A festive route via Düsseldorf, Bremen, Hamburg & Cologne
If you love Germany’s Christmas markets as much as we do and you’ve saved up some of your annual leave, then why not embark on a yuletide road trip?
This road trip itinerary takes you to four beautiful German cities from Düsseldorf, in the west onto Bremen and Hamburg in the north and back to Cologne in the west of Germany.
The Weihnachtsmarkt in front of Hamburg's Rathaus at dusk
We chose to complete this festive road trip over 8-days to allow us a couple of nights at each destination. However, if time is a little tight, pick and choose your preferred locations to suit your timescale. We have often just visited Cologne on its own.
The term ‘Plan Now, Travel Later’ couldn’t be more apt for a visit to the German Christmas markets, as these incredible festivities become booked up so quickly.
The pirate ship in the Schlachtezauber market in Bremen
A reference guide
I love nothing more than planning a trip and so often I use the DK Eyewitness books. I find them extremely informative, easy to follow and the pictures and maps tempt you into discovering more.
We used a previous version of this book to plan our Germany road trips, now you can grab the revised copy.
The inspiration for our German Christmas market road trip
The themed markets – The magic and music transport you to another land.
Warm and friendly atmosphere – It’s smiles and joy all around.
Gifts and decorations – The wooden toys and sparkling tree-toppers are irresistible.
Food – Is it just bratwurst? Take a peek at the feasting options.
Drink – Hot chocolate, glühwein and eggnog – check out our Christmas market tipples post.
Glühwein at the Schadowplatz market in Düsseldorf
Our Gateway to Europe from the UK
Most of our European road trips start the same, and our Germany road trip was no different. Booked on a 7:50 am shuttle, means leaving home at 6:30 am. All being well we’re hitting the A16 from Calais at 9:30 am after being mugged for an hour as we switch to Central European Time.
We’ve already completed our 27-point road trip checklist, so fully fuelled, with humbugs and Christmas tunes on-board, we’re on our way.
See our section below for guidance on driving in Germany.
Here’s my first Sat-Nav/GPS tip for you
Next stop Düsseldorf
The route we chose was just a short hop through France on the A16 (which doesn’t include tolls). It’s then across the border into Belgium onto the E40. The majority of the journey is travelling through Belgium on E314, hoping for a fair wind and some luck around Brussels.
Angels on the rooftop on the markets in Düsseldorf
You seamlessly pass through the Netherlands on the A2 and A73, and in no time at all, we enter Germany on the A52. We can already smell the bratwurst.
Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany are toll-free for cars. The section of France that we drove through was also toll-free.
The Beautiful old carousel at Marktplatz in Düsseldorf
Early afternoon we arrive in Düsseldorf. So, depending on any pit stops along the way the journey from Calais takes around 4 hours to cover the 251 miles (404km).
After checking into the ‘Square Rooms’ apartment, we park up in the nearby public car park and take a short stroll into the heart of the Old Town.
It’s time to go and enjoy Düsseldorf’s Christmas Markets, and we have a full day ahead in the market’s tomorrow.
If you are travelling through Germany in the winter, it is strongly advisable to switch to winter tyres. You’ll be amazed that the handling of your vehicle is so much better and safer.
A day discovering Düsseldorf’s seven Christmas Markets
The seven festive markets in Düsseldorf are located around the main city centre.
Starting in Marktplatz in the heart of Altstadt in front of the Rathaus, weave your way through the delightful pedestrianised old streets and charming town squares.
The Schifffahrt Museum and Wheel of Vision in Düsseldorf
It makes a pleasant stroll, meandering from one market to the next and searching out that unique gift to take bake home.
Not only does Düsseldorf have the colourful Ferris Wheel in Burgplatz, when you reach Jan-Wellem-Platz, slip on your ice-skates and go for a spin.
A Radschlager door knocker
While discovering Düsseldorf’s charming streets, you’ll most certainly come across Radschlager (cartwheeler) an emblem of Düsseldorf.
The custom of cartwheeling dates back to 1288 when children spun to celebrate the success at the battle of Worringen.
Route from Düsseldorf to Bremen
Heading north out of Düsseldorf pick up the B8 and onto the A59. Continuing on, look for the A42 and follow for a short distance until you reach the A3 then hop on the A2 and exit onto the A43.
Marktplatz in Bremen at Christmas
Continue north on the A43 towards Münster, near here you jump onto the A1 and its northeast the whole way to Bremen.
Early afternoon you arrive in Bremen, depending on any stops along the way. The chosen route from Düsseldorf to Bremen takes around 3 hours 30 minutes to cover the 185 miles (298km).
We check into the ACHAT Hotel Bremen City (formerly Elements Pure Hotel). The hotel has its own underground parking, and they kindly reserved us a parking space, which was fantastic.
One of Bremen's Chirstmas Markets
A full day enjoying Bremen’s Christmas Markets
We loved the feel of Bremen as soon as we had arrived. With the Christmas markets being so central and easily walkable it is an ideal location to ease you in gently to the whole German Christmas Market experience.
The Rathaus in Marktplatz, Bremen
The main Weihnachtsmarkt meanders all around the Rathaus, Bremen Cathedral and across into the picturesque square in front of the Guild House (Schütting).
Bremen’s Christmas markets are full of the delightful traditional stalls offering unique gifts, and of course the sweet treats of gingerbread hearts, hot chocolate and something a little different schmalzuchen. These are small doughy pillows sprinkled with icing sugar.
Always something to buy
Just a short stroll down to the Weser River and you arrive at Schlachtezauber. Bremen’s promenade has been transported back to the Middle Ages, to provide a twist on an ancient Christmas market. All along here are themed wooden huts, with blacksmiths, a serenading harpist and pirates.
Bremen was an instant win for us. Not only was it a wonderful city to visit for the Christmas markets, but it also had so much history and incredible architecture.
A quaint little corner of Bremen - the Schnoor district
One region of Bremen not to miss is the Schnoor district, these picturesque cobbled streets are unbelievably quaint and a delight to discover.
Just a few points to note;
Route from Bremen to Hamburg
On leaving Bremen jump onto the A27 east, you then pick up the A1 northeast. This motorway route is for around 67 miles and leads you directly into Hamburg, where you move onto the B4.
Mid-morning you arrive in Hamburg, depending on any stops along the way. The chosen route from Bremen to Hamburg takes around 1 hour 30 minutes to cover the 76 miles (122km).
We check into the Adina Apartment Hotel Hamburg Speicherstadt. The apartment hotel has its own underground parking at €25 per night.
Strolling through the Weißerzauber market
A full day discovering Hamburg’s Christmas Markets
The Christmas markets stalls in Hamburg's Weihnachtsmarkt
So, where do you start?
To be perfectly honest, it really doesn’t matter as they are all fantastic. However, they truly come alive as the sunsets. My recommendation is to visit the Weihnachtsmarkt at Rathausmarkt both day and night. You can’t miss Father Christmas soaring above the festive stalls in his sleigh.
Weißerzauber market is just nearby the city hall and runs along the side of the lake. It’s a wonderful location as you can see the Christmas tree floating in the centre of the lake, be warned, wrap up warm.
Local enjoying a tipples or two in Hamburg's Winterwald Market
If you stroll away from the Rathaus along Mönckebergstraße, you’ll be greeted by St.-Petri Christmas market, which we found very warm and friendly. Their chocolate kisses here are delicious.
A little further and you will reach Winterwald Market in Gerhart-Hauptmann-Platz. Surely, it’s time for a gluhwein.
Then if you’ve not sampled all the local wurst, take a stroll along Spitalerstraße where there were plenty of food stalls.
Spitalerstraße in Hamburg at Christmas
As I mentioned, Hamburg is an incredible city to visit, I especially love it around Speicherstadt, Hamburg’s iconic warehouse district.
The iconic view of the Speicherstadt district in Hamburg
This district of Hamburg is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site along with the stunning 1920’s Chilehaus.
While you are in Speicherstadt, ensure you pre-book your visit to Miniatur Wunderland. This model railway is so much more than a railway and fantastic at Christmas time.
Route from Hamburg to Cologne
The last destination on our German Christmas Market road trip is to our old favourite Cologne.
Although for this part of the journey, it is quite a long stint, it is in essence, just one motorway all the way. So, once you head out of Hamburg pick up the A1 southwest and you remain on this road for around 259 miles (417 km).
Once you reach the outskirts of Cologne head to your chosen accommodation.
Mid-afternoon you arrive in Cologne, depending on any stops along the way. The chosen route from Hamburg to Cologne takes around 4 hours 45 minutes to cover the 264 miles (425km).
The hotel that we regularly stay in, in Cologne is extremely central and opposite the Cologne Dom. Therefore, we park in the public car park under the main square, check into the Eden Hotel Früh am Dom and the festivities begin.
The bar at Bierhaus en d'r Salzgass in Cologne
Would you like some advice?
A full day discovering Cologne’s Christmas Market
In my honest opinion to truly embrace Cologne’s Christmas Markets, I would stay for 3-nights. However, I appreciate that timing can be an issue and cost.
Nonetheless let’s put on our comfy shoes, wrap up warm and have some fun.
The Dom towers over Cologne's Christmas Market
To enjoy your first visit to Cologne, I would head to the Dom Christmas Market first. As the beautiful backdrop of the cathedral with the festive red huts at its feet looks magical. Immediately you’re immersed in the Christmas spirit.
Just a short hop from the Dom head towards the Altstadt, here you’ll find my favourite market. We have an affectionately called it the ‘gnome market’, although its official name is Heinzelmännchen market.
Crowds under the blanket of lights in Cologne
The attention to detail on the festive cabins and the charming outfits that the stallholders wear, truly make a difference. Keep a lookout for the locals playing ice stock curling.
Stroll down to the Harbour Market to pick up your nautical treats and also enjoy a mug of warm beer. Then to save your weary feet catch the Dotto-train to the Angel Market in Neumarkt.
The Angel Market at night
The Angel Market is another of our favourites as the magnificent white wooden cabins transport you to a fairy tale. It’s in the Angel Market that we indulge in a mug of hot chocolate with a dash of Bailey’s.
A little further on from Neumarkt head to the ‘Village of St Nicholas’ in Rudolfplatz. This is a smaller market, however, one we never miss, I love the friendly atmosphere here.
The Hahnentorburg gate on the edge of the Village of St Nicholas Christmas Market
If you still have time and your feet are holding out, nearby is the colourful Heavenue Market. Or a little further on is Stadtgarten Christmas Market which has now been delighting locals for 10 years.
I appreciate that the Christmas Markets may fill your days. Still, I urge you to visit the UNESCO Cologne Cathedral, it is magnificent.
Our German Christmas road trip comes to an end
So, after eight days of festive fun, we are well and truly in the Christmas spirit, and it’s homeward bound.
It’s onto to Calais and back to the terminal at Le Shuttle, before the journey back to the UK, and we’re handed back that hour.
Avoiding Antwerp once more, our total mileage back to Calais was around 256 miles (412km).
Our German Christmas Market road-trip itinerary in summary
Low Emission Zone (LEZs), Autobahns and Tolls
Be aware that some German towns and cities have Low Emission Zones. Therefore, you will require a sticker for the windscreen of your car, to signify which category your car emissions fall into.
We found the following websites useful; also, you can apply online in advance for the sticker for €6 (2019). The Urban Access Regulations in Europe details all the European emission zones and the Senate Department for Environment is where you can purchase you Germany LEZ sticker.
When you drive along an autobahn in Germany, you may not even be aware that you are on one (they are not signposted). It’s not until you feel the vibration of a vehicle whisking past your window that you know you’ve arrived. I would like to highlight that in my opinion, German drivers are quite considerate.
If you are travelling through Germany in the winter, it is strongly advisable to switch to winter tyres. The handling of your vehicle is so much better and safer.
* This post may contain links to affiliated sites where we earn a small commission at no additional charge to you.
Inspired to head off on a German Christmas road trip?
Pack your bags, jump in your car and let’s go.
(Why not Pin It for Later?)
If you enjoy what you see, and you’d like regular updates then join us for a monthly newsletter.