They really are. And the best thing is, it doesn’t matter where in Germany you are or what small town you need to visit relatives in, there will always be a market nearby. Big cities like Cologne, Hamburg, Munich and Berlin have a market practically in every square and some people make it their goal to collect a glühwein mug from each one.
There’s not much more that needs to be added here. Germany’s biggest chocolate festival happens at the beginning of December in the old part of Tübingen, a very old university city 30km (18.6 miles) south of Stuttgart. More than 100 of the top chocolatiers from all over the world converge to sell their goods and and offer workshops and demos of chocolate making techniques.
You have to be in the right part of Germany to get a good sleigh ride in, mostly because in the western half of the country, there is rarely enough snow. South of Munich up in the mountains, in the east around Dresden, or in Brandenburg, are your best bests. Google ‘Pferdschlitten‘ and your location or ask either at your hotel or in the lobby of the local 5-star.
The Saturday before the second Sunday in Advent (the exact date varies from year to year), the good people of Dresden celebrate stollen, their favourite holiday bread product. A giant version of the ubiquitous fruit bread is carted through the centre of town accompanied by the Stollen Girl.
Sure, tobogganing on the back hill down by the primary school is fun – when you’re eight. In Germany, it’s a whole other ball game for adults. Most ski resorts have special routes just for toboggans where you can sit on a traditional wooden Rodel toboggan and throw yourself down the mountain at up to 50km/hour (31 miles/hr) steering and breaking only with your feet. Check this out for more inspiration.
Berlin has 80 or so Christmas markets, but in the Botanical Gardens, you’ll find a fairy tale hideout far away from the maddening crowds. A 1,500m (4,921 feet)-long trail takes you around the gardens to a dream forest, where magical figures and light shows will take your breath away. At the end of the road, there is glühwein to warm the insides and fire pits where you can sit and sip to your heart’s content.
Ok, maybe not quite at the very top – but certainly at the top of Germany. The Zugspitze and its neighbours offer hundreds of kilometres of trails with fresh powder from October to as late as May. Most places are close enough to Munich that you can leave your hotel with your boots on and be on the slopes in two hours.
Not a skier but still love snowy forests? Take the Harz Narrow Gauge Railway in the Harz Mountains in the north of Germany and chug gently up to the peak the old fashioned way. Alight, fortify yourself with some coffee (or schnapps) and cake, and then do the 50-minute journey in reverse.
Made up of red or white wine, oranges, lemons, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and sugar, and then left to slowly bubble away in a steamy cauldron for most of the day – glühwein is the essence of German winter. Tourists go to Christmas markets to buy presents. Germans go to meet their friends and colleagues and drink a glühwein or three.
Cologne is dark and rainy in the winter, and the rest of Germany – at least the bits less than 200m (656 feet) above sea level – are dark and cold. What better solution than to visit any one of the country’s hundreds of excellent art galleries or museums? Better yet, go see a concert at the local concert hall or opera house.
Though it leans a little more towards the doughy end of the cookie texture spectrum, lebkuchen is roughly equivalent to gingerbread in flavour and texture. Like gingerbread, the cookies come is all sorts of shapes and levels of decoration, but a good rule of thumb is, the larger the cookie and the more icing it has, the more intense it will taste.
It the deepest darkest days of December, the sun rises at 8:30am and sets at 4:30pm. In much of Germany, it also does a lot of hiding behind the clouds in the hours that it is meant to be shining. The silver lining to these grey, soul-destroying clouds is that you don’t have to worry about sun damage. You may gain a few kilos on your trip to Germany, but you won’t go home with any additional wrinkles.
Circuses – the old-fashioned kind with animals – are still a thing in Europe, and the biggest one opens its winter season on Christmas Day. Circus Krone, in Munich, is one of the few to have its own building and it is regarded as one of the best troupes going. Breakdancing, trapeze, llamas, lions – it’s all there.
When the night draws close in the middle of the afternoon, and you’re snuggled up in a café with a book, a coffee and your second piece of torte, you’ll get a glimpse of the feeling Germans call gemutlichkeit or cosiness. A bit of fog on the windows helps as does having your partner, children or friends close by. If you look around at others in the café you’ll notice that people often sit at a table for hours with their partner and just read the paper. Talking to each other can wait when you’re enjoying gemutlichkeit.
There are hockey teams in Germany, but in general, Germans are not really big on ice skating rinks. Fortunately, while the Christmas markets are on, the reverse it true – most cities make room right in the middle of one of the main squares for an ice skating rink. Skate rentals work roughly the same as bowling shoes, so all you need to do it turn up with your scarf and gloves for some winter fun.