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Blue Skies Christmas Market Trip

I’m home from another two-week, girlfriends’ Christmas market trip to Germany and Austria, and determined to write this while I’m still in the spirit and the tree’s still standing. In thirteen nights on the ground we had one gray day and one rainy, both at the end in Munich. All the others were blue skies, often cloudless. I lived in Germany for a few years and have traveled there often in December, and this kind of weather never happens…but I’ll take it!

TRAVEL STYLE

About our group: four active, curious sixty somethings; all past the acquisitions stage, but enjoy a little market shopping; like lots of walking and looking during the day, then sitting down to a relaxed dinner with wine at night. Seek out small group walking tours, select museums, beautiful old churches, restaurants filled with locals, and seasonal concerts. Often walk 5-9 miles in a day.

Two of my friends had never been to Germany, and the friend who’s traipsed over Europe most frequently with me hadn’t seen the markets since 2012 on our snow markets trip. I planned this one for some favorite markets with a Bavarian break in between.

I make all the plans and reservations and drive, and my friends write me a check before we leave. Once we touch ground in Europe, we live out of a kitty for everything, including food, and I never touch the money again — my idea of a vacation! Extremely freeing if you travel with the right friends!

We try to arrive on the first Advent weekend when the markets open so we can get home well before Christmas, and the airline prices are often better then. We flew nonstop from ATL into FRA and out of MUC, Nov 30 - Dec 13 on 40K FF point tickets on Delta! (I checked the fares every day for almost a month last summer before I saw them drop, and we all bought within an hour.)

It’s certainly possible to cover lots more ground, faster than we do, but my checklist is long done, and I love slow travel. Three nights is usually my minimum stop. Also prefer the freedom of a car when countryside is involved, although I’m starting to mix in some trains. Germans as a group are such good, predictable drivers that driving is a joy, but I can remember when I first moved there, and that’s not how I would have described my first week. (The street names were long, and their car horns loud.)

If you opt for a car, I highly recommend gemut.com, an American broker who books major European brands. Prices are good; you can cancel up to the last minute; you get good info about driving rules and insurance requirements up front; and if something goes wrong, you make a call to an ENGLISH speaker. (I’ve only had to do this once in 10+ years, but it was at 3AM PMT, and they fixed the problem at the rental counter in FRA immediately.) This trip Andy at gemut got us a new BMW kombi (station wagon) for a great price.

German car rental prices are relatively low but the fee for airport pick up is high. Once, I went into Frankfurt fo pick up the car, but I don’t think it’s worth the trouble unless you’re actually staying in Frankfurt. The airport has more cars to choose from anyway, and the airport fee split by four people is a no-brainer if you’re ready to hit the road.

ITINERARY

Rothenburg, 3 nights, with day trip to Nuremburg

Mittenwald, 4 nights

Salzburg, 3 nights


Munich, 2 nights

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ROTHENBURG

I don’t think most of my German friends have ever been here, but my American friends love it, and after at least a dozen visits, I still do too. It’s easy, mostly pedestrian, and picturesque, a fun place to start.

From the Frankfurt airport, the fastest way is on the A3, but the most scenic is to leave the autobahn part way and get on the Romantik Strasse. This will not please your NAVI who wants you back on the fast route, immediately. But if you want a beautiful (longer) drive through country and quiet villages on a two-lane road, here’s how to go. You can keep reprograming your GPS or just read the road signs and stay on the roads with the little brown markers indicating “Romantik Strasse.” The following list takes you from the FRA airport to the gates of the old city, bypassing most of modern Rothenburg.

FRA airport onto A3
Wertheim Village (big shopping center on L; you’re turning off the 
 A3 to the R, where you’ll see your first brown sign.)
Wurzburg
Tauberbischofsheim
Lauda - Konigshofen
Bad Mergentheim
Weikersheim
Rottingen
Creglingen
Rotenburg o. d. T.

Keep following the directions, all the way. Trust me. I got to Rottingen once and was sure I was home free…and found myself turning around in some farmer’s barnyard. It’s a beautiful, easy drive.

And have a parking plan before you enter the old walled city gates. I always park behind my pension and unload, then go park where Herr Endress sends me. There’s very little public parking inside the walls. I know one big lot and some spaces parallel to the wall, more lots not too far outside. If you see a rare open spot on a business street, it’s for residents. Driving in the old town is challenging, but doable. Lots of narrow, one-way streets and some acute angle corners. Just go slow, stay calm, and absolutely understand what the red circle with a white hyphen means: Do Not Enter. You’ll be fine.

My favorite place to stay in Rothenburg is Pension Elke over the grocery store. Simple, pristine, inexpensive, perfectly located. My friends love the attic breakfast room with its Charlie Brown Christmas tree, decorated tables, and breakfast carefully presented by Herr Endress who owns the store below. We stay in fancier places along the way, but this is always their favorite breakfast spot. www.pension-elke-rothenburg.de

Our arrival afternoon, Sunday of the first weekend of the market, was for unjetlagging, a first look at a market, lots of window shopping, and a relaxed dinner. If you need help staying vertical, the Nightwatchman will keep you going until 9 PM.

Second day we were the first in to the German Christmas Museum upstairs at the main Käthe Wohlfahrt store and had it to ourselves, before venturing into the shopping madness below. Especially love the castle garden, St. Jakob’s church, and a walk on the walls for a return to peacefulness. The market stalls in Rothenburg are scattered throughout several small plazas and alleys and focus more on crafts and hand-made gifts than sparkly baubles. The town itself is wonderfully decorated with fresh greenery and white lights. This market is best for its good vibe and local foods rather than major ornament shopping, but I’ve found treasures in small antique shops here.

Late in the afternoon we made a quick drive over to Dinklesbuhl’s very small, very local Christmas market, which was very quiet on this weekday evening, but a pretty walled town with probably no tourists other than us.

Third day we took the train from Rothenburg to Nuremburg, which is a huge market with major shopping, but I will come here only on weekdays. Weekends are ridiculously crowded. Have always driven before, but driving home in rush hour traffic in the dark is never the most fun part. This time tried the train and liked it.

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MORE ROTHENBURG

With help from the forum and bahn.com, I found the VGN fares which would get the four of us RT tickets for only 20.30 Euro total. The ticket office didn’t open in time for me to buy tickets and catch the 10:06 train, so I had to use the machine on the platform, and of course I made a mistake. (Of course I did, because I’m from Atlanta, and we have no clue how to do trains.) I quickly realized I had bought one-way tickets instead of the VGN fare. The train man on the platform was helpful, and suggested I try to exchange them in Nuremburg. We had two train changes to make to get to Nuremburg and almost missed the second one because I didn’t catch all the German explanation about a broken train. Grateful for the train man from the replacement train who came seeking the oblivious Americanerin and told us to hurry, hurry. In Nuremburg’s station there was a process, but yet another kind train man filled out four receipts by hand, printed and filed four sheets of paper, then handed me four new VGN fares and a handful of refunded coins. Some days it takes a village.

In Nuremberg we followed the suggested Rick Steves walk from the station to the center, learned some history, and happened into a lunchtime organ concert in the beautiful St Lorenz church. Enjoyed the market and our Nurnberger brats then rode the train back to Rothenburg like pros. It helps to have a print out telling you exactly what track and time you are arriving and leaving for each train change. I had one I printed from home for the first trip and another from the info point in the Nuremburg train station to get us back to Rothenburg. Less stress is always good.

Favorite restaurants in Rothenburg, most recommended over the years by Herr Endress at Pension Elke:

Gasthof Goldener Greifen for traditional Franconian food and friendly service. Near the main market square.

Gasthof zur Sonne a block from our hotel on a night when we really wanted only soup and wine. Service was friendly and unhurried, and pumpkin soup was delicious. They were not at all put out by our limited order.

Gasthof zur Silbernen Kanne is on a quiet street off the tourist track. Mostly locals. Very reasonable prices and welcoming service. Franconian, some Mediterranean dishes, and salads.

Hotel Reichskuechenmeister is my place for a more festive, upscale kind of meal. (Also where I stay with friends who might not be enchanted with rooms over a grocery store.)

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MITTENWALD

I love German Christmas markets, but there is much interlap between them. My best trips involve a big block of non-shopping opportunities. Bavaria is an ideal place for something different: great scenery, easy driving, plenty of outdoor activities. Staying in tiny Mittenwald at the traditional, family-owned Alpenrose, eating dinner in their locals-filled restaurant every night, then climbing the steps with the sign saying “Please, no ski boots upstairs” is a vacation itself. And the drive here from Rothenburg is beautiful, starting in rolling hills in Franconia, changing to snowy Alps, dipping in and out of Austria as you reach Bavaria. (Austrian vignette not necessary on this border road.)

ZUGSPITZE

We woke to brilliant sunshine the next morning, and headed straight to the Zugspitze after breakfast. In the valley around Mittenwald it was summer on the sunny side of the road and snow on the shady side, but when we turned onto the alpine road to the Zugspitze, all was a winter wonderland.

Took the speedy cable car up to the summit with a load of skiers headed for fresh powder. They took another gondola DOWN to reach the ski slopes, and we stayed on top of Germany. The skiers looked liked ants from our viewpoint on the Zugspitze’s sunny outdoor deck. There’s a cafeteria up top, and it was warm enough to drink hot chocolates outside at the picnic tables.

Opted for the cable car back to the base because it was too pretty a day for dark tunnels, and we had more to see. Made the loop through rolling hills to the Weiskirche, the baroque church out in a field. Then on to Oberammergau to see the painted buildings and check out a few woodcarver shops. Rant here. Oberammergau in mid-afternoon was peaceful and quiet, except for a busload of Americans on the main street. (Don’t think it was a RS tour, because the ages were too uniform — all about my age.) They were obnoxiously loud, in the shops and on the street. I could hear some woman braying laughter on and on, at least two blocks down the street. Not cool. Just don’t. Reflects badly on all of us. Rant over.

COACHING IN BAVARIA

Next day, another sunny one, was for something I planned months before — a day with my favorite Bavarian, Herr Andreas Nimitz of coaching-in-bavaria.com. Hours in an open Landau carriage pulled by a matched pair of dappled German warmbloods, clip-clopping through woods and over narrow paved paths, with a lunch stop at a delightful off-the-tourist-grid brew haus is my idea of a great day in Europe. Herr Nimitz’s house is near Andechs, so we ended our evening with a climb up the hill to the monastery and opening night of their tiny local Christmas market with its living manger scene. (I would certainly make this stop if I were in the area, but it seems a very long hike from Munich for another baroque church and a beer.)

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PARTNACHLAMM

Next day, sunny again, with many options, but I was quietly relieved nobody was set on castles or Innsbruck. Both are nearby and worthwhile, but the castles eat the entire day, when a drive by view of Neuschwanstein in great light may be its best part, and when Innsbruck is crowded, it can be just another crowded city market experience.

We’re on vacation today, and started by checking out some of Mittenwalds’s shops on the main pedestrian street where our hotel is and picking up a to go lunch from a backerie. The weather had been consistently cold enough for icicles, and I hoped that afterward, we could walk through the Partnachlamm and see another winter wonderland. My favorite way to do this is to park at the ski jump stadium at Partenkirchen, then walk the road until the tiny gondola appears on the right. The gondola ends at the hotel on top of the mountain where you can find signage to the walking path back down the mountain which ends on the banks of a rushing glacial river through the gorge. From here you walk out on a safe (but wet) path which dips in and out of shallow caves above the river. In winter the highlights are the masses of glistening icicles on the rocks above the river.

All started well; a sunny, cold day and a fast gondola ride up. At the hotel I asked if we could sit on their outside sofas for our picnic lunch, and that was fine with them. And then we started looking for the path down. It seems to have disappeared. Walked another direction down another road with great alpine scenery, passing a tiny hutte where they were readying for a private birthday party. Guy there says we’re welcome to come in for a beer, but path’s closed. Partnachlamm’s closed because trees are down everywhere from a windstorm. Didn’t I see the sign?

Back down on the tiny gondola. Told operator we’re back because the gorge is closed. “Yah. Didn’t you see the sign?” Long walk back down the road to the ski stadium, where I’m now determined to find that sign. Looking for something the size of a billboard from their descriptions of the “big sign!” Nothing! Back in the car, pulling out of the parking lot, I finally see a white sign in German with about a two-foot red sign tacked on the bottom saying “Geschlossen/Closed.” Would have been helpful to have some kind of sign on the road itself, but I’m the visitor here, and I made the mistake. It still was a good walk, but I really wanted to see those icicles again.

BAYERN PASS

Drove over to next door Garmisch because tomorrow morning we have to drop the car at the closed Hertz location, find the train station, and buy a Bayern pass. We need to be in Salzburg for a late afternoon concert, so I need to get this one right. Hoped to buy the ticket today, at the counter, if possible. Got good info on the forum, but wasn’t certain I could buy this ticket ahead of travel day. I could, but agent made sure I understood it can’t be changed to a different day once it’s bought.

The Bayern pass covers Bavaria to Salzburg for the four of us for about 50 Euro. We just have to avoid the fast trains. The ticket agent asked me if I am “the chief” and if so, to write my name on the front of the ticket and my three friends’ names on the back. Easy. And from now on I’m the Chief.

On Sunday morning we drove the 20 minutes to Garmisch, dropped two friends and the luggage at the train station, and asked a taxi to follow us to Hertz. (He suggested we follow him; faster.) Left the car keys in the lock box and were back at the station in 10 minutes. Our Sunday morning train was almost empty in Garmisch, gained plenty of travelers in Munich where we changed, and picked up SRO by the time we arrived in Salzburg.

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SALZBURG

Salzburg is my favorite European Christmas market. Overhead lights make it one of the prettiest, it’s pedestrians and horse carriages only in the old city, and the music is stellar. Love staying at the Weisse Taube near the Mozart statue and a block from the Dom. It’s a bit of a splurge but it’s the perfect location and the hotel staff is great. Breakfast not included in the rate, but just add it to the tab ahead of time and don’t think about it again. It’s a lovely one.

In Salzburg I need to find music. Arriving Sunday afternoon we missed the Dom’s morning mass with choir and orchestra, but researching online months ago, I found the Adventsingen performances in the big Festspielhaus on our weekend. About 100 singers in traditional dress are on stage with actors, talented child musicians, and an orchestra. If you are a choral musician, imagine closing your eyes and hearing a sound so perfectly blended that it could be a dozen singers. They sing in perfectly enunciated high German if you’ve got the language, but even if not, the story line is understandable with the program notes.

When the 20 or so children came back on stage near the end they were carrying various instruments, which I thought might be props because these kids looked like about fourth graders. And then they started to play, beautifully! (I asked our walking tour guide later if many of them are children of professional musicians, and she said they are.) At the finale, the entire audience of 2200 rises and sings the classic Austrian Andachsjodler. I don’t know how to describe how beautiful this entire performance was. If you have the opportunity, buy the best seats you can, and go!

With two full days in Salzburg, we walked, shopped, took the interesting walking tour with the Tourist Info guide, bought the inclusive ticket for the Fortress and looked at all the rooms, had coffee and fancy cakes in the afternoons, bought cookies from the oldest bakery with the waterwheel, looked in all the churches we passed, and loved the Austrian Christmas Museum near the ice skating rink on Mozartplatz.

Getting dinner reservations in the old town during the Christmas markets is almost a competitive sport, so I asked our hotel a week ahead to book us somewhere for all three nights. They picked S’Nockerl at the Elephant (traditional Austrian), Zirkelwirt (a fun brew haus filled with young adults), and my requested Trattoria La Compana da Enzo for a break from meat and potatoes. In Salzburg I also gravitate toward anyplace that serves Stiegl.

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MUNICH

On Wednesday morning we bought another Bayern ticket to get us to Munich, then taxied to our Hotel am Viktualienmarkt, which I had high hopes for from their website. Location is great, rooms are simple and clean but nothing special, breakfast adequate. Front desk was friendly, but not especially helpful. When I asked politely in the morning if they could try to get us a reservation at x nearby restaurant for that evening, “It would be better if you would just stop in and ask yourself,” is not the response I was looking for. Will probably return next time to the Blauer Bock, equally well-sited, nicer rooms, much better breakfast, and just deal with the arrogance from the one employee who needs customer service training.

By Munich, gray and rain replaced our twelve day run of sunny skies. In our 1 1/2 days we shopped the Victualienmarkt and some Christmas markets, took the TI walking tour starting in front of the glockenspiel in the Marienplatz, saw the nativity scenes exhibit at the German National Museum, ate gulaschasuppe in the green suppe hutte in the Victualienplatz, hamburgers and pommes with the football fans at Tegernseer Tal Brauhaus, and our last Nurnberger brats at Nurnburger Bratwurst Glockl am Dom.

The market in the courtyard of the Residence is a favorite for its setting and live music, the Marienplatz stands have every glass or wooden ornament you can imagine, and there’s one stand near the Krippen market that sells only antique glass and nativity animals, and all are beautiful. (Look near the big wooden pyramid and the food stand roasting salmon on planks over open flames, and you’ll find him.)

In Munich my favorite store windows are the animated Steif animals at Galleria Kaufhauf near the Marienplatz. The theme changes year to year, things like jungles and circuses. But this year was more subtle. Bunnies were fixing a flat tire, bears were holding umbrellas for their friends, and a cat sleeping under a blanket on a park bench was gently patted on the head by another kitty. I think the windows are about the helpers this year, encouraging us all to be kinder and gentler to those around us.

Hope this has given you ideas to make your own Christmas market trip some day. It can be magical! If I can help in any way feel free to PM me. Tschuss!

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I loved reading all the details, along with different ideas for Christmas Markets. I am bookmarking! Thanks!

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Thank you so much for your TR! What a wonderful time you all had. I am sure your friends appreciated all of your planning and organizing. I love the idea of a kitty. Much easier than trying to split every bill if you all tend to eat about the same amounts.

I loved that you were "the chief" on the train ticket. I was Capo di Gruppo once in Italy and have reminded my brother of that many times over the years, lol!!

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Yayyy another Trip Report from Ruth, I am one appreciative fan girl! Your trips are wonderfully planned and executed, even the problems sound delightful. Many thanks!

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Enjoyed the report. Plan on taking my mother to the markets next year, departing on Thanksgiving weekend.

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Will bookmark this, thanks for taking the time to post. We were just in Rothenburg, so share your love of this Medieval town, and the xmas markets made the visit even more magical!
Safe travels!

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Thank you, Ruth, for the excellent trip report. We were just in Alsace for the Christmas markets and found them magical. Now, after reading your trip report, I want to visit the German and Austrian markets! Will bookmark your report for future planning.