Christmas markets are very popular in Europe, traditionally run since the middle ages. They are essentially large pop-up flea markets with many vendors selling Christmas items (ornaments, stocking stuffers, handicrafts, etc.) and seasonal foods, ESPECIALLY holiday drinks.
One of the primary reasons for us wanting to visit Europe in the winter was because we wanted to experience these markets. In fact, we structured our entire itinerary to ensure that we’d be in Germany during the holiday season. (With dozens of revisions, doubts, panicked moments, and backup plans, I think we did ok!)
We visited some friends in Strasbourg (a small city on the French/German border) who showed us around town and gave us our first real glimpse of a Christmas market.
At these markets, many vendors will sell drinks, the most popular being a hot, mulled wine called glühwein (I preferred the taste of the non-alcoholic version, “kinderpunsch”). When you pay for the drink, you also pay a small deposit fee for the cup, usually a mug with decorations or the name of the specific market plastered on it. If you choose to keep the cup, you lose the deposit, but get a neat souvenir. Otherwise you can return the cup to the booth and get your money back.
In terms of food, you can find lots of pretzels, cookies, bratwursts, cured meats, cheeses, waffles, roasted chestnuts, nougats, and candies. In Strasbourg, we found a vendor selling excellent smoked duck meat.
Some photos of various Christmas markets in Strasbourg, Alsace region villages, Rothenburg, and Munich.