While Christmas at our beautiful home in New Hampshire is wonderful, lately I been remembering Christmases past in Europe. My husband and I have found that there is no lovelier tradition than Celebrating Christmas In Germany and Austria…the Germanic regions of Europe where many of our own holiday traditions originated many hundreds of years ago and are still enjoyed there today.
I was too late in making plans to visit Europe this year but I thought I would share memories of our Christmas holidays spent in Germany and Austria. Bundling up for a sleigh ride, visiting the Christmas markets, listening to carols sung by a boy’s choir in a winter wonderland is like a dream come true.
The Christmas season starts on the Friday before Advent, which is four Sundays before Christmas Eve. Whether you visit the main square of a big city or one in a tiny village in either Germany or Austria during Advent, the town will probably have its own unique Christmas market known as a Christkindlmarkt or Weihnachtsmarkt. Small markets in rural villages are held only on the weekends but in the large cities they customarily go throughout the entire week.
Usually our holiday trips begin in Munich, Germany. With lots of different Christmas markets throughout the city, Munich feels like the Bavarian version of a movie set from “White Christmas“. Christmas trees everywhere, people wrapped up in their winter coats and scarves, holiday music, food and mulled wine…you begin to wonder if Munich might have been the place where Christmas was invented.
We always stay at the Vier Jahreszeiten Munich, a five minute walk from the former residence of the kings of Bavaria. The beautifully decorated lobby is a popular meeting place for locals and Müncheners refer to it as the living room of Munich. After a cold day wandering the cobbled streets admiring the Christmas sights and sounds, it is a nice place to warm up with a cappuccino or hot chocolate and watch as guests come through the doors loaded with shopping bags full of presents from the beautiful shops nearby.
From the hotel, a leisurely 10 minute walk takes you to the Christkindlmarkt held at the Marienplatz, Munich’s most famous square, in the old center of town. You know you have reached the market when you see a glittering 100 foot tree in front of the New Town Hall and its famous Glockenspiel. Large crowds mingle in front of hundreds of small wooden stands, many elaborately decorated with fir branches and lights, where wooden toys and hand carved nativity sets, beautiful glass ornaments, candles and holiday novelties are sold. The aroma of sizzling sausages under piles of sautéed onions will lead you to stands selling crispy potato pancakes, gingerbread, stollen, roasted candied almonds, chestnuts, and large pretzels.
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When the cold and snow has made your fingers and toes go numb, it is time to head to one of the stalls that sells hot glühwein, a heavily spiced and mulled red wine. Here you are likely to see men dressed in traditional loden coats adorned with horn buttons and hats decorated with boar bristles sipping hot glühwein with their wives and friends.
Small children walk hand in hand with their parents across the Marienplatz to see the large window displays at one of the department stores. Their eyes grow big and they start to giggle as they look at hundreds of toys and stuffed animals in animated holiday scenes.
Not far from Marienplatz is the famous food market, the Viktualienmarkt, an excellent place for foodies to visit. Besides cheeses, meats, exotic mushrooms, vegetables, fruits and honey, a variety of stalls sell freshly cooked Bavarian specialties such as the plump white veal sausages known as weisswurst that are served with sweet mustard along with Bavarian beers and local wines. Besides selling food, venders also sell Christmas trees, seasonal flower arrangements and straw ornaments.
Knowing the foodie that I am, our Christmas trip to Munich wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Dallmayr, a luxury food store that dates back to the 17th century. After visiting the delicatessen with its cheeses from everywhere in Europe, meats, sea food, special teas from around the world, breads and seasonal pastries, we usually have lunch or at least pastry in the store’s very good restaurant upstairs.
We pass the famous Hofbräuhaus on the way back to our hotel. Open even on Christmas Eve and Christmas day, the famous brewery should definitely be visited at least once. You might get lucky and see their beer wagon sitting outside just waiting to be pulled off by the Clydesdale team with their harnesses covered in jingle bells.
Of course, Munich is more than just the sights, sounds and smells of Christmas. On each trip, we try to visit at least one of the city’s museum which are some of Europe’s finest. A full day can be spent touring the historic Munich Residenz or the modern BMW museum, either of which are a wonderful place to visit when you can’t take the cold anymore.
For the next stop on our Christmas trip, we head to city of Salzburg. On most visits, we stay on the outskirts at one of the well known spa hotels and take day trips into the city. Salzburg’s Christkindlmarkt, one of Europe’s oldest markets, is small compared to the ones in Munich. It has a lovely atmosphere with the huge medieval Hohensalzburg fortress perched high above the Cathedral of Salzburg. The square is decorated with garland and white lights hung from above and has stalls surrounding the large fountain covered in glass for the winter. The stalls sell some of the prettiest Christmas ornaments I’ve seen, wooden toys, hand knitted scarves and traditional clothing. Of course there is hot mulled wine to keep you warm along with sausages, roasted apples, chestnuts, candied almonds and spicy gingerbread.
Upon leaving the Salzburg area, we drive south to the Tyrol region and stay one day in Kitzbühel, known as one of the world’s best ski areas. While my husband and I don’t ski, we do enjoy the historic medieval center and its small Christmas market. The town is especially pretty at night but it was snowing too hard to get photos of all the Christmas lights that makes it look like an old fashioned Christmas card when lit in the evening.
We spend Christmas at one of our favorite hotels in the Tyrol, the Jagdhof Spa and Hotel, just twenty minutes outside of Innsbruck in Neustift. This area is stunning as it is surrounded by the spectacular peaks of the Stubai mountains. It feels like coming home when we walk into the beautifully decorated Tyrollean hotel and are greeted with a heartfelt hug from Christina Pfurtscheller, one member of the lovely family that owns and oversees this wonderful spa hotel.
Christmas Eve seems to be more important than Christmas day in Europe. During the day we stop by the parish church of Saint George, the second largest village church in the Tyrol region. From the outside it appears very plain but once inside you are surprised by its rococo design and magnificent frescos.
Back at the hotel, the evening starts with an outdoor gathering of all the families to hear the story of Christmas, then Santa arrives in a horse drawn sleigh to distribute packages to all the children. We then like to enjoy having a glass of Champagne in the bar before going into one of the lovely dining rooms.
After enjoying a gala multi course meal and perhaps an after dinner drink in the bar with newly met friends, we snuggle into our comfy feather bed for the night. The next morning, we awake to the sound of church bells announcing the arrival of Christmas.
Looking out the hotel window at the freshly fallen snow that covers everything in sight, you can’t help but admire the glory of nature and its winter wonderland. I dream of celebrating another white Christmas spent in Europe…perhaps next year.