Christmas markets lure visitors to Germany

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Annual Christmas markets at Germany’s largest cities have become one of the country’s most notable tourist draws during the past two decades. The Bavarian capital of Munich, for example, hosts 21 different markets between the end of November and Christmas. About 25 million people visit Bavaria’s holiday markets annually.

Christmas markets have long-standing roots, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that Germany’s tourism representatives began marketing the idyll of mulled wine and gingerbread. Their active efforts have proven successful.

"Twenty years ago, Munich’s hotels drew only 200,000 visitors during the month of December; now our hotels report 750,000 overnight visitors,” said Gabriel Weishäupl, Munich’s tourism director during the opening ceremony of the city’s Christmas market a few years ago.

During Advent time, the four weeks leading up to Christmas, a total of 2,500 Christmas markets are organised in Germany; these attract about 160 million people annually. Adding in total proceeds from hotels, restaurants and retail stores, annual profits add up to five billion euros. The global recession of 2008, for example, didn’t significantly reduce visitor numbers or business at Christmas markets. Many vendors at Munich’s Marienplatz market, for example, can support themselves for an entire year from profits made during December.

A 600-year-old tradition

Weihnachtsmarkt, or Christkindlmarkt in Catholic southern Germany, is a tradition dating back hundreds of years in German-speaking Europe. The oldest known Christmas markets were held in the 1300s.

Christmas markets initially rose from a desire by local artisans to sell their products in cities. Permits were handed out so extensively that cities decided to concentrate sales in certain neighbourhoods. In addition to sales, various Christmas programming was organised.

Of the major cities, the oldest Christmas markets were held in Munich and Dresden. The country’s perhaps most famous holiday market, located about 160 kilometres north of Munich, is Christkindlesmarkt in Nürnberg. In recent years Cologne has tallied the largest visitor numbers, 5.5 million; the local market is located around the majestic cathedral by the river Rhine.

Christmas markets draw foreign tourists, especially from countries neighbouring Germany. The southern cities of Munich, Stuttgart and Nürnberg get an influx of tourists from countries such as Italy, France and Switzerland. Recent years have also seen growing numbers of tourists from Japan and the United States.

Holiday markets have become a veritable export for Germany. Christmas markets are now organised, with German help, in Great Britiain, the U.S and China, among other countries. The German city of Frankfurt has been one trailblazer in establishing an international constellation of holiday markets; the concept has spread from Frankfurt to Birmingham, for example.

Something for everyone

Almost every city in Germany hosts its own Christmas market that stocks staples such as mulled wine, gingerbread cookies, Christmas trees and ornaments. Each city also tries to set itself apart with its own traditions and novelties.

The organiser of Hamburg’s Christmas market, which spreads out in front of the old City Hall, has for the past decade been circus promoter Roncalli. Cooperation between the city of Hamburg and Roncalli has brought positive results, and in 2010, the market was named ”Store of the Year” by Germany’s retail federation.

The heart of Frankfurt’s Christmas market, on the other hand, is at the historic Römer square. The city was bombed to ashes during World War II, but Römer was rebuilt according to old city plans, and today offers an unforgettable backdrop for the holiday market. It receives about three million visitors annually, and thus is among Germany’s largest.

The tradition of Christmas markets in the capital city of Berlin date back to the early 1500s. The most popular markets are located in the former East Germany, at Gendarmenmarkt and Alexanderplatz. The cultural offerings of Spandau neighbourhood’s Christmas markets are considered to be the best in Germany.

Düsseldorf, the capital of the state of Nordrhein-Westfalen, is known for both its Christmas markets and its status as the fashion capital of western Germany. The number of overnight stays around Christmas time in Düsseldorf has nearly doubled in less than ten years.

Text by Tapio Nurminen
Photo by GettyImages

Published November 3, 2011

Category: Local features

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