Christmas markets are a centuries-old tradition in Europe and a bucket list trip for many. We’ve been delighted by what we’ve found in each and every one we recently explored during Viking’s Christmas on the Rhine cruise. As we sailed up the Rhine from Switzerland to Amsterdam, we knew we had to pick up plenty of gifts for friends and family!
We covered a lot of ground: eight different markets in a week. Here’s our round-up of all of our favorite purchases made along the way. Hope there’s enough room in our checked luggage to get it all back home!
Colmar, France is a fairy-tale sort of place, one that reminded us a lot of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Its Christmas markets were sparkling and sweet; so were the goodies we picked up here.
Erika: I went linen-crazy in Colmar. I love tea towels and find you can never have enough of them in your kitchen. The ones I found at Colmar’s charming and historic Au vieux Pignon store will make the perfect gifts. Their cheery scarlet and beige plaid patterns feature storks, which nest year after year in special round nests on top of the town’s churches and cathedrals. They’re the mascots of Colmar, and really the Alsace region. I’ll be happy to have the linens grace the homes of my loved ones.
Ganache-Filled Chocolate Gingerbread Men
Missy: French Chocolatier Jacques Bockel’s Christmas market stand is filled with many delicious choices. After careful consideration, the bag of 11 chocolate gingerbread men was the perfect first gift pick. They’re small so they won’t carry heavy; come in a variety of milk, dark, and white chocolate; and are adorably decadent. Each gingerbread man is filled with a special flavor of chocolate ganache. Delish!
Tucked in between the Vosges Mountains and the Alsace plain, tiny Riquewihr leans in hard on the holidays. The centuries-old half-timbered homes are a delight, as are the specialty food stalls and hand-crafted gifts to be found around every corner of this charming spot.
Erika: I picked up lovely leather bracelets for both my boys (husband and son) from a local artisan here. I speak just a few words of French but quickly learned that the man selling them was indeed the one who made them and had been certified as an artisan by the government. It was important to me during this trip that I bought and supported local economies and individual artists as much as I could; mission accomplished!
Missy: This is likely a gift for yourself, rather than to bring home, but I was amazed by the unique food choices in Riquewihr. Cheeses, chocolates, duck, sausages, foie gras, fruit cakes, and, yes, filet mignon. They’ll cook it right there for you so you can enjoy it with your vin chaud (hot wine) or the whiskey and brandy that was just a booth or two away. Have a seat in the adorable little courtyard surrounded by centuries-old buildings and enjoy.
This melting pot of a border city is quite French, yet German influences can be seen, felt, and even tasted everywhere. Its old town is actually an island, situated in the River Ill. See beautiful bridges over canals that meander throughout the city, which decks itself out for the holidays. Strands of glittering lights hang over the city’s picturesque squares, and the holiday display outside of Strasbourg’s cathedral is especially breathtaking.
Erika: There were many, many stalls at Strasbourg’s Christmas markets, but I did have to hunt a bit before finding the perfect take-home memento. It’s a hand-spun wooden Christmas ornament, stained red to show off its grain. It’s beautiful and won’t break in my luggage.
Alsacian Terra-Cotta House
Missy: I’ve always wondered where folks with beautiful Christmas villages got their start, and now I know. Strasbourg’s gorgeous cathedral is surrounded by Christmas markets. The one that drew me in was filled with lovely handmade homes that can be used as fragrance diffusers or incense holders. These homes are typical of what you’d see in Strasbourg and other villages in the Alsace region of France and make a lovely keepsake. I asked if they had a store or website, but unfortunately, you can only find these at the market.
Missy: These gingerbread man-shaped sweet breads are delicious and you can only find these during the holidays. We tried ours at Pains Westermann located on a beautifully decorated street. They were available with raisins, chocolate chips, or plain.
This university town mostly escaped the bombing during World War II, a fact that’s evident as you wander its charming cobblestone streets and historic homes and into its Christmas markets, which occupy most of its squares during the holiday season. The Marktplatz is especially lively, with rides for the kids and some of the best gluhwein we sampled during our time on the Rhine!
Students Kiss Chocolates
Erika: Our tour guide pointed out a chocolatier just off the Marktplatz that sold traditional candies. When we popped back into Chocolaterie Knösel, we learned they were called “students kisses,” and the story behind them is as sweet as they are. Boys studying at the university would buy these individually wrapped and boxed chocolates and give them to young ladies in hopes of beginning a courtship. It’s a tradition that dates back to the 1800s. I snagged one for my husband, who I met at university. I think he’ll get a kick out of the story behind the little sweet!
Missy: I had no idea I’d fall in love with all of the unique holiday mugs each town uses to serve Glühwein, but Heidelberg’s was my favorite. Beautifully decorated with a heart-shaped handle, I wished I had brought more than one home. This was also the first place we tried rosé Glühwein, which was our favorite.
Pro Tip: Our guide said to look for the Glühwein stands which displayed the winery name as part of the offerings. This would confirm the wine is local to the region and usually without preservatives. We heeded the advice and the ones we tried were very tasty.
Located at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle Rivers, Kooblenz features loads of history, a fortress, nearby castles, and an imposing statue of Emperor Wilhelm I on horseback looking out over the water. The city’s historic center dates back centuries and comes alive during the holidays with many stalls filled with fun finds, and, of course, plenty of festive food and drink.
Erika: Just off one of the main Christmas markets, we checked out a tiny boutique called Frl. Diehl Karamell, known for its handmade gourmet caramels. They came in a variety of flavors, including chocolate sea salt, vanilla, and even cardamom. I picked out a dozen, and they were beautifully boxed up. They’ll be the perfect treat for my mother-in-law, who makes caramels every Christmas for her family and friends.
Missy: Once you’ve consumed enough Glühwein in multiple European cities, the thought of not being able to savor the warm drink when you return home doesn’t sit well. Pfeffersack & Soehne in Koblenz has ceramic containers filled with a variety of spices and all would make a great gift. But once I saw the bags of spices for red and white Glühwein, I picked them up immediately and am happy to know more can be ordered online.
We arrived in Germany’s fourth largest city on a Sunday morning, which was the perfect time to visit its gorgeous Gothic masterpiece of a cathedral during an Advent mass. We listened in for a few unforgettable moments, then wandered just outside the UNESCO World Heritage site to an adjacent market with a brass band playing holiday favorites. Cologne’s markets were extensive and featured elves everywhere — on signs, bags of cookies, Glühwein mugs, even on a mini-ski lift! A favorite treat: a group of jet-skiing Santas, who passed right by our Viking boat docked along the Rhine.
Erika: Every year, my family decks the halls, and that includes putting out our collection of nutcrackers we’ve collected over the years. I knew I wanted to add to that collection during this trip, and looked high and low for a hand-crafted, German-made nutcracker. My persistence paid off. I found a gorgeous solid wood soldier produced by a family-run company called Christian Ulbricht. The large nutcracker isn’t painted, but rather stained in different colors, and is just beautiful. He took up a lot of room in my suitcase and was not cheap, but I know he’ll last for years to come and always remind me of Cologne.
Missy: This beautiful Advent calendar doesn’t come with any chocolate or other goodies. It’s simple, but I just loved the antique look with Cologne’s cathedral and children in the horse-drawn sleigh. Plus, it’s perfectly light and packable. In addition to Advent calendars, this stand had plenty of beautiful, antique-looking Christmas cards to choose from as well.
Bonus: Butter Spekulatius Cookies
Missy: I couldn’t pass up on these cookies made in Cologne and in the shape of the city’s famous elves. They come plain and spiced and are perfect to share with guests during the holidays.
Bonus: Glass Ornaments
Erika: Here is where I broke my “don’t buy anything breakable” rule. I couldn’t resist picking up a few stunning hand-blown glass ornaments crafted by a local artisan. I especially loved the witches’ ball design, with its delicate and fine glass threads or webbings pulled from bottom to top. I know they will make the perfect gifts for family and friends. While Viking brought the artist on for a glass-blowing demonstration and we were able to buy on the ship, the artist also had a booth in Cologne’s Christmas market next to the Cathedral.
Cologne’s rival city to the north, Düsseldorf has always been the fashion center of Germany. But in the winter, its Altstadt district comes alive during the winter holiday season with one of the biggest Christmas markets in the country. It boasts seven different sites, each one with a different theme. There’s even an ice-skating rink for those who want to really get into the spirit!
Erika: This was our last market, and by the time we got to Düsseldorf, my holiday shopping was pretty much complete. But I did get one small thing here — a small paper parcel of sugared almonds. Indulging in this holiday treat in such a festive setting was the perfect present for myself!
Missy: Growing up in a German farming community, smokers weren’t unfamiliar, but I couldn’t resist the two Santas. The food and drink served at Christmas markets really brings friends and families together, and I loved it. Considering the number of bratwursts and mugs of Glühwein we enjoyed, these smokers will bring back amazing memories for years to come during the holidays.
Missy: Finally, the Netherlands doesn’t really have any Christmas markets, but they do have siroopwafels (also known as stroopwafels). On our last stop on the cruise, we visited Gouda and Van Vliet, the only family bakery still making the delicious treat in town. We were able to make, and enjoy, our own siroopwafel. I also picked up a few bags from the shop. I must say, they’re my boys’ favorite treat from the entire trip.