This post was written by Conor Phelan, our first additional “Journalist On The Run”. All photos belong to him. Be sure to watch out for many more articles written by him in the future or go read his experiences cycling the Wild Atlantic Way.
Christmas Market tourism is big for Germany. Think Nuremberg, Dresden and Frankfurt and all the tourists that flock there to stand under the glittering Christmas lights, chow down on gingerbread and cup Gluhwein in cold hands, but Hamburg? Hamburg isn’t a place that initially springs to mind as a winter destination, but the city is seeing a huge surge in tourism and it’s only just beginning. The majority of the tourists coming to Hamburg are from Germany, and slowly but surely, the rest of the world is catching on that when you are in Germany, you should do as the Germans do.
Here’s a little taste of the Hamburg Christmas Markets – a feast for all the senses….
If you visit Hamburg at any time of year, the Rathaus is going to be on your list of must-see places, so why should Christmas time be any different, especially as now the square in front of the City Hall houses the Historischer Weihnachtsmarkt; the Historic Christmas Market to us Anglophones. This is, by all sensibilities, the Christmas Market that you dream of when you come to Germany, Gluhwein flowing, food vendors cooking up the kinds of things you read about in Hansel and Gretel, and great lights illuminating every kind of sweet you can imagine.
If you’re planning a family trip to the market, the little people in your family will want to be there at 4, 6 or 8pm to see Santa soar over the market in his sled, and stop to address the crowd of happy faces smiling up at him. Child or not, it’s a magical experience at the most magical time of year.
If you’re one of these people who has food on their Christmas wishlist, then this market is paradise for you. Make sure you do a full circuit of the large market to see the full range of gastronomic delights. Picking the one food you want is the real life equivalent of trying to find that one movie you want to watch on Netflix – there is choice overload!
The fascinating thing about the Hamburg Historic Market is that even though it feels like the quintessential German Market, it is in fact only in its adolescence. Compared to the 300 year old Nuremburg Markets, and the baffling 600 year old Dresden Markets, 15 years is nothing in the Christmas Markets game. Anywhere else in the world, this attempt might feel too opportunistic, strained, and even fake, but rebuilding and reinventing itself is just what Hamburg does. Even the magnificent Rathaus Building that towers over the market only finished construction just before 1900, and along with much of Hamburg, had to be restored and rebuilt after the Allied bombing in the 1940s.
Once you have had your fill of wooden huts and brightly coloured cured meats, you can make the short walk to Jungfernstieg, which plays host to the White Magic Christmas Market. Jungfernstieg is a newly renovated area, with Rolex, Tiffany & Co and other high end shops adorning the surrounding areas, and this Market plays right into the boutique mystique. Two lines of small white tents line the edge of the waterfront, within which you are treated to a vast array of toys, sweets and hand-carved goods. Gone are the rustic wooden cabins and traditional German garbs, this is a market for the 21st century. Everything seems to glow white and even in late November, everything starts to feel a little like Christmas.
It is easy to come over all Christmassy when you are in the midst of one of these large markets, what is really wonderful is the effort to extend this holiday spirit throughout the city. Simply walking from your accommodation to the nearby U-Bahn station might just bring you through a market with freshly cooking Bratwurst and small ice rinks. For example if you visit the newly constructed Elbphilharmonie Music Hall, you are a hop, skip and a jump away from the HafenCity market.
These little markets offer the chance to grab a quick bite to eat, a short respite, or even just a little reminder that ‘tis the season. It’s also rather comforting to know that regardless of where you are, somewhere close by there is good food being cooked.
One of Hamburg’s main tourism draws is the area of St. Pauli, and the area embraces the Christmas Market like no other area could, or maybe would want to. St. Pauli is where The Beatles cut their teeth, where arguably the coolest football team St. Pauli FC call home, and where for years Sailors docked in Hamburg came for activities best described as bawdy and debaucherous.
You would be forgiven for thinking that an area like this would try to use the Christmas Market as a chance to cover over its somewhat sordid past, but instead Hamburg does what Hamburg does best and embraces the rich St. Pauli history and spirit by hosting a strictly over 18s market.
Rather than the market being a glorified outdoor sex shop, be prepared for something a little more fun. Gluhwein in hand (obviously) you’ll find yourself considering bespoke chocolate hearts one moment and handmade wooden dildos the next, before wandering into the warm confines of the strictly guarded strip-tease tent, where the shows are every half hour. Ultimately the market is less about the “sex-sells” mantra we’re so used to hearing and seeing, and more about a fun late night outdoor venue, complete with enormous hanging disco ball, an open air stage, and a surprising lack of bratwurst-penis jokes.
One thing Hamburg will never be accused of is being predictable, and after a few days here, not getting what you expect is exactly what you will expect. Even on a short walk, you’re never quite sure if the next corner will reveal something new, or old, or both. This is a city that has had to rebuild itself after fires and wars, and now it is rebuilding itself as a Christmas market destination. Make sure you get there before everyone else does.
Where to stay in Hamburg:
Conor stayed at Henri Hotel in downtown Hamburg. Rooms at this wonderful 4 star hotel start from €185 per night in December.
How to get to Hamburg
Conor flew direct from Dublin to Hamburg with Ryanair. Return flights this December start from as little as €44 return!
Editors note: This incredible trip to Hamburg Christmas Market was organised by Tourism Hamburg, so huge thanks to them for introducing me to one of Germany’s most underrated cities. I’ll be back.