Stuart Forster leads us through the Christmas markets in Hamburg, Germany, where picturesque wooden cabins sell traditional festive-season handicrafts that have attracted the tourists worldwide.
Germany’s Christmas markets have become a popular tourist attraction over the past couple of decades, drawing visitors from around the world to shop at stalls set within picturesque wooden cabins for traditional handicrafts and to taste seasonal food and drink.
This year, the markets in the northern city of Hamburg opened on 25 November.
Arguably the most attractive of the city’s 13 Weihnachtsmaerkte, the German term for Christmas markets, is Roncalli Christmas Market, at Rathausmarkt (Town Hall Square). Wooden huts are set out along four lanes in front of Hamburg’s grand Neo-Gothic city hall, which, according to locals, has more rooms than London’s Buckingham Palace.
Two lakh fairy lights add sparkle to the market and, if you look up, you’ll see a toy train running on a line above the huts, in which items including Christmas decorations, sweets and glass candle holders are sold.
When the markets opened
The market was conceptualised by the Roncalli Circus director Bernhard Paul and hosts a vintage carousel on which tots can ride trams, open-topped cars and fire engines. The scent of roasting almonds pervades the air, along with the aroma of clove and cinnamon aroma of Gluehwein (mulled wine), products which draw many locals to the market, in order to socialise after work.
The dockside St Pauli district was once notorious as a red light area and the world’s oldest profession still thrives here, despite the advent of container shipping meaning that mariners spent far less time on land leave than in bygone days. In recent years this part of Hamburg has re-invented itself as an entertainment hub for dining, musicals, theatrical shows and clubbing. Around 30 million visitors now go out in St Pauli every year.
Firmly tongue-in-cheek, the Santa Pauli Christmas Market plays on the district’s tolerant ‘anything goes’ reputation. It’s open to people aged 18 and over and located on Spielbudenplatz, a large public square with two permanent stages on the once infamous Reeperbahn. The market, which was inaugurated in 2006, sells adult toys and hosts a show tent with a pole dancing stage.
It’s also the only Christmas market in the city with a broad selection of savoury vegetarian food. Pine chippings are strewn on the ground and, especially on weekends, when the market stays open until 1am, this is a popular spot for people to gather for drinks while enjoying live music.
If that’s not your scene, you might prefer to spend time at the elegant White Magic market, located along the waterfront Jungfernstieg, by the shore of Hamburg’s placid Inner Alster Lake, from which boat tours start in fine weather. Within easy walking distance of the Europa Passage mall and the upscale, designer stores on Neuer Wall — arguably Hamburg’s most exclusive shopping street — the softly lit market with white tented stalls is a good spot to sip a warming, fruit and cinnamon infused mulled wine while planning the next steps of your shopping strategy.
If you’re looking for traditional, hand-crafted souvenirs and gifts then it’s worth heading to the oldest Christmas market in the city, set out around the red-brick façade of St Petri Church. The rustic, pinewood stalls are adorned with star-shaped lamps and spiky greenery from fir trees, thus exuding the fresh, seasonal scent of Alpine forests. There’s a fairy tale forest for children to explore while adults browse the huts for Christmas decorations or succumb to temptation and sample one of the bratwurst sausages, whose slow preparation on iron griddles hung over charcoal grills releases tantalising wafts of their delicious aroma onto the street.
Significantly younger, Ottensen’s Christmas Market this year celebrates its 18th anniversary. The red, painted wooden stalls will remain open until 23 December and are reminiscent of Scandinavian markets. This is poignant as Ottensen was part of Denmark until annexed by Prussia as one of the spoils of war in 1866-67. The inhabitants of Ottensen spoke German even then, and today the district is fully integrated as part of the greater Hamburg conurbation. Yet you can still spot legacies of the district’s heritage in Danish style triple-door housing whose courtyards are accessible from the cobbled streets.
The stalls set out along Ottensen’s main tree-lined boulevard are especially popular in the early evening. Despite having 37,000 inhabitants, locals talk about the village-like feel of this part of town. As you squeeze between bodies wrapped in winter coats and scarves, and nudge through to view the stalls, you might well wonder if each and every Ottensian has descended simultaneously. The market’s popularity lends it an informal vibrancy which is a pleasure to experience.
Nightfall on 24 December is the most important time of Christmas in Germany. Known as Heilige Abend, which translates to ‘holy evening’, this is when families gather together for simple, traditional meals and exchanging gifts by their Christmas trees. This explains why many of Hamburg’s Christmas markets remain closed on that day and why many shops shut in the early afternoon.
By then, of course, Germans will have completed their Christmas shopping, but a handful of markets now open after Christmas. The stalls at St Petri and Gerhart-Hauptmann-Platz remain open until 30 December and the White Magic Market until 6 January, just 344 days before Christmas.