The Most Famous Christmas Market in Germany Is Also One of the Oldest
Get ready to party like it's 1628.
As the self-declared Queen of Christmas (Mariah who? I don’t know her.), I’ve held court at many a holiday market. So naturally, in my quest to find the holliest, jolliest festivities in the world, I was eventually drawn to Bavaria, which can rightfully claim to be the grandest of all Christmas (market) kingdoms.
Germany basically started the Weihnachtsmarkt tradition that’s been emulated near and far: It’s a magical place where people willingly, nay, joyfully freeze their butts off in order to shop amid the glow of twinkle lights and steaming drinks. And it was in Bavaria’s second-largest city, Nuremberg, that I found perhaps the most enchanting of all German Christmas markets of all.
Every year since back to 1628, the city center has transformed into the Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt, making it one of the oldest annual Weihnachtsmarkts in Deutschland. The four-week celebration here is so iconic, so historic, that its very name “Christkindlesmarket'' has actually been trademarked by the region and is generally perceived as the gold standard. Naturally, upon arrival I made it my mission to learn everything there is to know about it.
To bring you the hottest intel about what to do, see, eat, and drink during the Nuremberg Christmas Market, I booked guided tours, meandered through the labyrinth of stalls, and interviewed locals in order to gain tips for tackling the fairytale town’s most wonderful time of year. Consider this an early gift for your own Christmas-hunting needs as you plan your visit to Germany's most storied of storybook markets.
Do not take photos of the Christkind Angel
Perhaps the most important and iconic figure of the holiday market is the Christkind Angel, a duly appointed ambassador to Christmas. Each year, the Angel is selected from a pool of applicants and must meet the following criteria:
- She must have been born in Nuremberg or lived there most of their life
- She must be between 16 and 19 years old
- She must stand at least 5’2” tall and not be afflicted with a fear of heights, since she she is perched above the Frauenkirche “Church of Our Lady” in the main square for various ceremonies
- She must be willing to fulfill her angelic duties in any weather as part of her two-year ambassadorship
If you spot the Angel in the wild, it’s like crossing paths with a local celebrity who looks a lot like Glinda the Good Witch. But don’t get too starstruck and whip out your camera: Photos are reserved strictly for those who make a donation to a children’s charity. The Angel will not hesitate to enforce this rule, nor will her police entourage who—while looking dashing in their very-well-fitting uniforms—are also quite intimidating in tone and stature.
Hunt for rare regional gifts in the market
Throughout the Nuremberg Christmas Market, you’ll find your requisite hand-crafted ornaments, personalized leather goods, and some seriously fluffy scarves at the stalls throughout the market. However, there are two gifts to seek that are specifically from Nuremberg and Nuremberg alone.
The first is the Zwetschgenmännle. Translated as “prune men,” these figurines are made from—yup—dried prunes combined with birch wood (forming the “backbone”), figs, and a painted walnut head. Legend has it the prune men were invented by a wiredrawer in the 18th century who wanted to give his children something special, but only had wire and a plum tree. The result? Prune man (or prune people), which symbolizes the act of gift-giving around the holidays. Legend also has it that a prune man will bring money and happiness to households, so don’t eat the adorable figures—they’re just for show and can be maintained for years with light dustings and infrequent alcohol rubs.
The other regional product from this area is the Nuremberg Rauschgoldengel, a strikingly ornate tree-topper that has directly inspired the Christkind Angel’s unique appearance. The tradition began 350 years ago, when a local craftsman tragically lost his young daughter, who later appeared to him in a dream dressed in a golden hood and robe. In an effort to bring this dream to life, he took the head of a doll, a rolled brass metal plate, and gold-adorned clothing and wings to create the angel that you now see sold in Nuremberg today.
While many modern iterations are constructed with cheaper materials, look for the Rehder family booth, which has existed for generations and still incorporates the delicate gold sheets as part of the angel’s ensemble.
Feast on Nuremberg’s delicacies
There is obviously no shortage of festive treats that line the dozens of red and white-striped stands throughout the market. From chocolate-covered fruits and glühwein (mulled wine) to marzipan and pretzels the size of catcher’s mitts, Nuremberg goes all out with freshly prepared food and drink to celebrate the holiday season.
But like Nuremberg’s crafts, there are really two delicacies that are truly unique to the region: lebkuchen and Nuremberg sausage.
The former is a cookie-shaped, honey-sweetened cake—almost like gingerbread—that is either glazed, dipped in chocolate, or enjoyed on its own. Invented by Nuremberg monks in the 13th century, the spiced sweet must follow strict protocol to be considered traditional (much like German beer, actually), with rules like “it must contain no less than 25% nuts” or “it must contain less than 10% wheat flour.”
Nuremberg sausage, typically served in threes stuffed in mini hoagies, is also no stranger to strict regulation. For authenticity purposes, E.U. laws require local brats to be seven to nine centimeters long, 20 to 25 grams in weight, and have no more than 35% fat content. The pork must also be sourced from nearby farmers and seasoned only with a handful of spices like salt, pepper, and marjoram. While mustard is readily available, locals will recommend a sprinkling of freshly shaved horseradish for the perfect zing.
Local myth states that “the best” stands to score your treats are on the market’s busy corners. In reality, at least according to locals, stall ownership changes yearly, and it’s best to simply go where your nose leads you. Given the strict regulation, it’s hard to find a bad one anyway.
If the crowds become overwhelming, you can, of course, head to a nearby restaurant like Die Wirtschaft for a traditional Franconian feast, sans the lines or the urge to shove people out the way.
After Old Town, head to the new neighborhood
The main market is located in Old Town, as is most of the holiday hustle and bustle. But don’t limit yourself to this ultra-touristy area. Venture to trendy neighborhoods like Gostenhof for a more laid-back experience that will allow you to walk among the locals.
Stefan Stretz, the man behind Nuremberg’s second largest brewery, Schanzenbräu, serves his signature red beer and a full menu at the no-frills meeting spot, Schanzenbräu Schankwirtschaft, which has the vibes of a German Cheers. Aside from touting one of the most tender pork shoulders and delightfully tangy sauerkrauts you can find, Stretz also manages a nearby Advent Market, which is full of old-world charm and small-town hospitality.
It was here, in a church square in front of Dreieinigkeitskirche, where I actually chatted with most of the Nuremberg residents who were eager to help me get the most bang for my buck (or euphoria for my euro). This is where I also found the most unique and creative iterations of Old Town’s holiday classics, like glühwein in rosé, white, and spicy varieties, as well as a hot beer (Stefan’s, of course) with a splash of rum.
Remember the Earth
You won’t see much plastic in Nuremberg’s holiday markets. In fact, the only vendor allowed to sell it is Playmobil, famous for its figurines and toys for children. Otherwise, food is served in paper products that can be recycled, and beverages are presented in reusable mugs that can either be kept as a memento or returned in exchange for a few euros.
It’s the entire country’s mission to scale back its carbon footprint, which you also see among its businesses, including famed Hotel Victoria. The 62-room boutique accommodations, conveniently located at the base of Old Town and adjacent to Nuremberg’s main train station, takes an eco-friendly, minimalist approach in providing the bare necessities, but in a quaint, luxurious environment. While at first it may seem against the grain to stay somewhere that scales back on full-fledged amenities, it’s a sobering and grateful reminder of just how much waste any traveler can go through during a short trip.
Take the train for more holiday cheer
This is Europe, which means that even more holiday cheer is a scenic train ride away. Given Nuremberg’s strategic location in central Germany, it’s easy to ride the rails to nearby Frankfurt and Munich, which also boast some of the best Christmas markets on Earth.
If you want to keep the merry and bright feelings rolling, the Römerberg Christmas Market is a favorite in Frankfurt, set among the facade of rainbow-colored buildings (almost like the ones you’d find in Curacao) and an oversized, double-decker carousel. The stay is complete with lodging at the recently remodeled and highly buzzed-about Westin Grand, which encourages guests to “play well” and “eat well,” with modern rooms and an expansive lobby decked floor to ceiling with lights and metallic Christmas decorations.
Meanwhile, Munich’s main Christmas market in historic city center Marienplatz is an unsurprising show-stopper. It’s also conveniently located next to Viktualienmarkt, a year-round culinary epicenter with stalls owned by chefs and entrepreneurs who must undergo a lengthy application process to even be considered. Once approved, they can also only specialize in one type of cuisine, as to not compete with nearby businesses. Be sure to stop by Caspar Plautz’s booth to experience potato varieties you’ve never even heard of served fried, boiled, pureed, and prepared to your heart’s content.
Like Nuremberg and Frankfurt, Munich’s markets can get quite crowded, so a stay at the newly opened Scandic in the eastern neighborhood of Macherei will provide a much-needed respite with rooms that face the Alps.
Ambitious travelers can realistically knock out all three cities in a long weekend, creating a Christmas-filled itinerary that would even give Santa a run for his money.