It feels kind of weird to say I’ve only gone to a single Christmas market in my whole life.
I’ve celebrated Christmas since childhood. My family was never been big on the religious bit, but I’ve always gotten into the tree-trimming, cookie-baking spirit. And really, what is a Christmas market but the tangible form of holiday spirit? It’s what all the non-Jesus-y carols are about: strings of lights, hot drinks in festive mugs, appearances from Santa, and deep-fried things being served up in greasy paper bags. Surely, I do this every year.
Not so much. Hamburg was actually my very first Christmas market — but (and you probably saw this coming) it almost surely won’t be my last.
Christmas markets spring up all over Europe around the end of November and beginning of December. Germany is definitely the champion here: there’s a “Weihnachtsmarkt” in every German city and town with at least 10 people. (That’s a totally made up statistic, but I reckon it’s not far off.)
We picked Hamburg for a couple of reasons. Neither of us had been, and we wanted to combine our Christmas market-ing with a city getaway (any excuse for a city getaway). Hamburg sprang to mind first, and we figured: why not? Also, the hotel we booked had a really weird cancellation policy, so like it or not, we were going.
We spent three nights in the city, and a solid chunk of two of them at the Christmas markets. Honestly, even if you couldn’t care less about Christmas, it’s a great way to pass a few hours. There’s a ton of atmosphere, great people-watching, and lots of tasty things to eat and drink. It’s fun to watch the busy food stalls prepare and serve what looks like an impossible amount of sausages or crepes. And at regular intervals, they play a somewhat creepy recording from “Santa,” accompanied by him “flying” over the market in a sleigh.
So that’s dinner, drinks, and a quirky weird thing to check off your list; what else are you looking for?
You pay a small fee (a couple of euros) for a cup when you first arrive at one of the stalls. They’ll give you a new cup for each drink, but you only pay the fee once. When you’re ready to leave, you can return your final empty cup for a refund of your deposit (or keep it, if you want to bring the Christmas market feel to your everyday life). As a result, you won’t find paper or plastic cups littering the ground at the markets — because no one gives them out. If you’ve ever been in the Netherlands on Koningsdag, the difference is staggering.
Simon went traditional and drank glühwein, red wine mulled with spices. This is definitely the most popular drink at any German market, and if you’ve never had it, it’s worth a try. Something about it has always put me off, so I went for apfelpunsch, hot apple cider with rum. If you’re not into alcohol, they have “kinderpunsch” for you–try not to be offended at basically being called a child. (I know how you feel; the Dutch do the same thing when I ask for milk in my tea.)
My favorite food item was probably the Mutzenmandeln, little deep-fried balls of dough sprinkled with powdered sugar and served in a paper bag. They reminded me a lot of oliebollen–a similar snack the Dutch traditionally eat at New Year’s–except the Mutzenmandeln were smaller and a bit sweeter. I got the alleged “child size” and it was plenty for a snack. I even shared (well, a bit) with Simon. Of course, get whatever size you want, but remember there will probably be something else you want to try a few meters away.
Naturally, there’s a wealth of other things on sale at the market besides food and drink (such as soaps, jewelry, and artwork) but you’re going to have to ask someone else about those. I was busy eating.
There are a few Christmas markets scattered around the city, but the biggest/most prominent is set up in front of the Rathaus (city hall). I’d recommend starting there and moving on as you please.