Cologne (Köln) Christmas Markets
I've always wanted to visit one of the German Christmas Markets. Here in Ireland we have tried to recreate them in different places over the years but they will never come anywhere close to the real thing. So, along with my mum, aunt and cousin, we all set off for Cologne at the end of November to see what all the fuss was about.
We flew with Eurowings (previously known as Germanwings) direct from Dublin to Cologne for around €100 return. To coincide with the cheap flights I also booked our accommodation with an AirBnB, which was working out about half the price of hotels. This would be my second time using AirBnB but the first for my travel buddies! We stayed in a beautiful modern two bed apartment in the Deutz neighbourhood - just across the river from the city centre. You can check it out on AirBnB here. Outside the front door is a tram stop, so it is really convenient to get in and out of the city centre from here. One of the major downsides to the apartment though was that there was no lift and we were on the fifth floor! Now for me and my cousin this wasn't an issue, but for the older ladies it defiantly proved to be a bit of a struggle.
We arrived in Köln in the late afternoon so by the time we got the apartment sorted out, got some food in for the morning and figured out the tram stops it was after 6pm before we got in to the city centre. We decided to get some dinner first before we went to the markets (plus my mum already needed to sit down!) so we found a little traditional German restaurant, Restaurant Schmittchen, on one of the pedestrian streets and settled in for the evening. We tried out some local beer as well as a local dish "Rheinischer Sauerbraten mit Kartoffelkloß, Rotkohl, Apfelkompott" which was a braised beef in vinegar, with potato dumplings, red cabbage and apple sauce. The service was great and our hosts were very helpful and entertaining. Overall a lovely spot to visit as it was buzzing. We finally got up off our very comfortable seats and then made the very short walk to the main market which is located under the Cathedral. It also houses the largest Christmas tree in the Rhineland and a focal point for the markets nightly entertainment. This market is the largest of all seven in Köln and has well over 150 stalls. As it was Friday, it was busy but not overwhelming so we had space to wander around and get our barings. When you enter the markets the first thing you need to do is pay for a gluehwein mug! This can be given back at the end of your visit, and you get a refund, or you can hold on to it as a souvenir, which I did! The great thing with the mugs is there's no rubbish lying around so the streets beneath your feet is clutter free. The markets are also very relaxed and while there was lots of wine flowing we never felt that it was loud or intimidating. The markets close around 10pm so our first night there was short and sweet but it helped us get to know the lay of the land in preparation for the next day which would be busy!
Saturday would be our only full day in the city so there was lots of plans. First stop though was a bakery for some German goodies and lots of coffee to cure a bit of a wine hangover! Our second port of call would be the Lindt Chocolate Museum / Factory which was just across the river from where we were staying. I'm sure we could of walked there but I wanted another chance to jump on a tram. If you do come here, come early! By 11am the queue was already long! It costs €9 per adult and this gains you entry to all the museums and the small exhibition factory. The museums track all aspects of the chocolate making process and its history. There are some good exhibits - the ones I liked the most were the old shop fronts and displays as well as the specialist coffee through the centuries.
The small exhibition factory tracks the chocolate making process from raw ingredients to the packaged output. There is also a small shop where you can pick up bespoke chocolate bars which you have to order. There is a much larger gift shop at the exit which is packed full of gift ideas too. From the factory you also get a nice view of the river and towards the cathedral.
To wrap up we went in to the cafe to have a hearty hot chocolate. We all went for the baileys variety (spot the Irish) topped off with whipped cream! A real indulgence and very filling.
Outside the museum there is another market - the Harbour Market - which is quite small but a good place to stop off if you are looking for a quick bite - that’s not chocolate - and a quick drink. There are a few craft shops as well if you’re in the mood to spend. We took a quick walk around it and then headed off down along the river towards the city centre, taking in the views and walking through parts of the old town. After WW2 very little of the original Cologne was left standing, so the old town is small but gives you some sort of idea as to what the city would of looked like. Cologne isn’t the prettiest of cities, after the war, buildings and homes had to be reconstructed quickly and cheaply so beautiful architecture was sacrificed.
In the old town, you will find the Old Market, or Alter Market, which would be one of the prettiest of the seven. I loved this market the most. It's as vast as the one at the cathedral but seemed a lot more calmer and easier to get around. It also felt more traditional. There was also more for children in this market with a big wheel and ice skating further down. Ice skating was on my to-do list but it just didn’t happen which was my one big regret. If we’d had another day there I’m sure I’d of fitted it in but instead I wanted to do a walking tour.
That evening, two of us did the walking tour of the city. I’d found it on Trip Advisor and decided to give it a go. There was a good sized group on the tour and I found it interesting and humorous at points. By the time we made it to the Cathedral, there was a religious service on, so we were not allowed to go inside which was a bit of a disappointment.
In hindsight, I’d of skipped the tour, as there’s not a huge amount to see in the city centre, and I would of given the ice skating a go instead, with or without the rest of the group! We came back to the Alter Market afterwards and got some much needed food. I had some traditional german herb sausages with fried potatoes and onions. Absolutely wolfed it down! The evening was going by fast, so we fitted in some final shopping around the main market and proceeded to look for a bar to rest the feet. Saturday nights are manic around the markets so be warned, everywhere is really busy with little or no room for sitting down. This didn’t bother me at all, but if you go with those who require seating then it is an issue. We called it a night about 8pm and went back to our apartment to make sure we were all packed and ready to leave early the next morning.
So would I recommend the Christmas Markets? I would, but only for a short break as it's more of the same in each of them and for me, the shopping isn’t the main attraction, it’s the food and drink. It’s absolutely a wonderful way to kick off the Christmas season for those who do love it and it definitely gets you in the spirit.
We were hindered somewhat though by my mums back problems, which meant that we would have to leave the markets at intervals to find a bar to sit down at. There is no seating in any of the markets so this chopping and changing did mean that our days were broken up a lot more. Be prepared for a lot of walking and standing as well so lots of comfortable clothes and shoes. We didn’t find it cold at all but I think we were just lucky with the weather but none the less were still prepared for it!
I also didn’t ever once feel unsafe. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t wary of going beforehand, given the NYE attacks on over 600 women in the city in 2015, as well as the unrest within Europe itself with recent terrorist attacks. But, every step we took we felt safe and as we were a group no one was ever left on their own.
Cologne is a lovely city and I found its people to be a very different sort of German. Not the stereotype people think of. Instead they are very carefree, up for a lot of fun and a lot of drink, and just very laid back in general. I’m happy I got to go…go for it too!
You can find more information about the Cologne Christmas Markets at www.cologne.de.