My love for Christmas markets dates back to 2003, when I lived in Hamburg and worked at the Rathaus (city hall) Christmas market. Despite the fact that I had never been as cold in my life, I absolutely loved the experience.
The scent of toasted almonds, the friendly people, the fun atmosphere and, of course, the hot chocolate and the Glühwein (or Kinderpunsch for the little ones). Not to mention that I had just started dating my husband and have special memories of his occasional surprise visits.
Since moving to Europe I was eager to show my daughters Germany’s wonderful markets and Cologne was the perfect choice. We got to visit a great city and had the pleasure of spending time with wonderful friends that live there.
Cologne is the 4th largest city in Germany (after Berlin, Hamburg and Munich) and has been drawing visitors since Roman times. The city’s biggest attractions are the striking cathedral, a great native beer called Kölsch, eau de cologne, invented there in 1709, the famous Rhine River, and their vibrant Carnival.
At Christmas time, however, it is all about the Christmas markets.
There are seven established markets in the city center and each one is unique, with its own special atmosphere and activities.
We arrived on a Thursday. After a 40-minute train ride from Düsseldorf airport we checked in at our hotel (Marriott Hotel – Johannisstrasse 76-80, 50668 Cologne), which was conveniently located within walking distance from the train station.
A quick stop at the Max Stark restaurant (Unter Kahlenhausen 47, 50668 Cologne) for our first Kölsh and a taste of authentic German food and we were ready to hit our first Christmas market, our focus for the following couple of days.
Live music, arts and crafts, toys, Christmas decorations and the scent of toasted almonds. Just like I remembered it.
We visited most of Cologne’s markets and were amazed at how distinctive and special each market is.
At the Cathedral Christmas market, in addition to enjoying the impressive backdrop of Cologne’s landmark, our best finds were Spekulatius – a classic German Christmas cookie, known for its depth of spices, including cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and cardamom; Monschauer mustard – where you can sample 18 different mustard varieties, from lemon to English curry; and the cutest stall for lamb plush toys and accessories.
The Alter Market was probably the girls’ favorite. In the heart of the old town, this is a more rustic market, filled with traditional market stalls of craftsmen and traders. Hidden gnomes add to its peculiar charm. It also features a large ice skating rink, a carousel, and a Ferris wheel – a kid’s paradise.
Overlooking the Rhine, the Harbor Market at the Chocolate Museum (Am Schokoladenmuseum 1A, 50678 Cologne) has a “harbor” theme. The highlight of this market for us was something I had never seen before: salmon cooked over an open wood fire. The girls devoured a mouth-watering salmon sandwich with yoghurt sauce.
Do I need to mention that the Chocolate Museum was a total hit?
On the second floor of the museum there is a stand where you can create your own chocolate bar. Just fill out a form, pay and pick it up an hour later. And if you want to get your hands dirty, the museum offers special group activities, which looked really fun for older kids.
From the Harbor Market, we took a little hop on/hop off train back to the Cathedral. It was a bit expensive and not particularly worth it given the short distances, unless, of course, you are traveling with small children. It gave us a chance to see a bit more of Cologne’s city center and take a peek at the Angel’s Market and its beautiful lighting.
At a newer and not so established market at Media Park, Sofia went ice skating for the first time and loved it. Two restaurants, that is, two huge wooden structures built just for the season and filled with long wooden tables and benches, were the perfect place to warm up and relax. Live music, good food, and plenty of Kölsh beer of course.
I can’t wait to go back next year. After all, we haven’t visited the fairy tales market yet. And I know two little girls who would absolutely love that.
Other places to check out:
Frueh am Dom (Am Hof 12-18, 50667 Cologne) – traditional brewery a few steps from the cathedral. Good food, but the most impressive thing about this place is the place itself. It is massive, with several dining rooms.
Vapiano’s (Im Mediapark 1 50570 Cologne) – did you know this chain is actually German? And, like in the US, they serve fresh pasta, pizzas and salads. Great for kids and adults.
Restaurant Beirut (Buttermarkt 3, 50667 Cologne) – In the historic center, a great find if you want a break from German food.