The thought that immediately came to mind when I saw one of the Christmas markets in Cologne was, "It's a good thing I went to Lille first." If I had done it the other way around, Lille would have been a major disappointment. In addition to having only a single Christmas market versus the seven that are in Cologne, Lille's festivities seemed half-hearted after witnessing the great lengths Germany goes to when celebrating the holiday season. Everyone from my colleagues to the commenters on this blog told me that the German markets make everything else look like child's play, but I was still surprised at just how right they turned out to be.
If you go Christmas market shopping in Cologne, the first thing you should do is pick up a free Christmas market guide. This brochure will give you a map of the city with directions and descriptions for each of the seven markets. I went to four of them, including the "Home of the Gnomes" and the "Christmas Market at the Cologne Cathedral," while I unfortunately missed out on the city's only floating market, held on a boat on the Rhine. Next, find the nourishment you'll need to get you through a day of intense shopping by eating and drinking at one of the many food plazas within the markets. I recommend the friend potato pancakes, grilled bratwurst, and mulled wine that comes in a collectible Christmas martket mug. Enjoy amongst fellow revelers under the roof of an outdoor dining pavillion. Now you're ready to hit the stalls. I liked the "Angel's Market" the best, and I suggest multiple visits to the indoor ornament shop you'll find there, which is filled to the brim with delightful little handcrafted wooden decorations.
The Cologne Christmas markets are a major tourist destination - we heard a lot of British accents and a considerable amount of French - but you can't help but notice how many Germans are getting in on the fun as well. Die Weihnachtsmärkte are truly a part of the local culture, and the friendly Germans are easy to talk to and happy to offer information about the markets if you need it. Where Lille's market gives me a "been there, done that" kind of feeling, Cologne is a place I would gladly return to over and over again for all my holiday decoration and getting-into-the-spirit needs. Everyone was right: the Germans know how to do Christmas.