I’ve always heard that Germany had the best Christmas markets. Now that I’ve seen the Christmas markets in Cologne, I fully agree.
Christmas markets started in the Holy Roman Empire, which was the German-speaking portion of Europe in the Middle Ages. The tradition has carried into the present and has spread across the world. For example, in 2000, 41 German families brought the tradition to Edinburgh, Scotland. Simply put, the Edinburgh Christmas Market pales in comparison to a real German Christmas market.
I arrived in Cologne in the wee hours in the morning before the sun was up. It was still several hours before the markets opened at 11 a.m., so I found Merzenich Bakery for a cheap breakfast and coffee before setting off to see the markets.
Cathedral Christmas Market
The Cologne Dom is the third-tallest cathedral in the world, and easily the most magnificent I’ve ever seen. It literally took my breath away the moment I saw it coming out of the central train station. It’s open and free to visit, but only at very select times as it holds Mass several times a day. Thus, I had a few minutes to run in before the markets opened. They don’t allow any backpacks or luggage in the cathedral, so you’ll have to find someone to watch your bags if you want to see the interior.
After seeing hundreds of churches around the world, I’m no longer as amazed by them as I used to be. The Cologne Cathedral blew my mind. Even standing inside, it was hard to comprehend just how big it was. There was no way I could take photos to do it justice, nor is there any one vantage where you can see everything. I could have spent hours in there, and really wished I could take a tour to actually learn the specifics about the history, design, etc.
Just outside the cathedral was the first market I visited, appropriately called the Cathedral Christmas Market. Built around a massive Christmas tree, the market offers what you would expect in a German Christmas market – sausages, chocolate-covered marshmallows, Glühwein (mulled wine), etc. Other stalls had local arts and crafts such as mugs, candles, stuffed animals, etc. There were also stalls selling meals from other European countries. Having just had breakfast, I didn’t stop for any of the food at this market and since I had a time crunch, I just took photos and then made my way to the next market.
Alter Markt – Heinzel’s Christmas Market
The next market I visited was in the Alter Markt – German for Old Market. Officially called Heinzel’s Christmas Market, its nickname is the Fairytale Market. Throughout the stalls are decorations of gnomes. The name of the market gets its name from Heinzelmannchen, meaning house gnome. Most of the figures are beautifully carved wooden statues, with some of them being made as I watched. This market is four times bigger than it used to be and is now split into two parts.
The first market is located in front of the City Hall and has a handful of food stalls but focuses more on local products, arts and crafts, and clothing. I was particularly fascinated by the woodworkers there designing statues, little hedgehogs and other objects.
The second is in “Heumarkt” next to the river. This one is far bigger and is also where the ice rink was set up. It was hard to tell that this wasn’t a permanent establishment (maybe it was) with all the structures that were built for the market. One of the many drink stands was like a small two-story lodge, the upper floor giving a good view of the skaters. I still wasn’t ready for lunch yet, so no food from this market.
Angel’s Christmas Market
This is the oldest Christmas Market in Cologne, located in the large square known as the Neumarkt. This market felt much more like it was for the locals than the previous markets. The products and food were also a bit different. It seemed mostly about the food, and there were far more options available. There was a salmon sandwich that looked delicious (and really cheap), but so did the flammkuchen (German pizzas), the pasta, the roasted potatoes…and just about everything else.
I heard that once a week, Santa comes into this market with his horses and sleigh, but not on the day I was there. Just another reason that 9 hours in a city isn’t nearly enough time. As it was, I was practically running between the markets just to see what they had available before I had to return to the station to catch my train to Hamburg.
Saint Nicholas’ Village Christmas Market on the Rudolfplatz
The final market I visited was the Village of St. Nicholas. This one was awesome! Nicknamed the Medieval Market, it’s set beneath the Hahnentorburg, or Hahnen Gate, one of the original 12 gates in the wall that surrounded Cologne. This was the smallest market I saw with only about 60 stalls (the Cathedral Christmas Market has about 160), yet it was still delightful.
As I entered, there was a large moose head hanging from the side of the building. It wasn’t taxidermy. Instead, it started singing “Last Christmas” by Wham! in a very moosey voice. It was certainly the funniest thing I saw in all the Christmas markets I visited on my trip!
This was the market where I finally stopped to get lunch. First, I had bratwurst, the typical German sausage. It had been nearly 24 hours since my last sausage in Luxembourg, and, well, you can’t go that long without eating sausages in Germany! I think mine might have been left on the grill for a bit too long as it was desiccated, but it was still tasty. Maybe that was just the style in Cologne. or maybe it wasn’t even bratwurst. I’m still learning all my German sausages.
To go with the sausage, I bought some kartoffelpuffer. These are german potato pancakes, similar to the gromperekichelcher we had in Luxembourg. While the Luxembourgish variety was thicker and premade, the German pancakes were prepared fresh in front of me, from mixing the preparation to deep-frying them. The result was a much lighter, fluffier pancake. Most people ate them with a compote topping – similar to apple sauce – but I just went with ketchup.
All the Rest
There are a few more Christmas Markets around Cologne, bur further away from the city center. As I was short on time, I didn’t make it out to those. One that was closer was Heavenue, the Gay Christmas market across the street from Saint Nicolas’ Village, but it was closed.
A key market I missed was the Harbor Market. At this market, the stalls are actually built like boats! But beyond that, I can’t really give my opinion since I didn’t make it.
The rest of the city didn’t seem that interesting – too many shops and industrial-type buildings. Someone told me that a full day in Cologne was too much, and I can see that to be the case…when it’s not Christmas. I would have loved to spend more time at the Christmas markets there, but I didn’t and that night I was already in Hamburg, a city I really did fall in love with.
Visiting the Christmas Markets in Cologne
The Christmas markets in Cologne are generally open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. In 2019, they started on November 25th and ended December 23rd, which will probably stay consistent in future years. I arrived early on a Tuesday morning and the markets weren’t that crowded. I’m sure that changes in the evenings and on the weekends, just like the Christmas markets in Luxembourg.
It would be nearly impossible to set an expected budget for the markets, but maybe $15 per meal (food and drink) plus whatever trinkets and souvenirs you want to pick up. Most of the sausages and Christmas drinks were about $5 at the Christmas markets. It was cheaper than Luxembourg but more expensive than I was soon to find in Poland. Stay tuned for more Christmas market recommendations.
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