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'Tis the season when Germans and visitors shop the stalls, drink mulled wine and load up on gingerbread at the country's famous Christmas markets. In a city with more than 20, you better bundle up

The main section of Munich’s oldest Christkindlmarkt, dating back to the 1600s, is found at Marienplatz.

The main section of Munich’s oldest Christkindlmarkt, dating back to the 1600s, is found at Marienplatz.

Joachim Messerschmidt/GNTB

Munich's most famous festival might happen in the autumn, but the city's celebrations don't end with Oktoberfest. As December approaches, the Bavarian capital turns into a tapestry of holiday cheer: With more than 20 different Christmas markets spread across the city, you can't throw a sparkly ornament without hitting a pretty wooden hut, decorated tree or a pink-cheeked local sipping spiced wine.

And the Christmas markets here are hardly a tourist-only tradition. As the holidays approach, Munich residents gravitate toward the markets, too – instead of meeting a friend at a bar, it's common to head to a market instead. Do as the locals do and pick a different one each night, depending on your mood. Here's help. (All of the markets listed here are free to enter.)

When you want to find that perfect gift for your offbeat aunt

The Schwabinger Weihnachtsmarkt was started by local artists in the 1970s, and it shows. About 100 have their own stalls here, so along with the mulled wine and Christmas ornaments are paintings and sculptures, photography and jewellery – ranging from quirky to contemporary and everything in between (landscape paintings done on glass, purses hand-woven from plastic bags, pinhole photography with camera obscura). The nightly live music is just as eclectic (klezmer, Irish folk, a capella jazz), the food is international and the mood is vibrant. The Schwabing market opens the evening of Nov. 27 and runs from noon to 8:30 p.m. till Dec. 23. It opens earlier on weekends and closes Dec. 24 at 2 p.m. –

Marienplatz is host to Christkindlmarkt’s main section.

Marienplatz is host to Christkindlmarkt’s main section.

Amanda Ruggeri/Amanda Ruggeri

When you want to experience … the heart of it all

Christkindlmarkt means, simply, "Christmas market," so the Munich market with that name has some big expectations to live up to. And this market – Munich's oldest and biggest – does admirably. Opened with fanfare by the city's Lord Mayor each year, it runs right through the historic heart of the city with 150 wooden huts selling enough lebkuchen (gingerbread) and gluhwein (mulled wine), Christmas decorations and toys to fill a thousand Santa sleighs. The main section is at Marienplatz, right under the looming neo-Gothic Town Hall (and the equally looming, 30-metre-tall Christmas tree, lit by 2,500 electric candles). This section can also be crowded (and touristy), so when you want a break, head around the corner to the tucked-away, quieter Kripperlmarkt am Rindermarkt, which just happens to be the largest nativity scene market in Germany. Christkindlmarkt is open from Nov. 27 until Dec. 24; from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., closing an hour earlier on Sundays. On Christmas Eve, it closes at 2 p.m. –

Mittelaltermarkt is designed to look like a medieval village.

Mittelaltermarkt is designed to look like a medieval village.

Amanda Ruggeri

When you want to feel … as if you're in a Game of Thrones episode

People have been writing about Munich's Christmas markets since 1410, so it's appropriate that one of the city's most beloved markets is the Mittelaltermarkt: medieval market. Designed to look like a period village and with all of its merchants in medieval garb, it comes complete with performances by jesters and minstrels, stalls selling archery bows and drinking horns, and Tolkienesque comestibles (think mead and spit-roasted pork). Expect to see lots of feuerzangenbowle – mulled wine in which a rum-soaked cube of sugar gets set on fire, dripping into the drink – being served up by bartenders who could moonlight as Game of Thrones extras. But also expect 21st-century touches, such as performances by "acoustic medieval rock band" Totus Gaudeo and, you know, modern toilets. Sometimes, authenticity is overrated. Mittelaltermarkt runs Nov. 26 to Dec. 23 from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. –

Marienplatz is often crowded with tourists, but provides plenty of spots to rest up, too.

Marienplatz is often crowded with tourists, but provides plenty of spots to rest up, too.

Amanda Ruggeri

When you want to experience … a pink Christmas

There are gay bars, so there would be a gay Christmas market: Pink Christmas, started by Munich's gay and lesbian community 10 years ago, is open to everyone. With the stalls lit up in pink lights and drag shows along with the DJ sets, it's small in size, but big in warmth and personality. Plus, where else could you find a pink Christmas tree? Pink Christmas runs from Nov. 26 to Dec. 23 December, from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. –

Residenz mixes old-school romance with slightly disturbing surreal atmosphere.

Residenz mixes old-school romance with slightly disturbing surreal atmosphere.

Amanda Ruggeri/Amanda Ruggeri

When you want to feel … as if you're in a fairy tale

All of Munich's markets feel fantastical, but the mixture of old-school romance and the slightly disturbing surreal atmosphere makes the market at Munich's Residenz the most Hans Christian Andersen of them all. Under the walls of the Bavarian emperor's palace, with an enormous lit-up Weihnachtspyramide (traditional German Christmas pyramid), there's more to this market than spiced wine and gingerbread. Booths have moving, human-sized wooden puppets acting out Christmas scenes (one even has a singing elk), while other fantasy-like elements dotted throughout the market include a larger-than-life nutcracker, a Santa Claus carriage, even a garbage can that looks like a gingerbread house – it might make you wonder how much that gluhwein has gone to your head. The market at the Munich Residenz runs Nov. 23 to Dec. 22 from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. –

Christkindlmarkt is Munich’s oldest and biggest Christmas market.

Christkindlmarkt is Munich’s oldest and biggest Christmas market.

Joachim Messerschmidt/GNTB

When you want to get … your youthful energy back

Located at Theresienwiese, the park that also hosts Oktoberfest, Winter-Tollwood is a favourite of students and of anyone else who likes what they like – namely, live music, international food, late nights, lots of booze … and a good cause. This year, the market's theme is "Clean is keen," with regular "garbage workshops" helping both children and adults recycle trash into toys and other objects. You'll also find an artistic installation called Trash People greeting visitors at the entrance. There's even a Repair Café in which volunteers can help fix that broken blender or remote control. But with dozens of tents selling every kind of food from Mexican to Moroccan, live music and performances by fire-jugglers and stilt-walkers, there's something for almost everyone. Everyone, that is, who thrives on the kind of buzzing atmosphere that makes this market party central. It's also one of the only markets open into the wee hours. Winter-Tollwood runs from Nov. 24 to Dec. 31, from 2 p.m. to 1 a.m. weekdays, opening earlier on the weekends. –