by Janis on 15th December 2020 / 0 comments

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.

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.

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A wooden pirate ship in the centre of the Schlachtezauber market on the quayside in Bremen that is actually a food stall
The pirate ship in the Schlachtezauber market in Bremen

Our Route

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The inspiration for our German Christmas market road trip

Yuletide fun and spectacular markets
Our inspiration was clear, to immerse ourselves into the German Christmas traditions, set free the big kid inside us and enjoy everything that’s ho, ho, ho.

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.

Two frosted glasses of Gluhwein, next to a candle lantern, on an outside table in the Schadowplatz market in Düsseldorf
Glühwein at the Schadowplatz market in Düsseldorf

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Our Gateway to Europe from the UK

Yes. We're jumping ton Le Shuttle

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

The traffic around Brussels can get sticky, and you may be advised to go via Antwerp - unless the ring road is closed, I would stick with the Brussels route. I have never been through Antwerp without horrendous delays, so my experience now tells me better the devil I know.

Next stop Düsseldorf

Bratwurst and glühwein awaits
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.
Angel decorations, trimmed in gold, on the huts of the Angel market in Düsseldorf with the aged bronze roof of the bandstand in the centre of Heinrich-Heine-Platz in the background.
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.

A traditional carousel at the edge of the old town market in Marktplaz in Düsseldorf with the old town hall as a backdrop.
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.

Christmas Markets to visit in Düsseldorf

  • Düsseldorf has seven Christmas Markets dotted throughout the city and all within walking distance of each other.
  • The seven markets are Marktplatz, Flinger Strasse, Engelchenmarkt, Sternchenmarkt, Schadowplatz, Jan-Wellem-Platz and the final market along Schadowstrasse.
  • The Christmas Market in Burgplatz, adjacent to Marktplatz, on the banks of the Rhine is home to the Ferris Wheel, ‘Wheel of Vision’.

Winter tyres

If you are travelling through Germany in the winter, it is a legal requirement to fit winter tyres. It may seem to be overkill living in the UK, but you’ll be amazed at the handling of your vehicle over the winter months in the rain and cooler conditions.

A day discovering Düsseldorf’s seven Christmas Markets

Oh yes, there's a Ferris Wheel

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.

A lit five-storey historic tower than now acts as a museum, with the large Ferris-wheel, named Wheel of Vision, in the background.
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 brass door knocker, on an old wooden door in Düsseldorf, of a figure with outstretched arms as if to perform a cartwheel.
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.

Local treats in Düsseldorf

  • Throughout Düsseldorf’s seven Christmas Markets keep a lookout for that little something different. The beautiful Art Nouveau bandstand in Engelchenmarkt, is a lovely place to enjoy a glühwein.
  • You won’t be short of delicious treats in Düsseldorf either. You’ll undoubtedly want to partake in a bratwurst; however, also try the salmon, raclette, crepes and their hot-filled potatoes.
  • Oh, and like us pop into the Lindt chocolate shop, where you can enjoy a delectable hot chocolate using either dark, milk or white chocolate.
  • If you enjoy a beer the local brew to Düsseldorf is Altbier, it is brewed by 5 different microbreweries around the Altstadt. The brewers are Schumacher, Schlüssel, Füchschen, Uerige and Brauerei Kürzer.

Things to do in Düsseldorf

  • Stroll along the banks of the Rhine, there is always something going on, either on or off the river.
  • Visit the Alter Schlossturm the old palace tower now a shipping museum ‘Schifffahrt Museum’, you won’t miss the building as it looks like a lighthouse.
  • See how many Radschlager (cartwheeler) you can spot, this is the emblem of Düsseldorf.
  • Nearby Burgplatz visit the intricate stadterhebungs monument that depicts 725 years of Düsseldorf’s history, the detail is fascinating.
  • If you enjoy a little retail therapy, then this is the place to be as Düsseldorf has some very smart shops.

Route from Düsseldorf to Bremen

We're heading northeast, next stop 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.
A view through the market in Bremen to the Rathaus and St. Petri Dom.
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.

Looking back to a Christmas Market scene in Bremen, in the evening, with a small Ferris wheel and brightly lit huts with people gathering around them.
One of Bremen's Chirstmas Markets
It’s time to go and enjoy Bremen’s Christmas Markets for the rest of the day, and we have a full day ahead in the market’s tomorrow.

Christmas Markets to visit in Bremen

  • Bremen has two main Christmas Markets the first is located all around the stunning UNESCO World Heritage site of the Town Hall and the Roland Statue.
  • The other Christmas Market in Bremen is Schlachtezauber located along the banks of the Weser River. This lovely market has a medieval swashbuckling theme.
  • The 170 yuletide huts are dotted all around the attractive streets and charming squares, so the festive market is quite extensive.
  • As with any traditional Germany Christmas market you will always get the lovely vintage carousel and a warm and welcoming atmosphere.

Tempted to?

Discover more of Germany, you'll be amazed how easy it is to tour around by car. Take a look at our Romantic Road route through southern Germany.
 
Rental Cars will search well-known car hire brands and discover the deals that suit you the best.

A full day enjoying Bremen’s Christmas Markets

Exploring the cobbled lanes of Schnoor
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 illuminated Rathaus in Bremen after the sun has gone down.
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.

People perusing a stall at Hamburg's maritime market.
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 Christmas tree in a quaint cobbled square, lined with tall thin pastel coloured historic buildings on two sides.
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.

Local treats in Bremen

  • There were so many charming stalls that caught our eye at Bremen’s Christmas Markets, the glühwein cabins were irresistible. It’s Christmas after all, you don’t need an excuse for eierpunsch.
  • Ensure you don’t fill yourself up on the currywurst, meat skewers or smoked fish rolls, as you wouldn’t want to miss out of the doughy schmalzuchen.
  • As you may know Germany is quite well-known for its beers, the local brew in Bremen is Beck’s. There are a few other breweries in Bremen, so also give Haake-Beck a try.

Things to do in Bremen

  • As mentioned, Bremen’s Town Hall and the Roland Statue are a UNESCO World Heritage site. All the streets around the Altstadt and market square are magnificent to stroll around.
  • Ensure you make a little detour along the Weser River to the charming Schnoor district, you won’t be disappointed.
  • Keep an eye out for Bremen’s must-see sculpture, “The Town Musicians of Bremen”. The statue depicts a donkey, a dog, a cat, and a rooster from the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm.
  • Visit Glockenspiel House along Böttcherstrasse. The 30 Glockenspiel bells chime, and a panel within the tower rotates and depicts pioneering seafarers and aviators.

Just a few points to note;

You really need to book early as these markets are very popular.

Although all these markets are fantastic to visit during the day, they really come alive in the evenings, don’t miss it.

Be warned these markets become extremely busy at the weekends, particularly in the evenings. Children may feel a bit swamped with the crowds.

Dress warm and comfortable... essential.

Germany’s Christmas markets are really for all ages, don’t be put off that it is all for children, it really isn’t. We are all big kids at heart...

Route from Bremen to Hamburg

The Christmas fun continues
Our German Christmas Market road trip continues, and we’re now heading northeast to Hamburg. Luckily it is just a short hop away as there is so much to see and do in Hamburg.
The illuminated golden gateway to the Christmas markets in Hamburg in front of the Green roofed, gothic Rathaus at dusk.
The Hamburg Rathaus with the Christmas market in front

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.

A view of the Speicherstadt warehouse district of Hamburg at dusk. You look down the canal to the water castle with red brick buildings on either side with illuminated balconies.
Strolling through the Weißerzauber market
It’s time to go and discover Hamburg’s Christmas Markets for the rest of the day, and we have a full day ahead in and around the city tomorrow.

Christmas Markets to visit in Hamburg

  • Hamburg must have one of the largest collections of Christmas markets in Germany, as it boasts of having 30 festive markets. We have only visited a handful as they are dotted all around the city.
  • The largest market we visited is the Weihnachtsmarkt, this market is magical and even has its own flying Santa Claus.
  • St.-Petri Christmas market winds its way around the feet of St Peter’s church.
  • Weißerzauber, which runs alongside Binnenalster (lake) and as the name suggests, had a white theme running through it.
  • Gänsemarkt was really quite cute, we had never seen a market with the gingerbread house theme before.
  • Winterwald Market in Gerhart-Hauptmann-Platz, this Christmas market felt like it had more locals enjoying themselves and fewer tourists. I like immersing myself in the local culture, you feel more like a ‘fly on the wall’.
  • Spitalerstraße was a bit more of a foodie Christmas market and once again really pleasant.

A full day discovering Hamburg’s Christmas Markets

Ensure you have your comfy shoes
Hamburg not only makes a perfect city for a German Christmas Market break, but there is so much more to discover. Believe me, you’ll want to return to unearth more (we did the following year).
People walking between rows of Christmas huts in the Weihnachtsmarkt in Hamburg late in the evening.
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.

Looking across the heads of the crowd in the Winterwald Market to the Forsthaus drinks hut.
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.

A row of Christmas huts along Spitalerstraße in Hamburg
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.
A view of the Speicherstadt warehouse district of Hamburg at dusk. You look down the canal to the water castle with red brick buildings on either side with illuminated balconies.
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.

Local treats in Hamburg

  • You can buy chocolate kisses at many of Germany’s Christmas Markets; however, as we were on a road trip, we picked up a box of 12 to bring home with us. Well, 10 made it back anyway.
  • On the markets look out for Rösti-Taler, it’s a potato cake with various savoury toppings.
  • If you fancy trying a local Hamburg dish, keep an eye out for Labskaus. It can be made in various ways, although the main ingredients are minced beef, egg, beetroot and a side dish of pickles and herring.
  • If you fancy trying one or maybe two beers, head to Brauhaus Joh. Albrecht just by Adolphsbrücke. It has a great selection of beers and also a pleasant atmosphere.

Things to do in Hamburg

  • As mentioned, Hamburg’s Speicherstadt, district is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a must for your ‘to do’ list.
  • Miniatur Wunderland is not only a model railway, but it also has a model airport. I must admit this is not somewhere I would usually visit, but it was amazing.
  • The harbour district is another fascinating region to visit and all along Landungsbrücken.
  • Elbphilharmonie has also become a recent icon of Hamburg and has a free 360-degree viewing gallery.
  • Another place to visit that may not be on your list, is the Old Elbe Tunnel, its history is fascinating.
  • There really are so many places to mention around Hamburg, so I suggest you have a browse through our post 36 Hours in Hamburg.

Route from Hamburg to Cologne

Ahh Cologne, our favourite Christmas Markets

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.

An ornate temporary Christmas themed arch to the Heinzelmännchen market in Cologne
The entrance to Heinzelmännchen market in Cologne

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.

Inside the Christmas decorated Bierhaus en d'r Salzgass, a traditional Kolsch pub with beer barrel on the bar.
The bar at Bierhaus en d'r Salzgass  in Cologne
It’s time to go and discover Cologne’s Christmas Markets for the rest of the day, and we have a full day ahead in and around the city tomorrow.

Christmas Markets to visit in Cologne

  • I may be biased as I love visiting Cologne at Christmas, but Cologne’s Christmas Markets are incredible. What’s even better is that there are seven of them.
  • The Cologne Cathedral Christmas market is always full of festive cheer. Especially with the live music playing on the central stage, underneath the beautiful Christmas tree.
  • The Heinzelmännchen market in the Old Town of Cologne is one of the best I’ve seen. The gnome theme is everywhere you look; it brings a smile to your face. Here is where you’ll find Cologne’s wonderful ice-rink.
  • The Angel’s Christmas Market is in Neumarkt, this is always one we visit a few times. Keep a lookout for the Käthe Wohlfahrt store.
  • The Village of St Nicholas in Rudolfplatz has the medieval backdrop of Hahnentorburg.
  • The Harbour Market nestled along the Rhine is great to visit, its gifts, food and drink all have a nautical theme.
  • Always a fun market to visit is Heavenue, the gay Christmas market. Full of life and a bit of twist on the festive fun.
  • Last but by no means least is the Christmas Market in the Stadtgarten. Located within a park and feels a little less touristy as it is slightly out of the city centre.

Would you like some advice?

As mentioned, we set off from the UK for our German Christmas road trip; however, this may not be your preferred choice. If you would like any further advice or guidance on your itinerary, then just drop us an email or a comment below.

A full day discovering Cologne’s Christmas Market

We've saved the best until last

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.

Looking up at the lit Dom Cathedral at night with the Christmas tree and its blanket of lights meeting the red-topped market huts.
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 in front of a carol concert on stage in the Dom Christmas Market, under a blanket of fairy-lights
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.

One illuminated entrance to the Angel market at night.
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.

A view of the historic Hahnentorburg gate from within a damp Village of St Nicholas Christmas market in Cologne.
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.

Local treats in Cologne

  • As Cologne was our first ever German Christmas market, it’s the selection of sausages that will always spring to mind. From the Krakauer, currywurst, rostbratwurst, weisswurst and Käsekrainer.
  • Then it has to be the sizzling hot meat skewers served on the gnome market.
  • The choice of food on the German Christmas markets is endless. Keep an eye out for the hearty gulaschsuppe, the flammlachs, cheesy raclette, tarte flambe, reibekuchen and the roasting hams.
  • As a sweet treat pick yourself up some lebkuchen, fluffy waffles, baked apples or some sweet sticky nuts.
  • If beer is what you enjoy, then you must try the local brew of Cologne which is Kölsch. Our go-to bar to enjoy the atmosphere and fun is Bierhaus en d’r Salzgass
  • If a little sweet indulgence is required, then head to one of Cologne’s stylish cafés. The hot chocolates and cakes in Café Fassbender are delicious.

Things to do in Cologne

Our German Christmas road trip comes to an end

There's always next year

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.

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.

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