Christmas marketing in Germany (and France)

A Christmas Market itinerary for the non-initiated (tested by yours truly).

(In a rush? Travel Prep , Days 1-2 Heidelberg, Day 3 Baden-Baden and Strasbourg, Day 4 Colmar, Day 5 Karlsruhe to Idstein, Day 6-7 Idstein and return)

In search of that elusive Christmas spirit and granted an extra three days of vacation, this little troupe got to go to Germany and France in December to visit the Christmas markets.

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Part of the beauty of already living in Europe means that we don’t have to put a lot of anxiety into creating the ‘perfect’ vacation. We take each country in little lumps, our timeline sprinkled across the calendar year’s long weekends. But sometimes a type of holiday calls for a couple extra days and more in depth planning.

Case in point: German Christmas markets were on the agenda. We had a set budget and some leave days saved up, so around September we started looking at tickets from our three closest airports (Jerez, Sevilla, and Malaga) to whatever were the cheapest direct flights to Germany (Frankfurt and Baden-Baden), then we requested those days off. Bada-bing, Bada-boom. (See what I did there?)

So, how to make the best 5 day trip when two of those days are also spent in travel? This had us looking from point A to point B on our Google maps and analyzing scraps of discussion on Tripadvisor like patching together a puzzle. We decided to forgo public transport and rented a car to take us from Frankfurt to Heidelberg to Strasbourg and finally to Baden-Baden.

5 Day Trip:

But, hold the phone, we realized almost too late that we had two extra days off granted to spend. So, moved a couple days forward on the calendar, the cheapest ticket out of Germany ended up being from Frankfurt. We decided to keep our original idea of a road trip but turned that straight line into a stringy loop:

7 day trip:

 

Figuring we’d want to buy some Christmas Market treasures and stock up on French necessities while in Strasbourg (and boy did we), we paid for one checked suitcase in addition to our two backpacks and two personal items as carry-ons, plus a car seat and stroller in the hold luggage included in the baby’s ticket.

Frankfurt, Heidelberg, Baden-Baden, Strasbourg, Colmar, Karlsruhe, Idstein…here’s how it all panned out.

Days 1-2: Fly into Frankfurt, drive to Heidelberg

We picked up our rental and drove the hour or so to the medieval city of Heidelberg, a university town rebuilt in the very picturesque Gothic style after WWII. We arrived in the full swing of the Christmas markets, which should have been a lovely thing, except when we exited the wide-laned autobahn we weren’t really prepared for the horror that is felt from narrow cobbled streets and hoards and hoards of Christmas market goers.

Right away, we seemed to be stuck at the busiest intersection of the market. Hoards and HOARDS of pedestrians crossing from all directions. And we, in a mini SUV. (it was an upgrade, we didn’t ask for it, we swear.) What to do next?

We watched a tour bus go first.

You mean, we’re supposed to drive THROUGH THEM?

The bus finished sliding around the corner and the crowd re-congealed. Cody swallowed, leaned over the steering wheel, and began to creep the car forward. The crowd remained constant and unconcerned while I tried not to hyperventilate in the front seat. Finally I noticed a pedestrian waving her arms frantically trying to tell us to move forward. I caught her eye as she gave up, shook her head, and crossed in front of us. Taking that as our cue, we just went for it, vroom vroom on the gas pedal, and the crowd magically began to part (though they all stared…why??) and we finally found an underground garage with an empty space.

Phew.

We wanted to stay central to the Christmas market and chose a traditional lodging that’s been in use in one way or another for at least 300 years, the Hotel Holländer Hof.

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Christmas coziness at the Hotel Hollander Hof

It was close to everything, from the Old Bridge outside our window, to the Heidelberg palace only a short train ride up the hill.  It would become the action desk for figuring out what to do next.

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Navigators at work in the hotel room.
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View of the Old Bridge from the hotel.
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View of the old city from across the river
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Heidelberg Palace ruin peeking over the happy explorers’ shoulders

For two days and two nights we had pretty lights and bratwursts and hat stalls and wooden ornaments to enjoy. We did our best to only order gluwhein but were sometimes surprised with a mouthful of rum mixed in, blegh (we didn’t need that much Christmas spirit).

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One of two Christmas markets in Heidelberg this year
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Like a moth to a flame is a baby to the Christmas lights

On the last day, before heading off to Strasbourg, we toured the Heidelberg Palace ruin, where we were regaled with the thrilling and backstabby nature of French and German alliances. James was quiet and well behaved for the entirety of the tour strapped to our chests, mostly asleep, and this was a good thing. When the tour guide threw us a back handed compliment about how children on the tour weren’t always so well behaved, we realized we hadn’t even thought of being confined to small stone medieval rooms with a group. Whoops. Well, good job James.

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Start your tour of the Heidelberg Castle through the rosy red arch
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Continue to the Christmas tree
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By this time you’re knee-deep in romantic-palace-setting
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Take in the views from the top floors of the palace

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View of wintry Heidelberg

Ranking? This is the Christmas market to go to for all the sausage and German Romanticism 

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Et, voila.

Day 3: Drive through Baden-Baden to Strasbourg

After two mornings of delicious German breakfast at the hotel, including Christollen bread with marzipan inside, we drove to the resort town of Baden-Baden for a leg stretch. We parked at the Park House Wagener Gallery and walked through the department store to the prettily decorated cobbled resort-y streets until we made it to the vendors and the smoky food tents. This Christmas market had a storybook theme this year but an ominous sky overhead, so we didn’t tarry very long. Just long enough for some other version of bratwurst, Baden-Baden’s gluwhein, and a quick chat with some other tourists.

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Storybook panels, photo taken in haste, because…
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“I’m cool as long as we keep walking”

On the way out we spent ages searching the aisles of the grocery store in the Wagener Gallery for some baby food while trying to keep the baby in check (he was fresh out of Christmas spirit it seems). In other news, we found a delicious red blend unique to the supermarket chain that I’m still dreaming about.

From there, we were feeling pretty good, heading directly from Baden-Baden to Strasbourg. The pace to France was fast and easy traffic. Around 5 pm, after crossing the French border I called our apartment hosts to naively tell them that we’d be arriving there in an hour. We all believed those words.

At 5:40 pm, we hit traffic.

20180117_205508As in, come to a complete stop, then move only at a crawl ever after traffic.

What only should have been ten minutes from the apartment turned into an hour. We desperately watched the minutes tick by on the dashboard as we once again crept inch by inch, unable to figure out why we were at such a standstill.

Arriving 40 minutes late, we were parked below our temporary flat in the university district, conveniently located above a bank and next to the Esplanade tram stop, with a beautiful view of the Observatoire. The hosts had outfitted the place beautifully for Christmas so that in my daydreamy way I could visualize spending Christmas morning there in a pinch if it was necessary. The source of the traffic, we inquired? Just normal rush hour. Holy merde, we sheepishly apologized, we were not going to do that again.

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Yep, this apartment will do.
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Stay at this apartment and Google Assistant may also creepily give you a panorama into another dimension

The next day we made the obligatory treks to the grocery store for wine, speculoos, and French soap. We stopped for onion tarts and salami and pickle baguettes at a corner bakery before taking the tram down to the Christmas market, pausing along the way to look at old churches and pretty river views.

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Easy tram stops.
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View of St. Paul’s Church on the River Ill
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View of Canal de Faux-Rempart

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The Christmas markets in Strasbourg were big and plenty, and just when we thought we’d explored our last, we’d round the corner and find another street filled with a different theme and different shops and lots of people. In fact, this was both the most densely packed, sprawling network of Christmas markets we’d make it to on the whole trip. Highly decorated store fronts seemed to be an ongoing competition within the city, with unique items creating  a different theme for each shop, from teddy bears and peppermint twists to happy pigs decorating a butcher’s front.

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Peppermint pink store front
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Down every street, lots of admirers
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See the teddy bears on that store? And poinsettias on the other?
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Some breathing room at the Place de Chateau
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Notre Dame de Strasbourg, another cathedral worth peeking in at

On the menu at these Strasbourg markets were crepes, vin chaude (vin chaude blanc?? MMmmm!), speculoos goodies, and candied peanuts. We perused scarf stalls, more wooden ornaments, and prettily printed post cards.

Ranking? Come here for the most varied Christmas Market themes in one place and my favorite spiced wine of the trip, vin chaude blanc.

Day 4: Train to Colmar

Unwilling to put ourselves into that sort of return 6 pm rush hour traffic again, we chose the train that to take us a half hour south to Colmar, another pretty medieval town decorated to perfection for Christmas. Here, it seemed like things weren’t really going to get into full swing until after 5 pm, so it wasn’t as crowded as we started wandering the stalls around 2 pm and sampled more vin chaude (mmm, very clove-y at this location) outside an elaborate carousel.

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Crepes and vin chaude outside the 1900 Carousel in Colmar not far from the train station

Wooden puzzles, ceramic chickens in burgundy and gray, and petting zoos, these were the things of note in this Alsace Christmas market.

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Who needs snow when you’ve got bubbles and baubles?

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Festive store fronts

Around 4 pm, we ate a late lunch at a little restaurant where the waitress loved on James and gave him toys to play with at the table and Cody and I an orange at the end from Père Noël. (FYI, it you want to win at Christmas themed trivia night, go to a couple different countries’ Christmas markets right before.)

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Golden dusk at St. Martin’s church in Colmar

Around 6 pm it was time to make a mad dash back to the train because I had of course miscalculated how easy it would be winding our way through the next Christmas markets. And by mad dash, I mean we were running the last 3 minutes to the station with about twenty other people, throwing the stroller up into the door.

Colmar was so quaint and the roads so confusing, I wished we’d been able to spend the night, but having to waste another hour of packing to move to another apartment just didn’t feel worth it. If there’s anything we learned on this trip, it’s that getting to set up camp for more than a night was the best way to maximize relaxation and exploration time with a baby in tow. 

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Photo taken in haste; we were basically jogging to get to the train station in time

Ranking? Christmas market with all the STUFF (surprising amount of variety for a smaller town)

Days 5: drive through Karlsruhe to Idstein

We left Strasbourg semi-early for a quick trip to Carrefour for all the French goodies I mentioned bringing that suitcase for earlier. Then, we cut up the two hour drive to Idstein with a break once across the German border in Karlsruhe.

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Outside the beautiful yellow Karlsruhe Palace

We ended up spending very little time in their Christmas market as we had parked at an Aldi’s parking garage near the city center, so we were too busy wandering the streets looking for it. But we got a nice little stroll out of it in the winter sunshine along the Karlsruhe Palace grounds and saw the palace from all angles before stumbling upon an almost empty ice skating rink at its front.

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A nice green walk after so many crowded city streets.

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The icerink and an empty creperie stand heralded the beginning of the Christmas market, so we got a quick taste of their gluwhein and filled up on crepes again (our main source of nutrition for the trip) before making one quick stop at a stall selling wooden cutlery.

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Crepes, the food of kings

Then we were off once more, hitting traffic again, this time from construction. James had had it with all the driving so far and was an unhappy passenger in the back seat during all the traffic, even with mama for company. With the unanticipated traffic, it was dark and full on night when we finally pulled into our tiny little hamlet of Idstein. Parking was easy behind the miniature castle/Hotel Höerhof we stayed at and we wandered into a dreamy storybook courtyard to find the reception desk.

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Courtyard of Hotel Hoerhof, all dressed up for Christmas
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Door to reception

Our hotel was its own version of a castle, the architect of the real Idstein castle building himself a home in replica of his great life’s work. Makes sense, I mean, you perfected the design, why not make a miniature? And now it makes a great location for a hotel.

After check in and completing the storybook feeling, we were led to our two-floor suite adjoining the courtyard where we put James to bed and enjoyed a room service dinner of chestnut soup, beef, and creme brulee.

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Room service…made for hungry parents who travel with an early-bird.

Day 6: Idstein

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entrance of Hotel Hoerhof by day

The next day we kept it simple and quiet. Idstein’s Christmas market had only lasted for one weekend before we got there, so we just had prettily decorated store fronts to content ourselves with and gingerbread looking houses to explore from the street.

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Lots of little slopes in this village
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Sleepy streets

This was the only day of the trip for peaceful exploration, unguided by any landmarks or Christmas Market events and we found we really benefited from that. We found ourselves getting coffee that morning at a cafe, exploring an old church, and shopping around at the little toy stores here and there. This town is mostly for restaurant goers, so when your lunchtime doesn’t fall into any logical local hour, you make due with the local health food store a couple blocks down from your hotel. The clerk very kindly (and in effortless English) helped me pick out a suitable picnic of cheese, fresh oaty bread, fruit, and bubbly juice.

That night the snow began to fall and we got to take a walk in a wintry magical village. Then it was dinner at an Italian place (nicely served to us well before actual dinner time, thanks chef!).

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Ranking? Best town to visit for sleepy Christmas getaway, worth it even if you’ve missed the market itself

Day 7: back to Frankfurt airport

This began at 3 am for us. We packed up the toiletries, arranged for a ridiculously early checkout, and then bundled up the baby to drive through the recently plowed streets to the Frankfurt airport. Not my favorite security screening by a long shot or boarding process (ugh, buses with a baby) but we made it through and finally were buckled into our seats, ready to fly back to Sevilla for a well earned rest before work on Monday.

—–

Final thoughts? Christmas markets make THE BEST way to vacation with a baby. You can get all of your food on the street and whenever the baby’s fussy, you take your hot drinks with you and you just keep strolling to the next pretty patch of lights.

So, Merry Christmas everyone! Fröhliche Weihnachten! Joyeux Noël! ¡Feliz Navidad!

Mode To and from Overnights Accommodation
Air Round trip Sevilla to Frankfurt Heidelberg, Strasbourg, Idstein Hotel Holländer Hof, L’Appartement de l’Observatoire, Hotel Höerhof

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1 Comment

  1. Congrats. for a foreign trip with baby during that time of yr. Remember, car travel is not big in the old towns/cities in Europe. We were in Rotenburg au der TAuber, Germany in fall.

    Like

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