There are literally tonnes of Christmas markets in Cologne – so many, in fact, that no one seems to know exactly how many there are when I ask.
While officials in the tourist office told me there are five major markets, the reality is theres probably over 20 spread throughout this German city, otherwise famous for its towering Gothic cathedral, but lets face it, Im here to gawp at their triumphant efforts in Christmas market curation.
The more bartenders, waiters and hotel receptionists I speak to, the more markets I hear about. Some sound historic and traditional, while others are more hipster, with an independent spirit.
Forget the main drag, its about the alternative market in Ehrenfeld, one local I speak to, called Sven, tells me. But Im keen on judging all the markets for myself, from the cutesy to the downright ginormous.
Like football teams, it becomes apparent that locals each have their own favourite Christmas market. Being a newbie to the city, I started not with others recommendations, but with the most famous market, found below the Cologne cathedral.
I met Birgit Grothues from the Cathedral Christmas Market, who told me there are some 70,000 lights on the magnificent central tree and 1,000 decorations.
Its quite a challenge, Birgit told me, relieved that the tree looks resplendent for another year.
We drank an early afternoon mulled wine as we strolled past apple strudel sellers, traders of the local Kolsch beer which is unique to Cologne and all manner of handmade crafts, including brightly coloured wooden childrens toys which Im told herald from former Eastern Germany.
Later, I returned for live musical performances under the tree by moonlight. There were streams of fairy lights above my head, and beyond that, the towering cathedral was sensationally lit.
For 3 Euros I bought a mulled wine, although I paid an extra 2 Euros for the ceramic mug (you can return it for a refund if you like, this is the same at all major markets).
I followed the crowd for two minutes to arrive at Colognes biggest Christmas market, known as Alter Markt or the Market of the Gnomes after a cute and popular German folklore tale about gnomes who helped humans out with their busy work schedules.
I was impressed by the phenomenal commitment to the gnome theme at this staggeringly large market. Itd be easy to get lost, in fact. Impressive sights included gnomes riding ski lifts above my head, welcoming me (in statue form) as I arrived, and smiling up at me as I glugged gluhwein from my cute ceramic cup.
The following night, I marched my visiting friends here. They were eager to return, as the gnome market also boasts actual attractions, other than the shopping, eating and drinking.
Here we skated on an unusually shaped, ambitiously-sized ice skating rink with a bridge above it, full of couples taking romantic selfies, and played some sort of traditional German game where we slid weights along ice, while Kolsch flowed from the bar.
Its the depth of products available that is most impressive, Rodney Ranz, founder of the Alter Markt, told me. He introduced me to a Polish trader, here for the last decade, who painstakingly crafts wooden ornaments, a man who carves his own knives and some ladies selling traditional German Stollen.
I later heard a loud banging and a crowd appeared. Some traders were working with metal, crafting horseshoes out of red-hot iron in front of a fascinated crowd of all ages.
A few metres away and a brass band played before a group of choir singers took to the stage; a few minutes walk away, a man wearing a hat decorated with elves gently played pop hits on a piano.
There must have been thousands spread throughout the city, at the myriad markets – the crowds were already picking up and this was a Monday night.
Rodney pointed above our heads as we walked and explained that the two giant trees cloaking the market with decorations had been decorated with ornaments designed by disadvantaged children.
I was pleased to hear that proceeds from nearly all of the markets go back into social enterprise schemes, and to local charities and support groups – some of whom are given free strands at the markets to spread their messages to wide audiences.
Near the Angels Market, right over the road, is the Heavenue, an LGBTQ+ market, but some locals I speak to say the queer scene in Cologne find it tacky and unrepresentative.
Whatever your impression, its much smaller and hardly anything like as highly decorated as the others Ive mentioned – theres only a handful of food and drinks stalls and the performance stage only has programming for a couple of days a week.
Yet, if youre looking for a safe space, its good to know the market exists. That said, Germany is generally an openly tolerant place for queer people anyway.
Catch the train out to the neighbouring hipster district of Ehrenfeld and youll come across another worthwhile market.
The Ehrenfeld Christmas market is much smaller but feels friendly and well curated. One lady I speak to sells LGBT+ themed magnets with cute imagery, another sells bricks from a recently destroyed prolific underground nightclub in Cologne and another sells key holders made out of old wine corks.
Its hosted on the grounds of the stylish Bumann & Sohn bar, where I enjoyed a crisp Reisling (Id had enough mulled wine by this point and fancied something else relatively local).
How I explored the markets
What I loved most was how exploring the Cologne Christmas markets felt almost like a pub crawl.
Each market has its own distinct type of mulled wine (try the white mulled, its killer) so work your way between the markets trying a drink at each one. The central markets are all walkable, youll only need to use public transportation to reach Ehrenfeld.
Open from late morning through to 10pm for the bars (around 8pm for the stalls) the markets also suit evening drinks with friends or more family-focussed days out.
The sheer commitment to the themes and decoration, plus the non-commercial feel of the markets and the sheer scope of them, sprawled throughout the city, is an experience unmatched anywhere in the UK.
What else should you see and do in Cologne?
Cologne is a historic city, with an impressive central cathedral. I popped in for 20 minutes after visiting the cathedral market during daytime hours.
Otherwise, theres a thriving art and design scene in Cologne. Visit the Museum Ludwig a short walk from the cathedral as an entry point, which has everything from Picassos to Warhols and a truly excellent restaurant boasting contemporary German and international cuisine.
Later one night, my friends and I visited the Belgian Quarter for drinks, where – for once – Kolsch is usurped by a taste for experimental cocktails and youre a short walk from the areas clubs and later-running nightlife.
Colognes contemporary restaurant scene also requires your attention. My pals and I also splashed out on a visit to one of the most popular restaurants in Cologne called Sorgenfrei, run by a cute husband and wife team who own a bottle shop down the road.
The restaurant serves bold and innovative dishes, with playful twists, such as an egg dish served with a hollandaise sauce spin-off served in an actual egg within a cardboard egg tray.
Also unmissable are the traditional German brewhouses, where the regions Kolsch beer is brewed. Each brewhouse serves the local cuisine (try the pork knuckle, but share between two if not super hungry as portions are mammoth) alongside their own interpretation of Kolsch beer, brewed in-house. Try Malzmühle, where Bill Clinton ate when he came to Cologne in the late Nineties. Nowadays, his face is proudly on the beer mats.
Cologne is also famous for its Chocolate Museum; with its famous chocolate fountain it takes guests through the chocolate making process and (take it from me) smells excellent from beginning to end. Youre in a real chocolate factory, Ill have you know. Theres also a great adjoining cafe with savory food and sweet treats, direct from the factory.
Theres also another Christmas market, the Harbour Market, outside the museum, by the historic dockyards overlooking the Rhine river, where I supped on a rather fancy gluhwein, mixed with rum and set on fire.
Plan your visit
I stayed at the stylish city centre Hotel Chelsea, which straddles the citys cool nightlife districts and the queer district. There are cosy, well-designed rooms and an adjoined restaurant where I had a lovely red wine nightcap one night.
When my friends left me for home, I moved to the Lindner Hotel City Plaza, where I had a comfortable room a 15-minute walk from the cathedral.
Colognes Christmas markets run from late November until around the 23 December annually.