Christkindlmarkt. Marché de Noël. Weihnachtsmarkt. Vánoční trhy. Jarmark Bożonarodzeniowy. Mercatini di Natale. It’s the perfect time of year to talk Christmas markets—those lively, aromatic, festive, chill-in-the-air, community-wide bastions of Christmas holiday cheer. Whether you encounter one in North America, or more traditionally, in your travels in Europe, get the most out of your experiences with these tried-and-true tips for visiting a Christmas market!
Tons of tasty food means it’s hard to decide on just one thing. Sharing a selection of sweet and savory treats as a group allows you to make the most of the variety. Many markets offer tall tables and little else, so be prepared to eat standing up. And if you have additional dietary considerations, don’t be afraid to ask a few questions of food vendors: for instance, many seemingly meatless items may use pork, beef, or chicken stock or flavoring.
Divide and conquer. Whether with friends or family, everyone will want to see different things. Just make sure to pick a tall, easily recognizable rendezvous point. In many communities, a local church will ring its bells on the half-hour and hour, so you may be able to use that reminder to your group’s advantage!
Not everything is one-of-a-kind. Don’t feel pressured to buy the first crèche or nutcracker you see. While there are plenty of authentic items sold, an exploration of the market may reveal that many vendors (who often travel from one market to the next) are selling essentially the same thing, and there’s a good chance it’s not produced there—don’t be afraid to ask where the item is made, and compare prices before you buy! That said, if someone in your group has their heart set on a certain item and you don’t see something like it in the next 5-10 stalls, don’t leave that purchase until the end of your market visit.
Come prepared. Dress in layers, making sure to consider your feet and other extremities. Bring a reusable bag for any purchases. Packing your own water bottles and some dry snacks can also reduce unnecessary costs. Have kids who may grow weary of the festivities before you do? Bring along their Journey Jotter Book to engage them on their own terms—activities like “People-Watching BINGO,” “Did You See What I Saw?” or “To Market, to Market” offer especially fun ways for them to process the sensory experience of a Christmas market!
Visit more than once if you are able. You might find it more relaxing than trying to see the whole market in one go. More importantly, a Christmas market during the daytime is often a very different affair from the same market at night, and both are experiences you’ll want to have! As with many other events, families may find a daytime visit preferable for kids.
Go ahead and keep the mug. Whether you treat yourself to mulled wine, or cider, or hot cocoa — forego the partial refund (sometimes a few Euros or more) that often comes with returning the mug, and keep it as a souvenir. Different vendors and different markets may each feature their own mug designs, and they make excellent keepsakes at an entirely reasonable price! Keep in mind that if you are keen to return your mug and reclaim your refund, you may be required to do so at the same stall where you purchased your drink, so make note of the location!
Set a budget and don’t let a potential Value-Added Tax (VAT) refund slip away. At participating market vendors in the EU, if you are making a larger purchase, it can be worth your while to reclaim a portion of the purchase price that is inflated by the VAT. You’ll need your passport on hand as you shop, and will need the vendor to complete the appropriate form at the time of your purchase — here's how to do it.
Consider arriving on foot or using public transportation. While some holiday markets boast special nighttime parking rates and ample spaces, many others are characterized by massive pedestrian zones, street closures, and huge crowds. Consider your group’s needs and plan accordingly.
Bring cash, including some smaller change. You’ll already need to spend some time hunting for a restroom (and likely paying a small fee to use it), and you won’t want to add an ATM to that mission. Many vendors will accept credit cards, but be mindful of any fees your credit card company may include on international purchases, or what kind of exchange rate you receive when using your card. No matter how you are paying, exercise the usual caution and keep your money and cards securely on your person.
Keep language in mind. When attending a holiday market where the primary language is not your own, be prepared with Google Translate on your phone, or a simple pad of paper and pen to write out and clarify prices if necessary. Love to learn languages? Focus on a few key phrases beyond pleasantries, such as: How much does it cost? Where was this made? Can you put this item aside for me?
Every market is different. Though any one country or region may offer more markets than you could possibly hope to take in, don’t assume that if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Read up on what is distinctive about the market you are visiting—whether it’s a local food specialty or not-to-be-missed local musician—and prepare to experience it.
Look off the beaten path. While the biggest holiday markets are well known and popular for a reason, there are countless other excellent options in less touristy parts of town or smaller communities, and every single one has its own personality, such as the Tollwood Festival in Munich.
How about you? What is your favorite Christmas market treat or souvenir? Connect with Journey Jotter Books on social media using the buttons below, and let's hear it!