Travel: Cologne’s Christmas markets. Well worth a visit.

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There’s no better way to get you in the festive spirit than that of a traditional Christmas market. The lights, the atmosphere, the smells and the sounds, and that dear reader is quite possibly why I take a trip each December to set me up in time for the big event.

Cologne is a city with something for everyone, regardless of age, interests or gender, making it an ideal location for a pre-Christmas visit – we were tempted by the famed Christmas markets – known as the season of Kölner Weihnachtsmarkt – of which there are seven in total. Every year these markets attract almost three million visitors to Cologne.

Right off I’m going to suggest you make sure you take a sturdy pair of walking shoes, a warm jacket, a hat, gloves and a camera. Oh, and if you can afford it, try to book into a city centre hotel.  We used the Lindner group’s City Plaza Hotel and found that its location at Magnusstraße 20 was perfect. See my review here: Accomm: Cologne. Lindner City Plaza. A very comfortable hotel in a superb location.

This was within 100 yards of an underground station (U-Bahn), or a 15-minute stroll to the main Christmas market at Cologne’s hugely impressive Cathedral – with its two 157-metre-high towers and a designated UNESCO World Heritage site which took 632 years to be completed, and a five-minute stroll to the Nikolausdorf market on Rudolfplatz. But more of these later.

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Cologne’s market locations

Getting to Cologne was fairly easy.  We flew directly from Scotland, (Edinburgh), with Eurowings, a budget carrier of Germanwings. The flight was on time, and our seats had excellent leg room, and, because we had booked ‘premium’ flights, it provided extra baggage allowances and a free drink and snack onboard.

For details of flights and timetables see: here.

Getting from Cologne Bonn airport is easy via all the usual methods, however, we had pre-booked a taxi in order that we didn’t have to wait around for trains or buses, and from collecting our luggage to arrival at the hotel, it was a 30-minute journey. We used the services of Suntransfers, and have done so for several years now without complaint.

Visit the companies website: here

I’ll concentrate on the Christmas markets review in this blog, however, a full review of the hotel we stayed at is to follow.

As I mentioned earlier, Cologne has seven markets in total, four of which are the main markets with a further three smaller ones dotted about the city.  It’s easy to reach most, with perhaps the exception being The Stadtgarten Christmas market.  This is located on the periphery of the city, and while it can be reached using public transport, it just takes a little more thought and time as to which subways to use.

Stadtgarten Market.

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Stadtgarden market

The Christmas market in the Stadtgarten exudes charm, attracting both locals and visitors alike. Slap bang in the middle of the hip Belgian Quarter, it has a romantic, village-like feel to it. More than 80 exhibitors sell a whole range of unusual wares – from designer elegance to traditional Christmas goods right through to lovingly hand-crafted individual pieces.

The stalls and the exhibitors change weekly, so you’ll never find the same stuff twice.

Cathedral Christmas Market.

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The Dom Cathedral Christmas market.

Located in front of the impressive backdrop of Cologne’s landmark cathedral, this Christmas market is the largest in the city with around 150 attractively designed wooden pavilions.

Beneath the largest Christmas tree in the Rhineland, you can choose from numerous sweet delicacies, watch artisans at work and enjoy mulled wine out of the festively decorated Christmas mugs. We now make a habit of not returning the mugs for the deposit paid and taking them home as souvenirs.

The cathedral market lies centrally between the Roman-Germanic Museum, the Cologne Philharmonic Concert Hall and the famous Dom Hotel. Close by are Cologne’s well-known shopping areas: ‘Hohe Straße’ and ‘Schildergasse’. The old pictorial part of town with its rustic brewing houses can also be reached within a few minutes walk from here.

Old Market.

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Entrance gate to the best of the Cologne markets – Heinzels Wintermarchen.

This Christmas market is quite probably the most attractive one on the Alter Markt in front of Cologne´s town hall.

The Heinzelmännchen market, as it is also known, has a legend that the Heinzelmännchen (house gnomes) performed all sorts of different jobs for the locals of Cologne: They prepared the sausages for the butcher, sewed the clothes for the tailor, and baked the bread for the baker. And so the winding alleys of this market are differently themed, just like the trade guilds of days past. From treats, toys, and items to waken that feeling of nostalgia, through to crafts and Christmas products, you’ll find the lot here.

Angels Christmas Market.

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Keep an eye out for Santa on horseback at this market.

Cologne’s oldest Christmas market is held on the Neumarkt, in the city centre shopping area. Visitors will be enchanted by this lovingly decorated Christmas market with its charming chalets and high-quality products in the heart of the Cathedral city. A nostalgic flavour is provided by decorative plates with illustrations of the Christmas markets with their long traditions, which are sold alongside many other artisans’ products.

If you’re lucky, you might just chance upon the angels dressed in white and sprinkling glitter powder, or, once a week, Santa Claus visits, together with an angel, making a grand entry onto Neumarkt on horseback.

Harbour Christmas Market.

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The Harbour Christmas market located beside the Chocolate Museum.

In a picturesque setting overlooking the Rhine, the Cologne Harbour Christmas Market at the chocolate museum brings a new festive maritime flavour to Cologne’s Christmas market offerings.

As befits the location, the themes “harbour and Christmas” are reflected in the design, decoration, stage performances and products on offer at the market. Snow-white, festively decorated pagoda tents with wooden floors and pointed roofs that remind you of the planks and sails of a ship give this market a stylishly modern yet cosily festive touch. With around 70 stands, this market is set over two separate areas reached by a bridge across the Rhine.

Don’t miss the impressive wooden three-masted boats serving tasty mulled wine.

Further information:

Within easy walking distance: Five minutes from the old town via a promenade on the banks of the Rhine.

Bus: Line 106, Stop Schokoladenmuseum, Tram: Line U1,7,9 and take the stop marked  Heumarkt and walk down to the Rhine.

Tour-Bus: Drop-off bay directly at the market.

Nikolausdorf Christmas Market.

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Nikolausdorf Christmas market

The Christmas Market on the Rudolfplatz takes you to the world of Christmas. The festively decorated stalls give a feeling of cosiness. Set against a historical backdrop, the Rudolfplatz Christmas market gets visitors into the mood for the upcoming seasonal festivities.  Next to the historic backdrop of the medieval Hahnentorburg, one of Cologne’s three mediaeval gatehouses, mulled wine, red wine punch or candy floss stalls sell from decorated festive booths.

Heavenue Gay Christmas Market.

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The gay and lesbian market in Cologne. Copyright: www.cologne.de

The pedestrian zone around Sparkasse KölnBonn at Rudolfplatz is where you’ll find the gay/lesbian market.  I suppose the politically correct term to use is LGBTI, however, the locals simply refer to it as the gay market, so who am I to say they are wrong! The plaza between Hahnenstrasse and Schaafenstrasse is transformed into Heavenue – a composite word of “Heaven” and “Avenue”. This market features colourful booths in a pop art style.

Heavenue is a celebration of special and unusual attractions – starting with the unique mulled wine, created specifically for this Christmas market using red and white wines. There will also be a range of culinary delights to choose from, some of which are not available at any of the other Christmas markets in Cologne, as well as an excellent stage program with well-known artists and stars.

Christmas Market Express.

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The road train which travels around the four main markets

The Christmas market express is ideal for all of those who would like to visit more than just one of the Christmas markets in Cologne. The road train drives through the streets of the old city and goes directly to the four largest of the city’s Christmas markets.

The outward-bound journey takes you from one market to the next (single trip). If you have a round-trip-ticket you can disembark at each of the four stops visiting the various Christmas markets and then continue with your trip. Departures are every 15 minutes

Further Information:
Between the individual Stops: 15 minutes
Round-Trip: 60 minutes
Prices: Roundtrip 10€ (children up to ten years 5€), Single trip 3€ (children up to ten years 1.50€)

Find out more: here

But, if, unlike me, you have an aversion to exercise in any form, including walking, these four main markets are all reachable within 30-45 minutes walking distance of most city centre hotel locations.

So, if you’re just here for the weekend, then I’d suggest you probably stick to the main four, however, if like us, you’ve got a week, plan ahead, and visit them all.  Do bear in mind that the ‘big four’ are exceptionally busy at weekends so you might consider leaving those for a midweek visit and perhaps visit a couple of the smaller ones at the weekend.

We also visited the chocolate museum, primarily because my two female travelling friends are ever so slightly partial to a square or two, and the fact there are free samples sealed the deal!  The museum is located at the Harbour Christmas Market, so, do what we did and combine the two.  One travel ticket and a market along with the museum.  It was a win/win.

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The Chocolate Museum’s shop

It’s a fantastic way to spend a few hours if I’m being honest, and I probably enjoyed it just as much as my two companions.  I mean where else in Cologne would you find an indoor tropical garden, a café serving the world’s best hot chocolate, a shop that could bankrupt you in overweight excess flight charges – oh, and did I mention those free chocolate samples.

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Luckily, the teddies weren’t made of chocolate!

One noticeable thing about Cologne’s Christmas markets, unlike any others I’ve been to across Europe and here in the UK, is that they are all different, and very rarely have duplicated stalls.  This makes for an interesting meander to see what the next one sells.  How often have you visited a market and found several stalls selling identical goods?  And it’s annoying because you somehow feel cheated, well I do!

Food.

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There’s something for everyone here, a bit like the actual markets themselves,  From salmon cooked on open wood fires, (Flammlachs), a massive range of sausages (Bratwurst), roasted chestnuts, candied nuts,  The Südtiroler Speckhütte, or South Tyrolian ham is a must, as is the fried potato pancakes (Reibekuchen) to the multi-topping Langos flatbreads. I’m a bit of a cheese lover, so a visit to a raclette stall is on the cards. The tangy melted cheese, ideally a bit crispy around the edges, spread on sourdough bread with pickled vegetables is delicious.  Don’t fancy it with bread, then try the boiled potatoes with bacon instead.

Ice skating.

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This has to be one, if not the best ice rinks I’ve encountered at a Christmas market.

Amid the winter fairytale of Heinzels Wintermärchen, you’ll find a unique ice rink on Heumarkt. The Heinzelmännchen have created what is arguably the most attractive inner-city open-air ice rink anywhere in Germany. And it’s huge. You can skate around the historic equestrian statue of King Frederick William III, under a wooden bridge and up to the ‘skate-in’ restaurant!

Look out for Jack, the ice policeman who has been a part of the ice rink staff since 2016. This Dutch street artist will as easily tie a balloon figure, as disappear a coin in a sleight of hand trick, as he will issue noisy revellers with a ‘ticket’ for raucous behaviour.  Then there’s Gilbert the market Gendarme.  Resplendent in period Napoleonic costume, Gilbert keeps a watchful eye on visitors’ safety.

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Jack, the ice policeman

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Gilbert, the Market Gendarme

My top tips:

Check out the markets during the day where you can wander comfortably and have the time to properly stop and view the stalls.  Then go back at night for the atmosphere.  This is the busiest time, especially at weekends, and you’ll be hard pushed to reach the front of any of the bars, which can have patrons standing 10 deep!

If you intend using public transport, then buy a Cologne travel pass (Koln Card).  These allow travel on all the train and underground services as well as the bus services in the city.  They can save you quite a bit against buying individual route tickets.  Just remember to activate the card on the train by having it punched, although, to be honest, we never had our tickets checked once during the whole week we were there.

For more information on the card, visit here

Some stalls offering more expensive items will accept all usual credit/debit cards, however, smaller artisan sellers and all the food and drink stalls accept cash only.

And, if you get fed up in Cologne, which is very unlikely, do what we did and take a day trip to Dusseldorf by rail.  It’s only 30 minutes from station to station, and we booked our tickets online making it very easy.  From the main terminus, Düsseldorf Hauptbahnhof it’s an easy walk to the underground, which will whisk you into the centre in five minutes, right next to the main markets.  I will point out at this point, I’m glad we didn’t make a special trip to Dusseldorf, as we’d have been mightily disappointed.  The Cologne Christmas markets are so much better, in terms of size, quality and the goods on offer.

With thanks to the Cologne Tourist Board for providing market information packs.

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