Nuremberg vs Cologne: what’s the best Christmas market in Germany?

What is the best Christmas market in Germany? For those in the know, two names always crop up as can’t-miss experiences: Cologne and Nuremberg. 

We asked two passionate, local writers to convince us that their hometown is the best place to experience a bit of Christmas cheer. So which is the best Christmas market in Germany (and maybe the world)? Let’s hear the arguments before you decide.

Why Nuremberg is the best Christmas Market in Germany (and the world)

Summer Rylander has lived in Nuremberg since 2015 and thinks that prune men are really what make her hometown’s market special. 

Yes, you can find a Christmas market anywhere in Germany but if there’s one reason to make it the Nuremberg Christmas Market (Nürnberger Christkindlesmarkt), it’s the prune men.

Nuremberg Christmas MarketSusanne places a plum man, a figure from dried plums, at her stand at the Nürnberger Christkindlesmarkt © Daniel Karmann / picture alliance via Getty Images

This will be my eighth year attending and I still get endless amusement from Zwetschgenmännle; little human-like figures with limbs made from dried prunes. With walnuts for heads and figs for bodies, they’re painstakingly accessorized to suit anyone from football enthusiasts to bread bakers. Prune men are a Nuremberg original and have been on offer here since the 18th century, but local crafts and food have been at the heart of the city’s holiday festivities since they first went on record in 1530. 

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Centuries-old traditions paired with global cuisine

Nearly 500 years later, the tradition is a big part of what makes Nuremberg’s Christmas market so special. Wandering the wooden booths that line the Hauptmarkt (main square), you’ll find all the ornaments, jewelry, decor and trinkets you’d expect from a festive market — but you’ll also find the city’s centuries-old traditions. Nuremberg is well-known for its toymaking, a luxuriously spiced gingerbread called lebkuchen and Nuremberg bratwurst. Sausage is available year-round — this is Germany, after all — but these little 7-to-9-centimeter brats never smell finer than when they permeate the cold December air as a beckoning treat between mugs of glühwein (mulled wine).

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Get the inside scoop on the latest cultural happenings all over the world delivered weekly to your inbox with our email newsletter. Enjoying mulled wine on Christmas marketIt’s not a Nuremberg Christmas market without toasting glühwein with friends © Getty Images

Regular attendees all have a preferred outpost for their mulled wine, and mine is the Südtirol(South Tyrol) booth in the Markt der Partnerstädte. The partner cities market is where I most enjoy meeting friends to kick off a nice evening of holiday cheer. We’ll each grab a steaming mug of glühwein, make a toast to the season, then meander around the booths representing Nuremberg’s many sister cities. This is another Christkindlesmarkt exclusive; no other Christmas market in Germany dedicates space to locations around the world as a way to promote cross-cultural understanding and unity. With snacks and souvenirs from as nearby as Prague and as distant as Shenzhen, it’s no wonder that this slice of the market has always been my favorite. 

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Hop on the U-Bahn for a quieter Christmas market

Nuremberg’s Altstadt (old town) is undoubtedly where most of the Christmas market action takes place — pre-pandemic, our city of 500,000 could swell to as many as two million this time of year — but seasonal celebration can be found beyond the historic center, too. Try a glühbier (hot, spiced beer) at the holiday popup in the nearby Gostenhof district, or take the U-Bahn train just 19 minutes to the neighboring town of Fürth, where another cozy — and less crowded — Christmas market awaits. 

The Nuremberg Christmas market is no secret, but the bustle of activity only adds to the atmosphere. Christkindlesmarkt is really something to be a part of — I look forward to it each year despite my general aversion to crowds. Besides, where else could my husband and I find the perfect prune man to foist upon an unsuspecting family member?

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Cologne is the king of Christmas markets. Here’s why

Cologne local Julia Floß adores the variety of food at the different Cologne markets. Here she takes us on a mini-tour to get our mouths watering.

The people in Cologne are pretty crazy when it comes to Christmas markets. We have 15 different ones all over the city and every local has a personal favorite.

For Cologne beginners, the must-visit is the Cathedral Christmas market. Exploring the tiny wooden stalls, you smell the sweetness of fresh waffles. A choir sings ‘Silent Night‘. Warming your hands on a cup of hot wine, you look up at the enormous, black church. I’ve lived in Cologne for over 10 years and am still deeply impressed by that majestic building. 

Traditional Christmas market in Europe. Cologne, GermanyThe best view in the Cologne Cathedral Christmas market © Getty Images / iStockphoto

Christmas markets are all about tradition, especially when it comes to food. If you‘re in the mood for a Cologne food classic: try the Reibekuchen (potato pancake). These crispy golden delights are made of grated potatoes, a little onion, some eggs, salt, pepper and nutmeg and deep-fried. Apple sauce or sugar beet syrup is the perfect accompaniment, the bitter-sweet syrup matching perfectly with the salty, crispy, fatty pancake with a satisfying crunch. Mixing sweet and savory is a very typical Cologne food twist. Those crunchy potato fritters are often served with another specialty from Cologne: flönz (similar to black pudding). The most famous dish from Cologne has a very poetic name: “Heaven and Earth” (Himmel un Ääd) and contains black pudding, potatoes and apples. Nothing screams Cologne more than eating that dish next to the Cathedral.

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Where tradition and modernity meet

Our second stop is nearby: ‘Heinzels Winter Fairytale’ is the largest Christmas market in the city and in the heart of Cologne’s Old Town. The pretty stalls with carved wooden frames sell antiques and hand-crafted gifts. The big ice rink on Heumarkt is a popular meeting spot but you’ll often find me at the giant swivel grill in the center of Alter Markt. No Cologne Advent experience is complete without eating grilled sausages, pork neck with onions or roasted mushrooms with garlic dip while watching amateur figure skaters practicing their pirouettes.

Now we take a short walk along the Rhine river to the Harbour Christmas Market for Prosecco, prawn-stuffed rolls and a pirate ship bar. This is the more modern side of the city where the modern Kranhäuser buildings perch over the city’s panorama. My proposal: grab some Flammlachs (juicy salmon cooked over a beechwood fire for a smoky taste) and take a little walk around the harbor watching the lights flicker on the river. 

Flammlachs fire-roasted salmon at Hamburg Christmas marketSalmon roasting over an open flame is the perfect Christmas market treat © Elizabeth Beard / Getty

Cologne is the German capital of LGBTIQ+ culture so of course we have Heavenue, a gay-friendly Christmas market full of sparkle. If you are in need of a party experience and Santa’s drag elves, this is a great detour.

The one market (and food hut) you can’t miss

Sadly we don’t have time to talk about every Christmas market in Cologne but we can‘t miss this one: my favorite is Stadtgarten, a big park in the middle of the city. The trees are strung with fairy lights and the little wooden stalls sell designer items and gifts made in the region. My go-to place is the raclette hut where melted Swiss cheese is scraped straight from the wheel onto sourdough bread or potatoes. Complete it with pickled vegetables and a thick slice of Black Forest ham. 

With food like this and a huge variety of markets to choose from, why would you go anywhere else for a Christmas market?  

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