A couple of years ago I got into a disagreement with two travel writers on Twitter about Christmas markets. As shopping experiences they were terrible, they said — overpriced and overrated. I argued that if they saw Christmas markets as shopping trips they were totally missing the point. Christmas markets are about food, about ambience and about laughing and talking with friends. The mark of a decent Christmas market is that it leaves you in a gluhwein-addled fug of good cheer and delight.
That said, I did have some trepidation about booking a trip to one of Germany’s best-known Christmas market towns. Were they right? Would it be commercialised, overcrowded and overrated? All reasons, basically, that I steer well clear of Winter Wonderland in London.
I set those thoughts aside though, as the trip was about treating my mum (it was her 60th birthday this year!) and she had always talked about going to the markets in Cologne. So I booked.
We flew out from Heathrow with German Wings, which is such a smart budget airline — two thumbs up — and flew back with Ryanair to Stansted. I booked the flights ages ago, so they were super cheap.
I arranged our accommodation through Hotels.com, which has a great loyalty scheme and some bargainous sales that I take advantage of when booking my own business trips and sometimes leisure trips too. If you stay 10 nights, you get a night free somewhere through Welcome Rewards. I’m currently seven nights away from my next stay, which I will no doubt use to treat someone special!
It really struck me as we arrived in Cologne what a perfect weekend city break destination it is. The flight is only around an hour from London, and the train takes you into the city centre in 15 minutes or so for only a couple of euros. Plus, you emerge from the station right by the Dom — Cologne’s main attraction. So often what seems on paper like an easy trip can turn out to be more time consuming and expensive than you first envisaged, due to weak, costly connections.
After hours browsing the Hotels.com app for the ideal spot, I settled on the Hilton. This isn’t the kind of boutique accommodation option I’d usually plump for, but it was totally spot on for what we wanted. It was in spitting distance of the station, the Rhine and the cathedral and its market. With only around 30 hours to spend in the city, location was key.
We were in a King Junior Suite on the top floor of the hotel. It had a relaxing lounge area with a Nespresso machine and a massive bathroom with both a bath and a shower cubicle. The high ceilings with windows up top let in lots of light and I enjoyed shuffling around in my fluffy robe and slippers.
Breakfast was included — another reason I chose the Hilton — and we were not disappointed. There was a glorious range of hot and cold food on offer. I love the fact that included in the cold section were both gravalax and smoked salmon, as well as German pretzels and my favourite Liege waffles.
The only downside to staying in the Hilton is that the hotel didn’t have free Wi-Fi, something I believe should come as standard these days.
Of course the main reason we were in Cologne was to sample the Christmas markets and taste test their various delights. The joy of Cologne in December is that it is not just one grand Christmas celebration, but that it has lots of little Christmases tucked into pockets around the city. Each market has its own character and raison d’etre, meaning it just will not do to see only one… or even two.
We started off by the Dom at the most popular Christmas market, which is famed for its magnificent gothic backdrop. The architecture does make this market unmissable, but brave the crowds and delve into the depths of the market and you’ll be rewarded in other ways too. In the centre, under a spider’s web of lights is a stage on which various concerts take place over the course of each day.
Just by the stage is also a stall that serves the most divine cherry strudel with ‘vanilla cream’ (custard). I’m such a sucker for cherry-flavoured desserts (see also my trip to Budapest).
I should admit that I also had another piece of strudel in the Cathedral Market — apple with hot cherries — and mini melt-in-the-mouth Dutch pancakes too. Oops.
In general, the food at the Cathedral Market was slightly more expensive than at other markets, but the quality was also better on the whole. The wurst I ate here was the best I had; even though it wasn’t the biggest, it was definitely a superior sausage in other ways. And that is the politest way I could think of phrasing that.
South from the Cathedral Market is the market at Alter Markt, which, adorably, is gnome themed. Legend has it that house gnomes — called Heinzelmännchen — helped the people of Cologne prepare for Christmas by doing all sorts of jobs. (They sound more like Dobby than Kreacher, don’t you think?) Now, they have a whole market dedicated to them. The gluhwein mugs at this market each have a gnome on them — mine was the sausage maker!
This is the market that will most likely delight little ones, both thanks to the gnomes dotted around — I particularly loved the ones on the moving ski lift — and the attractions on offer. My mum and I went for a spin on the old wooden ferris wheel, which gave us gorgeous views out over Alter Markt.
We took the opportunity here to try Reibekuchen — a Cologne speciality. These potato fritters are crispy and soft, salty and sweet (when they are dipped in apple sauce) and perfect for warming your hands and your innards on a cold winter day. Yum.
It was at this market that we also had something called knofibread. I can’t tell you exactly what it was, but it was similar to Hungarian langos, but less deep fried. It was topped with quark and grated cheese, before it was sprinkled with paprika. Delicious.
Carry on south towards Heumarkt and you’ll find an extension of the market that is based around a gorgeous ice rink. You can also try your hand at Bavarian curling here, which we nearly did until we realised we were not wearing even vaguely appropriate footwear to navigate the ice.
In the evening we headed down to the oldest Christmas market in Cologne, the Angel Market, which somewhat confusingly is based in the Neumarkt. And it turned out that waiting until after dark was definitely the right thing to do. The theme of the market was the sky at night and laced through the trees above the square were strings of glowing stars.
We ate slivers of Alsatian flammkuchen and drank gluhwein out of angel mugs while admiring our surroundings. The market here wasn’t too crowded, which allowed families and groups of friends to cosy up comfortably and embrace the convivial atmosphere as the temperature started to dip.
Heading on to Rudolfplatz, we made our final stop of the evening. The market here was themed around the Grimm Brother’s fairytales and was populated with cute Bavarian-style houses. I was totally enchanted — perhaps the only thing that could have improved the ambience would have been a layer of snow.
By now most of the littles seemed to have been taken home and the stall owners were starting to heave down their shutters. But the beer and the gluhwein were still flowing, so we grabbed a mug to warm ourselves through, while we debated a final bratwurst of the day.
The mugs at the Rudolfplatz market were definitely the sweetest we had seen — little reds boots — so we decided not to return them and get our deposit back, but to take them home instead. This is standard practice at pretty much every Christmas market in Europe.
So were the markets overrated? Absolutely not. The theme of Christmas markets in the UK is ‘Germany’, but in Germany, the markets are themed around individual cultural nuances that we’ve come to associate with a German Christmas. Entering each market felt like you were happening upon a different Christmas party with its own character and own method of celebrating. What they had in common was an electric atmosphere with people fully throwing themselves into the festivities — there were no frenzied shoppers to be seen.
The prices were also really fair across the board. Both the bratwurst and the mugs of gluhwein were priced between 2-3 euros. Prost to that, I say.
Disclaimer: Hotels.com provided me with a free hotel stay to demonstrate how to redeem nights through its Welcome Rewards scheme. As always, all views are my own.