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Christmas Markets: Switzerland, France & Germany 2019- SWITZERLAND - Part 1 [of 4]

We just returned yesterday from an incredibly successful xmas markets trip, for which I have many of you to thank for your input. Since I've been up since 3:00am, jet lagged, I'll work this while the info is still fresh. I am a senior woman and I travelled with my mid-thirties daughter. We did carry-on luggage only; four outfits total.

Our trip was 12 nites on the ground, which was 14 days of travel, [including the air travel.] I had Google flight alerts established, so I could track price fluctuations.
I booked hotel rooms in June, which wasn't too early, as a few options were already full, especially the moderately priced options. Most of the hotels through do not require pre-payment, and we only wanted hotels with breakfast provided. We choose hotels on the fringe of the major plazas, which was a bit more expensive, but since we ate all of our dinners at the markets, it was the right priority for us. It was really nice to wander the area and markets, go back to the hotel and put our feet up for a rest, then resume wandering.

Maps & Info- many of the xmas market cities are not covered in the RS Guide Books. I looked up maps on-line, but many did not print out legibly. I then emailed the Tourist Info Centers in each of the cities, and received great hard-copy guide books and maps thru the mail, free of charge. It usually took about 2-3 weeks to receive this info.
-In all our cities, the TI was close to the main train station, and the TI's had special xmas market maps.

My daughter used the "MOVE IT" app, for info on public transportation routes in all our cities. It worked beautifully: type in your destination, and the app gave the correct specific bus/tram/train line from your location.

Weather- the early predictions were for 80% rain, every single day of the trip. This didn't materialize, and if it rained, it was short-lived showers, usually in the evenings.

Landed in Zurich, purchased the Swiss Travel Pass, & took a quick train to the main Zurich station, to the largest indoor xmas market in Europe; wandered for an hour, catching the 1st aromas of Gluhwein.

BASEL- an hour train from Zurich - 4 nites at the Hotel Teufelhof in Basel , our base.
We purchased the four-day consecutive Swiss Travel Pass, which covered all OUR [see site for exception] trains, buses, trams, boats, most museums in Switzerland, and the Mt. Rigi cogwheel train to the summit. This was especially nice as we did not need to deal with individual ticket machines for trains, did not have to validate, and could be completely flexible, altering the schedule for weather and weariness. The Swiss transportation system is marvelous in its convenience and efficiency, and Chris F. is an invaluable on-the-ground resource.
From our hotel, we walked to the two major xmas markets in Basel, rode the river ferries, visited the Paper museum [hand-on experience] and the Art Museum [underwhelming.] Gluhwein & food at the Barfusserplatz Xmas Market.

LUZERN- an hour train from Basel to Luzern, quick walk into Luzern from the train station.
We knew xmas markets weren't open yet, but the Saturday Farmer's market was, so we walked the Chapel Bridge/ river area, then took the hour boat ride to the cogwheel train [30 minutes] to the summit of the Mt. Rigi. Altho the day was cloudy on the ground, the 6,000' summit was above the clouds that day, and we had a spectacular experience at the summit: no wind, sunny, quiet, peaceful, fresh snow, and just awesome! And the very organized Swiss transportation system times the ferries to meet the cogwheel train.

BERN- an hour train from Basel to Bern. All markets are an easy walk from the train station. We did a city walking tour, and our favorite market was two blocks straight ahead of the train station, the Berner Sternen Market, which had a small pond with lighted waterfall, which was just beautiful. It was too cloudy to see the Jaugfrau from the park.
To be continued....

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Just fantastic. Looking forward to reading parts 2-4. Thank you for taking the time to do this- very generous of you.

Travel safe,

One Fast Bob

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9787 posts

Glad you had a great time with your daughter, Pat.

I love this:

We choose hotels on the fringe of the major plazas, which was a bit more expensive, but since we ate all of our dinners at the markets, it was the right priority for us. It was really nice to wander the area and markets, go back to the hotel and put our feet up for a rest, then resume wandering.

This is a perfect example of not nickel and dining yourself to death on a trip. These little more expensive hotels had great value for you because they allowed you to maximize your energy and enjoy the markets (and dinners!) to the fullest.

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PART 2 [of 4]
FRANCE- STRASBOURG as our base, 3 nights.

  • About 1.5 hour train from Basel to Strasbourg . We stayed at the Hotel Gutenburg, which an OP recommended, as all of the RS' recommendations were booked by June. This hotel was a block from the Cathedral, so has a prime location. The breakfast was adequate, but they offered complimentary Gluhwein from about 11am on, so who can remember the breakfast??? The Cathedral and central market area is about a 15 minute walk from the train station; we just followed the steady line of people. Due to the tragic events of the past, there is security at all the entry points to the old town area, starting mid-morning; our luggage and backpacks were searched. Also starting around mid-morning, there is no taxi/car access to the old town area, as it becomes pedestrian only. At our first sightings of the area around the Cathedral, I gasped in awe as if I was five-years old: it was so beautifully decorated! The buildings decorate all up along their outside wall. And the lighting- each of the pedestrian ally/walkways heading into the Cathedral area all have waves of lighting hanging across the buildings, and each is different! Saying it's spectacular is an understatement. There are at least 11 xmas markets situated throughout the old town to visit. We toured the Cathedral [free] and climbed the 300+ steps to the tower [ 8 Euros], overlooking the city. It was a climb well worth the effort. Try to climb the tower early, as there is a security search, and once a line forms, it moves slowly. We also enjoyed a morning walk along the river, which was beautiful, quiet, and peaceful. The VINO ROUTE [all day] tour of the towns of Colmar, Riquewihr, Obernai, and a winery was incredibly well done and worth it [$150 USD.] Marc, who leads the small tour [one van] is a local who is personable and quite knowledgeable of the area. The tour is well-organized and a quality experience. In addition to the xmas markets and the wine info, he pointed out the storks that are native to the area, and their unusual-looking nests. The French transportation strike began on the day we were scheduled to leave France. In spite of all my research, I never thought to check for French labor strikes; this one was scheduled six weeks in advance, and affected trains, planes, buses, trams. It was by accident that we heard about this strike. It was Marc, from VINO ROUTE, who gave us a functional solution to our problem: taxi to the Kehl, Germany, train station, about 15 minutes away. Remarkably, this worked quite smoothly: the taxi showed up, early, and did not inflate prices. We exited France to Germany without a problem, but with a desire to return to this area to explore the beautiful countryside, perhaps in warmer weather!
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Part 3 [of 4]GERMANY: STUTTGART, 2 nites,Hotel Unger
-arrived from Strasbourg via Kehl, Germany, 2-hour train trip, 3 connections, by noon.
Hotel Unger is in a commercial area a five minute walk from the train station, 1 block from the S-train escalator, and about two blocks from the central plaza/xmas markets. In addition, there's a REVE grocery store within a minute walk. It appears boring from the outside, but the hotel breakfast, along with all the service, was exceptional. I guess Dec 6 is a special day in Germany, so a bag of xmas goodies was hung on our doorknob, and Santa was at breakfast handing out pretzel Santas.
Each city has a special character to their markets. Here, the elaborate decorations on the roofs of the stalls were incredible, one stall seeming to outdo the next. It was best to see these during some day light to fully appreciate the details, and I believe there were about 170 stalls, but we thought we covered them all in one day. The markets became very crowded as folks left work, especially around the Gluhwein stands. In addition, there are many shopping districts located around the xmas market area.
LUDWIGSBURG- 15 minute S-train from Stuttgart, and then about a 20 minute walk from the train station. We were underwhelmed by these small, Baroque-themed markets, along with the Palace. We missed the English speaking Residence tour, [some of the better rooms are under renovation], so entered the areas we could on our own. Obviously, it was winter, so the gardens weren't spectacular. We did enjoy the Fashion Museum. Took a taxi back to the train station [5 Euros], as we were also going to...
ESSLINGEN - Medieval xmas markets, about 25 minutes returning from Ludwigsburg, otherwise a 15 minute S-train from Stuttgart. The markets were a ten minute walk from the Esslingen train station, located in a picturesque Middle Ages village.
OMG!!!! Where do I start? These markets take the Medieval theme very seriously. In a section of the markets, all of the vendors are in period costume, selling wares as they would centuries ago. The vendors were lit by candles and wood fires. There was street entertainment, fire jugglers, a costumed parade, and stage entertainment. We actually danced in the streets to a Medieval band! In addition, there are hot tubs, to be reserved in advance. There was a children's section, with games of skills typical of the era: e.g. archery, candle-making, axe throwing. This was an incredible experience, and we spent about 3.5 hours there, most of it on our feet. As a result, we over-exerted ourselves for this day.
Mercedes Museum- was on our schedule for the next day, due to its great reviews, but we were exhausted. We needed to sleep in, rest our feet, and travel to Rothenburg.
ROTHENBURG- 3 hour train journey, [with three connections] plus a taxi 7 Euros, to the old town, 2 nights.
Book this town WAY in advance; we had to use two hotels for two nights, when booking in June. Rates are very reasonable, about $100 a night for two, with breakfast.
Rothenburg isn't a natural extension of this trip, but we love this Middle Age town SO much, it was a priority, [almost in spite of the xmas markets,] so we went out of our way to get there. If you don't want to go to Rothenburg, there are many markets between Stuttgart and in & around Frankfurt, with much shorter train rides. [Just ask Mrs. Jo.]
The market area was really packed for Saturday night, but Sunday was fine. In this story-book village, it was peaceful just two blocks from the plaza. We climbed the 200 crazy steps of the town hall, for a panoramic view of the area, but were almost blown off the tower, as a storm was approaching. Nowhere in the USA would they allow- or make you pay [2.50 Euros]- to climb these very narrow and dangerous steps. We loved it! We also walked on the town wall, which is very picturesque, and much safer. In addition to the xmas markets, the small year-round shops are charming with personable shop keepers.

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Part 4 [of 4] GERMANY & MISC
On our last day, we traveled by train from Rothenburg to Frankfurt, [as we flew out the next day.] The journey included taxi to the train station, followed by three plus hours and three train connections. We stayed at the Frankfurt Sheraton, which is actually in the airport complex, which was VERY convenient.
We had big ambitions to visit markets on this last day: either Wurzberg, where we had to change trains, or in the Frankfurt area, after we checked into the hotel. However, the trip took longer than expected, due to significant S-train delays in Frankfurt; once we put our feet up in the hotel, the bodies refused to move. The trip was incredible and glorious, and 12 days on the ground was the right amount of time.
In the winter, it was dark until 8:00am, and was dark again around 4:30 pm.
In Germany, it was easier to buy our DB train tickets via the app; the machines in the stations often wanted a pin # from our credit card.
S-train machines: wouldn't take $20 dollar bills, [only smaller] and wanted a pin # for our credit cards.
TRAIN CONNECTIONS- Most of our connections had 4-9 minutes between trains. It's pertinent to know what track# you're coming in on, and on what track# the next connection departs. Have your luggage ready to jump off as soon as the train stops, & be prepared for lots of stairs. If you sleep on trains, set your phone alarm.
We found the markets to be a total festival-like experience, not just a shopping expedition. The markets were a combination of the decorations, the lights, the people energies, the aromas. For me, I had my xmas shopping completed before the trip, as there wasn't much time afterwards.
Food and alcohol are a big part of all the markets, and the prices very reasonable. Judging by the strollers and/or dogs with the folks present, the markets are a big draw for the locals. Most dishes were about 6 Euros, and the Gluhwein was about 5 Euros, with an additional 2-3 Euros deposit for the mug. If you liked the mug, you kept it, and struggled with the fact you couldn't carry back a mug from every market. [And- we didn't see anyone who had over-imbibed.]
All the markets had their local versions of the Gluhwein, chocolate, breads, pastries, pretzels, gingerbread, cookies, gooey desserts, cheeses, sausages, along with main dishes, so sampling each variety is a must! I don't know why European chocolate tastes so much better than it does here, but I did enough research, so it's a fact!
I'm a vegetarian, but didn't starve, just had to look a little harder, and found some incredible food. To do so required eating before the crowds arrived, so I could see and ask questions regarding ingredients.
There is a lot of standing at the markets; the vendors usually don't have tables for drinking/eating. However, there were no issues with sitting on available steps or walls to eat/rest.
Overall, the markets were cash only.
In all the markets there were original, made-in -the area items, and there were also repetitive items, probably imported. Items in Germany were marked with their origin; items in France were not. I was bored with the candles and soaps, but that's me. Many stalls sold children's items; jewelry, scarfs, hats, gloves, wool slippers were readily available for all. There were hundred of xmas ornaments for sale, between 10-20 Euros, and I avoided the larger, breakable ones. I tried to find the local artists. What I couldn't find were artists with oil or watercolor paintings of the local scenery, which I typically see all over Italy.
All the markets were in, or close to, areas with year-round specialty shops, many brands which aren't available in the U.S.
Hopefully, I've addressed your questions, and I've managed to stay awake until after 7:00pm tonight, so thanks for the help with the jet-lag.