Cologne, Germany, is one of my favourite cities. I’ve spent many a summer afternoon down by the river eating pizza and scurrying between the shops, not to mention exploring the chocolate museum. It’s a great place for young people to travel and explore another culture.

But Christmas is when the magic really happens.

Cologne completely transforms over the holiday season. Decorations are everywhere, and ice covers everything in the same shade of dull grey, making the bright Christmassy colours stand out all the more.

But its not just the usual Christmas decorations that appear to brighten up the city. Traditional Christmas markets are everywhere, from tiny collections of stalls selling hot chocolate and pastries, to sprawling neighbourhoods of fully-formed shops. There are even specialised markets – I remember finding an entirely medieval themed one whilst on a school trip six years ago, and still have the hand-woven scarf that I bought there.

Of course, the big problem that I have with the markets is that I always end up spending far too much money on stuff that I don’t actually need, which is not a great idea when you’re a student. I do nearly always get my Christmas shopping done at them though, even if my family are getting mildly frustrated with the collection of random wooden ornaments that adorn our shelves. So, if you are going to a Christmas market this year, either at home or abroad, my first piece of advice would be to go with a list in mind. Be sure to leave a little extra wiggle room to treat yourself, however, as you never know what you might find! But be warned: many stalls sell similar items so endeavour to shop around as much as possible to find the best bargains!

My second piece of advice would be to embrace the culture difference. There is always a full range of food stalls at any market, and Cologne quite possibly has the best. Of course, they serve more familiar dishes like churros or chips (nearly always with a paprika seasoning), but where’s the fun in that? Try to sample as much of the local cuisine as you can – sausages are a must, and the local beer is pretty good too. Personally, I always head straight to the bakeries and chocolatiers!

However, as with any place at Christmas, the markets in Cologne are always busy with both tourists and locals and so the streets can get very crowded. As I have found on multiple occasions, this creates the perfect opportunity to get completely lost. Always leave extra time to fully explore and lose yourself in the Christmas atmosphere: talk to people (almost everyone speaks English, but they are more than happy to help with your German skills), and just generally have fun. Many markets provide open air concerts and other public events which offer an extra element of excitement.

I find the entire set-up of Christmas markets completely fascinating. Although I’ve been to Cologne several times, each visit offers new surprises. I love rediscovering the charm of the tiny streets, which hold more people and taller Christmas trees than I ever thought possible every time. It is a truly magical Christmas experience, and one that I would highly recommend.