December is not a time to skimp on warm clothing. Though winter officially starts on December 21, you'll feel the change of seasons early in Germany with colder weather and frequent overcast skies. You can also expect more rain than in November and hopefully snow, especially in the higher altitudes near Germany's many ski fields and resorts that open this month. As for daylight hours, sunrises occur around 8 am and sunsets around 4 pm, making these the shortest days of the year—perfect for bundling up and photographing holiday lights at the Christmas markets.
There are slight weather differences depending on where you travel. Temperatures in Berlin, the nation's capital, have an average daily high of 39°F (4°C) and a low of 32°F (0°C). Southwest Germany has a less frigid climate; for instance, Frankfurt has an average daily high of 43°F (6°C) and a low of 34°F (1°C) in December. Towns in the southern Bavarian Alps like Garmisch-Partenkirchen are colder due to higher elevations, with lows averaging 23°F (-5°C). Meanwhile, the northern coast will be milder and wetter due to the effects of the North and Baltic Seas.
Crowds & Costs
December is a popular month to travel in Germany, so expect a spike in rates and crowds. Though the country's high season occurs during the summer months (late June to late August), Germany is unique as it has a few other miniature high seasons, including late September for Oktoberfest and then again in December when millions of people flock to the Christmas markets. The primary draws are cities and towns with ski resorts and/or famous markets. Book your flights, accommodations, and rental cars early, and if you have your heart set on particular activities and restaurants, make reservations in advance.
Where to Go
Germany is easy to get into the holiday spirit with thousands of Christmas markets touting traditional hand-carved decorations, warming cups of Glüwhein, and delicious treats from crepes to stollen fruitcakes. Consider Berlin—always an excellent spot to start or end your German adventure. Berlin is extra festive this time of year, with about 80 Christmas markets dotted throughout the city, and it's an exciting place to experience the historical sights and neighborhoods ranging from upscale to hipster. You might want to reserve a hotel near a U-Bahn station so you can warm up between long days of sightseeing.
From Berlin, you can take excursions to nearby smaller cities like Dresden, home of Germany's oldest Christmas market, surrounded by Renaissance and Baroque architecture restored after WWII damage. You can also take a train from Berlin to Hamburg and explore this historic Hanseatic port city with its UNESCO-listed warehouse district. There are wonderful Christmas markets here, too, and even an outdoor fun fair (more below) that attracts families.
The southern state of Bavaria has many charming markets accompanied by snow-capped mountains (often), lakes, and fairy-tale castles, depending on where you go. After visiting Munich's famous Christmas market in Marienplatz with regular music performances, take the train to resort towns like Garmisch-Partenkirchen with charming wooden booths offering gifts and treats against the backdrop of the alps. You can also drive Bavaria's Romantic Road and visit markets in medieval villages like Rothenburg ob der Tauber with half-timbered houses and cobbled lanes.
Frankfurt offers one of the oldest markets in Germany, as well as the oldest independent Jewish museum in the country. You can take a train from Frankfurt to Cologne to visit its Christmas market in front of the famous Gothic church, one of Northern Europe's largest, rent a car, and head to Heidelberg's romantic Christmas market with an ice skating rink and 13th-century castle. Continue driving to the chic spa town of Baden-Baden for thermal baths. Meanwhile, further south is the university city of Freiburg, which has a funicular overlooking the Black Forest and, of course, a festive Christmas market.
What to Do
Germans love to spend time outdoors, and you'll see just as many locals taking part in December festivities as tourists before the quiet month of January. But of course, there's more to do this month than visit Christmas markets.
The ski season in the mountains and alps runs at Christmas, and many resorts offer downhill ski runs, cross-country trails, tobogganing, snowshoeing, and ski jumping. You can also try curling or bundle up and take a horse-drawn carriage. Take tours of glaciers or historic castles, or ride a relaxing gondola to see some spectacular views, especially from the viewing platform overlooking Zugspitze. From the town of Füssen, you can easily put on a pair of winter hiking shoes and walk over to the Austrian border.
Be patient with the crowds if you plan on visiting Berlin's key sights, like Brandenburg Gate, the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, and the five museums on Museum Island, including the Pergamon for its life-size reconstructions. You can also visit the Reichstag, Germany's parliament building bombed during WWII and rebuilt with its iconic glass dome celebrating Berlin's reunification. Most cities offer ice skating rinks during winter, and possibly several. Berlin has one called Lankwitz with a disco theme every Saturday, while Dresden has a classic rink in the courtyard of the Palais Taschenberg.
Hamburg is becoming more cosmopolitan, and you can easily spend a day exploring the canals and bridges with a camera while warming up in museums, like Hamburger Kunsthalle, one of the best places in Germany to see Renaissance art. In the evening, have a drink in a classy cocktail lounge and then enjoy a concert performance in the Elbphilharmonie, with its unique curved glass structure designed by Herzog & de Meuron. A good ticket to snag this month? Handel's "Messiah."
Events in December
Christmas markets, nationwide. There are thousands of Christmas markets all over Germany, and a good place to look is the nearest plaza. Most markets begin at the end of November, during the start of Advent, and last until Christmas. Some markets stay open through the new year.
Hanukkah, nationwide. Germany's Jewish community celebrates Hanukkah with events around the country, but you can see the largest menorah in Europe in front of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate.
St. Nicholas Day, nationwide. The night before December 6, German children clean their boots and leave them outside the door, only to find them filled with goodies on St. Nicholas Day.
Winter DOM Fest, Hamburg. Families gravitate to this open-air festival that dates back to the 14th century with amusement rides, concerts, and weekly fireworks. This is the winter version, but there are others during different seasons.
Christmas Eve, nationwide. This is a favorite day of the year when Germans gather with their families and loved ones to decorate trees and open presents. Get your shopping done early as many shops and markets close midday.
Christmas Day and Boxing Day, nationwide. Both days are public holidays in Germany; expect closures.
New Year's Eve, nationwide. Germans love to celebrate the new year with celebrations that can last until the wee hours. The biggest festivities take place at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate with fireworks and food and drink stands. Look for performance theaters offering special plays and concerts on the last day of the year for something more cultural. Make restaurant reservations in advance.