During my recent Rhine River cruise, I had the good fortune of visiting Cologne (the Dom!), Heidelberg (the castle!) and Strasbourg (the storybook old town!). As utterly delightful as these destinations were, I knew they’d be even more magical at the holidays, when the traditional Christmas markets spring to life. For those among you who have your heart set on a bucket-list Christmas market cruise through Europe, I can assure you, these cities will not disappoint. Here we’ll take a look at the spectacular Christmas festivities in Cologne, Heidelberg and Strasbourg - knowing that beyond these, there are countless holiday market destinations where you can sip spicy glühwein, munch on delicious gingerbread and shop for hand-carved ornaments to your heart’s content.
Home to not just one, but seven atmospheric Christmas markets, Cologne is a veritable winter wonderland. For the most iconic experience, head straight to the Cathedral location - extra credit for climbing to the top of the Dom to look down on the sparkling lights and red tents of the picturesque market square. This is the largest of all the markets in the city, with more than 130 festively decorated stands, a brilliantly lit fir tree, more than 100 free stage events and an array of delicious local delicacies.
In Cologne’s Old Town, you’ll find another delightful Christmas market, between the Heumarkt and the Alter Markt. Learn the story of why the market is called the “Home of the Heinzelmännchen” - legendary little creatures who were believed to do all the necessary house chores until they were turned off by a curious housewife. One of the best parts of this particular market is the open-air skating rink - whether you’re lacing up skates or simply watching others glide by. You can even watch a curling match, while enjoying a pint from the Allgäuer Büble Alpe.
The Village of Saint Nicholas market is a perennial favorite, held in Rudolfplatz in the shadow of the centuries-old Hahnentoburg gate. The historic half-timbered houses, including one set up to be a children’s toy workshop, along Nicholas Street, Village Street and Market Street, are lovingly decorated and illuminated, making for a magical setting.
Five festive markets light up the streets and neighborhoods of Heidbelberg: Kornmarkt, Marktplatz, Universitätsplatz, Anatomiegarten and Bismarckplatz. Below the city’s 17th-century castle, cobblestone streets are lined with wooden stalls selling traditional, handcrafted toys and ornaments, while an ice-skating rink in the city square attracts young and old. Wander any of the markets to pick up steaming mulled wine, local sweets, unique trinkets, glass-blown gifts and more.
Bismarckplatz is at the entrance to Old Town, getting visitors in the mood for a romantic stroll through the historic center of the city. At the Anatomiegarten, a small Christmas booth town pops up in the Advent season. Universitätsplatz lights up as the largest square of the whole Heidelberg Christmas Market - pick up mulled wine and bratwurst while the grandkids ride the carousel. Over at Marktplatz, the highlight is the giant Heidelberg wooden barrel with a capacity of 120,000 liters, and at Kornmarkt, you’ll see illuminated fir trees and tents set up to create a festive holiday ambience.
It’s all about the light of Christmas in Strasbourg, the capital of the Alsace region and home to one of the oldest, most revered Christmas markets in the world. Traditional half-timbered homes are decked out in twinkling lights, cozy huts are lined up in the squares along the La Grand Ile and the Great Christmas Tree in the Place Kleber beckons all to its brilliantly lit boughs.
Believe it or not, Strasbourg has been home to Christmas markets since 1570, so they know how to impress. Browse more than 300 stalls in more than 10 different markets for handmade gifts, freshly baked treats and ornaments and crafts that are made in workshops before your very eyes. There’s a changing “guest country” market each year, so you can learn and buy from the traditions of a different destination.
With so many market options, where does one begin? The biggest and most popular are:
Smaller markets include Place du Marché aux Poisson, Place du Temple Neuf, Place Saint Thomas, Place des Meuniers, Place Benjamin-Zix and Place Grimmeissen.
Ready to go? Let’s chat - these Christmas markets are sure to make for an especially memorable holiday season for you and yours.