When I was reading-up on the Cologne Christmas Markets before this trip I was confused by how each information source gave you a different total for how many markets there were. Some said six, some said eight, others just hedged their bets with “many.” It didn’t bother me particularly, as they all seemed to agree on the main ones, but it did strike me as odd.
When I got here, it became clearer; the Germans love their Christmas Markets! Coming out to the markets seems to be a social occasion. They come to buy their sausages, hams and Stollen and then hang out with their friends and family drinking the Glühwein and snacking on the seasonal nosh. While it is certainly well financed and organised, the who affair doesn’t seem quite as commercialised as it might in the UK.
I came to Cologne right at the end of November, so not all of the markets were open while I was here; some don’t open until the start of December, but I still managed to visit seven of them – albeit two were closed or still under construction.
All of the markets seem to have a theme to them, or at least some colour scheme to the decorations. A couple of them (Neumarkt and Alter Markt) have people wandering around in costumes to add atmosphere. Glühwein (mulled wine) is everywhere. Your first purchase includes a €2.50 deposit for the cup which you can wander around with and cash-in at any stall in the market when you’re done
drinking. Along with the mulled wine, many places do hot chocolate, teas and coffees too. There are lots of food options; Roast chestnuts, waffles, pancakes, fritters, mushrooms, hog roasts and wurst, as well as things you might eat on the spot or might take home to stock your Christmas Pantry, such as fruit bread, Stollen, sausages and hams.
Alongside all the refreshment options there are craft stalls galore. Some are more Christmas-themed than others so you can purchase everything from jewellery and new-age paraphernalia through colourful wooden children’s toys to Santa hats and figures for your nativity scene.
Travel, Timings & Cost
All of the markets are relatively central. The Cathedral and Old Town Markets are within easy walking distance of each other. The Neumarkt (Angel Market) and Harbour Market are maybe a 10-15 minute walk from the cathedral, but they are also served by the trams if you don’t fancy the walk, as are the other markets (Rudolfplatz, Christmas Avenue and the Stadtgarten.) All of them are reachable for a €1.90 (single) tram ticket from the central train station (Hauptbahnhof).
Entry to all of the markets in Cologne is free of charge – although you will need to pay 50c or €1 to use any toilet facilities while you’re there.
The reading I’d done before the trip lead me to believe that all the markets opened at 11am and went through until 9pm. That turned out not to be true of Stadtgarten which I visited on my last day and was shut; it only opens at 4pm on weekdays (midday at weekends). As ever, it’s a good idea to check ahead with the Tourist Information Office (http://www.cologne-tourism.com/welcome.html) but with Christmas Markets the information seems to be published quite late, so come ready to be flexible; planning ahead can be difficult.
The Cathedral Market
This was the first market I visited, being right next to the massive Cologne Cathedral. It’s really very lovely with solid-looking stalls in brown and cream with pitched red roofs. At the centre of the market is a huge Christmas tree bedecked with lights and, stretching from it, over most of the stalls is a huge net of fairy lights which illuminate the entire market. At the base of the tree is a stage with performances throughout the day – I heard a children’s choir doing a selection of Christmas songs on the evening I arrived. Despite being in the centre of town, the air is redolent with seasonal aromas; wood-smoke, apple and cinnamon, Glühwein, chestnuts roasting.
Being so central, the Cathedral Market seemed to be busy throughout the day; the central section was always filled with people (and became a bit of a crush when there were performers on stage!) but generally the passageways were wide enough to accommodate everybody and the atmosphere is jolly.
Only a couple of hundred yards away from Am Dom (the cathedral) is the Alter Markt in the Town Square, opposite the old Town Hall. The ambiance here is definitely more olde worlde, with an aged-oak look to the stalls. It made me think of Heidi and picture-postcard Rhineland, whereas the Cathedral market had been more of a modern après-ski feel! This was the first market where I encountered costumed performers; a busking pianist in a Napoleonic-style uniform and a rosy-cheeked matron pushing around a barrel-organ playing seasonal tunes.
In my preparatory reading, I’d seen this advertised as the place for children to enjoy themselves most. My experience was quite the reverse; this seemed to be a more stately, adult offering. The craft stalls were heavier on the aromatherapy and scented candles than on the wooden children’s toys. There was a beer bar as well as the Glühwein.
There was a lot of wood-sculpting in evidence too and this is where I first spotted the tradition of the gnomes on the roofs. The history of these guys isn’t entirely clear, but it looks like they stem from a legend about Heinzelmännchen (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heinzelm%C3%A4nnchen), elves who came out at night to do the work of the lazy Cologne citizens.
The market at Rudolfplatz was the disappointing one of the seven I visited. It felt like a lower-cost imitation of Neumarkt or the Cathedral Market; the stalls looked a lot like converted garden sheds, at least one row was really very narrow and looked more like a back alley! It didn’t seem that popular with the locals in the evening either, as all the craft stalls were shut by about 8:30 and people were only hanging around by the food and drink areas.
Visiting Rudolfplatz did mean I spotted the new Christmas Avenue though, which is just on the other side of the tram stop.
This is a new market and still very small. When I first saw it it was still being assembled, but later that evening it was open for business. Reading between the lines of the poster advertising, it looks like it’s being run for and/or by the Cologne gay community. There was nothing too overtly gay about the market, it had the crafts, the Glühwein and the waffles but – again, reading between the lines – one gets a certain vibe when everything is covered in ruched, silvered wrapping paper, most of the clientele are gentlemen with fashionable clothes, immaculate hair & small dogs and the sound system is playing Madonna instead of seasonal Frank Sinatra…
As I say, a new and still small market, but I wish them all the best with it!
Neumarkt – The Angel Market
Neumarkt occupies the centre of a square that serves as the intersection for no less than seven of the city’s tram lines, so it’s pretty easy to get to. It’s advertised as the oldest of Cologne’s Christmas Markets but it doesn’t feel staid at all. The theme here is white and gold – in keeping with it being the Angel Market (Markt Der Engel). During the day there were quite a few folk wandering around in white robes and angel wings to entertain the children.
Maybe it was just my perception (because I ate a lot), but in my judgement there seemed to be a higher proportion of food and drink stalls here than at the other markets – and a greater variety of refreshments to be had; it seemed the most social of the markets I visited, with lots of people catching up with family and work colleagues in the early evening, the whole scene bathed in a golden light from the star-shaped lanterns hanging from the trees.
I think this was my favourite of the markets I saw; it was more fun than Altermarkt and felt more authentic than the Dom Market.
Stadtgarten and The Harbour Market
Sadly, I didn’t really get to experience either of these markets properly. The information I had in advance suggested that the Harbour Market didn’t open until after I’d left Cologne but, as it’s located adjacent to the Chocolate Museum, which I visited, I popped in to investigate. It wasn’t entirely clear when it was open; some of the stalls (all housed in white marquee tents) were in the earliest stages of being built, whilst some were already open. Being down by the river and the harbour though, it has a good setting so I’d say this would definitely be worth a look one evening in December.
The Stadtgarten opened on the day I left, so I’d saved a few hours to have a look around. What I didn’t realise (although it is now posted on the tourist board website) is that it doesn’t open until 4pm on weekdays, so all of the stalls were closed-up when I arrived. Ah, well. Worse things happen at sea! So, I headed back into town and bought my souvenir stollen and fruitbread.
Farewell To Cologne
So, that was my time in Cologne. If you fancy getting into some early Christmas Spirit, this is a good place to come. Spend a long weekend here with your nearest and dearest to help you enjoy the festive feel. The Cathedral, Old Town and Angel Markets are all worth spending a few hours browsing and then you can take your pick of where to while away the rest of the early evening enjoying the Glühwein and strudel/waffles/mushrooms/wurst.
Even if you are travelling alone, as I was in Cologne, the atmosphere of the markets – the lights, the delicious smells, the seasonal music and the general bonhomie – will still transport you to the idyllic Christmas of your imagination.
Cologne isn’t just about Christmas Markets, either; there’s lots more to see here beyond that, but I’m saving the Cathedral and the Chocolate Museum for a separate post at a later time. For now though, I’m off to Vienna to see how the Austrians do things at Christmas…