Starting at the largest market, Weihnachtsmärkte at Roncalliplatz, in front of the Dom Kolner Cathedral are stalls selling a stunning array of decorations for the Christmas tree. There are the standard baubles glazed and glittered, but varieties also include real glass with exquisite patterning and some with snowmen or a Santa contained inside. Some decorations are true works of art with nativity or festive scenes painted on them. Pendants made of silver or glass can be purchased, adding something different to the tree. There are ranges and prices to suit everyone.
Nothing is more romantic than a Christmas candle, and each market has an abundance of sizes and scents from which to choose. Also, many stalls sell decorative candleholders and cases. There are bronzed metallic cylinders decorated with small perforations allowing light to seep through and illuminate a room gently. Some stalls also sell candles and holders that can be placed directly on a Christmas tree — though stunningly beautiful, use these with caution!
Not a romantic? Not to worry. Neumarkt has a good selection of practical gifts such as custom-made belt buckles. It is quite fascinating to watch how these items are made; the metal is fashioned into ovals, rectangles or squares then embossed right before the customer. There are also stalls selling specialized handmade fragrances and soaps that would be a delight in any Christmas stocking. Such practical gifts like incense and perfume are available too.
For sheer camp and kitsch value, don’t go past the markets offering brightly painted Santas or St. Nicholas. Some are painted crimson and small enough to be tree ornaments, while others are wooden or porcelain figurines dressed with smart red velvet outfits and freestanding. They all have delightful and amusing expressions. The larger ones are freestanding and can be quite costly, but having on them on the mantel brings a whimsical ambiance to the home. A higher price ensures better quality, meaning your Santa will be with you for many Christmases to come.
Puppets are not usually the first gift that comes to mind when thinking of Christmas, but they are plentiful. Rudolfplatz, one of the larger markets, has marionettes in the form of dolls and soldiers dangling on strings and ready to come to life by a puppeteer. Some are in traditional German dress while others are in festive costumes, but each one has a unique, cheeky, expression on its face. A whimsical gift, a puppet would entertain all year-round, and it’s no surprise that Cologne has its own theater dedicated to puppetry; The Hanneschen-Theater has been in operation since 1802!
If glass, porcelain or plastic are not impressive, then try a wooden gift. Many of the markets sell stars and religious decorations ready to hang on trees. Nativity scenes and angels exquisitely carved are beautiful. They can create a natural, warm atmosphere in a home and are very inexpensive for the quality! There are also more exotic gifts such as life-sized crows and gnomes for sale — do check airline weight restrictions for luggage, as these gargantuan sculptures are heavy.
Time to splash out? Many of the markets have jewelry, gems, and precious metals for sale. There are numerous stalls with elegant earrings and necklaces made from quartz, amber, wood and other metals in simple, elegant designs. Some select markets will have gold and silver but come with an expensive price tag. There’s something for the men too! Cufflinks and unisex bracelets can be purchased, many in a new-age style. Looking for something totally ostentatious? Bizarre, festive and bejeweled hats can be purchased with matching accessories.
Christmas just isn’t complete without fairy lights, and mostly every market in the city has a stall that sells different types of lights. There are standard LED lights on wires, but for something unusual, try hanging globes made of ceramics and paper, decorated with stars and snow. Many come in varying lengths and sizes, so do ask the vendor before purchasing. Lanterns can also be bought patterned with different types of glass and reminiscent of the stained glass in the magnificent Dom Cathedral.
From the markets by the cathedral to the Neumarkt and beyond, confectionary is sold in abundance. There are fudges, candies, jellybeans and biscuits (the almond flavored varieties are delicious) that would make a sweet treat for anyone. Handmade chocolates in every possible flavor, size, and cocoa percentage are available. Some chocolates are sold in tins with Cologne images that will make for a good souvenir. However, if in a decadent mood, try a foot-long slab of chocolate to nibble on while wondering through the merriment of the markets.
If there’s one thing the markets are never in short supply of, it is food. The smell of roasting chestnuts, for starters, is an irresistible lure. Most people will try the standard sausages or mulled wine, but for a unique experience, try the potato cakes (reibekuchen) — a fried rosti served with applesauce or crispy battered fish served in a roll with mayonnaise. This can all be washed down with a beer, wine, coffee or hot chocolate. The only difficulty is deciding what to eat first! The markets run approximately from November to December.