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Christmas Markets in Germany and Austria 2015

Germany at Christmas can be one of the most magical places I know. We were lucky to get to live there as corporate ex-pats, and now every two or three years I take a few friends to some of my favorite places. This December’s trip started with the opening weekend of Advent and lasted 15 nights on the ground. I tried for a good mix of cities and countryside, cultural and outdoor activities, with mostly three night stays to minimize the unpacking and allow time for some day trips. I’m hoping to share enough details to make this helpful to any of you who might be planning something similar.

We flew direct from ATL to FRA on Delta. On overnight flights it’s well worth it to me to spring for the extra $100 or so to get the extra legroom in Economy Comfort seats. I wasn’t nearly as concerned about the terrorists as I was about driving jet-lagged when I landed. I’m a horrible plane sleeper, but after years of doing this, I’ve worked out my own little ritual that semi-works: window seat, no movies, no reading, backpack on the floor topped with an inflatable footrest, my own travel pillow and blanket, a bottle of water, and a couple of benadryl.

I know Germany has one of Europe’s best organized train systems, but I like the freedom of a car, and driving in Germany is a pleasure. Their roads are good and their drivers predictable. Andy at www.gemut.com has a 100% track record so far for getting me exactly what I want at a good price. I sometimes try to pick up my car in Frankfurt itself rather than the airport to save the huge airport tax (21%, I think) but this trip it worked better for us to arrive on Sunday, and all locations except the airport are closed on Sundays. I always put the car rental on AMEX so I can decline the CDW and pay the $25 fee to AMEX for the coverage. (You have to set this up ahead of time with AMEX, and carefully follow a few rules, but it’s a huge savings.)

With four people, each with one roll-aboard size suitcase plus either a backpack or a soft shoulder bag, the back of our Hertz 5-series BMW wagon was full! We knew we would accumulate treasures on this trip, so we tried to start with not stuffed full luggage, and we each brought a small duffel that folded into its own pouch. (Got mine at Eddie Bauer.) And I do check my bag, always, even though legally it would fit. I can’t travel without my backpack full of technology and “travel comforts” and that’s as much as I’m willing to lug on a plane.

Our first destination was Rothenburg ob.d.Tauber. Most of my German friends have never been there and are totally puzzled by my fascination with it, but I love it at Christmas. It’s small, pretty, pristine, walkable, and everything Walt Disney would have done if he were making a German Christmas town. And I’ve never taken anybody there who didn’t also love it! If you put “Rothenburg” in your GPS, you will be taken all the way on the autobahn, then through the shiny row of new tourist hotels and car dealerships in the new part of the city before you get to the old walled town. To preserve the magic, I like to get off the A3 near Wurzburg and drive down the Romantic Road. If you get a map, and keep playing “Trick the Navigate” by putting in just the next town, you will drive through beautiful countryside and enter Rothenburg through the Rodentor gate.

I’ve never had a bad hotel experience in old Rothenburg, but my favorite place to stay is Pension Elke over Herr Endress’ grocery shop. The rooms are small, simple, and spotless, and the attic breakfast room is delightful. There was a Christmas tree, special decorations on the tables, and an extensive buffet breakfast. He has always been very helpful in finding me a parking place and suggesting places for dinner. I’ve also stayed in his annex across the street, which is nice.

We had good dinners at both the Greifen and the Reichskuchenmeister, the latter having a more adventurous menu and definitely requiring reservations.

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My plan in Rothenburg is usually to stay until it gets crowded, then hop in the car and go elsewhere until late afternoon when it uncrowds again. This trip the crowds were not bad at all, probably because the weather was awful. To escape the rain on the second day, we drove to Nuremberg. It was raining there too, so we started indoors at the Nazi Documentation Center. By the time we finished the museum, the skies had cleared for the market. With GPS it’s not difficult to find a big parking garage very near the market. I have a love/hate relationship with Nuremberg’s market. When I first went in the late 80’s, it was my favorite. I was there last on a Saturday two years ago, and vowed never again on a weekend. It was so crowded it was hard to move down the aisles. But this drizzly Monday it was great.

Another idea to escape crowds in Rothenburg is nearby Dinklesbuhl’s small, completely nontouristy market. If you are rained on in Rothenburg, go inside to see the Christmas museum or the altarpiece at St. Jacob’s. Or walk on the medieval wall, which is covered. George the Nightwatchman’s walking tour is always a fun way to end an evening.

We were in Rothenburg 3 nights. We were starting on a jet-lag day and making a day trip from there, and I also enjoy traveling more relaxed than frenzied. My point: if you have less time, two nights would probably be fine for most.

Our next city was Regensburg for two nights; our hotel was the modern business style Sorat-Insel, which is perfectly located on the river right beside the ancient pedestrian bridge crossing over to the old city. Our windows faced the river and the cathedral spires. Beautiful! The staff is very helpful, and there’s a parking garage underneath. (It’s down a steep black slope with tight turns…and I left a chunk of shiny new black BMW on one of its concrete posts!) And their breakfast is possibly the most extensive I’ve ever seen in Germany.

Regensburg feels prosperous and elegant. There are no huge platz, so the Christmas markets are smaller and scattered throughout. The TI offers a helpful 90 minute walking tour a few days a week. It really helped us get our bearings in a city I’d never visited.

The star of Regensburg is the Thurn and Taxis Palace. Their Christmas market winds along the gravel paths of the palace gardens, and many of the decorations and crafts are made by artisans. No Made in China here. The palace is still lived in, and there’s a tour almost hourly of some of the most beautiful historic rooms. We took a German tour but had English audioguides, and the friendly guide filled us in on details in English when he finished his spiel in German. We did the tour and much of the market during the day, then bought another ticket to return at night to see everything lit. It’s very festive at night with bonfires and live music. The best food was the salmon cooked on planks over open fires. There was quite a line to get in when we left in early evening, but it was lovely and uncrowded during the day.

We had a decent Bavarian dinner at the very local Brauerei Kneitinger and an excellent lunch at the tiny Historisch Wurstkuchl on the river bank beside the pedestrian bridge. They’re famous for their smoked sausages. It’s crowded inside, and I hear their service can be testy, but if you get your act together and order efficiently, you’ll be treated quite well. (Just go with the serving of six finger-sized brats. The sweet mustard is in the crock on the table, and you tell the Kellner how many hard rolls you took from the basket when he totals your bill.)

In Regensburg, don’t miss the stained glass in the Cathedral of St. Peter and the profusely rococo Alte Kapelle.

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After five nights in cities, I wanted my friends to experience some of the Bavarian countryside. Mittenwald is a good location for Oberammergau, Ludwig’s castles, Innsbruck. The traditional guesthouse Hotel Alpenrose is my favorite place to stay. It’s decorated top to bottom and on every flat surface for Christmas. Quintessential Gemütlichkeit! And they have a good little restaurant, with zither music each night. That’s a huge perk for the driver. After a day in the car, it’s always great to have wine with dinner and just climb a few steps up to your room.

With three nights in Mittenwald, we spent our first afternoon hiking through the winter wonderland that is the Partnachlamm. Park your car at the old Olympic ski stadium with the ski jumps in Partenkirchen, then walk the flat country road a few kilometers to the start of the river gorge. The path leads in and out of little caves along the river. It’s safe and non-strenuous, just wet and a little dark at times. If the weather’s been below freezing for at least a week or so, you may experience a wonderland of icicles above the roaring river. It was just beginning to freeze when we were there, but it’s still a wonderful, peaceful walk in the winter.

Our second day was our Driving in Bavaria day. We spent the morning in Oberammergau and arrived at the Weis Kirche midday. It’s great to be there alone (with no tour buses) in winter. And there were only a handful of people in the simple restaurant downhill from the church. It was mid afternoon when we got to Neueschwanstein, and because we didn’t want to be tied to a schedule and had no reservations, of course, the tickets were sold out. But, kein problem, we got tickets to Hohenschwangau instead and had a fine tour of Ludwig’s boyhood castle. Driving back to Mittenwald, dipping in and out of Austria, in pitch darkness was slightly harrowing but not awful. The only caveat I might offer about driving in Germany, is that if you are uncertain, you will probably be much more comfortable driving in daylight than after dark, so plan accordingly. (And get a GPS and hopefully, a calm friend to ride shotgun and help read street signs.)

Our third day was Sunday, another perfect weather day for the market in Innsbruck 30 minutes away. All the Innsbruckers and most of northern Italy thought so too! Too crowded, so after a walkabout we drove a few kilometers farther to peaceful Hall in Tirol. This was the perfect locals’ event: beautiful pastel stucco buildings, artisan craft stalls, glorious baroque church, kids led through cobblestone streets on fat shaggy ponies. (My general Christmas market plan is to avoid all big city markets on weekends, especially Munich. My life-in-general travel plan is to do lots of research and have something of a plan, but to be ready to go immediately to Plan B if I don’t like the looks of the original one.)

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Leaving Mittenwald, we drove to Munich, arriving on Monday morning, for three nights at the Blauer Bock, another ideal location, across the street from the Victualienmarkt and five minutes’ walk from Marienplatz. It’s always easy to pick up a quick lunch at one of the stalls in the Victualienmarkt. The soup place is my favorite.

Here are some of my favorite things to do in Munich. The walking tour that starts at 10:45 on Marienplatz under the glockenspiel is a great intro to Munich. Our terrific guide gave us an extra hour and showed us some places I had never found in over half a dozen trips here. Go in any of the big churches in the center for a quick look. Watch the surfers on the Isar in the English Garden. Go to the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum to see the largest collection of historic nativity scenes in the world. The Christmas market at the Residenz often has interesting music; an alpen horn trio was playing when we were there. For fine crafts, go to the Tollwood Market out on the Octoberfest grounds. Even if you’re not a big art museum lover, try the Neue Pinakothek. Start with the Impressionist galleries and work backward so your attention span is fresh for the most memorable paintings. Give yourself permission to leave when you’ve had enough. If you haven’t had enough, try the Alte or the Moderne. Make dinner reservations early in the day if you really want to get in. Go see the animated Steif windows at Kaufhaus on Marienplatz.The theme changes year to year.

There are so many good Bavarian restaurants in Munich. You can probably trust your hotel to send you to a good one. I love the Altes Hachenhaus, but you need reservations. The big Augustinerbrau near Marienplatz has great food, and is so big there will probably always be room for you, even with no reservations. If you think you don't like beer, at least try the Radler.
The Gaststatte Nurnberger Bratwurst Glockl am Dom also has good food and feels very old world.

If you cannot look at another plate of pork, the Tegernseer Tal Braeuhaus near Marienplatz makes a good Munich burger served with a huge crock of hand cut fries. If you’re craving Italian, walk on by Eataly. Love the one in Chicago, but Munich’s had very limited choices, mediocre food, and awful service. But they do have a fantastic gelato bar! And an amazing chocolatier downstairs.

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Since Germany was unseasonably warm this December, and we had no snow anywhere, we made the sunny drive from Munich to Salzburg in under two hours. (It took me 4 hours in a major snowstorm last trip!) We stayed three nights at the Hotel Weiss Taube right around the corner from the Mozart statue, in winter the location of the ice skating rink, in the pedestrian center of the old town. I was prepared for a driving nightmare to get there, but it was easy. There was a kiosk right beside the barrier marking the start of the pedestrian area. A quick call to the hotel got me the code to lower the barrier, and it was only a few block’s drive through bikes and walkers to the hotel’s front door. After we unloaded, they directed me to an underground parking garage not more than a 10 or 15 minute walk away. This hotel is just around the corner from the Dom and has a wonderful helpful staff.

If you need a less expensive alternative, I have also stayed at Frau Ballwein’s out on Moostrasse. This is a comfortable, friendly home right on the bus line into town. I have only good things to say about her hospitality, but we really appreciated the convenience of being right in the heart of things at the Weiss Taube.

Salzburg may have the most beautiful market of all for me, either for the sparkling lights overhead or the impressive backdrops of Dom or mountains in every direction. The altstadt is compact, and all the sights are in easy walking distance. The TI offers a great walk with an enthusiastic guide at 11 AM. She can show you some of the smaller markets tucked away on side streets that you might miss on your own. If you are there on a Saturday, go see the farmer’s market.

We had two excellent lunches at the Sternbrau, a fun group of atmospheric brewery eateries under one roof. Another lunch we decided to just have major Austrian deserts, and the K&K near our hotel was a good choice for that. For dinner in Salzburg you really need reservations. We had a fantastic Italian dinner at the tiny, friendly Trattoria La Campana da Enzo, and another pretty good one at Domenica.

Thursday and Friday were festive but not over crowded, but I expected Saturday, on a perfect weather day in Salzburg, to be slammed. Our plan was to leave early and drive less than an hour to the Wolfgangsee to visit the markets around the lake. It’s a wonderful scenic alpine drive, and there’s a well-marked TI on the road coming into St. Gilgan where you can get directions for parking. We found an open lot very close in for 4 euro for the day and a short line to buy tickets to St. Wolfgang. Coming early was a good plan!

It’s a peaceful boat ride across the lake to St. Wolfgang, a small village with a life size wooden nativity complete with rows of of villagers in traditional dress, and a glorious golden baroque church. The market stalls are spaced along the narrow streets, and it got more crowded with each arriving boatload. At dusk we took another boat back to St. Gilgan, this time sitting inside with our hot chocolates. In St. Gilgan the stalls are all painted with baroque cherubs, and there were warming bonfires and white Christmas lights everywhere. Because it was getting very cold, and we were losing each other in the darkness, we decided it was a good time to return to Salzburg. Walking back to our car we passed a huge line for the boat. Really glad we came early!

Another great day trip from Salzburg, especially in snow, is the Konigsee. You can take an electric mahogany boat on a roundtrip with an island stop in the middle. They also stop the boat for the captain to play his fluegelhorn which echoes from the steep mountains surrounding the lake. Magical on a snowy day! On the way you can visit Berchtesgaden’s low-key market or the even smaller one at St. Leonhard, where the market stalls are all in tiny wooden cabins in a snowy field.

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Thanks for this detailed and well-written report. It sounds like a perfect trip that I'd like to copy in every little detail. Someday... I also read part 2, and that's exactly the way I like to travel too. With friends, because that's always more fun, and without anyone counting nickels at every meal.

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Hi Ruth,

Thank you for the informative report. We also love going to the Chrsitmas markets in Bavaria and Austria. Never been to Rothenburg during this time of year though. Maybe next time. We loved our day cruising the Wolfgangsee visiting the markets. We have been to all the others on your trip! Love them all. We always stay in Hall in Tirol, love the Gasthof Badl. We also stayed at the Park Hotel in Erding. Nice place and very. Convenient and easy walk into Erding. We always use Andy at gemut.com for our rental cars and the AmEx Rental Car Protection Plan for our CDW. Great advise, great trip report. Thanks again for taking the time.

Paul

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Wow Ruth! Sounds like a great trip. And what an excellent trip report. Your friends are lucky to have you to guide them and make the arrangements.

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Ruth, I have to agree with Nelly - you've provided a wonderful blueprint, right down to tricking the GPS on how to arrive in Rothenburg! This sounds like a wonderful wonderful trip and I too would love to replicate it -- I would looooove to take my mother to do this.

I'm glad you had such a great time - your friends are very lucky indeed to have you as their planner! And from your other note about the common money kitty, it sounds like you all have really worked out how to travel together.

Thank you for putting together such a comprehensive post. This one's getting saved for sure!

Happy New Year!

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Thanks to all of you for your kind comments! I've gotten many good tips from these boards over the years and thought it was my turn to try to give something back.

Paul, I think my idea to go to Wolfgangsee originally came from one of your posts. And, Harold, thanks for pulling my two posts together. I couldn't figure out how to make that happen.

Happy travels, all!