If you visit only one Christmas market in this part of Europe, make it Cologne’s.
When I saw how crowded Cologne’s Christmas markets were, I wasn’t surprised that its four main markets attract over two million visitors a year.
Cologne has the best Christmas markets I’ve seen thus far in Europe. The wares were diverse and the quality was, on average, much better than in other cities. There were many locally made gifts including ornaments, ceramics, knitwear, decorative household items, jewelry and toys.
A big bonus here is the local beer, kölsch. Glühwein is great and all, but kölsch is really special. And, being Germany, the beer stalls had ample standing and seating space so you can really make yourself comfortable!
Generally, the four large and two small markets are all within an L-shaped route. The outlier is the Stadtgarten market, which is a further walk.
The most dramatic market is at the Cologne Cathedral, set against the enormous dom. This market has 160 stalls and the tallest Christmas tree in the Rhineland.
The quirkiest market is at Alter Markt and features the rustic Heinzelmännchen, or little house gnomes. I’m unclear on the legend, but apparently an industrious army of gnomes used to do all the work for Cologne’s citizens. The gnomes would toil during the night so the humans could laze the day away. One night, a tailor’s wife was curious to see the gnomes so she scattered peas on a workshop’s floor to cause them to slip and fall. The gnomes were understandably furious at this ploy and stormed off forever. From then on, the citizens of Cologne were forced to work.
Today, the gnomes watch over the market to ensure that Christmas traditions are being properly followed, specifically that mass-produced or modern goods are not be sold. In keeping with the spirit, this market contains many local artisans who honor the traditional crafts.
The oldest market is the Angels’ Market at Neumarkt. Walk through the angels’ door and browse amidst the star-like lights. The Saint Apostein church provides a nice backdrop.
Rudolfplatz has 60 chalets set against the Hahnentorburg, one of Cologne’s three medieval gates. This is the Fairytale Christmas Market, featuring the sometimes twisted stories of the local brothers Grimm.
The Stadtgarten market is located a little out of the city center on the edge of Cologne’s largest park. It is small with a village-like atmosphere.