A Tale of Two Christmas Markets – Cologne, Germany and Strasbourg, France

Allison is back  sharing with us her experiences last week visiting a Christmas market in Cologne, Germany as well as her prior visit to a Christmas market in Strasbourg, France.  Going to a Christmas market has always been a dream of mine and I’m excited that she and her hubby were able to go and share their experiences with us.  After reading her experiences, I know which one I would like to visit.

Hello readers! I’m glad to be back as a guest on Jane’s blog to share some more of our travel adventures. Most recently, hubby and I returned from a trip to Cologne, Germany where we visited one of Europe’s most popular Christmas markets. We were set upon this trip after visiting the Christmas market in Strasbourg, France several years ago. But as it turned out, the two experiences couldn’t have been more different.

Cologne, or Koln as it’s known to Germans, is a small, modern city that has been mostly rebuilt after heavy destruction from World War Two. Strasbourg, set in France’s Alsace region near the German border, offers a great mix of the two cultures.

Our trip to Strasbourg in 2010 was our first foray into the “old world” of central Europe. Strasbourg met and exceeded our expectations from the first minute, when we were greeted by the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg, dating back to 1176. The massive, beautiful gothic church sits in the middle of an historic square alongside restaurants in buildings from the fourteenth century. This area was the location of the main Christmas market and lucky for us, our hotel!

strasbourg 2

The traditional Strasbourg Christmas market is, in this traveler’s opinion, everything and more that one would want from an old-world holiday experience. Stalls lined the square and sold festive French pastries and German sausages. There were numerous stands offering Glühwein (mulled red wine in the U.S.) and other hot beverages that were new to us, like warm orange juice with honey.

strasbourg 1

The vendors sold beautiful handmade ornaments and other traditional holiday crafts. Despite having a ‘tourist feel,’ the market was not crowded at all, possibly because it’s not one of the major markets or possibly because it was so close to Christmas.

strasbourg 5

One of the most interesting aspects of the Strasbourg market was the blending of French and German cultures and cuisine. Everywhere we went felt homey and rustic and served generous portions of bratwursts and sauerkraut, alongside escargot and crepes.

cologne food

On Christmas Eve we passed an impromptu choir singing beautiful Christmas hymns, and on Christmas morning we awoke to what felt like the inside of a fantastic a snow globe. As we stepped out of our hotel into the cathedral square, the market was awake and bustling, the cathedral towering breezily over the scene. Snow was falling in fat, soft flakes, and there was a brass band playing Jingle Bells. Spending Christmas away from family is hard for me, but being in Strasbourg was a unique experience that hubby and I both cherish.

strasbourg 3

 

Fast forward to last week when we landed in cloudy Cologne. Hubby and I both agree that we had some misguided expectations of our first trip to Germany, as there were no oversized beer steins or lederhosen to be found. Instead, we found ourselves in a central German city with an interesting mix of modern and old.

The Cologne Cathedral (dating to 1248) sits right next to a modern train station and the central shopping district where you can find all of the H&M-type stores you could ask for. A five minute walk towards the Rhine River will bring you in front of the city’s older and more traditional-looking hotels, restaurants, and brew pubs.

Cologne has not one but at least seven Christmas markets. The largest one is set in front of the cathedral, with others scattered in walking distance throughout the city.

koln 4

Hubby and I couldn’t help but compare Cologne against our Strasbourg experience. First, the Cologne markets were much bigger and very crowded. We arrived on a Thursday and visited markets each day and evening (among other activities like visiting the Chocolate Museum and trying out the local beer called Kölsch).

koln 3

By Saturday night, the markets were so crowded it was impossible to leisurely stroll from stall to stall. Unlike Strasbourg where you grab your mulled wine and roam the market, the Cologne markets offer several ‘bar’ type areas where you stay and drink.

koln 5

One the one hand, this was really cool because it made you feel like you were part of Cologne’s holiday happy hour scene. On the other hand, the set-up somewhat made the crowds worse. At the Cologne markets, I didn’t spy any other Americans, and I didn’t really recognize many languages other than German. It was neat to be in a place and not feel like it was dominated by tourists (despite the crowds).

Hubby and I would agree thought that our best Cologne experience happened not at the Christmas market but in a cellar restaurant across the river from central Cologne. We ate dinner at a great local place where you shared tables with your neighbors and the servers refilled your traditionally small glass with Kolsch until you placed a coaster as a sign to stop. Lucky for us, we sat next to a pair of really friendly locals out celebrating a birthday. Their offer to help read the menu turned into a four-hour conversation, an invitation to stay during our next visit to Cologne, and led to the eating of a pork cutlet which is easily near the top of the best things we’ve ever eaten.

Some tips if you’re going:

In Strasbourg, you will need to make dinner reservations. The best meal we had was at an historic restaurant near the cathedral called ‘Maison Kammerzell’ – highly recommended and worth the price!

In Cologne, there is a Hyatt on the opposite bank of the Rhine from the city center. The hotel is immediately next to a pedestrian bridge that connects to the central historical area. I would consider staying there because you can safely and quickly walk everywhere you want to go but can get a break from the crowds and have a great view of the cathedral.

koln 1

Make sure to have plenty of cash on hand as most market vendors won’t accept credit cards and increasingly, European vendors are only accepting what’s called ‘pin and chip’ cards which are not widely offered by U.S. banks.

Finally, It can (and will) be cold! In addition to the usual attire, consider bringing a pair of long (woollen) underwear.

koln 2

Happy holiday travels!

Thanks for your report on both Strasbourg and Cologne.  I’ve been to both cities but my heart would be with Strasbourg.  Strasbourg  is known as the Venice of France with canal rides on boats similar to those used in Amsterdam.  The Cathedral is magnificent – words do not do it justice and if you do go there, I would suggest hiring a local guide to escort you through and explain all about the cathedral ………Jane

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