Think of a European country at Christmas time and chances are high you’ll picture Germany. The Christmas-tree custom has its roots here, in the late Middle Ages, and experts have traced the first Christkindlmarkt, or winter street market, back to Saxony in 1384. Even beyond the festive period, Germany is a spectacular winter destination – reliably snowy, atmospheric and appetising. Here are Culture Trip’s picks for the best German places to enjoy a winter wonderland.
South of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, in Bavaria, and surrounded by lesser peaks, Zugspitze is – at 2,962m (9,718ft) – Germany’s highest mountain. Winter-sports enthusiasts in their thousands descend annually for skiing and snowboarding, but if you’re not that bold, there are gentler pursuits, including sledding, cross-country skiing and the intriguing Bavarian pastime of Eisstockschießen, which is similar to curling. If even that sounds too active, sit back and admire the views from your chalet over a relaxing tot of schnapps.
The Partnach Gorge is the most spectacular natural wonder in Garmisch-Partenkirchen – arguably in the whole of Bavaria. The main attraction is the parade of rock flanks, whittled by the course of the River Partnach into gullies and caverns – there are cascades you can walk behind, and tunnels to enter. Popular with whitewater rafters in warmer months, Partnachklamm freezes in winter, forming giant jagged curtains of icicles. There are atmospheric torch-lit hikes after dark, lined with snow-laden trees – making the place feel surreal.
Welcome to southern Germany’s poster-pretty region of castles, meadows and Wagnerian-grand mountain peaks. In summer it sees lots of cyclists and hikers, here for lungfuls of fresh, clean air. In winter it is a winter-sports paradise. There are attractive lodges in cutesy villages (Oberstdorf, Oberstaufen), and pistes – more than 500km (311mi) worth – blanketed in perfect powder snow to flatter even novice skiers and snowboarders. You’ve got eight ski regions to choose from. Sound too energetic? There are also more than 1,500km (932mi) of cross-country ski trails, helping you explore at leisure. Pronunciation note: with the umlaut over the ‘a’, you say ‘Allgoy’, the same as ‘boy’.
Cologne Christmas markets
Germans love their festive markets and in Cologne, the fourth-biggest city in the country, they pull out all the stops. The most famous of its selection is the one by the cathedral – ask the way to Roncalliplatz, or follow the spicy smell of glühwein (mulled wine). Traditionally open from the last week of November until the day before Christmas Eve, they sell everything that you could imagine to get you into the festive spirit – giant gingerbread hearts bearing piped-icing messages, aromatic candles, wild and woolly hats and mantlepiece ornaments made of screws. It’s fun just to wander among the pretty buden (huts), feeling Christmassy among the glittery lights. Head to Neumarkt for the oldest Christmas market in Cologne: the Angel’s Market.
Winter in Dresden is all about stollen and truly cold weather. The cake can be bought all over Germany, but for a memorably delicious moment you want to try the Dresdner Christstollen – here, in the capital of the eastern state of Saxony. It’s a gorgeous concoction of raisins, butter, sweet and bitter almonds, candied orange and lemon peel, all kneaded into a heavy, yeasty dough that’s baked until golden. This is a fabulous city at anytime of the year, but in winter, with snow rendering everything quiet and still, it feels like a magic fairyland. If you don’t feel like getting frozen toes walking around, you could take a paddle-steamer tour of the city along the Elbe River.
In the heart of the Black Forest, the southern region of Baiersbronn attracts winter-loving extreme-sports types like lines of iron filings to a powerful magnet. The scenery under snow is sensational – all white-powdered fir trees and distant peaks bruised on the sky. There are hundreds of dedicated trails for you to hike, or tackle on cross-country skis, and you’ll be rewarded for your exertions. Baiersbronn – a tiny town of 16,000 inhabitants – has eight Michelin stars, which is twice as many per head as Paris.
The Harz Mountains
You visit the Harz – Germany’s northernmost low mountain range – to drink in its natural beauty: its meadows, transparent lakes, pine forests and deeply carved valleys. And what better way to travel through the region than aboard a time-warped train? The villages of Wernigerode, Nordhausen and Quedlinburg are connected by the narrow-gauge Harzer Schmalspurbahnen, a functioning steam train. Its primary purpose is to transport local residents from A to B, but a by-product of its labours is the endless scenery – the chocolate-box beauty of Harz – scrolling past the windows as you sit and gaze out.
Schönau am Königssee
Incurable romantics love Schönau am Königssee in winter. Just a few kilometres over the Berchtesgaden Alps from Austria, it’s a friendly community and a spectacular part of the world, beside its famous lake: when the temperature plummets, the long, thin Königssee freezes into a shimmering, frozen mirror – unrecognisable from its summer-green incarnation. It has more than 20km (12 miles) of tracks – for both regular and speed skating. And while your adrenaline’s up, note that Schönau am Königssee is also home to the oldest permanent bobsled, luge and skeleton track in the world.
The famed university city of Heidelberg, which sits beside the Neckar River, is worth a visit at any time of the year. Throw on a layer of snow, dial back the daylight hours to eight max – and it’s a cosy winter wonderland that’ll have you tingling with festive spirit. Heidelberg Christmas Market brings the town alive, sending aromas of cinnamon-laced mulled wine and roasting-hot chestnuts wafting through the narrow alleys. Simply walk around and inhale the heady atmosphere as you browse for presents. When you get cold, duck into landmark Cáfe Knösel for a hot chocolate and warm apple strudel with whipped cream.
Birthplace of Karl Marx and proud possessor of multiple Roman ruins, Trier – Germany’s oldest city, right by the Luxembourg border – is a weekend-break winner. And in winter its beauty shines through – just experience the Christmas Market. Stroll the scores of festively decorated stalls in Hauptmarkt, the main square, beneath the magnificent cathedral. Stop to scoff portions of steaming bratwurst (traditional German sausage), gingerbread and potato pancakes. Shop for hand-blown glassware, aromatic candles and carved toys. Do allow time for some good-old-fashioned sightseeing, too – among the many ancient attractions is the Porta Nigra, the largest Roman city gate north of the Alps.
The Eifel region in the northwestern state of Nordrhein Westphalia is rural and extremely beautiful. Here you’ll find Monschau, a small resort town 30km (19mi) south of Aachen, right on the Belgian border. Whatever the season it looks as if it has been frozen in time, with its dramatic red-and-black half-timbered buildings. In winter it’s a beauty, with the much-loved festive market filling the air with the sounds of carols and the smells of spiced mulled wine. Take time to look around – you could visit the coffee roaster, the mustard mill and one of the many fantastic bakery-cafes – or take a hike in the snow-dusted forests that spread out in every direction.
Schiller wrote his Ode to Joy in Saxony’s sea-level city, and there’s plenty to be happy about in wintry Leipzig, from icy parks with snowy monuments to palm-edged pools in the domed Sachsen-Therme wellness centre. Average temperatures hover around freezing and the Renaissance Rathaus gleams in frosty sunshine and towers over twinkly market stalls after dark. If it’s just too grey out, enter the late-gothic Thomaskirche to catch a rousing concert, say, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. The composer led the already-centuries-old choir here for decades. Now he lies buried beneath the tiled floor.
Warm trams, snowy forest walks, candlelit cafes and an efficient fleet of snowploughs make Berlin a frost-tastic destination. Vintage buses roll through the Grunewald in the western city, and an ice-breaking ferry crosses the frozen Wannsee. Christmas markets are pungent with roasting chestnuts and flaming rum-soaked sugar-loaves being turned into Feuerzangenbowle (a traditional German drink). Watch fire jugglers on cobbled Gendarmenmarkt, or bobsleigh down one of Europe’s largest mobile snow-tubing track at the annual Winter World in Potsdamer Platz. There’s also the sport of Alpine curling, if you’re game.
Every festive whim is catered for in the northern port city of Hamburg: you can have your winter wonderland with gingerbread and glühwein at cheery markets; or with currywurst and cabaret while bar-crawling through the smoky clubs on Reeperbahn. Go for strip shows (that’s right) at the adults-only Santa Pauli market or maintain standards with an advent concert in white-and-gold St Michael’s Church. Skate round the city’s largest outdoor ice rink in the central Planten un Blomen park: it’s got DJs at weekends, and everyone drinks cream-topped hot chocolate in the cafe next door.
On bright snowy days, the sparkling parks and palaces turn Bavaria’s capital into a Narnian fantasy. Climb the 299 steps to the top of St Peter’s Church bell tower for amazing views across snow-dusted roofs and towers. Or slide down the little temple-topped hill in the Christmas-card-pretty Englischer Garten. Warm up in a glorious Baroque church, an art nouveau opera house or one of more than 50 museums – don’t miss the Instagram-able Deichtorhallen, which were built as fruit markets in the early 20th century and now constitute some of Europe’s biggest spaces for contemporary art.
Bremen is a postcard-perfect North German gem, with lamplit cobbled alleys and fanciful brick gables, half-timbered shopfronts and steeply pitched red tiles. Just add winter for the authentic Christmas-card look. The town is rich in seasonal customs: there’s the schnapps-fuelled Kohlfahrt (kale – or cabbage – walk) to celebrate the local veggies; and Europe’s biggest samba carnival. Stop off for eggnog-style eierpunsch and bratwurst with grünkohl (kale) in the medieval waterfront Christmas market where wood smoke and roasting spices transport you back in time.
On the willow-softened shores of Bodensee – Lake Constance in English – the old city of Konstanz attracts seasonal visitors for both winter sports and gemütliche (cosy) cafes in the Altstadt (Old Town). Head out onto Germany’s largest lake for a glühwein-laced festive cruise or cross the Rhine for snowboarding in the neighbouring Swiss mountains. Heat up again in the lakeside thermal baths with a view of the snowy Alps looming over the misty, mineral-rich water.
Europe’s steepest funicular railway climbs out of Baden-Baden up wooded Merkur Mountain, for views across the ancient spa town and the snowy hills beyond. Ruined Schloss Hohenbaden crowns a rewardingly wintry Black Forest hike before local chocolate truffles with coffee make you feel warm and comfy again back in town. As the city’s bath-related name suggests, Baden-Baden’s hot springs first attracted the Romans to the area, and you can still bathe in the bubbling thermal waters or relax in a sea-salt grotto, with saline stalactites.
The two towns that hosted the 1936 Winter Olympics tempt visitors with steamy cafes – after winter strolls or horse-drawn sleigh rides against a mountainous backdrop – past half-timbered houses with carved wooden shutters and balconies. Stop off for home-made cakes and home-roasted coffee at Wildkaffee near the station – or stock up on melt-in-the-mouth pralines at nearby Chocolaterie Amelie – before heading for the Olympic ice-skating stadium to work on your toe loops and double axels.
It’s the ultimate Disney-esque fantasy: in fact hilltop Schloss Neuschwanstein, with its white pencil towers and turrets, inspired Cinderella’s cartoon castle, now endlessly familiar as both legend and logo. In (mercifully less-crowded) winter, it looks especially spectacular with the whitened woods and peaks behind, making those snowy selfies even more magical. Take refuge, as Mad King Ludwig II did, in this gilded recreation of medieval stories. And, when you’ve had your fill of Wagnerian motifs, ring the changes with creamy hot chocolate and apple strudel at one of the many adorably kitsch cafes in the village below.
For more inspiration, discover our guide on the best weekend trips from Nuremberg.
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