There are certain events around the world that are on most people’s bucket lists. The Running of the Bulls in Spain, Mardi Gras in New Orleans and for me one of those events was the Nuremberg Christmas Market. Hailed as one of the largest and definitely the most well known in the world, it’s famous for its traditional Bavarian crafts and food and for being the prototype against which all other markets are judged. I finally had the opportunity recently to experience this remarkable event and was thrilled that the reality definitely lived up to the anticipation.
I visited Nuremberg as the last stop on a wonderful Christmas market river cruise with Viking River Cruises. We started the week off in Budapest and meandered along the beautiful Danube through Vienna, Melk, Passau, Regensburg and finally Nuremberg. It was a great experience to see how the different cities celebrate the season, but I was excited that we capped off the trip with the most famous of them all – the Nuremberg Christmas Market.
No one is exactly sure when the market started, there are records of a much smaller holiday event taking place in the city’s main square, the Hauptmarkt, as early as the 16th century; but it’s likely the Christmas market tradition started well before then. Interest in the market has ebbed and flowed over time, from being a nice little shopping event for an important city to being cancelled during the vicious wars of the 20th century. In the 1980s and 90s though international attention to the traditionally German event increased dramatically and today more than 2 million visitors stop by the Christkindlesmarkt during the month of December.
With all this in mind, I stepped out into the main square for the first time and my jaw hit the ground. Over the years I’ve made it a habit to visit Europe during the Christmas holiday, stopping by Christmas markets from Bruges to Milan and everywhere in between. Nothing though, nothing prepared me for the enormity of the event that is the Nuremberg Christmas Market.
To be fair, I visited during the evenings of the last weekend before Christmas, the market’s absolute craziest and most frenetic time. Thousands upon thousands of people filled the square, spilling out onto the many side streets where vendors had set up unofficially official booths of their own. Events and stalls radiate out from the main Christmas market itself, mostly selling traditional wares but also including impromptu concerts and even a special kids-only version of the Christmas market. But I was interested in the main event itself, so I wrapped myself up snuggly in my scarf and entered the yuletide frenzy.
Every European city I’ve visited in December has its own unique spin on the Christmas market, with variations mostly in what is sold and the regional foods on offer. Nuremberg is famous for how strict it is in what it allows to be sold. Only traditional gifts and foods can be featured at the main Christmas market itself – nothing modern for this most historic of markets. The gifts found in the booths included beautiful handmade ornaments, wooden toys and enough gingerbread to build an actual house. Lebkuchen or gingerbread is very different from its American cousin and I found myself constantly snacking on this delicious treat made of nuts, fruit and topped with honey and icing. Available in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, it was definitely the most popular gift sold in Nuremberg.
But the food and drink is arguably the most important part of any Christmas market and this is where Nuremberg really prides itself. The number one snack or meal item was the Nuremberg sausage. In Germany every city, town and village has its own variation on the sausage, and in Nuremberg they are small, brown sausages that at the market were grilled and placed three to a bun for easy consumption. I enjoyed quite a few of them, each topped with local mustard, and they were a quick and easy dinner while I enjoyed some window-shopping.
At any Christmas market the drink of choice is the glühwein, a warm spiced wine that is usually served in a souvenir glass. Each market has its own annual glass, and many people tour Germany and even Europe to collect new ones. It’s not just about the alcohol though, delicious hot chocolate and a non-alcoholic version of glühwein is also sold, so anyone can enjoy this fun tradition.
I’m not going to lie, there were a lot of people at the market both times I visited, almost to the point of inducing a claustrophobic attack. But it was all part of the experience and I absolutely enjoyed myself. Grabbing small snacks and some glühwein while you peruse all the booths looking for the perfect gift to take back home is the stereotypical image many of us have of Christmas. Fighting the cold weather by bundling up, listening to carolers and admiring a traditional German Christmas is just one of those amazing, once in a lifetime experiences that everyone should try, well, MORE than once in a lifetime.