The Christmas markets of the North Rhine-Westphalia region are a magical destination for a weekend city break in Germany in December. Featuring a concentration of cities, towns, and villages that are difficult to match elsewhere in Europe, the region covers Düsseldorf, Cologne, and Bonn which rank among my favorite Christmas markets in Europe. North Rhine-Westphalia also includes the cities of Dortmund, Essen, and Münster, the focus of our winter weekend jaunt this year. Read on to find out how to cover a lot of ground in just 2 days in Germany and experience the Christmas spirit of the North Rhine-Westphalia region.
Fly into Düsseldorf
Düsseldorf airport is a convenient entry point into North Rhine-Westphalia. We emerged from the immigration queue, hopped on the sky train monorail and were in the DB Bahn train station within 10 minutes. We only had to wait about 5 minutes for a train to our first Christmas market destination: Essen.
Buy DB Bahn's Schönes-Wochenende-Ticket to Cover All Your Transportation Needs for the Weekend
If you are visiting Germany for the weekend and plan to travel between a few different cities like we did, a German rail pass is the key to a successful trip. DB Bahn offers a Schönes-Wochenende-Ticket ("Nice Weekend Ticket"). This train ticket starts at 44 EUR per day (at the time of writing) and up to five people can travel together on the same ticket. Just pay an addition 6 EUR per person. We paid less than 100 EUR for our 2-day Schönes-Wochenende-Ticket thanks to a discount promotion that was running when we visited in mid-December. The ticket is good on all regional trains (e.g., RE and RB trains) and local transportation (e.g., S-Bahn trains and buses). You just need to be aware that this special train ticket is not valid on the faster German ICE trains. We opted for the "handy ticket" which we surfaced in the DB Bahn app on our mobile phones so we didn't have to worry about printing our rail ticket and potentially losing it.
First Stop? Essen Christmas Market
It is approximately a 30 minute train ride from Düsseldorf Airport to Essen. We emerged from the train station in Essen into a winter wonderland filled with cauldrons of piping hot glühwein and even a singing moose called Charley.
Essen's International Christmas Market with a Touch of Steampunk
Essen's Christmas Market is known for its international flair. We saw some vendors from cities around Europe and even a booth or two of exotic African crafts. I was particularly surprised to see a hint of steampunk. That was a first for me at a German Christmas market.
Essen's Sweet Tooth
We also discovered that Essen has a sweet tooth. Candied almonds are a German Christmas market staple but there was something extra special about the set-up in Essen where the roaster was multi-tasking to add just the right amount of sugar to a batch of spinning nuts while at the same time packaging up our order and having a lovely Christmas chat.
Glockenspiel am Deiterhaus
Christmas markets are a great excuse to visit cities in Germany that you might not take time to visit otherwise. There is always something to discover. We smiled when we saw this bright blue glockenspiel brightening Essen's central shopping street. You never know what you'll find when you take the time to explore.
All Aboard to the Dortmund Christmas Market
Our weekend in North Rhine-Westphalia was clearly off to a promising stop. Next up, we boarded the train from Essen to Dortmund, less than 30 minutes away.
Football Fun with Borussia Dortmund
Dortmund is definitely the football capital of North Rhine-Westphalia, if not all of Germany. There was a match on when we visited with home team Borussia Dortmund taking on TSG 1899 Hoffenheim. That did have a side effect of making the train extra crowded but we enjoyed seeing the mass of yellow and black clad fans making their way to the stadium. Dortmund won the match which lent an extra buzz to the Christmas markets around town.
Behold! The Dortmund Christmas Tree
Dortmund has the distinction of being home to the largest christmas tree in the world. The Dortmund Christmas Tree towers nearly 50 meters above the market stalls below and simply lights up the surrounding area.
SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT: Did you know that Christmas Markets aren't just a German thing. Here are some of my top Christmas travel recommendations.
I HEART Dortmund Christmas Market Mugs
My regular readers know that I love Christmas market mugs. For just 2 EUR or so, you can take home a unique souvenir. I use the Christmas market mugs year round for coffee. In fact, I'm sipping coffee out of one right now while I'm writing this post :-)
When you buy your glühwein, the vendors charge a deposit for the mug. You can either return the mug and get that deposit back or keep the mug for the cost of the deposit. Many vendors will even trade in your used mug for a clean one to take home if you ask. No point in carrying around sticky ceramic all day!
I was especially excited to see heart-shaped Christmas mugs in Dortmund. My husband and I were celebrating our wedding anniversary with this city break trip to the Christmas markets and the shape of the mug lent an unexpected element of romance to our weekend.
Dortmund's Awesome Reibekuchen and Vendors with Flair
Reibekuchen (aka potato pancakes) served with applesauce is my absolute favorite German Christmas Market treat. I love watching the potatoes sizzle in oil as they are deep fried to perfection. A dash of salt is the perfect complement and yields a great savory sweet combination.
I also really enjoyed watching this mushroom vendor stir a giant pot of champignons. They smell so good when you walk by.
Dinner at Dortmund's Hövels Hausbrauerei
There is definitely plenty of food to choose from at the Christmas markets in Dortmund. However, sometimes it's nice to get off your feet after walking and standing all day. Dinner at Hövels Hausbrauerei is a homey affair with hearty portions of German classic dishes like pork schnitzel served up with house-brewed beer.
Dortmund's Sparkling Shopping Malls
Hövels Hausbrauerei is located adjacent to a large shopping mall in Dortmund. After dinner, we opted for a quick bit of window shopping and were dazzled by the sparkling Christmas decorations. If you need to squeeze some last minute Christmas shopping into your weekend getaway, Dortmund has got you covered.
Overnight at Dortmund's The Grey Design Hotel
Dortmund makes a good home base for a Christmas market weekend getaway. The Grey is located just a 5 minute walk from the Dortmund Hauptbahnhof and features a friendly staff and boutique feel. Our room was on the top floor and had a sloped ceiling. Beware if you are tall. I practically bumped my head on the ceiling and I'm not even 6 feet tall. Walk just another 5 minutes of so and you'll be in the center of Dortmund's Christmas market.
Münster Christmas Markets
Münster is just another 30 minute ride on the train from Dortmund. We visited Münster on a Sunday after spending the night in Dortmund. Germany can be challenging to visit on Sundays because all the shops and some cafes are closed. Münster offered a nice combination of 5 different Christmas markets spread around town (with great mugs in festive shapes, by the way) which were connected by a number of historical attractions. We had no trouble filling a half-day in Münster. In fact, we had intended to take the train to another of North Rhine-Westphalia's picturesque towns on the way back to Düsseldorf airport but we simply ran out of time as we walked around all of Münster's nooks and crannies.
Münster's Hall of Peace
Look beyond Münster's Christmas markets, and pop into the town hall. For just 2 EUR, you can see the Hall of Peace where the Peace of Westphalia was negotiated to end to the 30 Years War in the mid 1600s.
Intricate wood panels line the room where the negotiators would have convened. There are a few other artifacts in the room, including a surprising skeletal hand which was apparently evidence in a medieval murder investigation. Fascinating...
The Hidden Spaces of St.-Paulus-Dom
The center of Münster is dominated by St.-Paulus-Dom. We've seen plenty of nice churches on visits to Germany and the church itself was lovely enough. However, the main attraction of this particular church was in the courtyard outside. We followed a small group of people through a side door and into a small garden and cemetery. You never know what you'll find if you take time to explore.
Münster's Dutch Feel
We found that Münster really had a Dutch feeling. Step-gabled houses like you might find in Amsterdam were a prominent feature of the architecture. We enjoyed admiring the look and feel of Münster as we walked from Christmas market to Christmas market.
The Return Journey from Münster to Düsseldorf
We put our DB Bahn handy ticket to use one last time with an hour and a half train ride from Münster back to Düsseldorf. We had covered a lot of ground in two days to experience the magic of North Rhine Westphalia's Christmas Markets!
How Do the Christmas Markets of North Rhine-Westphalia Compare to Other Regions of Germany?
We've had the privilege to visit many different Christmas Markets in Germany. North Rhine-Westphalia features the widest array of world-class markets that I've seen concentrated in such a small area well-connected by trains. Stuttgart is the only other city where we've enjoyed a similar experience of exploring so many nearby Christmas markets. Nuremberg is king when it comes to Christmas markets but tends to be extra crowded with tourists. We found Regensburg's Christmas Markets to be a magical and less crowded alternative to Nuremberg.