This weekend we were in Hamilton County, Indiana and got to attend the opening weekend of Carmel Christkindlmarkt there. We had a ball, and I was jealous that the Christkindlmarket (there are two spellings, and I’m going to go with this one) in my hometown of Naperville, Illinois, doesn’t open until after Thanksgiving. I’ve visited Christkindlmarket Chicago dozens of times. Did you know it’s the largest one in the United States? I’m hoping to make it to the first one in Milwaukee this year, too.
All this is to say that I’ve become pretty experienced at Christkindlmarkets and attending is one of my favorite holiday events. I wanted to share my tips for making the most of Christkindlmarkets in the Midwest.
Do some research ahead of time
Each Christkindlmarkt is unique. Carmel has ice skating, Naperville’s is located in historic Naper Settlement, Chicago’s is located in Daley Plaza and has more vendors. Not all are run by the same company and there are differences, so spending just a little time to see what they offer can be pay big dividends.
Christkindlmarkt is fabulous, and it attracts crowds. They’re typically manageable, but if you can get there on the early side and beat some of the lines, you’ll be in a position to really enjoy the atmosphere far more.
Food and drink first
Those crowds are easier to handle when you’re not hangry. I’m a fan of prioritizing food and drink first. I can soak up atmosphere while I wander with my boot of gluhwine and not spend most of my time there in line.
The line for raclette in Carmel this weekend was crazy long. For the uninitiated, raclette is Swiss-German awesomeness that involves scraping the top layer of a warm cheese wheel into some hollowed out bread. It’s delicious and warm and easy to eat while walking, making it the perfect Christkindlmarkt food. Thus, it’s no surprise that everyone wants some. If you know you’ll want some of the melty cheese awesomeness, hop in line right away. The same goes for the gluhwine.
Alternative approach: Dine elsewhere and go for dessert and drinks
Even if there is seating, if you’re going on a busy day, perhaps consider an alternative approach. Plan to eat a meal at a restaurant within walking distance, and then take a trip to the Christkindlmarkt where you get drinks and dessert. Apple strudel, anyone? Drinks don’t have to be alcohol, either. You can get hot cider or amazing hot chocolate.
For nearby restaurants, in Naperville I’d vote for Lou Malnati’s and in Carmel check out Books & Brews.
Take advantage of the chance to learn about a different culture
Christkindlmarket Carmel offered guided tours full of interesting info, and they have fun facts posted on pretty much every stall. My inner trivia aficionado was delighted to see that.
Take it a step further and interact with those from Germany. In Chicago, 60% of the booths are staffed by people from German-speaking countries, and I’ve found them to be very friendly and patient when practicing your high school German. They appreciate the effort and are happy to talk to you about where they’re from. That said, be mindful of the time you spend if there’s a long line behind you.
Watch a performance
Before this weekend, my alphorn experience was limited to just seeing a Ricola commercial on television. In Carmel, I got to see my very first alphorn band performance and talk to one of the alphorn players after. He even let me hold his horn.
Make sure your phone is charged because there are so many great photo opportunities
Christkindlmarket offers so many gorgeous sights, whether it’s a pile of ornaments in the Kathe Wolfhart cottage in Chicago, the polar bears and sleigh in Naperville or the pyramid in Carmel. You’ll want to have your phone, or real camera, ready to go.
I loved the angel wings and wreath in Carmel, too.
If you want good pictures, try to get there a bit before sunset while there’s still some light. We went at night and while it was magical, but it’s not the time to get the perfect shot of the family for the holiday card.
Chances are it’ll be chilly out and you’ll be on your feet most of the time, so bundle up. Wear layers and comfy footwear and definitely bring hats and gloves. Be smarter than I was. I forgot my hat, but my friend Katie happened to have one I could borrow. I got lucky. That said, there was one booth in Carmel that had some cute hats and gloves, but better to be prepared.
Set a budget
Christkindlmarket is free to get in. Food and drink are extra, and there’s a whole lot of shopping to be done there. From wooden toys to pyramids to smoking Santas (a traditional German holiday decoration item) to table linens, there are many wonderful items, most of them made by hand, at Christkindlmarket.
It’s more than likely that you’ll want all the things. A few glasses of gluhwine, and you may want even more than all the things. Set a budget and be mindful of your purchases.