I live in Seattle, WA, but spent a few years in the UK – the magical and wondrous place where I first discovered Christmas markets! I always regret not having visited a real one in Germany, where the Christmas market tradition began. So imagine my enthusiasm last week when I read about an idyllic, Bavarian-themed town that holds Christmas markets right here in Washington state! Yes, my weekend plans were made. Crafts, music, bratwursts and mulled wine all wrapped up in the festive holiday setting of a Christmas market? You could say I was instantly enamored. At the time, I had no idea I was about to discover so much more than a German-ish Christmas market.
Leavenworth, Washington is only 2 hours outside of Seattle, but it felt like a full blown European mini-break (I posted a snap on Instagram right away). The German-inspired shops and restaurants were all housed in the traditional Bavarian architectural style and the food was meant to be just as authentic. The spirit of the season was bright with holiday lights and decorations all over the streets. And since the surrounding Cascade mountains visibly towered high above the town, the hills were indeed alive with the sound of Leavenworth.
After a little oohing and ahhing, I strolled through the 4 or 5 streets that made up the town and reached the Christmas market. Vendors roasted chestnuts and sold Seattle Seahawks (aka football) wares, but there was no mulled wine or bratwurst. Feeling the void, my husband suggested we eat lunch at a nearby beer garden. While the Christmas market was not as I had anticipated, I adored the pretty lights and enchanting setting as I sat with a beer and brat at the ever-popular München Haus. When my husband got up to grab another beer, I suffered a minor panic attack when I checked my Instagram and found this comment on my photo of Leavenworth: Looks cute, but is there anything to do there? What was I going to do here all weekend? Had I found myself in a tourist trap? I shared my anxieties with my husband as soon as he returned. Calmly, he responded,
Relax. Let’s just take it slow and enjoy a nice weekend away.
He was right. I instantly recalled a similar incident when I first visited Venice. Yup, I smugly wrote off the much romanticized floating Italian city as an overrated, tourist trap way back in the day. The canals, gondoliers and hoards of tourist shops left me feeling unimpressed. But as I’d later learn, I was simply uninformed. Years later, I delved beyond the surface and learned exactly why Venice captivates so many. That’s when I first realized that the trick to enjoying a discovered, or even touristy town is to dig deeper.
With my attention shifted away from the Christmas markets I had known in Europe and redirected at the Leavenworth I had yet to explore, I was ready. The holiday lights and Christmas glitz were beautiful, but they didn’t have much to do with my most memorable moments in the little town. Here’s a look at the brave new Bavaria I discovered in Leavenworth…
If the over-hyped and under-flamed bratwursts aren’t quite hitting the spot, take a break from the yodeling and side step into some salsa. There is spectacular South American cuisine to be had in this town. It may not entirely fit with the Bavarian theme, but as you walk around town and notice the large Latin American population in the area, it will all make sense. So if you’re hungry, I suggest you warm up by heading to South – an amazing, locally owned and sourced restaurant. The menu boasts popular dishes from countries all across South America, the environment is modern and since most of the tourists are looking for schnitzel, you’ll have an easier time getting a seat. Don’t get me wrong, I waited an hour for my table, but it was a lot faster than the queues forming around the rest of the Bavarian themed restaurants. Now, I’m not saying that the Bratwursts in Leavenworth aren’t good. Actually, the beer gardens, outdoor music and brats at München Haus are pretty darn good. I’m just saying that if your hankering for something a little different by the 6th or 7th bratwurst, you got a few options.
- Walking in A Winter Wonderland
While the holiday lights and yuletide spirit shine bright in town, I discovered a different kind of magical and festive Christmas escape. In the outskirts of town, far and away from the kind of Christmas decorations that need an electrical outlet, there lies a real life version of a snow globe. The outdoor landscape and powdery white trails of the Cascade mountains are decorated with frosted forests, dangling icicles and snowflakes – it’s breathtaking. In nature and away from the usual holiday hubbub, it’s hard not to feel the true spirit of the season. Plus, the stunning vistas and sheer joy that comes with laying down fresh tracks in the snow will make you feel like you’re truly walking in a winter wonderland.
- Cocoa Crawl or Lift Spirits With Spirits
Okay, so I was a bit disappointed that there was no mulled wine in the Christmas market. But that doesn’t mean that mulled wine can’t be found elsewhere in Leavenworth. Oh contraire my frau! Mulled wine spills over in the many pubs and bars around town. The earthy, cinnamon-y spiced, hot drink is a European Christmas favourite. It’s a must if you’re in Leavenworth during the holiday season. If you prefer to stick to the classics, Leavenworth is also home to a plethora of amazing wineries and distilleries. Tasting rooms are peppered in between tourist shops by the dozen and since the town is pretty small, leave the car parked and tap dance your way to each one.Interested in celebrating the season without spirits? No problem! There are lots of ways to make merry in Leavenworth. In fact, a craving for cocoa led to a yelp search that soon turned into a cocoa crawl. It started off innocently with a bittersweet treat at J5 Coffee, moved into a much sweeter variety at The Gingerbread Factory (nicely paired with a gingersnap) and eventually finished at The Icicle Brewing Company where the hot chocolate of choice was spiked with equal parts of brandy and kahlúa (’tis the season!).
Now that’s just three of the wonderful things I found in Leavenworth, but millions of visitors discover all sorts of great things in Leavenworth each year. Many come to see the festive holiday glitter splashed around town every Christmas, but if you’re anything like me… You just might look beyond the lights and find a whole lot more.
In the end, I didn’t relive my festive Christmas market fantasy exactly as I had hoped, but as a traveler who prides herself is roaming off the beaten path… It’s important to remind myself that unique travel experiences come from exploring the lesser known, even when the lesser-known lies within the well-known.