The Cologne Christmas Markets are some of the most famous in Europe. People travel from all over the world to come and soak up the magic of Christmas in this lovely German city. I’m lucky to call Cologne home and believe me it really is a magical place at this time of year! There’s nothing better to get you in the mood for Christmas than a drinking a warm Gluhwein while taking in the atmosphere of a German Christmas Market.
It’s nearly 6 years since our family moved to here Cologne and we have become somewhat experts in negotiating the Christmas Markets. Our knowledge has been perfected through years of dedicated Gluhwein drinking and bratwurst eating. So, instead of just helping the occasional lost tourist I thought that it might be more useful to provide a little guide to the markets. Hopefully everything I have learnt through my Gluhwein drinking efforts will save you lots of time and trouble for planning your own trip to the markets.
For 2016, the Christmas Markets open on 21st November and then finish on 23rd December.
Introduction to the Cologne and the Markets
So this guide will provide everything you need to get the most out of a trip to the Cologne Christmas Markets. I’m going to start with a few basics about the markets (how many, where they are etc). Then I’ll give you some info about some of the other things you can do in Cologne just in case you want to take a break from the markets. Because I’m all about the food and drink, I’m then going to make you feel hungry by talking about all the different options on the markets. After this there is a guide to each of the different Christmas Markets in detail. Finally, at the end is a whole bunch of practical info about the different options for getting to Cologne in the first place. I’ve also included also a few words on how to get to Cologne from the various airports in the area. I know that this can be a bit of a minefield.
7 Special Christmas Markets
There are 7 fantastic Christmas Markets in Cologne. Every single one has its own character and feel. This makes it a great place to visit for 2 or even 3 days. Most of the markets are all within walking distance of each other as well, so you don’t need to worry about public transport. However, if you do want to use the excellent tram network to get around, read more about Cologne’s travel system at the end of the post. You can easily wander from one market to the other, eating, drinking, shopping and taking in the atmosphere of the city.
Other Sights in Cologne
As well as the markets, there are a few sights that you really shouldn’t miss while you’re here. Probably the most impressive sight in Cologne it’s amazing Cathedral or the Kolner Dom as its known. It’s right next to one of the biggest Christmas Markets and is also next to the main station so you can’t miss it. You can wander around inside the Cathedral and some days you might even get to hear the choir singing. You can also climb to the top of the Cathedral for a great view over the city. The other great draw of Cologne is the Rhine River that flows through the centre of the city. There is nothing I like better than sitting by the river watching the world go by. Most of the cafe’s and restaurants have covered areas with heaters so you can even sit out on cold December days.
There’s More to Cologne than the Dom
For the best view of the city, walk across the railway bridge and visit Koelntriangle Panorama. From the observation platform you get the most amazing view in Cologne across the whole city for the bargain price of just 3 Euros. The best bit about this platform is that you get the best view of both the river and the Cathedral.
To get to the Triangle Panorama you walk across the railway bridge. Over the course of many years couples have sealed their love by leaving a padlock on the bridge and then throwing the key in the Rhine. It’s a very impressive sight to see and perhaps you want to leave your own padlock with a loved one. Its worth knowing that there is a lot more space on the North side of the bridge.
There are also many interesting museums in Cologne. My favourite is the Roman-German Museum that celebrates the Roman origins of Cologne right through to the Middle Ages. If you are an art fan then the Ludwig Museum at the back of the Cathedral is also worth a visit. Finally, if you are interested in World War II history, the NS-DOK Museum is extremely interesting. This building was the Cologne Headquarters of the Gestapo Secret Police and is now the largest memorial in Germany.
Other Places with Great Christmas Markets
If you can’t make it to Cologne, there are lots of other places with fab Christmas Markets. You can read a great summary of various Christmas Markets across Europe here on the Hole in my Shoe blog. In my native UK it seems that every city has a German style Christmas Market these days. There’s a new one opened in Leicester Square in London recently. There’s a great post about this new London market written by the awesome blogger Melly who is “The Baker Abroad“, you can read all about it here. Birmingham is also famous for having a huge Frankfurt Christmas Market. However, one of my favourite markets is the one in Bath where 87% of the stalls are run by small local businesses. When I moved to Germany, I found it really interesting that what I thought were Christmas traditions all over the world turned out to be just in the UK and the USA. You can read more about the different celebrations around the world on the Blogmas post of fellow blogger All That Jazmin here. It’s really great and not just because I wrote the part about Germany.
Food, Drink and Shopping
Before telling you all about the different markets themselves with some great insider tips, I’m going to whet your appetite with some of my own thoughts on the wonderful food and drink options that make the markets so special. I feel very lucky that some of the markets are walking distance to my office. This means that from the end of November the Christmas Markets are literally an extension of our staff canteen at lunchtime.
Amazing Food Choices
The selection of food options at the Cologne Christmas Markets is enormous. It’s guaranteed that you certainly won’t go hungry. While it helps to be a meat lover, it shouldn’t put you off if you are vegetarian. My daughter Lucy is a veggie and she has never had a problem finding yummy food on any of the markets. Before I talk about the traditional Christmas Market food, I want to give a quick shout out to Dan and the team at the Tasty Pasty Company. I wrote about them in a previous post (here) and they are well worth a visit at their stall in the Alter Markt. Their special Christmas Pasties are the closest thing to Christmas Dinner I have ever had in a yummy little package.
Bratwurst and Other Meat
First up there is the traditional German staple of Bratwurst. It’s a long sausage normally served in an undersized roll that leaves most of the sausage sticking out either end. There are Bratwurst stands at all the Christmas Markets but my favourite is in the middle of the Alter Markt at Heumarkt. It’s right next to the big wooden house at the north end of the ice rink. They also serve some of the best Currywurst as well.
My personal favourite meat dish is the big stick of meat that you can get at most of the markets. The best place for big meat sticks is in the middle of the second Alter Markt market near the ferris wheel and Apple Punch stall. There are some great meat selections at all the Markets. I can especially recommend the various stalls at the Angel’s Market on Neumarkt and at the Stadtgarten Market. There is also a wide selection of different meat options at the Cathedral Christmas Market. It’s also worth mentioning the great food at Christmas Avenue, the Gay and Lesbian market. I especially recommend the pulled pork stand at the far end on the right.
Flame Grilled Salmon and Other Fishy Things
Out of all the food that you can find across all the Christmas Markets, my personal favourite is the flame grilled Salmon. Look for the sign Flammlachs and follow the heavenly smell as the whole fish grill away in front of the fire. It’s usually served in a bread roll (im Brotchen) with iceberg lettuce and remoulade. You get a fork as well so you don’t have to try and eat it all with your hands. The other option is to buy a whole plate of fish, which is served with the roll and various other garnishes. You can’t get Flammlachs at every Christmas Market sadly.
The main Flammlachs stalls are on the left side of the Alter Markt market, in the middle of the Neumarkt Angel’s Market or at the Harbour Market. Last year they also opened a Flammlachs stall at the Cathedral Market, which is great because it’s close to the office where I work. It will be hard not to have a salmon roll for lunch every day with it being so close.
There are other fish dishes available at all the different markets. One particular highlight is the fried fish at the Angel’s Market in Neumarkt. It’s a little like a miniature version of fish and chips – really tasty with a perfect remoulade. Then on the meat stick stall in the Alter Markt near the Ferris Wheel they also serve a stick of garlic prawns. It’s really tasty but they only cook them to order so be prepared for a little bit of a wait.
Something Other Than Meat or Fish
As I said, my daughter Lucy is a veggie and there are plenty of options across the all the markets. The most widely available dish is Reibekuchen, which is fried potato cakes. It’s not exactly the most healthy option but it tastes amazing. Normally they come served with apple sauce (Apfelmus). On some of the markets you can get them with cream (Schmand) and a berry sauce (Preiselbeeren – think the red sauce you get with the meatballs and gravy at IKEA).
The list of the other options are almost endless and every market offers something different. Some of our family favourites include the gorgeous Gnocchi (also next to the meat stand in the Alter Markt), Raclette (stunning grilled cheese at the Cathedral and Angel’s Market), Flammkuchen (available both in Veggie and Meat varieties at the Angel’s Market and the Stadtgarten) and finally the Mushroom with garlic and sauce (from almost every market).
Warming Drinks – Great for Cold Weather
One of the most interesting parts of the Cologne Christmas are the wide range of drink selections that are available. Whether it’s Gluhwein or Hot Chocolate that gets you in the mood for Christmas you will be in heaven at Cologne’s Christmas Markets. One important thing to introduce you to is the concept of “tassen pfand”. Almost every time I visit the markets there are tourists confused about why they are being charged more than the cost of the drink they ordered. On all the markets you are also charged a deposit for the cup or glass that the drink is served in. It’s usually the same price as the drink itself. It’s useful to know that every year, every different market has a different mug design so many people think of them as collectors items. If you want to keep the cup you either just keep it (obviously) or you can also buy a proper unused mug at one of the market stalls for the same price as the pfand.
Gluhwein and Some Cheeky Additions
The traditional drink of the Christmas Markets is Gluhwein, which is a mulled wine. Once it gets to October, we start looking forward to the Christmas Market Gluhwein. There is nothing better for getting into the Christmas spirit than drinking Gluhwein on a cold evening with friends on one of the Christmas Markets. Most people know of the traditional dark red Gluhwein but you can also get white (Weiss) Gluhwein as well. You can also get Gluhwein with either Rum or Amaretto. It’s easy to overdo it on the alcohol so pace yourself and don’t drink too much or too quickly.
Calvados and Apple Punch
Other options that you can find on the Alter Markt and at the Stadtgarten is Calvados liqueur and Apple Punch. The Calvados liqueur with cream is very nice indeed but again don’t go silly with them, you’ll regret it later. The same stalls also have both an alcoholic and non-alcoholic apple punch as well that equally as nice. The stall that sells the Apple Punch at the Alter Markt is very well placed for both the meat sticks and Dan’s Christmas Pasty stall. It’s one of our favourite places to enjoy the markets. There’s excellent festive music and always an amazing atmosphere.
Finally, The Feuerzangenbowle – It’s on Fire!
The final drink I want to tell you about is not for the faint hearted. It’s called the Feuerzangenbowle and its basically is Gluhwein and Rum that’s set on fire. It’s comes in a special mug called a Feuerzangentasse which has a set of forks attached to it on which a sugar cone is placed. The cone is then soaked in rum and the whole thing is set on fire. It’s very nice indeed for warming your insides on a cold day. The main place to get this is at the Alter Markt Christmas Market. It’s great then to drink it in the themed house overlooking the Ice Rink.
Shopping at the Markets
As well as food and drink there is some great shopping to be had on all the Markets. The Angel’s Market at Neumarkt has a fantastic shop of Christmas decorations. On the same market there is another stall that sells chocolate that looks exactly like rusty tools, it’s very clever and makes a great Christmas stocking filler for boys especially. There are also loads of different arts, crafts and clothing for sale. You can literally spend hours just wandering from stall to stall. I would advise bringing a good rucksack if you plan to buy anything. The carrier bags from the stalls are famously thin and break easily. When the markets are busy it’s not ideal to try and drink Gluhwein, eat food and keep hold your shopping all at the same time.
Guide to the Individual Markets
As I said, there are 7 different Markets in Cologne. Each one has a different theme and feel to it. It’s worth making a plan to try and visit as many of them as you can when you are here. Most of them are within walking distance of each other. The Stadtgarten is a little further away and if your legs get tired you can always use the excellent tram system that we have in Cologne (there’s more info about the trains and trams later on).
Alter Markt (Old Market)
One of the biggest and best of the markets is the one at the Alter Markt. If you are using the tram to get there, get off at either Heumarkt or Rathaus. The market is a great one to visit during the day time. It’s biggest enough that you could spend all day just at this market. In reality, it’s 2 markets in one. First of all there is the large open market on Heumarkt itself. This one has a large ice rink at the centre (in the picture) and a couple of great indoor areas in case it’s raining. A fantastic spot is on the balcony of the house that overlooks the ice rink. It’s great for people watching and getting your bearings.
The second part is on the Alter Markt. You get to it through the street in the top left corner of Heumarkt (assuming you have your back to the tram station). There is a small ferris wheel to one side and the big meat stall, The Tasty Pasty Company and the Apple Punch are all in the middle. It’s a great spot for meeting people.
Angel’s Market (Neumarkt)
The Angel’s Market is a bit further from the Rhine river on the Neumarkt Square. It’s a great market to visit at night because, as you can see in the picture, the stars in the trees give it a really magical atmosphere. There is a wide selection of great food and a lovely bar at the west end of the market. It’s great for hanging around with friends and it’s our spot of choice to meet up with people in the evening.
There are some great stalls to buy Christmas decorations. All over the market are some awesome arts and crafts stalls. This is also the market with the stall that sells the chocolate that looks like rusty tools. It does get busy, but it’s a great market for just wandering around and soaking in the atmosphere.
The biggest single market in the city and perhaps one of the most stunning in terms of location is the Cathedral Market. It’s located in the square right in front of the Dom Cathedral. As you can see from picture its pretty special. In the centre of the market is a huge Christmas tree and as the lights come on in the late afternoon the market looks even more magical than in the day time. If you don’t feel Christmassy drinking Gluhwein on this market then you never will.
There’s a huge selection of food stands at this market with just about everything you can imagine. The mushrooms are especially good at this market. If you are looking for a traditional German Bratwurst there’s a good stand for that at the left side towards the entrance to the Cathedral itself. It’s one of my favourite places for Flammlachs (grilled Salmon) as well. Whatever food you choose, you won’t go wrong. There are also some excellent craft stalls at the end of the market furthest from the Cathedral.
There is often entertainment on the stage by the tree so if you can find a table its a great place to hang out. The other good spot, especially if it’s raining, is on the right hand side under the canopy of the Roman-German Museum. There’s a Gluhwein stand right there as well, so if it’s wet head there, grab a table and camp out in the dry until you are ready to continue exploring.
Christmas Avenue – The Gay and Lesbian Market
One thing many visitors don’t know about Cologne is that it’s one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Europe. Every July it hosts one of the biggest Gay Pride festivals in the world and there is a vibrant gay and lesbian scene in the Cologne. The Christmas Avenue Market is, as you might expect, one of the most fun places to soak up the Christmas atmosphere.
The crowd is generally younger than the other markets. The selection of food and drinks is also much more diverse that the more traditional markets, so it’s a great place to come when you want something other than Gluhwein and Bratwurst. As I mentioned earlier in the food section, there a particularly good Pulled Pork stand at far end of the market on the right hand side. There are also some great gift stalls with some really fun presents. My mother-in-law loves the chocolate penis we buy her from this market every year.
Harbour Market (Chocolate Museum)
The Harbour Market is one of the smallest in the city but it’s well worth a visit. It’s a short walk along the river south of the Cathedral and the Alter Markt Market. The market is right in front of the entrance to the Chocolate Museum, which is also worth a visit and a great place to shelter if it’s wet.
This museum is better to visit during the day time. There is a nice focal point bar and food area, plus the selection of food is really great given the small size of the market. There’s a food stall that does a particularly good pork sandwich that I can very much recommend. I haven’t seen this at any of the other markets. There is also a great selection of arts and crafts at the entrance. Some of the stalls are rented by local artists and producers just for one weekend so things are constantly changing.
Village of St Nicholas (Rudolfplatz)
Next up we have the Nikolausdorf, which is a village style Christmas Market in the shadow of the medieval Hahnentorburg on Rudolfplatz. This part of the city is where most of the best night spots are so there is always a great crowd and a fantastic atmosphere at this market. It’s right next to the Christmas Avenue Market, so you can visit both one after the other.
The Rudolfplatz Market has a great Gluhwein stand on the edge of it and this means a lot of people congregate around it on the square. As well as the Gluhwein, they serve a lovely Brandy Punch on this market. There are the usual food stalls and one of the best Reibekuchen, potato cake stalls is on this market. If you are visiting with children, they often have children’s entertainment on the stage by the Hahnentorburg.
The last market to tell you about is the Stadtgarten Christmas market. It’s a little bit further from the others but it’s definitely worth making the effort to visit. This market is slap bang in the middle of the Belgian Quarter of Cologne, which is one of the coolest and hip parts of the city. Because it’s not on the traditional tourist trail, it tends to have more locals than tourists giving it a very traditional atmosphere.
The Stadtgarten market has an amazing village feel to it. It’s full of amazing craft stalls selling all manner of cute gifts for Christmas. It’s a great place to pick up nick nacks and stocking fillers. I even got a fantastic wooden chopping board here a couple of years ago. The food selection is also wonderful, like all the markets. There are some especially great deserts here with tarte flambee, crepes and waffles as well as some awesome toasted almonds. The savoury end of the spectrum is also well catered for with tasty stews, raclette and mushrooms being my favourite things to eat here.
And Finally……..Some Practical Info
If I’ve got you excited about the idea of enjoying Gluhwein and Bratwurst at the Cologne Christmas Markets there are a few bits of practical information that you might find useful. I’ve finished this post off with some info on the best ways to get to Cologne in the first place. We’ve become experts in all the different flight options back to the UK so hopefully there are some useful tips for you. I’ve also added some useful info on how to get from the airport to Cologne as well.
Getting to the Markets in the First Place
The first thing to consider is how to get to the Cologne Christmas Markets in the first place. Obviously the earlier you book the better and flying without hold luggage is cheaper as well. There are 3 airports that you can use for getting to the Cologne Christmas markets. These are:
Flying to Cologne Airport
Flights with Eurowings (what used to be Germanwings) from airports all over Europe, from the UK they fly to Cologne from Edinburgh, Heathrow, Manchester and Stansted. The other main option is to fly with Ryanair who are continually adding new destinations to Cologne, from the UK they only fly from Stansted.
The airport at Dusseldorf is bigger than Cologne and has a wider range of destinations with a bigger choice of airlines. From the UK, options include Birmingham (Eurowings and Flybe), Bristol (BMI Regional), Doncaster/ Sheffield (Flybe), Glasgow (Eurowings), Heathrow (British Airways and Eurowings), Leeds-Bradford (Jet 2), London City (British Airways), Newcastle (Eurowings) and Southampton (Flybe).
There are various names for this airport and it has been called Dusseldorf Weeze despite being over 60 km North of the city. It’s a bit of a trek from Cologne but if you book ahead there are some very cheap flight available with Ryanair (to Edinburgh, Luton and Stansted as well as other European destinations).
Getting from the Airport to the City
One of the hardest things about arriving in Germany is how to negotiate the public transport from the airport. There are a few pitfalls that might cause a problem so this part isn’t exactly exciting but it might make your trip start more smoothly.
From Cologne Airport to Cologne
The easiest way to get from Cologne Airport to the city centre is by train. The station at the Airport is underground between the 2 terminals and is really well signposted. Before you go down to the platform you need to buy a ticket from the red machines. You can change the language of the machines so that they are in English as well as other languages.
Buying the Right Ticket
For Cologne city centre, click the VRS Transport Association tariff and buy a Zone 1b ticket. You can buy singles (Euro 2.80) or 4 journey tickets (Euro 10.70), these are Christmas 2016 fare prices. If you buy a 4 journey ticket you have to stamp it in the little orange machine in the photo. If you are travelling as a couple you could stamp the ticket twice (folding along the line on the ticket) going into the city and then repeat on the way back to the airport.
The final option is a Day Ticket for 5 people, which is Euro 12.90 and gives full access to the Cologne area travel network all day after 9 am. It really is great value. The machines take coins or cards by the way, including visa and mastercard which isn’t always the case in Germany.
Take the Right Train
Go down to the platform and take any of the red trains going in the direction of Cologne centre. There are suburban trains (S13 or S19) and the Regional trains (RE8 or RE6). The main thing is, don’t get on the white ICE train! Your ticket won’t be valid and the fine from ticket inspectors won’t be a good start to your holiday. I have known of tourists (and even 1 or 2 friends) getting on the wrong train or not stamping a 4-journey ticket then ending up with a 40 Euro fine.
Get Off in the Right Place
If you are staying in the city centre near the Cathedral then get off at the stop Cologne Hauptbahnhof (Main Station), it’s the first stop after you cross the river. It takes less than 15 minutes to get from the airport. The station name will be announced in English so just listen out for it. If you are staying in the Hyatt or other hotels near the Exhibition centre then get off a Cologne Deutz, which is the stop before the main station. There are a couple of handy websites/ apps to use to check travel in the Cologne, provided you have mobile internet access. There are VRS (in English), which is the regional area network. There is also the KVB, the travel company for the Cologne itself.
From Dusseldorf Airport to Cologne
From Dusseldorf Airport the journey to Cologne takes between 30 and 40 minutes depending on the option you choose. To get to the Airport’s train station you have to take the Skytrain from the terminal first, which takes 5 or 10 minutes. The ticket machines are easy to find between the Skytrain and the platforms. The best option is to buy a Zone 5 ticket for Euro 11.30 or a 4-trip ticket for Euro 43.00. The second option is ideal for couples, just remember to stamp the ticket in the orange machines at the entrance to the platform. Take one of the red RE, regional trains to Cologne Main Station and it will take around 40 minutes. There is a quicker option as well, which involves taking the White ICE train. However this costs Euro 20.00 per person each way.
From Weeze Airport
It’s not so easy to get from Weeze Airport to Cologne. There is a regular bus that goes to Deutz Station for Euro 21.00 each way. The journey takes up to 2 hours. You can find out more about the bus timetables here.
Getting Around Cologne
The centre of Cologne is quite compact and the walk from the Main Station and Cathedral to Rudolfplatz or the Stadtgarten only takes 15 to 20 minutes at the most. However, should you want to save your legs and use public transport there is a great tram network in Cologne that you can use to get from market to market. You can download a map of the tram network from the website of the KVB here. One things to be aware of is that most of the ticket machines (including the ones on the trams) only take coins, which makes things a little difficult. There are ticket machines that take cards at the main station and Neumarkt. If you are doing a lot of travelling around the city you can buy a Tagesticket (Day ticket) for either 5 people or 1 person. The 5 person ticket is great value at only 12 Euros, but it is only valid after 9.30 in the morning.
Coming By Car?
If you are coming by car for a day trip to the markets, there are a few options. Rather than pay big parking fees in the centre, the best thing to do is park in one of the Park and Ride stations in Zone 1b. Then you can just buy a Tagesticket for 12.00 Euros and with free parking it should work out great value. The best choices on the West side of the city and close to the motorways are the tram station at the Rhein Energie Stadion or the train stop at Weiden West.
If You Come – Drop Me a Line
I hope that you find this guide useful, I’ve tried to capture all my favourite things so you can learn from our experiences and those of the friends who taught us all their tricks. If you are planning to come to Cologne, leave me a comment let me know or send me an email, it would be great to have a Gluhwein with you.