The warm wine fragrance of glühwein, the waft of woodsmoke and roast pork and the shouts of excitement from the children on the old fashioned carousel. The evening may be chill but the atmosphere is convivial, as families and friends enjoy time together. Somehow there’s nothing better than a German Christmas market to start the festive season! Last weekend we spent a few days in Heidelberg at the beginning of Advent and experienced many German Christmas traditions that were both familiar and new to us. Here are some of the memories we brought home with us;
How many Christmas Markets are there in Heidelberg?
In December, there’s a Christmas market wherever you look in Heidelberg! Bounded on one side by the river Neckar, on the other by a wooded hillside, the pedestrian Hauptstrasse runs through the heart of the old town. Along this strip of picturesque houses and cobbled streets are small squares, each with its own Christmas market. Up on the hillside there’s a Christmas market in the grounds of Schloss Heidelberg and another down the river at Neuberg Abbey. After a while we stopped counting and just meandered through the streets and stalls, soaking up the atmosphere.
While I’ve visited the larger Christmas markets in German cities such as Munich, I really enjoyed the smaller scale of the Heidelberg markets set in such pretty surroundings. The town still keeps its medieval charm, since the Americans in WW2 planned it as their headquarters after the war and so held off the bombing. During the day things are quiet but as dusk falls the squares become festive as friends meet for a glühwein and a bratwurst and families enjoy the lights and entertainment.
I hope you enjoy the video below about Christmas in Heidelberg
At least half the stalls seem to be selling delicious things to eat and drink, while the rest sell candles, christmas decorations and other handicrafts that will make perfect gifts or souvenirs to bring home.
“Christmas time in Heidelberg is truly magical with Christmas Markets that dot the gorgeous Old Town and create a wonderful holiday spirit. My classmates and I would use our 15 minutes class breaks to run to the Christmas Markets for a mug of Glühwein. For me, it isn’t officially Christmas season until I have my first Glühwein! When in Heidelberg, make sure to check out the Christmas Market at the castle. It is the best and most authentic one in the city.”
Jordan B Wagner of Beer Time with Wagner
Take a boat trip to the Neuberg Abbey Christmas Market
Late in the afternoon, we took a river boat for a 30 minute ride along the Neckar to Stift Neuberg, the Benedictine Abbey where a Christmas Market is held on each weekend of Advent. As we climbed the worn stone steps from the landing stage and walked through the gardens, we could just make out the wicker edged herb beds, shrub roses and statues in the dusk. Now the smell of woodsmoke reached our nostrils and we turned the corner to see a tall pine tree festooned with light bulbs and the stalls of the market in the Abbey courtyard.
The air was damp and cold, but we found the wood fire that was roasting a suckling pig on a spit and stood nearby to keep warm. Guy ordered a firewürst, a sausage spiced with chilli, while I went for the roast pork in a bun with lashings of mustard. An upturned log with the heart cut out in a starburst was burning as a natural brazier with tables nearby to rest your food and drink.
In the wooden barns were plenty of stalls selling crafts. I had my eye on some felt slippers in a strawberry pattern, but settled on a toadstool Christmas tree decoration, while Guy discussed beekeeping at the stand selling honey and beeswax candles. In the monastery window we could see a single candle burning, and speculated about the shadowy hooded figures we saw walking up the path until we realised that this was the way to the Zum Kolosterhof restaurant and brewery!
“I love the German tradition of meeting friends at a Christmas market for a mug of Glühwein. The focus is on spending time together and enjoying each other’s company in a way that involves very little cost and gets back to the real spirit of Christmas.”
Laurel Robbins at Monkeys and Mountains
Find out more about the Neuberg Abbey on their website here (German) or on the Heidelberg Marketing site here . The Abbey can be reached in a walk along the path by the river from Heidelberg, by the No 34 bus from Heidelberg or by boat as we did from the Weisse Flotte pier near the Old Bridge. This trip (€7 return) runs on the weekends in Advent timed with the market but other cruise trips are available depending on the season. The Abbey can be visited year round as there is a farm shop, organic brewery and restaurant with a beer garden.
Enjoy a Glühwein at the Christmas Market
As the afternoon turns to evening in the Christmas Markets of Heidelberg, friends meet for a drink and a chat, resting their mugs on the bar tables beside each stand. You’ll smell the Glühwein of course, the spiced mulled wine that is guaranteed to chase away any chill, especially when you’ve had a few! Each stand has a decorative Christmas mug to serve their Glühwein and you pay a small deposit which is refunded when you return the mug, or you can keep it as a Christmas souvenir.
Another of the Christmas traditions in Germany is the Fuerzangenboule, a stronger version made of spiced wine with a sugar cone soaked in rum which is flamed in front of you and drips into the mixture. Be sure to let the blue flame subside before you take a sip! While we are glued to old Bond movies on TV over Christmas, the Germans enjoy watching the 1944 movie Der Fuerzangenboule, in which the actors drink their Fuerzangenboule while recalling nostalgic memories of their schooldays.
“Lovely Christmas time! Every year I am looking forward to it as it is my highlight of the winter here in Munich. I usually meet with friends and colleagues at the Christmas market to have Glühwein or hot chocolate with rum which keeps you warm in the cozy evenings.”
Matthias Derhake at Travel Telling
Make or buy some traditional Christmas biscuits
Baking special Christmas biscuits is a German tradition that families enjoy at home during Advent, but those of us just visiting can find them in the Christmas markets and bakeries of Heidelberg. Everywhere we noticed Zimsterne or cinnamon stars topped with white icing, but there are plenty of other varieties and of course each family has their own recipe.
Also popular is German gingerbread or Lebkuchen, a biscuit made with honey and nuts as well as Christmas spices including ginger. The large heart shaped Lebkuchen decorated with brightly coloured icing are on sale in every Christmas market but I think I’d rather leave these for decoration and stick to the smaller varieties sold in the bakery to have with my coffee.
“For us the time before Christmas is the nicest season of the year, when we can relax and do things we never find the time for during a busy travel year. One of these is to stand in our kitchen and prepare christmas cookies together. That is a christmas tradition I have loved since I was a child in my parents’ home. My sister and I used to ‘help’ my mother prepare cookies which were then hidden until a few days before Christmas, otherwise they would never have survived until the holidays! “
Monika Fuchs at TravelWorldOnline
Another Christmas favourite are the Springerle biscuits with their pressed relief designs. We loved those at Cafe Gundel in Heidelberg with charming antique motifs such as angels, hearts or historic scenes. The designs are made by pressing the biscuit dough into moulds or by rolling a sheet of dough with a special rolling pin that has the designs carved into it.
“During weekends we get together and bake biscuits with our loved ones. My favourite Christmas biscuits which I highly recommend to try are the traditional Nuremberg Lebkuchen (Ginger Bread), Spekulatius (speculoos), Zimststerne and Domino Steine which you can buy at every Christmas market and even supermarket.”
Matthias Derhake at Travel Telling
Taste some hearty German Christmas dishes
We couldn’t visit Heidelberg without trying a hearty German dinner in one of the restaurants of the Old Town. Our choice of Goldener Hecht, was right beside the Old Bridge with an outdoor terrace that would be a prime people-watching spot in summer. Inside we settled for a table in the cosy dining room with wood panelling and painted murals.
The hotel’s claim to fame is that the revered German poet Goethe ‘almost’ stayed here in September 1815 – apparently he called in to enquire about a room but all were taken. Personally I think it’s stretching the connection a bit, but then Goethe is held in as high regard as we English hold Shakespeare. I ordered the goose breast served with red cabbage and dumplings, which is often served at a German Christmas eve dinner. Like our own Christmas meal of turkey-with-all-the-trimmings it was most enjoyable but I’d be happy to save this for a treat just once a year.
Guy decided to try another traditional German food, the boiled veal with vegetables served in a copper pan of bouillon which he highly recommended. There was apple sauce on the side and a dish of roasted potatoes, cripy with onions.
Christmas Chocolates to take home
Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without us stuffing ourselves with too many chocolates and ruining our appetite for the Christmas Turkey. Of course we had to make a trawl of the best chocolate and sweet shops in Heidelberg to bring back a few stocking fillers. We found the ultimate souvenir at Chocolaterie Knösel where they sell the ‘Students Kiss‘ chocolate truffles.
These were invented over a hundred years ago when the male students of Heidelberg University might admire the young ladies from the local colleges. They could buy a box of Students Kiss chocolates to present to the object of their affection, even if the presence of watchful chaparones meant they could not steal a real kiss.
For fruity candies we enjoyed watching the lollipops being made in the Heidelberger Bonbon store near the Old Bridge, where you can buy a Darth Vadar lollipop as well as the traditional candy hearts and Christmas canes. Also look out for the boxes of Advent chocolates at Vorbach in Kornmarkt where there is a numbered chocolate for each day of Advent – sweet anticipation indeed!
“One tradition that Jim and I always loved was on December 5th putting out the kids’ shoes so that St. Nikolaus would come by and fill it with candy or coal, depending if they were good or bad. We also enjoyed the Advent calendars where you get to open a door to a tiny treasure each day leading up to Christmas which puts everyone in the spirit.”
Corinne Vail of Reflections en Route
An Advent wreath for your home
As we were in Heidelberg on the first weekend of Advent we noticed many Advent wreaths on sale. The wreath of pine foliage is decorated with ribbons and four candles, one for each of the Sundays of Advent. The tradition of the Advent wreath was started by the German Lutherans in the 16th century when a candle would be lit for prayers and carols on each Sunday of Advent, but now it has been adopted as a German Christmas tradition by everyone.
Advent seemed to be a much bigger deal in Germany than in the UK and is marked by Advent calendars in many different forms. It might be the chocolates, each in a numbered box for a different day of advent, or calendars which have a small door behind which is hidden a tiny gift or treat. In Germany it is more typical to put up your tree on Christmas eve so the wreaths and calendars create anticipation in the weeks running up to Christmas before the house is decorated.
A Christmas Nativity scene
In German churches and homes it is traditional to have a Christmas crib with figures of the holy family, shepherds and wise men, often beautifully carved in wood which is an art form in Germany. But at the Jesuit church on Universityplatz in Heidelberg we spotted a Christmas crib with a difference. The large papier-mâché figures had been made in the nearby prison and included not only figures of the Holy Family but many other scenes from German life.
Below the Holy Family, the German football team was celebrating their World Cup win and while the Pope seemed to be blessing the baby Jesus, other parts of the nativity included prostitutes, cripples and even a tragic scene of drowning refugees. “Jesus was born to save the whole of mankind” seemed to be the message. He’s here not just for the powerful but for the poor and downtrodden, the weak and the disposessed in our world.
Christmas is all year round at Kathe Wolfhart
If you long for the magic of Christmas to stay with you all year round, I have good news for you! The Kathe Wohlfart shop in Heidelberg sells Christmas and festive decorations throughout the year, so be sure to pay a visit to soak up the atmosphere, even if it feels a little incongruous in summertime.
Over the years we have collected many different souvenirs on our travels and lately we’ve taken to buying a Christmas tree decoration wherever we go. When we put up our Christmas tree, we love to remind each other of where and when we bought them to relive those holiday memories.
Kathe Wohlfart is also a great place to buy cuckoo clocks, although since they cost hundreds of Euros it’s not a cheap souvenir!
I’m sure readers from Germany or those who’ve lived there will remember many other German customs they enjoy as part of the Advent season. Please do share your own family favourites with us in the comments. While we love to spend Christmas in Bristol surrounded by family and our own Christmas traditions, our visit to Heidelberg was a great start to our festive season, and I hope to yours. Read about more fun things to do in Heidelberg here.
More about Heidelberg
Plan your visit to Heidelberg
For more information about planning your trip to Germany, visit the Germany Tourism Website and read more about German Christmas Traditions | Follow them on Social Media | Twitter @GermanyTourism | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube |
You can also find information about Heidelberg on the Heidelberg Marketing website.
Compare prices and book Hotels in Heidelberg through my Hotel Booking page powered by HotelsCombined.com – see below for my hotel recommendations.
If you need a guide in Heidelberg, we highly recommend Susanne Fiek who runs culinary and other tours of Heidelberg.
Where to stay in Heidelberg
Heather and Guy stayed at Qube hotel, a stylish boutique hotel that was a 20 minute walk or short tram ride from the Old Town. Our room was in Villa Qube, a large townhouse next to the main hotel, on the 4th floor under the eves. Our windows faced the gardens at the back and was quiet, with sloping ceilings and a grey linen sofa and desk as well as a huge comfy double bed.
There were interesting lighting effects which bathed the room in a purple glow and the bathroom was huge with both walk in shower and bathtub. The Qube restaurant has an excellent reputation (although we didn’t eat there) and in summer you can reserve a table on the rooftop terrace with views towards the river.
How to get to Heidelberg
Heather and Guy flew from Bristol to Frankfurt and took the train to Heidelberg. Trains run around every hour from the Frankfurt airport station with a change at Mannheim. On arrival in the airport follow signs for train station and then Fernbahnhof ( long distance train). Tickets can be bought from ticket machines as you reach the Fernbahnhof. The cost is €25 one way or €19 for a saver ticket which must be purchased 1 day in advance. The journey takes around 1 hour.
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