The Christmas season is our family’s favorite time of the year, and for some time now we have wanted to combine our love of the holidays with our love of travel by visiting a German Christmas market.
While there are markets both big and small throughout Germany, we wanted to visit Munich for our first trip to this country. The area known as Bavaria called to us since we knew we would not only see a wonderful city with an amazing market, but we’d also be able to visit the iconic castle that inspired Disney’s and I could search for the elusive Krampus!
If you look back at some our previous Brief Visits to Europe (Paris and London), you will see that we chose IcelandAir for those trips. We made the same choice for our visit to Germany, leaving from Boston at 8pm on a Wednesday evening and arriving in Munch at 12noon the next day after a brief layover in Iceland.
While there are certainly other airline options to get you to Germany and to Europe, IcelandAir remains our favorite choice based on the combination of pricing and comfort. While we did not extend our stopover in Iceland on this trip, we have done this in the past and we recommend it highly for anyone who can extend their trip to spend some time in this magical country (IcelandAir offers an option to extend your layover for up to 7 days for no additional flight cost, allowing you to see some of Iceland).
Munich’s airport is about 30 minutes away from the heart of the city. There is a train that runs directly from the airport to stops throughout the city, including the main square, Marienplatz. There are also buses and taxis that will make this trek, as well as private cars that can be hired for the transfer. We opted for this last option, booking a private car through Viator. It was a little pricier than using a public transit option, but since we were traveling as a family of four, the additional cost was minimal when compared to 4 train or bus tickets and the ease of getting from the airport to our hotel made this a good choice for us.
Day 1 – Marienplatz Christmas Markets
The main reason for our visit to Germany was to visit the Christmas Markets, so after we dropped our luggage off at our hotel, we headed straight for the main square of Marienplatz and the large Christmas Market that was set up there.
Munich is a very clean, walkable city, so we had no problem using our feet to make it to everywhere we wanted to go. One of the advantages of walking in a new city is you really get to see stuff along the way, rather than just arriving at your destination via car or public transit. As we made our way to Marienplatz, we stumbled across a wonderful outdoor market where we had our first meal in Munich – sausage sandwiches with some beers to wash them down (and some lemonades for the kids). What was great about this area, and about the markets in general, was that they did not feel touristy. In fact, there were more Germans milling about enjoying a beer or mug of Gluhwein (more on that shortly) than there were visitors! This really gave the experience an authentic feel, like we were guests to this wonderful German tradition of Christmas Markets. I am not particularly adverse to touristy activities, and we certainly did some of these tourist-focused activities during our time in Germany, but there really is something special about interacting with the locals of a place and the Munich markets are a wonderful way to do this.
After our lunch, we spent some time in the outdoor marketplace looking around at the various stalls and shops and enjoying some coffee and pastries before eventually making our way to the main square of Marienplatz where the Christmas Market was set up.
German Christmas markets are really just a series of stalls set up in an area. These stalls offer various specialties for sale, including lots of Christmas ornaments and decorations, delicious foods and treats, and various things to drink, including the aforementioned Gluhwein. We had heard about this drink, which is a hot mug of mulled red wine, prior to our visit and we were keen to try some. There are many stalls selling Gluhwein, and while they are all fairly similar, you will find different recipes from one stall to another. The quality of the wine used and the exact recipe of spices like cinnamon and cloves will change the flavor of the drink, so its good to try a few different stalls to find the one you like best!
When you buy your mug of Gluhwein, you will pay what is called a “phand.” This is a deposit on the mug and it is usually around 4 euros. You can get this deposit back when you return the mug, or you can keep the mug as a nice souvenir of your time at the Christmas Markets! We came home with a nice little array of mugs, along with a desire to try to make Gluhwein at home for our own holiday gatherings!
The daytime during the week is a great time to visit the Christmas Markets because the crowds are smaller than at night or on the weekend, when the residents of Munich are really out in full force enjoying the festivities. By going during the daytime, at least for your first visit, you can get a sense of the area and see and experience as much as possible before the sun goes down and the crowds come out!
Despite the increase in crowds, nighttime is wonderful at the Christmas Market. There are lights at every stall and the surrounding area, like the giant tree in front of the iconic Glockenspiel, and you will find various performances and entertainment springing up. During our first evening at the market, we were fortunate to see a live performance of holiday music given right from the balcony of the New Town Hall in Marienplatz.
We would visit the market each night during our time in Munich, enjoying mugs of Gluhwein and hot chocolate, sampling chocolates and other goodies, and buying an assortment of wonderful German Christmas crafts to take home as gifts and decorations for our own home. A few pointers if you will be visiting the market:
- Dress warmly. It can obviously get cold in December in Bavaria, so if you want to be outside in the evening, make sure you are prepared. Extra socks is always a good idea.
- Have cash. Many of the stalls do not take credit, so make sure you have some Euros on hand to pay for the goodies!
- Look around before you buy. There are a lot of stalls and sellers with great stuff and you will be tempted to go nuts at the first few you see. Take your time to look at other stalls before making a purchase, not really to look for a better deal, but moreso to get a sense of what other options are out there before you commit. You can only bring so many ornaments and decorations home in your luggage, so make it count!
- Remember that the Gluhwein mugs are cute, but they take up a lot of room in luggage and at 4 Euros each, the price adds up! It is easy to overdo it with Gluhwein mugs and then realize you don’t have room to pack them all for the return trip home!
- Don’t expect a late night at the market. The stalls close pretty early, around 8:30 or 9pm, so don’t expect to be out all day and up all night at the market. There are restaurants and bars that are open later if you want to hit those after leaving the market, but the market itself is not open very late.
- Interact with some Germans! One of the coolest parts of the markets are the fact that they really are a slice of life in Germany, and there will be plenty of residents of Munich out and about. This is especially true on the weekend. Take some time to say “Hallo” and mingle with the locals. In our experience, they were a warm and friendly group that were as excited to be out in the spirit of the season as we were!
Day 2 – Neuschwanstein Castle
For our first full day in Bavaria, we decided to take a tour to visit the iconic Neuschwanstein Castle. Look up any images of Bavaria and this large white castle is the structure you are likely to see. Heck, pick up any calendar or book on castles and this one is guaranteed to be included. It may even be the cover image they use! Disney’s Cinderella Castle was modeled after this creation of Ludwig II, which is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the area. It is also a place Sarah had dreamed of visiting since she first saw pictures of the castle as a little girl.
There are a number of options for taking a tour of Neuschwanstein, which is about an hour and forty-five minute drive from Munich. Most of the tour options we saw involved meeting up with a group at the train station and taking a train ride out to the area before being picked up by a bus for the drive to the actual castle. Rather than taking this group tour, we opted for a private experience via a company called Special Private Tours.
Make no mistake, a private tour is not inexpensive, but our trip to Neuschwanstein Castle was really the lone paid activity that we had planned for Munich, so our budget allowed us to splurge a bit here – and we were thrilled we did so!
Our driver, Martin, picked us up from our hotel at 8:30am. We had a very comfortable ride in a nice motorvan that allowed us to have some great one-on-one time with our guide. Martin was actually from the Czech Republic and he had been giving tours for about 4 years. He was also very well-traveled outside of his job, and he provided a wealth of information on Germany and other destinations that we asked about. We’ve taken a number of bus tours on our trips to Europe and we’ve always enjoyed them, but never have we had the kind of conversation and experience we were able to have with this private tour. It really was a great time and it made the drive out to Neuschwanstein so enjoyable and engaging.
Another great aspect of the private tour with this company is that they literally handle everything for you, including admission to Neuschwanstein. Be aware that with some of the lower cost train and bus tours that castle admission is not included. Not only is it not part of the price, it may not even be possible or you to get inside the castle with those tours!
Neuschwanstein is incredibly popular. We were there during the “off-season” and it was packed. Martin told us that it is even busier during the Summer months. Tickets to Neuschwanstein are timed tickets, meaning you buy tickets and they allow you access at a very specific time. You cannot pre-buy these tickets, and they are first come-first served. This means that if your bus tour arrives at 11am and you get in line for tickets, your entry time will be much later in the day. Unfortunately, because you are on a pre-set schedule as part of the tour, you will likely need to be back on the bus before your timed ticket would even be valid for entry! So many of these tours will get you TO the castle and allow you to see the grounds, but you will not be able to go inside for a tour.
With our private tour, the owner of the company, Amir, actually met us at the castle. He had gone to the ticket window early that morning and secured out tickets so that when we arrived, we had only a short wait until we could go inside for our tour. This is the benefit of a private experience like this. Yes, you will pay more, but you really will get so much value for that cost! We even got to ride in a horse-drawn carriage!
The small village around Neuschwanstein is very cute, but also very touristy since it is there solely to support the crowds visiting the castle. One bummer was that the path to “Mary’s Bridge” was closed for our visit due to snow. This bridge is a short walk from the castle and it provides a wonderful view of the structure. Many iconic images have been captured from that vantage point and we were excited to snap some photos of the Castle from there as well. Alas, the path was closed down for safety reasons, so we had to settle for pictures from directly around the castle.
The tour of Neuschwanstein takes about an hour. It is a group tour, but everyone has handheld listening devices that are queued up to sections of the castle. You move as a group and they keep the flow going to control the crowds. For this reason, no photos are allowed in the castle since that would slow everything down and lead to traffic jams!
The castle’s creator, Ludwig II, was a fascinating man who was enamored with building these incredible structures that harkened back to a different time, yet he was also a shy, reclusive man that didn’t enjoy entertaining the way you would imagine a king would. In Neuschwanstein, there is a gigantic ballroom that was created not to host balls and parties, but simply because it reminded Ludwig of another castle he had seen elsewhere in Europe and he wanted to create a tribute to it (although his “tribute” ended up being larger and more elaborate than those that inspired it!”).
Leaving Neuschwanstein, this tour next made a stop in the quaint town of Oberammergau where we had lunch and did a little shopping. Honestly, my only complaint of this tour is that I wish we had spent a little more time in Oberammergau. It was such a cute village that I can absolutely imagine returning in the future. It was also where we decided to buy an authentic Black Forest cuckoo clock to bring home with us as a souvenir.
This private tour ended at another of King Ludwig II’s residences, his Linderhof Palace. We actually made it just in time for the final tour of the day at 4:00pm. Linderhof is definitely an interesting place, kind of like a mini-Versailles with all its gold-covered walls and over-the-top opulence. In the summertime the gardens are apparently very attractive, but since it was Winter those gardens were in “off-season mode” with the fountains drained and the statues covered for the season. Honestly, I don’t think I would’ve wanted to come here as a main destination, but as the end of a tour, it was a fun final stop. They also have a great little café/gift shop on site where we grabbed some coffees and sweet treats before heading back to Munich for the end of our day.
Bottom line, a trip to Neuschwanstein is definitely very touristy, but it’s a fun day and you’d be hard pressed to find a more iconic landmark in the region. Whether you take a private tour like we did or if you squeeze into a bus filled with fellow tourists, this is one sight you definitely don’t want to miss if you visit Bavaria.
Day 3 – Deutsches Museum
When we arrived in Munich, we had no solid plans for our final full day in the city. We asked a few locals and our tour driver what they suggested we see and everyone we spoke to suggested the Deutsches Museum.
The Deutsches Museum is one of the largest science and technology museums in the world, with exhibits on aviation, sea travel, electricity, astronomy, music, glass-blowing, toys, ceramics, and much more. The museum is right in the heart of the city, and we walked there in about 15 minutes. A family pass ticket got all 4 of us in for 29 Euro (about $32), so it is a great value! Actually, this is a good place to mention the cost of visiting Munich.
I personally found items in Munich to be very well priced, especially when compared to other European cities I have visited. The prices at the museum and everywhere else we went for food or even souvenirs was very reasonable. I honestly think it goes back to my observation that the markets were really geared toward locals rather than tourists! Yes, they gladly welcome tourists to those markets, but unlike many other places I have been where the people around you are all fellow travels, the nature of the Christmas Markets being for Germans means that the prices are also for locals and not the overpriced tourist prices I have become accustomed to on my travels. That was a really nice surprise. In fact, this was probably the first Brief Visit trip we have taken where we came BACK with money, having not even spent all we had budgeted for because the prices were so reasonable.
So back to the museum, it is a great way to spend the day, especially if the weather is poor and being outside is not ideal. We spent about 4 hours at the museum and we just about scratched the surface of all there was to see. The kids really enjoyed the physics displays and some of the interactive exhibits they had on hand and I especially liked seeing the exhibits of old construction toys.
You could easily spend an entire day at this expansive museum, or you could do what we did and spend the morning seeing what is most important to you before heading out for other activities. For our final day, we grabbed some lunch from a great local soup stall at the open-air market before spending one final evening at the Marienplatz Christmas Market. Knowing that that was our final visit, we made all our souvenir and gift purchase that night while enjoying one final mug of Gluhwein!
Where to Stay
Like any large city, there are countless lodging options in Munich catering to all needs and budgets. We didn’t want to stay at a chain-style establishment, so Sarah found a cute B&B in the city called the Müller Inn. This was a wonderful place to stay, and it also gave us a fun little story to share!
Normally, Jeremy is the one who books travel arrangements and hotels during our Brief Visits, but Sarah was very excited to take a turn for our Munich trip. After showing us what she had booked, we looked at the details and said, “You do realize our room does not have a bathroom, right?”
Sarah had booked a room with a shower, but NONE of the rooms at Müller Inn come with an en-suite toilet (it’s easy to see how she missed that since the room did have a shower). Shared bathrooms are common in Europe, but not so much in the US. Because of that, American travelers tend to be very put off by the idea of a shared bathroom. Our reservation was non-refundable, so private bathroom or not, we had to keep the room or lose our payment!
Well, I am happy to report that the lack of an en-suite bathroom was not a problem at all, and it should certainly not stop you from staying at Müller Inn if you are in Munich. The Inn has 3 bathrooms to accommodate the 9 guest rooms. During our stay, we only ever encountered the bathroom closest to our room occupied once, and in that instance we used the next closest one which was probably 20 feet away! I would suggest getting a room with a shower, however, since it is much more convenient to have at least those facilities in your room.
The Inn itself was super clean and perfectly located in the city, and breakfasts in the breakfast room were a joy each morning! The spread of fresh breads, cold meats, yogurts, and cereals was a perfect way to start the day.
Epilogue – The Search for Krampus
One of the main reasons we wanted to go to Bavaria for the holidays so Jeremy could see some of the Krampus festivities he had read about from this region. For those who may not be familiar with Krampus, he is a folklore character that has had somewhat of a resurgence in the recent years. In the US, he is often depicted an evil, devilish character, but traditionally in Barvaria he is not “evil”, but one of Santa’s helpers who is charged with punishing the naughty children, so Santa doesn’t get his hands dirty dealing with the bad kids! Krampusnacht or “Krampus Night” is held each year on December 6th, the day before the Feast of Saint Nicolas. We had planned out trip to coincide with these dates so we could hopefully see the Krampus Parade and other fun aspects of this tradition. Unfortunately, we didn’t discover until very late that the parade was actually scheduled for the Sunday we were leaving Munich, a full 3 days after Krampusnacht. Sadly, we missed the parade and the closest Jeremy got to Krampus was a glass ornament he bought at the markets.
Once we were home, we did find this video of the Krampus Parade in Munch, showing us exactly what we had missed. Oh well, I guess we will just have to head back to Munich for another holiday season soon!