Experiencing a real German Christmas market has been high on my bucket list for years. This past week, we got to visit three in the Baden-Württemburg region: Stuttgart, Ludwigsburg, and Esslingen.
They all lived up to my lofty expectations. Lebkuchen hearts dangled from stall awnings, the smoky scent of grilled sausages wafted in the air, and red and white glühwein flowed freely. In a word, the markets were “magical” and I would love to somehow make a trip to Germany a Christmas tradition.
The first market we experienced was in Stuttgart’s city center. It’s one of the largest in all of Germany and it’s renowned for the elaborate decorations on the roofs of each and every stall.
Stuttgart itself was bombed heavily in WWII; tens of thousands of buildings were destroyed or damaged. Therefore, the city lacks the Baroque or medieval architecture you might envision when thinking of Germany, so you won’t really get that old-timey feel at the market. Nonetheless, Stuttgart’s market is exquisite and the offerings are endless; it’s a must-visit if you’re in the region.
Our favorite part of the market was at Schloßplatz. There’s a lane called Schlemmergässle that features all sorts of food stands, including this stall that specializes in stecklerfisch (fish on a stick).
Schloßplatz is also a kiddie wonderland. A massive model train and village set features an actual train that children and their parents can ride. You can also find several carousels, a Ferris wheel, and an ice skating rink there, too.
When we visited in the evening, we noshed on some German classics: rote wurst (red sausage) and currywurst. We drank our first cups of red glühwein and followed up our meal with a banana and Nutella crepe. We then snacked on lángos with ham and cheese.
Ludwigsburger Barock Weihnachtsmarkt
On our second day, we visited the Baroque market in Ludwigsburg. This was the smallest of the three markets we visited, but it was full of character and plenty of good eats.
Set in the 18th-century Marktplatz, the market is flanked by the Evangelical Stadtkirche and the Catholic Zur Heiligsten Dreieinigkeit, giving it a very majestic, yet elegant, feel. Church bells tolled as twinkling angels watched over the visitors.
Here we enjoyed lamb gyros, a strawberries and cream waffle, and our first cups of white glühwein. I also picked up a bag of hot, freshly roasted, meaty chestnuts: the perfect snack on a cold winter’s night.
The market is a short stroll from the Ludwigsburg S-bahn station. From Stuttgart’s main train station, it takes about 15 minutes to reach Ludwigsburg.
Esslinger Mittelaltermarkt und Weihnachtsmarkt
We saved the best for last.
Esslingen is where you want to go for the true German Christmas market experience. A medieval town, Esslingen am Neckar has many original buildings intact (it sustained minimal damage in WWII), so the market’s setting is unbeatable.
Its best feature is the medieval-themed section; you literally feel like you’re walking through a Game of Thrones set.
All of the workers are dressed in period garb, and the signs list prices in “taler,” an old form of German currency. There are crackling fire pits and lanterns throughout this particular area so for this reason, we highly recommend checking out Esslingen at night to really feel like you’ve been transported back in time.
There’s a whole section that offers games such as axe throwing, archery, crossbows, and catapults, and there’s a wooden watermill Ferris wheel for kids.
Multiple free shows take place at different parts of the market throughout the day. We caught a fire show at night and a spinning dancer during the day. Entertainment-wise, it’s hard to top Esslingen.
At the edge of the market is a manger with a donkey and sheep.
Esslingen offers plenty of food options. We nibbled on “stick bread” and scarfed down this meaty sandwich topped with hemp seeds from a popular stall at the Oriental-themed part of the market.
We returned the following day and had apfelringe (deep-fried apple rings) dusted with cinnamon sugar, a suckling pig sandwich, and (sadly) our last glühwein (a wildberry red).
Like Ludwigsburg, Esslingen is a 15-minute S-bahn ride east from Hauptbahnhof.
To summarize, no one does Christmas like the Germans. Even the biggest Scrooge would have difficulty not getting into the Christmas spirit at one of these markets. We hope to have the chance to experience more Weihnachtsmarkts in other parts of Germany, and hopefully return to these three sometime in the near future.
Need to Know
- Germany in general is a country that favors cash, so make sure you have plenty of it. We paid in cash for everything at the Christmas markets, as well as at most restaurants in the city center. (Some eateries will accept credit cards, but they might tack on a fee.)
- At the Christmas markets, you’ll see the word “pfand” everywhere. This means “deposit” and it’s charged for all drinks that come in mugs. We paid anywhere from 50 cents to €3 per cup. Simply return your mug to the vendor you bought it from to retrieve your deposit, or do what we did and keep the cups as souvenirs! Deposits are typically charged for plates, too.
- There are plenty of cute Christmas trinkets for sale, but buyer beware. I saw a bunch of items that had “Made in China” stickers on the bottom. Head for the stalls that specialize in handcrafted German goods for a truly special memento.
- Come to the markets hungry. There are plenty of food stands available selling all sorts of sweet and savory goodies. Sausages, crepes, waffles, and roasted chestnuts seemed to be staples at all three markets.
- The markets are open daily from around 11 a.m. to around 8:30 or 9 p.m.
- If traveling by S-bahn to Ludwigsburg or Esslingen, look into the group (or “collective”) day ticket. For the flat rate of €16.70, up to five people can use this singular group ticket for an entire day.