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Christmas markets with kids

Some comments on our recent trip to the Christmas markets + Paris with our 6 and 8 year old boys. We spent 20 nights and were focusing on markets we thought would be fun with kids. Our goal was to do at least one cultural attraction or tour per city that might appeal to the kids in addition to the markets. Totally opposite of many people's advice to pick cities you want to visit and the markets are a bonus -- we picked markets that sounded good for kids and the cities were a bonus. We didn't plan on doing a lot of shopping at the markets as we were saving that for Seiffen.

Colmar (4 nights) -- a charming town and a great choice for a home base for us. We loved at the lights and decorations everywhere. The markets in Colmar had the three best kids rides we saw in our travels: the galloping horses, Santa's swing/bubble machine, and a Dumbo-esque ride that featured sleighs being pulled by reindeer. We didn't find the children's market at Petite Venise to be particularly child-centric though it did have two of the above rides (horses and swing/bubbles). The markets served mulled wine in plastic cups instead of ceramic mugs. The markets were on the smaller side and weren't too far apart. We planned our day trips around wanting to be in Colmar on a Wednesday to see Santa and the school children caroling on the canal. This turned out to be stressful due to a lack of information about the where exactly the caroling would happen on the canal, a delayed start, and an extremely aggressive large crowd of people wanting to see. Our cultural activity for Colmar was a trip to the Bartholdi museum but it was a bit boring for us. On a whim, we decided to join one of the little boat tours that runs along the canal -- it was surprisingly delightful.

Strasbourg (day trip) -- the markets were bigger here and had a more hectic feel than in Colmar. Not much for the kids beyond carousels. Our cultural activity was going in the cathedral to look at the clock. We were at the Strasbourg markets the day before the shootings -- we contemplated shuffling the days around due to jet lag but are so incredibly thankful that we kept to the original schedule and were not there the following day.

Basel (day trip) -- THIS WAS ONE OF THE BEST DAYS OF MY LIFE!! We went to the Paper Museum and made paper, printed, did type setting, and made mottled paper. Our kids loved all the hands on activities but weren't interested in looking at any equipment if they weren't allowed to use it. Then we went to the children's Fairy Tale Christmas market (it's part of the market at Munsterplatz). It was incredible! There were so many amazing hands on activities for kids. You have to convert your Swiss Francs or Euros 1:1 into "fairy tale money" in order to do the activities (they will let you convert back if you have extra left over). There is a little wooden booth outside but adjacent to the Fairy Tale market where you have to get the fairy tale money. Our boys worked with the blacksmiths (who were amazing!) and it is mind blowing to watch your kids hammering hot iron into candle sticks and heart pendants. There were lots of other cool activities -- you could use power tools to make a functional (as opposed to decorative) nutcracker, wood burn your own designs onto a sword or shield, cook campfire bread on a stick on an open fire, decorate cookies, etc. There was a little train zipping through the heart of the fairy tale market with the conductor yelling "whoo! whoo!" as it zipped right across the walkways of the market. It all felt pretty magical. We strolled over to the market at Barfusserplatz and the atmosphere was quite jolly. People were happy and there were animatronic moose heads singing (in Swiss German?) and FONDUE DOGS!!!!! (hollowed out half baguettes filled with fondue!!!) Everyone we met at the museum & markets spoke many languages including English. FYI, the last train back to Colmar leaves before the markets close!

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Stuttgart (3 nights) -- we liked the decorated roofs at the markets but they were really crowded (we were there on a weekend). We had a lot of fun ice skating. It was a nice touch that you could pay a refundable deposit and get penguins/gnomes/whales that the kids could push around the rink to help them stay on their feet. We bought the 3 day tourist transit pass (kids were free) at the Tourist Information and this ended up being a good choice because we didn't have to figure out tickets every time we went somewhere. After reading so many rave reviews of the Mercedes museum, I went against my gut and we went. That was a mistake. We are just not car people. The kids were bored. It did seem like a really well done museum but was not for us. There were some cool kids crafts in the basement (make your own clay car & decorate a foam steering wheel) but my younger son was past done by the time we got down to the crafts and was totally miserable. I really regretted not going with the Kinderreich at Schloss Ludwigsburg instead. We did enjoy Sarah's recommendation of the Junges Schloss children's museum. It was small (which is a good thing when you don't want to have to spend the entire day in a children's museum) but quite unique.

Esslingen (day trip) -- the medieval market was fantastic for kids. The games were really fun but the cost quickly started to skyrocket. We discovered a little too late that the kids could just share a go at something (e.g. if you pay for 6 arrows of archery, they will let each kid shoot 3 arrows). All the people working the games were quite friendly. We tried to speak our extremely limited German whenever possible and not assume people would speak English to us -- we got on quite well ordering food and drinks but knew we wouldn't understand stuff like archery directions in German. So we were quite relieved and thankful to learn that everyone working the games spoke English (except the man running what seemed to be some kind of betting game involving a mouse?). The kids' rides were unusual -- a mini ferris wheel that was propelled by hand and a circular ride that seemed to be recreating some kind of sea voyage (lots of German commentary we didn't understand on that one but our kids loved it). We all had a lot of fun at the medieval market and I was quite proud when I shot an arrow right through the lemon! Our only regret this day was that we didn't arrange a tour with Sarah but there was so much unpredictability with the kids that we ended up not booking one.

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Nuremberg (2 nights) -- We saw the castle and did the deep well tour (this was done in German and English which is contrary to what I had read everywhere). The kids were frustrated that they couldn't get spots right at the edge of the well. We waited too long to book the medieval life in Nuremberg tour we wanted to do and instead had to settle for the tourist train around the city. It ended up being nice to sit for awhile and we saw more of the city and learned some fun stories but there was a lot of squeegeeing involved to see out the windows. I had read the tourist train had only German audio commentary with an English pamphlet but that was wrong -- there was an entire car with multilingual options for the audio commentary, including English. We enjoyed looking at the prune people at the market and loved the Nuremberg "drei im weggla" sausages. The children's market had a shockingly large number of adults and a shockingly small number of children. I had read there were a bunch of kids activities but I couldn't figure out where they were through the sea of adults. We went back early the next morning and discovered the activities were right in some of the booths that were selling things. I appreciated that the rides in the children's market all worked with communal tickets and you could get a discount with a multi-pack. The carousel was really aggressive with people vying for the hot air balloons on the top deck. One of my sons discovered his love of dampfnudel when I ordered one just because I had absolutely no idea what it was.

Seiffen (2 nights) -- We had a few goals with this stop -- we wanted to watch people making the beautiful wood Christmas crafts, wanted the kids to have a go at one of the workshops making their own craft, were hoping there would be snow to play in, and decided that we would do all our souvenir shopping in the shops there instead of at the Christmas markets we were visiting on the rest of the trip. All of the limited information I could find on Seiffen made it sound magical but hard to get to. The transportation actually felt easier than we thought it would be -- about 4 1/2 hours from Nuremberg with two quick train changes, followed by a 10 minute complimentary taxi ride arranged by our hotel (Buntes Haus) -- and even easier to get to Dresden afterward. We did get to watch the crafts being made, the kids did get to make a craft, and there was plenty of snow and complimentary sleds for Buntes Haus guests and a great sledding hill near the famous church. But I absolutely hated the shopping part. It felt so stressful and overwhelming. There are over 100 Christmas shops! And every square inch of every shop is just overflowing with stuff, much of which spins or lights up. There were hundreds (thousands?) of different pyramids, arches, nutcrackers... my brain just couldn't even process what I was looking at. We had a few specific decorations we were looking for, things we wanted to incorporate into our family traditions back home for future Christmases. We tried to shop as a family but it was too stressful worrying the kids might break stuff (picture $1,000 pyramids displayed near floor level in very crowded shops). Eventually, my husband took the kids sledding and I tried to shop alone but it was just not fun at all. I would go in some stores and then go sled a few times with the boys before hitting the stores again. I regret not just spending the whole day playing in the snow with the boys. I should mention I generally hate shopping for anything back home but do enjoy picking up handcrafted souvenirs when I travel so I really thought I would enjoy shopping in Seiffen but I was totally wrong. I wouldn't go so far as to say I regret going there. We did randomly run into Santa in the evening on his way to the advent calendar. He talked to the boys in German (a friendly man translated some of it for us) and Santa gave the boys wooden tops and some chocolates.

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Seiffen (continued) -- This was definitely the town with the biggest language barrier for me. Definitely my fault for not knowing more German -- but just a heads up that people speak a bit less English there than in the big cities and the transactions are a bit more complicated when you are dealing with tax forms or shipping. Almost all the stores had signs up that they offered tax-free shopping and almost none of the employees knew how to process it. Shipping seemed expensive and complicated. Some stores would take the tax off if you were shipping out of the country, some would not. One store said they couldn't give me a tax free form because I was from the US. Every tax form I was able to get was completely different (one of which customs basically said "what the heck is this?" when I presented it). It was all pretty confusing. If you do decide to shop in Seiffen, the general etiquette seems to be that they have display models that you are not supposed to touch (for pretty much anything bigger than a tree ornament). If you only see one of something, it is probably a display model. When you decide what you want, you find a salesperson and show them. They then go into the back and bring out one in a box that they open and show you to make sure it looks okay. If there is a problem with it, you can ask them to bring you another one. Then they take you to the register and you pay and make your decision about shipping versus hand carrying and attempt to get a tax-free form. The Christmas market at Seiffen is more about snacks & drinks and not really about shopping.

Dresden (2 nights) -- One of the main reasons we added Dresden to our itinerary was the Rustkammer and it did not disappoint! I have zero interest in armor (my boys love it) but it was absolutely breathtaking to walk in that room and see the armor displayed in jousting and fighting positions. We enjoyed the free audio guides, too. We spent a few minutes in the new green vault because it was included -- we especially enjoyed the carved cherry pit portraits -- but the boys were just not very interested in treasures. That's the main reason we skipped the old green vault, but after seeing how thoughtfully the Rustkammer was displayed, I have to admit I was very curious about the old green vault. We also did a walking tour that was supposed to be about Christmas traditions in the region, but there was some miscommunication and there was zero Christmas content. We did enjoy learning more about the city, though. I also insisted on going to see Raphael's Sistine Madonna at the Alte Meister -- it was so much bigger than I was expecting! And fun to see in person after seeing those little cherubs everywhere. The tinkling of the porcelain bells on the clock outside is delightful. The medieval Christmas market was a letdown after Esslingen. The Striezelmarkt was nice enough but nothing outstanding for kids. It did seem to have the best wood crafts of the markets we saw -- although I wasn't shopping, it was hard not to notice a definite increase in wood craft booths over the other markets. I noticed a couple things I bought in Seiffen were actually cheaper at the Dresden market. We ate stollen because we were supposed to, but the similar almond bread definitely was tastier.

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Dresden (continued) -- one of our very favorite activities was at the Strietzelmarkt -- they had a Christmas bakery just for kids. We saw other kids' bakeries at other markets, but this one was by far the best. The bakers were fantastic with kids, kind and patient. They taught the kids some great techniques (this coming from a family who bakes a lot at home). They had each kid wash their hands, don an apron, and gave them a big chunk of sugar dough and their own workstation. The showed the kids how to roll out the dough and they could choose their cookie cutters and made dozens and dozens of cookies. They kids each filled an entire professional sized sheet-pan. The bakers showed them how to roll out the dough scraps again and again to get more cookies. At the end, they showed them how to make little pretzel and snail shaped cooks with the last bits of dough. Then they got to put different toppings on the cookies. I think my kids were there for almost an hour. The adult bakers then bake them and you can come back and pick them up. It was really reasonably priced -- I think it was less than 10 euros? -- and each child gets to keep all the cookies they made. They had one baker who spoke English so he helped my kids. It seemed like it was also a babysitting service of sorts -- you could sign your kid in and then head out to the market while they baked (we didn't do that).

Cologne (2 nights) -- this was the first time we felt tired of Christmas markets. We thought that might happen, though, so we had booked the Hyatt so we could take the kids swimming at the hotel pool every day and planned a bit of a vacation from our vacation. I was worried the location across the bridge might feel too far away, but it wasn't bad at all. We breezed through the cathedral market (nothing special for kids) and spent some time at the gnome market. We went ice skating again. The rink at the gnome market was like a one way circuit, part of which was around a statue. Cologne was the first time we had rain, and it started while we were ice skating. They only let kids under 1 meter tall use the skating aids (unlike Stuttgart which had no such height requirement for the penguins/gnomes). It was a prettier rink than Stuttgart but our family enjoyed the Stuttgart rink more. The gnome market didn't have anything extraordinary for kids beyond the ice skating. The gnome market did have a lot of good food -- apple slice doughnuts, really good potato pancakes, and the best sausage I had in Germany (I got the non-organic Cologne bratwurst from the otherwise organic sausage stand). I was surprised to discover there were 14 (or was it 12?) different gnome mugs that hot beverages were being served in. I only wanted one gnome mug and didn't care which one it was so long as it wasn't the lady gnome with excessive makeup. Unfortunately, that's the one I was served but someone at a booth kindly exchanged it for a different version when we finished our beverage.

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Paris (5 nights) -- we were exhausted by the time we got to Paris and in hindsight should have saved it for a future trip. Two weeks abroad seems to be our sweet spot; three weeks was too long. We weren't planning on any Christmas markets in Paris -- just sightseeing. My husband and I both speak French, and I have been to Paris a couple times before so I was shocked by how hard this part of the trip turned out to be. Part of it was that getting to an activity booked at a specific time is very challenging with kids. Part of it was trying to find bathrooms in Paris for children having bathroom emergencies several times a day. Skies were gloomy and it was a bit depressing having to go through security everywhere and to not be able to walk freely under the Eiffel tower anymore. We were fortunate not to have any Saturdays in Paris (yellow vest protest days) except for our very early departure day.

Things that went well in Paris: Disneyland on Christmas day was our best day of this part of the trip. My husband hates all things Disney, and even he had a terrific day. The crowds were not bad compared to California, the boys were willing to go on Big Thunder for the first time, and it was fun for them to ride familiar rides but be hearing the dialog in French. We booked a private family tour of the Louvre that was way too expensive but was successful for the boys -- we tried to stay past the tour on our own and that was a bad idea. We did the family macaron class at Galleries Lafayette and that was just the right length and activity level for their ages. We climbed the Arc de Triomphe at the insistence of my little one as well as up the towers of Notre Dame (my first time!) -- those went well. We had a terrific lunch at Bouillon Pigalle. We couldn't deal with being locked into a lunch reservation time, so we decided to go with B.P. since it didn't take reservations anyway. We got there soon after opening, had a short wait for a table, and then had a terrific and reasonably priced lunch. Everyone in the restaurant seemed to be in a really good mood, the place was just buzzing with happiness. Fellow diners were smiling at our children! Despite them having around six different languages for their menu, we were surrounded by French people. It was just so pleasant and not stressful and it felt like we got something right.

Things that went poorly in Paris: The Eiffel tower, which we had been reading about and looking forward to for months, was a total bust. We did a tour of a small boulangerie that I enjoyed but the kids did not. We went to the Cite des Enfants 5-12 year old section, which my kids were really looking forward to but it was a nightmare. The exhibits were amazing but you have a timed session which is only 1 hour and 15 minutes long during school holidays. It was very crowded, there were long waits for everything, and my kids were stressed out because they only got to do a couple of things during the short session before we were kicked out.

I think where I went wrong with Paris was all the things booked with specific time slots that were so hard to get to on time with kids in tow. Then I overcompensated for these by having no plan for the rest of the day. I had a list of things I wanted to do at some point (but we never got to many of them because there was a lot of "what should we do now?" wasted time). I think I should have had a general outline for the day of two things we wanted to do but with no specific time to have to be there, as well as a list of decent restaurants nearby that you can get in without reservations.

I'm not sure how helpful all this will be to anyone else since we saw so few kids at the Christmas markets -- but we did have an amazing trip and are glad we took the kids with us. I think the only big thing we would have done differently would have been cutting Paris in order to shorten the overall trip length down to two weeks.

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5547 posts

Thanks for the detailed report.

With hindsight, it sounds as though you tried to visit too many different locations - 8 in your first 15 days, which is why you got burned out towards the end, particularly with 2 night stays 2 weeks into the trip. Moving on is time consuming and tiring, particularly with young children.

You did well to find so many things at the Christmas markets for children - most I have visited cater more for adults than children.

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2258 posts

I really enjoyed your report, Jody. It may not have gone perfectly, but things rarely do. Kudos to you for your honesty so others can learn from your mistakes. Overall, it sounds like a wonderful trip.

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1808 posts

I love your report - my kids are all grown but I just got back from a trip to Thailand with all of them and some of your basic principals still apply. :) Traveling with young ones is not easy and even at home, all days are not easy. It sounds like you did some great research and had a wonderful trip. I am glad you reported for the benefit of future travelers with young ones!

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11288 posts

Thanks for taking the time to post all these details, particularly since we don't get many reports of Christmas market visits, and none I can recall with children.

It sounds like Paris at Christmas has some of the same problems as New York at Christmas. For many visitors, it's a wonderful and atmospheric time to visit New York. For me, living here, it's a time when everything is more crowded and tense; I steel myself every time I go out. And yes, for anyone else reading this, if you're not actually going up in the Eiffel Tower, stay well away - the security measures make it a nightmare to navigate the area.

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837 posts

Thanks, Jody. Enjoyed reading your report and appreciate your honesty. We're starting to travel with grandsons, and I'm always searching for helpful input. Last year's trip with only the 10yo was perfect, with 8 days in London and 5 in Iceland. This year we're hoping to take both to Germany for a week, then my husband will fly home with the now 11yo (so he can go to Boy Scout camp) and I will take the 10yo on to London for 6 or so days. We know Germany well, having lived there, and I think I have a good plan of fun things to show them, but it will involve a string of 2 night stays -- not my ideal for traveling -- and I'm already having angst about how well this will work! I agree that two weeks seems to be about the right length for kid travel....and husband travel. Me, I could stay a month, easily. (I was in Colmar in December, and I really wanted to ride that galloping horse!) And I'm putting Basel on my list. Thanks!

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2176 posts

Thank you for your report. This is the most detailed report on Christmas markets I have read on this forum ( or ever).
I have never found that shopping and kids go together, but hopefully your boys got some special memories.

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307 posts

Thank you for taking the time to describe your travels! It sounds like there were many highs along the way, and I found it very interesting to read your reports of the Christmas markets and how they varied.

Hopefully your insights will be helpful to other travelers with young children. I found it interesting and my kids are all young adults! We have taken them to Paris twice, and done some of the same activities you did. If we get a chance to go back again I would like to try some of the other ones that you mentioned. It’s helpful to know what was interesting and what was worth skipping by hearing other people’s experiences.

Thanks again for taking the time to share the details of your trip.

Laurie

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56 posts

Thanks for your report. A trip to the Christmas markets is on my "someday" list so I appreciated the detail you included. I will bookmark your post so I can refer to it when I plan my eventual trip.

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3026 posts

Thank you for the excellent, comprehensive report. I really enjoyed reading it and appreciate the time that went into putting it together. I'm glad that you made so many good memories with your kids while picking up some lessons for future trips. A friend and I end each travel day in Europe by coming up with the "really cool thing of the day" and the "travel misadventure of the day." It helps us to celebrate the fun stuff we did and to chuckle at the things that went awry.

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38 posts

Wow, thank you for taking the time to write such a detailed report. I will be bookmarking this for future reference...you have inspired me to plan for a Christmas market trip in a few years, when my little one will be 6!

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2987 posts

Thoughtful report! I'm glad you enjoyed the Junges Schloss museum. I don't have kids myself and of my friends that do the oldest kids are toddlers so I'm not that well-versed in what's great for kids around here. I'm sorry you didn't enjoy the Mercedes Museum, that's literally the first time I've heard that from anybody! But if your kids aren't into cars I can totally see that. I feel the same way about the Porsche museum, personally.

I'm really delighted you loved Esslingen's market as much as I do! It's really my favorite that I've been to.

Interesting that Dresden had cheaper prices on the wooden Christmas stuff than Steiffen - I almost made a trip to Steiffen this year but didn't want to spend that much time in transit. Prices at the Streizelmarkti n Dresden were the best I'd seen in Germany, but I'd assumed Steiffen was cheaper! Good to know for the future. The old Green room is pretty cool but I can't imagine needed to do the old and new on the same trip.

Good tip about the Basel markets! I haven't been there at Christmastime and if I'm still here I'll have to check it out!