were not really Christmas markets. [See Footnote 1]
With time, craftspeople began setting up stands at winter markets to sell baskets, toys and woodcarvings. There were also booths for almonds, nuts, roasted chestnuts, gingerbread and other baked goods. These items were often purchased as gifts to be given out for Christmas or on New Year’s Day. These winter markets were the precursor of contemporary Christmas markets. Claims that the first documented genuine Christmas markets were found in Munich (1310), Bautzen (1384) and Frankfurt am Main (Weihnachtsmarkt am Römerberg, 1393) have recently been called into question. Those may not have been real Christmas markets, but winter markets similar to the ones described above.
Dresden may have one of the strongest claims to the first genuine Christmas market. The Striezelmarkt in Dresden dates back to 1434. If not the oldest, it is certainly one of the oldest and most authentic Christmas fairs in Germany. (See more below.)
There’s an App for That!
The Zurich Chistkindlimarkt and some of the other Christmas markets mentioned here offer iPad/iPhone and Android apps to help you enjoy your visit (“die Christkindli-App”). Go to Apple’s App Store or Google Play and search for the market you want.
Today during the four-week Advent season leading up to Christmas, almost any town of moderate size in the German-speaking world has at least one Christmas market. (Some markets open as early as mid-November.) Larger cities usually have many, with Berlin boasting 60 or so in 2013. Known as a Weihnachtsmarkt in German, Christmas markets also have other German names, including Advent(s)markt, Christkindlmarkt, Christkindlesmarkt, Nikolausmarkt, Striezelmarkt, and Krippenmarkt. Large, popular Christmas markets are now found all across Europe and other parts of the world. Birmingham, England has its Frankfurt Market, one of the largest “German” Christmas markets outside of Germany. In North America there are popular Christmas markets in several US and Canadian cities, including Chicago’s Christkindlmarket on Daley Plaza, and Christkindl Market in Kitchener, Ontario.
Below we offer information about selected Christmas markets in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. All of these markets offer Glühwein (hot mulled wine) and other warming drinks, gingerbread hearts, decorative craftworks, and other typical Christmas items, so we will focus on other notable attractions of each market in our list.
What Makes an Authentic Christmas Market?
Lately Germans have been debating the question of what a genuine Christmas market is. As usual, there is also a north-south and an east-west split in the discussion. Southern and western Germans tend to think their markets are “more traditional,” ignoring the fact that Dresden (in former East Germany) has one of the oldest and best Christmas markets in the land. Some critics deride the carnival rides and creeping commercialization that they see marring the atmosphere of some Weihnachtsmärkte. Here in our guide we only list Christmas markets that rank high on the traditional ambience scale.
CHRISTMAS MARKETS: GERMANY
Augsburg | Christkindlesmarkt
Augsburg is a university town located in southwestern Bavaria. Founded by the Romans as Augusta Vindelicorum, the city now has a population of about 260,000. Augsburg is Bavaria’s third largest city and one of the oldest in all of Germany—as is its Christmas market.
Known today as the Christkindlesmarkt, Augsburg’s main Christmas market has borne that name only since 1949. When the market was first mentioned in 1498, it was known as the “Lebzeltermarkt” — a term related to the gingerbread (Lebkuchen) that was sold there (and still is). One of the fair’s unique attractions, a sort of “live Advent calendar,” began in 1977. The Engelesspiel pageant, in which 23 live “angel” figures dressed to imitate an altar by Hans Holbein the Elder appear on the balcony and in the windows of the city hall, plays every Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 6:00 p.m. during December. Another special feature is the “Augsburger Märchenstraße” that displays dioramas of fairy tales in the windows of the shops that line the market.
Augsburg also has several other, smaller Christmas markets in various parts of the city, including by the main rail station and on Martin-Luther-Platz. Over the years the Christkindlesmarkt itself has had several different names and has moved about in the city until finally settling at its current site on the town hall square in 1963.
Bautzen | Wenzelsmarkt
The scenic, small medieval town of Bautzen (pop. 40,000) lies on the Spree river in the Lausitz region of Germany in eastern Saxony, bordering the Czech Republic and close to Poland. Bautzen is only about 30 miles (50 km) east of Dresden.
The reason Bautzen is included here is the fact that it has long claimed to be Germany’s (and perhaps Europe’s) oldest continuous Christmas market, founded in 1384. But it is doubtful that the December meat market held back then was a true Christmas market. It may have been one of the winter market precursors that we mentioned above. Nevertheless, the town of Bautzen and its Christmas market are worth a visit. The 2013 Wenzelsmarkt is the 629th market season for Bautzen. The market bears the name of Wenceslas (Wenzel) I of Bohemia, who supposedly granted the town its market rights. Bautzen itself is much older than its Christmas market, having commemorated the town’s 1,000th birthday on Sept. 1, 2002. The town’s other claims to fame include being the site of two notorious East German political prisons (one now a memorial) and the 1945 Battle of Bautzen, one of the last and bloodiest battles of Word War II. The town is also an important cultural center for the Sorbs, a Slavic people from the region.
Berlin | Weihnachtsmärkte
Berlin has had Christmas markets since the 16th century, which is one reason there are so many there. But there is no large central market as found in many other German cities. The main reason for this is that most of Berlin’s districts were separate towns, not made part of “greater Berlin” until 1920, so each town had its own Christmas market, or even several. Then came the Berlin Wall in 1961, which further prevented the development of a large central Weihnachtsmarkt.
More on The German Way
Photo Gallery: Christmas in Berlin
A visual tour of Christmas in the German capital
Although Berlin’s Christmas fair tradition dates back to at least 1530, all of today’s markets are much more recent. But Berlin has some of Germany’s best Christmas markets—spread out as they may be. No one can (or should) visit all of the capital’s numerous Christmas markets, so we have selected three for you to consider. Here, in no particular order, are our top three Berlin Christmas markets:
Berlin: WeihnachtsZauber am Gendarmenmarkt
One of the best markets in Berlin has only been around since 2002, but it has a classy, sophisticated atmosphere while also remaining very traditional. Unlike most markets, the Gendarmenmarkt charges a modest entry fee of one euro, but it’s well worth it (and part goes to charity). You can avoid the admission charge if you enter between 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. (except on Dec. 24-26 and New Year’s Eve). Children under 12 are free. The WeihnachtsZauber (“Christmas magic”) market in the center of Berlin (Mitte) is open daily from 11:00 a.m. until 10:00 p.m. There are four entrances, one at each corner.
Parts of the market are in heated tents, so visitors can escape the cold. But they also can stroll about in the open air. In addition to the usual Christmas market attractions, Gendarmenmarkt features a stage for musical and other live performances. Its craft booths are generally more upscale than those found at other markets. The cuisine also follows that trend, offering far more than the typical heiße Würstchen (hot dogs).
Berlin: Weihnachtsmarkt vor dem Schloss Charlottenburg
The Christmas market in front of Charlottenburg Palace probably wins the prize for Berlin’s most beautiful. In the background stands the historic palace painted in the color of floodlights. The royal palatial setting is just the crowning touch for this market, which boasts Berlin’s largest nativity scene (Weihnachtskrippe) with large figures carved completely out of wood by Dieter Piroth, a noted woodcarver from Germany’s Hunsrück region. You can also combine a tour of the palace with your visit to the market.
The program includes daily choir presentations, a “golden tent” (Goldenes Weihnachtszelt) with gold jewelry, a Christmas bike tour (December 14), and “Berlin’s nicest winter open-air restaurant,” a collection of restaurants that includes “Der Vierte Mann” with Austrian specialties. The restaurants are heated for the the comfort of their guests.
Berlin: Spandauer Weihnachtsmarkt
Spandau lies in Berlin’s far west. In Spandau’s Old Town pedestrian zone (Berlin’s longest/biggest) you’ll find the only Christmas market in northern Germany to be included in the Top 5 list published by Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung (2008). Spandau’s Christmas market is the biggest in Berlin, with 400 stands (on weekends) and almost two million visitors annually. It is also one of the oldest continuous Berlin markets, celebrating its 40th year in 2013.
Crafts represented include basket-weaving, candle-making, glassblowing, woodcarving and ceramic-painting. Spandau is also one of the best Berlin Christmas markets for children, with a special Kinderweihnachtsmarkt and a nativity scene with live animals at Reformation Square by the Nicolai Church. Every Wednesday is Family Day, with special prices at most booths. Friday features free concerts.
If you have the time and inclination, there are many other Berlin Christmas markets well worth attending. Berlin has everything from nostalgic to alternative, from quiet to boisterous. Highlights include: Alexanderplatz by the Alexa shopping center, the “nostalgic” Christmas market at Opernpalais (Mitte), and the market at Potsdamer Platz. (See this list from the German Wikipedia.)
A Christmas Market Enjoyment Guide
Real Christmas markets are located outdoors in the freezing cold! But there’s Glühwein for that, and you can enjoy things even more with these tips:
• Bundle up and wear comfortable boots or walking shoes.
• Visit more than one market in a large city; they’re all different.
• Go after dark. You’ll enjoy the twinkling atmosphere.
• Have dinner there. Hot food is a big attraction.
• Carry cash! Credit cards may not always be accepted, but…
• Beware of pickpockets (Taschendiebe)!
• Buy unique gifts for friends and family.
Dresden | Striezelmarkt
2013 marks Dresden’s 579th Striezelmarkt, one of Germany’s oldest Christmas markets. The largest of seven Dresden Christmas markets gets its name from an old word for the well-known German Christmas cake now called Stollen or Christstollen — said to have originated in Dresden, and still sold at the Striezelmarkt. Since 1994 the Dresdner Stollenfest (“Dresden Christmas Cake Festival”) has been a highlight of the market. On the Saturday before the second Advent Sunday, a giant Stollen is baked, ceremoniously sliced up and sold for a good cause.
On sale at the stands are wooden Christmas decorations that originated in this region and in the nearby Erzgebirge (“Ore Mountains”) mining region: decorative nutcracker figures, Christmas-candle pyramids, Räuchermänner (“smoking men” incense burners), and arch-shaped wooden or metal “Schwibbogen” decorative candleholders for seven or ten candles (see photo). A huge Schwibbogen replica with ten giant electric candles stands on one side of the market.
Many observers consider the Striezelmarkt Germany’s most authentic Christmas market. With almost 250 stands spread out across Dresden’s large Altmarkt square, the market does indeed have a more old-world look and feel than many others.
Hamburg | Weihnachtsmarkt Rathausmarkt
Hamburg’s “Historic Christmas Market” on the large market square in front of the Rathaus attracts almost three million visitors every year. (Not far away, on the Jungfernstieg next to the scenic Inner Alster Lake, there is another, smaller Christmas fair.) It may be Hamburg’s biggest market, but it’s not really that historic, having started only in 2000.
A past Rathaus market motto was “Kunst statt Kommerz” (“art rather than commerce”), and the market itself reflects that by selling Nuremburg gingerbread and roasted almonds instead of popcorn, handmade crafts rather than plastic toys, and other more traditional gifts. A special Hamburg market trademark is the giant flying Santa sleigh suspended high above the square (see photo). There are also colorful Christmas parades through the downtown streets on each of the four Advent Saturdays.
There are many more Christmas markets located in other sections of Hamburg and nearby communities – far too many to describe here. One unusual Hamburg market is the “Santa Pauli” in the Sankt Pauli district. With its wild erotica theme, it’s definitely NOT for the kiddies!
Munich (München) | Christkindlmarkt
Munich has many Christmas markets spread across the Bavarian capital city. The best known is the “Christkindlmarkt auf dem Marienplatz” right in the historic city center in front of the Rathaus. Too large to be contained within the Marienplatz square, the market spreads out into neighboring streets.
Although Munich has a long tradition of Christmas markets, the Christkindlmarkt has only been at its current location since 1972, the year Munich hosted the Olympic Games, and the Marienplatz was turned into a pedestrian zone. Other Munich Christmas markets are scattered around various districts and suburbs, including Schwabing (Münchner Freiheit square), the Chinese Pagoda in the English Garden park, the Sendlinger Tor (city gate), the Renaissance Fair-like market on Wittelsbacherplatz, and even more.
Nuremberg (Nürnberg) | Christkindlesmarkt
It all begins on the Friday before Advent, when the Nuremberg Christkind “angel” appears on the balcony of the Church of Our Lady to open the holiday season. She officially opens the world-famous Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt, which runs until Christmas Eve. Germany’s most famous Christmas fair has been described as a “little town of wood and cloth” in the heart of Nuremberg’s Old Town. This “little town” has more than 180 decorated market stands inviting guests to enjoy traditional “Zwetschgenmännle” goodies made of prunes, other food and drink. They also offer toys, games and other gift ideas.
The Nuremberg Christmas market probably began around 1530. It was in 1545 that the Protestant reformer Martin Luther introduced the custom of the angel-like “Christ Child” (Christkind) bringing Christmas gifts to children – rather than the Catholic Saint Nicholas. Since 1969 the angelic Christkind has been portrayed by a young lady from Nuremberg (age 16 to 19) who is chosen to serve for a two-year term. On Dec. 1, 2013 the “angel” Franziska Handke, an 18-year-old student from Nuremberg, also opened the Christmas market at the Inner Harbor in Baltimore, Maryland, USA with an English version of Nuremberg’s Christkindlesmarkt opening prologue. Nuremberg’s Christmas fair is open daily from 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. except on Christmas Eve, when the market closes at 2:00 p.m.
WEB > Nürnberger Christkindlesmarkt (official site, German)
WEB > Nuremberg – Christkindlesmarkt (official site, English)
WEB > A Chronicle of the Nuremberg Christmas Market – A historic timeline in English
More German Christmas Markets
Other notable Christmas markets in Germany are found in Cologne, Düsseldorf, Essen, Freiburg i.B., Lübeck, and Stuttgart.
The next Christmas market in our survey is in Alsace, a part of France that borders Germany.
Strasbourg, France (Alsace) | Christkindelsmärik
Strasbourg (Strassburg in German) lies in Alsace (Elsass), a region that has been traded between France and Germany several times in history. Which explains the Germanic-sounding name of its oldest Christmas market, the “Christkindelsmärik.” The city is now in France, very close to the German border. You can celebrate an Alsatian Christmas in Strasbourg, the self-proclaimed “Capital of Christmas.” With some 300 “chalets” (stands) located on several different squares in the city center, Strasbourg can claim one of the largest Christmas markets in Europe (since 1570). In 2013 the Christkindelsmärik runs from 29 November to New Year’s Eve on the place Broglie.
WEB > Christkindelsmärik (noel.strasbourg.eu)
CHRISTMAS MARKETS: AUSTRIA
Salzburg | Christkindlmarkt
Location is everything, and the “Sound of Music” city of Salzburg has a huge advantage in that department. CNN ranked the Salzburg Christkindlmarkt fourth in the world for Best Christmas Markets of 2010, but it is one of the youngest in German-speaking Europe. In 2014 the Salzburg Christkindlmarkt celebrated its 40th birthday on the Cathedral Square (Domplatz). Although the roots of the Salzburg Christmas market go back to 1491, when it was known as the Tandlmarkt, today’s market in its present form only began in 1974.
Another popular Christmas market in Salzburg is “Der Weihnachtsmarkt am Mirabellplatz.” Located in front of Mirabell Palace, one of the shooting locations for The Sound of Music movie, this market has been running since 1990. Known as the “Nikolaimarkt” in the 17th century, the Mirabell fair has a long tradition.
A special feature of the Salzburg Christmas festivities is the so-called Perchtenlauf on December 21 (Raunacht). The “running of the beasts” is an old custom dating back to pagan times. Horrific figures – half animal, half human – stroll along the streets. The traditional masks worn by the participants are an art form created by regional craftspeople. Accompanied by other creatures and witches, the Perchten ring bells and make noise to drive out demons and evil spirits. See Krampus, the Christmas Devil of Alpine Europe for more about this Austrian tradition.
Vienna | Christkindlmarkt & Weihnachtsmarkt
Vienna, Austria’s capital, has many Christmas markets worth visiting, but the Christkindlmarkt on the Rathausplatz (City Hall Plaza) and the “Vienna Magic of Advent” event in the adjoining Rathauspark are something you should not miss. The Christkindlmarkt, Vienna’s largest Christmas market, has about 150 stalls offering all sorts of Christmas delights. It has been held in front of the city hall since 1975. The market’s giant Christmas tree remains lighted until January 6 (Epiphany), although the fair itself is only open until Christmas Eve.
The award-winning market at Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace, now over two decades old, has one of the most beautiful settings of any Christmas fair anywhere. With about 80 booths ringing the baroque palace’s parade court, the Schönbrunn Christmas and New Year’s Market also supports the SOS Kinderdorf, an Austrian children’s home project.
More Christmas markets in and around Vienna include: the Adventmarkt at the Karlskirche (Karlsplatz), the Spittelberg Weihnachtsmarkt, the Dornbacher Adventmarkt, and the Weihnachtsschau und Adventmarkt in the warm greenhouses of the Hirschstetten flower gardens (Blumengärten), the Weihnachtsdorf (Christmas village) in front of Belvedere Palace, and the old-fashioned Altwiener Christkindlmarkt on Freyung square in Vienna’s central Altstadt (Old Town).
Other Austrian cities and towns also have their own Christmas markets. Some of the biggest are in Graz, Linz, Innsbruck and Villach, but almost any medium-sized town in Austria will have at least one Weihnachtsmarkt.
Besides Glühwein, the favorite Christmas drink in Austria is Weihnachtspunsch, a hot wine-and-rum punch made with lemon and orange peels, brown sugar, cinnamon and other spices. (There are many different recipes, including a non-alcoholic version. See the link below.) It is a simpler variant of the classic Feuerzangenbowle (“fire tongs punch” or “burnt punch”), which requires more elaborate preparation.
WEB > christkindlmarkt.at (Vienna, official site)
WEB > Schönbrunn Christmas and New Year’s Market
WEB > Vienna Christmas Markets – with map, in German and English
WEB > Weihnachtspunsch – Recipes from flair-magazin.de (in German)
WEB > Österreich: Weihnachtsmärkte – Christmas markets in Austria (in German)
CHRISTMAS MARKETS: SWITZERLAND
You’ll find popular Christmas markets in the German and French regions of Switzerland. Here are some highlights:
Basel | Basler Weihnacht
Basel, in the “Three Lands Triangle” (Dreiländereck) near the French and German borders, has one of Switzerland’s biggest and oldest Christmas markets, with almost 200 booths spread across two locations, the Barfüsserplatz and Münsterplatz on Basel’s Old Town. The “Basler Weihnacht” fair is also considered one of the prettiest Christmas fairs, not just in Switzerland, but in all of Europe.
Bern | Zibelemärit
The Advent season in the Swiss capital of Bern begins with the one-day-only Zibelemärit (Onion Market) on the fourth Monday of November. Dating from the mid-19th century, this event began when farmer’s wives in the region brought onions and other produce to the capital to sell on the first day of the city’s medieval Martinmas fairs, which celebrated the coming of winter. A few days later an artists’ market on Münsterplatz and a more traditional Christmas market on Waisenhausplatz welcome visitors until Christmas Eve.
Lucerne (Luzern) | Christkindlimarkt
Lucerne has several Christmas markets, including what it claims is the “highest Christmas market in Europe,” atop nearby Pilatus Peak. The Christkindlimarkt is located in the lower level of Lucerne’s main rail station. The Lozärner Weihnachtsmärt is on the Franziskanerplatz (Franciscan Square).
Montreux | Marché de Noël
Set on the scenic shores of Lake Geneva in French-speaking Switzerland, Montreux (pop. 25,000) has a popular Christmas market (Montreux Noël) that attracts over 400,000 visitors. In recent years the market has featured a special Christmas village for the kids. For the adults there is vin chaud, the French version of Glühwein, and many international hand-crafted gift items. The 2013 market features a new Lumberjack Village (Village des Bûcherons) with hot tea and wood-fired pizza.
Zurich (Zürich) | Christkindlimarkt
The Zurich Christmas market is located in the main hall (Haupthalle) of the central train station (Hauptbahnhof). You’ll find around 150 festively decorated “Alpine chalets” (stands) offering hot mulled wine and a wide variety of local crafts and foods. Over 7,000 Swarovski crystal ornaments adorn a gigantic Christmas tree. At various times there are live Christmas music performances. Children will enjoy the appearance of Samichlaus, the Swiss version of Santa, on December 6 (St. Nicholas Day). Note: Although the market is within the main hall, dress warmly because the hall is not heated.
Claiming to be Zurich’s oldest Christmas market, the Wiehnachtsmärt on the Hirschenplatz (square) on Niederdorfstrasse is a nice traditional market in Zurich’s Old Town. Open from 11:00 a.m. until 8:00 p.m. Monday-Friday, only until 6:00 p.m. on weekends. (Closed on Dec. 15 for the city’s annual New Year’s running event.) Another Zurich Wiehnachtsmärt is on another square: the Werdmühleplatz. It offers the usual attractions plus a children’s merry-go-round. An unique feature is the “Singing Christmas Tree,” a pyramidal structure upon which various regional choirs sing Christmas carols and other songs.
There are many more Christmas markets in Switzerland, many of them not far from Zurich. The Old Town market in Rapperswil, at the other end of Lake Zurich, is one of the best in Switzerland. Nearby Baden, Winterthur, and Zug also have their own markets. See Schweizer Weihnachtsmärkte (list with links, in German) for more.
More | Christmas from A to Z
1. According to the www.wien.gv.at site’s “Geschichte des Wiener Christkindlmarkts” page, there is no record of Christmas markets in Vienna during the Middle Ages. The 14th century “Jahrmarkt” (fair) held before and after 25 November had nothing to do with Christmas. The later records are spotty, but there is an indication of a “Thomasmarkt” held in December and early January in front of St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Stefansdom) from 1600 to 1761. Not until 1722 is there a definite mention of a “Niklo-, Weihnachts- und Krippenmarkt” on Freyung square, a Christmas market that still exists today.
AT THE GERMAN WAY
- Christmas from A to Z – German Christmas traditions and terms
- Advent Calendar – An online calendar with daily Christmas facts starting on December 1
- Photo Gallery: Christmas in Germany – Berlin – A visual tour of Christmas markets and other December sights in Berlin
- Christmas in Germany – a guide
- Advent and Christmas – The “arrival”
- Christmas in the USA and Germany– A comparison chart
- Barbarazweig – The legend and the Christmas custom
- Epiphany and the Sternsinger – January 6 in the Germanic Christmas tradition
- Glass Ornaments – a history
- Erntedank (“harvest thanksgiving”) or Erntedankfest in Germany and Austria is different from the American Thanksgiving tradition.
- St. Nicholas – The many German St. Nicks
- Thomas Nast created the modern Santa image.
- The Christmas Pickle Ornament – Fact or fiction?
- Silent Night (Stille Nacht) – Our “Silent Night” page has the true story and related links.
- Holidays and Celebrations in Austria, Germany and Switzerland
ON THE WEB
- Also see the web links for Christmas markets in the article above.
- Europe’s Best Christmas Markets – You can vote for your favorite. The site opens with a nice view of Dresden’s Striezelmarkt!
- List of Christmas Markets – Wikipedia – Christmas markets listed with their unique name, ordered by continent and then by country.
Legal Notice: We are not responsible for the content of external links.