Is It Worth Visiting Bethlehem’s Christkindlmarkt?

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For a long time, visiting the German Christmas markets has been near the top of my travel bucket list. I can’t really explain why I want to visit so much, they just look really amazing, almost magical.

So, I was really excited when I heard that Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, has its very own German Christmas market, or Christkindlmarkt.

Known as Christmas City USA, Bethlehem is a logical place for a traditional German Christmas market. After all, Bethlehem, as with much of Pennsylvania, has strong German roots, and nothing says German Christmas more than a Christmas market.

I arrived at the Christmas market in the early afternoon of the market’s first weekend.

Held on the grounds of the old Bethlehem SteelStacks, which is also home to the National Museum of Industrial History, the setting of the abandoned steel factory is quite an imposing one, making it almost feel like I was walking into an evil North Pole than a cheery Christmas market.

Nevertheless, I mustered the courage to walk in, sure I would see screaming elves fleeing the steelworks being chased by a maniacal Santa Claus (okay, maybe I didn’t really think that, but they could have a really good haunted house there).

Shoppers browsing one of the stalls at Bethlehem's Christkindlmarkt.
Shoppers browsing one of the stalls at Bethlehem’s Christkindlmarkt.

Inside the Christkindlmarkt, I was really surprised to see a great festive atmosphere. Christmas decorations were both strung above the booths and available for purchase in several different areas.

The collection of hand-made German Christmas handicrafts were the best I had seen outside of the Christmas Haus in New Oxford, and the stall of Russian Christmas items were definitely worth checking out.

Otherwise though, the Christkindlmarkt mostly featured the types of stalls that you would expect to see at a craft show in Pennsylvania: a few photographers, a winery, several stalls of hand-crafted wood items, and of course, the ubiquitous bathroom refinishing company.

That’s not to say that the vendors there didn’t have some great items. Overall, I was really impressed with the quality of the items displayed at the market. However, I had a few issues with my visit.

Another section of vendors at Bethlehem's Christkindlmarkt.
Another section of vendors at the market.

First of all, traditional German Christmas markets are usually held outdoors and in town centers. So, I was expecting Bethlehem’s Christkindlmarkt to be held in downtown Bethlehem. Quaint wooden stalls lined up along the roadway, strung together by glowing Christmas lights.

Instead, what I got was two large tents with little charm on the outskirts of town.

I also was expecting the Christkindlmarkt to be much larger. Given that it was recognized by Travel and Leisure Magazine as one of the top Christmas Markets in the world, I would have assumed that it would have featured hundreds of stalls, many traditional German dishes, and authentic Gluhwein.

Instead, what I saw was mostly an imitation of what I was expecting.

What makes me so baffled about Bethlehem’s Christkindlmarkt is that they have such a great foundation to pull off something really amazing. Driving through downtown Bethlehem, I was impressed by the quality of the shops and the quaintness of a town appropriately known as Christmas City USA. I even put together a list of my favorite things to do during the Christmas season in Bethlehem.

If they moved the Christkindlmarkt downtown, where it would be surrounded by colorful shops and beautiful historic buildings, it would instantly be better. Maybe throw in some wooden stalls that are so typical of German Christmas markets, keep the event going into the evening, and focus on creating an authentic atmosphere with the food, drinks, and music, and the market would become an outstanding destination.

A row of nutcrackers does not constitute an authentic German Christmas market.
A row of nutcrackers does not constitute an authentic German Christmas market.

Instead, it’s barely indistinguishable from any of the hundreds of craft shows that dot the landscape of Pennsylvania throughout the holiday season. And the mixed reviews on Trip Advisor tell me that I’m not the only one that feels this way.

It seems to me that one of its biggest competitors, the Pennsylvania Christmas and Gift Show in Harrisburg, is a much better choice for many visitors. Costing less and featuring three times as many vendors, the Christmas and Gift show seems like the logical choice for anyone living west of Allentown. (The Christmas and Gift Show even has German Christmas goods offered by the Christmas Haus in New Oxford).

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my time at Bethlehem’s Christkindlmarkt; however, it’s definitely not nearly as amazing as I was expecting it to be. So, given the market’s small size and high admission cost, my opinion is that the Christkindlmarkt isn’t really worth visiting.

Visiting Bethlehem’s Christkindlmarkt

In 2019, Bethlehem’s Christkindlmarkt is open Fridays to Sundays from November 22 – December 22 and Thursdays starting November 29. Thursdays and Sundays, it’s open from 11am until 6pm, and on Fridays it’s open 11am to 8pm and from 10am to 8pm on Saturdays.

Admission is $9 for adults and $5 for children. Advanced tickets can be purchased on their website.

(Article updated October 2019 to reflect dates and pricing for the 2019 Bethlehem Christkindlmarkt.)

Note: My visit to Bethlehem’s Christkindlmarkt was hosted by the Lehigh Valley Visitor’s Bureau. However, the opinions expressed in the post are my own and weren’t subject to review.

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19 thoughts on “Is It Worth Visiting Bethlehem’s Christkindlmarkt?”

  1. Interesting read you have here. I have not yet had the chance to visit this place yet and I plan to do so this season for the first time, but I will now be prepared for possibly not getting the top notch feel I might also have hoped for in terms of German tradition. I understand what you are saying. Interestingly enough, I live close to a place that actually does have the kind of Christkindlmarkt you were wishing to see….. it is always outdoors on cold brisk nights, tons of white holiday lights everywhere, gluhwein in abundance, German music, authentic vendors (and yes, a few new vendors are now there without the German authenticity, but the quality is still good) Overall, I look forward to this event every year, held in early December. It is jammed with happy people, safety and good will. And best of all, many of the proceeds from the event go to needy causes, such as children’s hospitals, and so on. Check it out….Sparta, NJ. You will not be disappointed.

    • That is more like what I was expecting when I visited, Bethanne! I didn’t find out about that Christmas village until later because it wasn’t open yet when I visited last year. Seems like a great, most authentic, alternative to the super commercial Christkindlmarkt.

  2. Have you attended the Christkindl market in Mifflinburg? It’s an outdoor market, a few blocks long, with the wooden sheds and everything. One of my favorite stands is a food stand that serves authentic German sausages and meals – you have to get there early becos the line extends across several sheds! There are craft venders, food vendors, and yes, the Christmas wine is there too! We prefer this festival than the Bethlehem one becos it’s more authentic.

    Christkindl market is usually the second weekend of December, starting Thursday and ending Saturday. They have all kinds of entertainment from the school band performing to this German guy who juggles.

  3. Unfortunately, this event lost all of its traditional feeling when they moved to the current location which you visited. This use to take place right outside of the historical part of Bethlehem that has the atmosphere you feel is missing. Not sure why they moved it. Now it feels like a crappy shopping mall.

    • I’ve heard that’s a nice one, Chris. Definitely seems from everything I’ve heard that that’s the one people should visit. Bethlehem is a very charming place at Christmas, and the downtown market only adds to that.

  4. I have lived in bethlehem all my life and christkindlmarkt was always a great place to go when it was held in down town bethlehem. So much has changed and the quaintness and warmth of the historic area slowly seems to be vanishing away. The last couple years they had it downtown it seemed to lose some of its uniqueness. Then once they moved it to the steel stacks it became something completely diff. I havent been there since. Its a shame this is happening to our historic area. Such a lovely warm town …or at least it used to be…

  5. I just came back from the Christkindlmarkt in Bethlehem and we had a very nice day (Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016). It was a very cold day but since three of the main buildings were undercover they were comfortable inside. My main criticism was the cost of admission just to walk around. Adults $9 each seems outrageous just for the privilege to shop. Why does it have to cost this much? I will not be going back again because of the cost.

  6. The market used to be at the bottom of the hill below the Hotel Bethlehem. At the time, there were a number of German vendors in the Christmas tent and it was very much a German Market. The problem was parking and it became a difficult event to manage. It also outgrew the site. They moved it to the Steel Stacks site as part of an effort to redevelop the steel mill site. Unfortunately the move coincided with the financial meltdown of 2008/2009 and a number of German vendors pulled out. The simple truth is the event staggered for a couple of years and nearly failed. The City of Bethlehem failed to understand how much the downtown events had become intertwined with the Kris Kringle Market. The failure to see the whole impact has diluted everything. Now the Kris Kringle Market competes with downtown for the traffic instead of being part of a greater event. Attempts to use shuttle buses failed and shear inertia has left it as it is today. One of the things that has hurt the market was the opening of the ice rink which took over most of the close parking.

    I doubt things will ever change back, but it was better downtown. That said, Bethlehem is still a wonderful cit to visit at Christmas.

  7. Chriskindlmart used to be in a tent in downtown Bethlehem. But parking was an issue. I used to enjoy going there. the walk from the parking garage took us through town and included a s top at the Moravian book store.

    • I was just in downtown Bethlehem and really enjoyed the feel of the city itself at Christmastime. The downtown Christmas market, while relatively small, is much more authentic and fun to shop at.

  8. well, I think it’s really nice to be indoors when it’s cold outside. I could take my coat off and enjoy getting a lot of Christmas shopping done in comfort. Even found amazing coats and other apparel for my dogs at Snugpups!!

  9. If it were in downtown Bethlehem then you would complain about parking. This event as well as Musikfedt are amoung the many highlights of living in the Lehigh Valley. I did not grow up here but this is were I opted to raise my children. It’s a wonderful place!!

    • Musikfest sounds great from everything I’ve heard, though I’ve yet to visit. Parking might be an issue if it was downtown, but I still think it loses a lot being out of the town center and charging for admission.

  10. This reminds me of when a theatre critic suggests what the playwright should have done differently. It’s completely besides the point. What is most helpful is to review what is like rather than what your ideal would be. I went last year for free. TD Bank was giving out free tickets. This year I will get free admission with my ArtsQuest membership, so there are workarounds the admission fee. My impression was that it was much bigger than you indicated. There were four tents, the food tent also had live music, some vendors were inside the permanent buildings and some were outside selling wreaths and centerpieces and trees. There were ice carving demonstrations and the special sectiion of Kathe Wohlfarht nutcrackers and ornaments was magical. They’re expensive but delightful, handmade and authentic,. It’s fun even if all you do is look. I found lots of great gifts and plan to go again this year.

  11. Nice idea to have the Christkindlmarkt in the center of Bethlehem but where do you expect all of the people and buses to park? Do you think patrons will pay for parking in the parking garage on top of an entrance fee? Not to mention parking for all of the vendors? Also, if you expect it to stay open late, how would you run all the electrical cords, lights and heat in and out of the huts and along the sidewalks? Where would patrons go to the bathroom? I don’t think the stores and restaurants would open their bathrooms for Christkindlmarkt patrons. Nor do I think they would want vendors blocking their storefronts with their huts and electrical cords.
    Where would all the food vendors set up their prep kitchens and store their freezers and refrigerators which hold all their food? Not to mention, having enough electricity to run them. Great idea on paper, but having it at the steel stacks solves alot of logistical problems most people don’t even think about.

    • Yes and no. Places like Philly, Pittsburgh, and even tiny Mifflinburg have figured out how to have these types of markets in the middle of town and solved electrical, bathrooms, etc. If the market at the SteelStacks just admitted it wasn’t authentic, called it a gift show and didn’t charge admission, it would be perfectly fine. There’s nothing wrong with what’s over there, but calling it a Christkindlmarkt and charging admission are both silly at this point.

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