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, especially in Germany — 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. We wanted to combine our Christmas market-ing with a city getaway (I will take any excuse for a city getaway), Hamburg is a doable 3.5 hour drive from our place in the Netherlands, and neither of us had been before. Simon suggested it, I found a reasonably-priced hotel, and that was that.
We spent three nights in the city, and a solid chunk of two of them at the Christmas markets. As we’ve already discussed, I’m all about the holiday festivities — lights and decorations and cheesy music, oh my; but even if you couldn’t care less about Christmas, a Weihnachtsmarkt is a great way to pass a few hours.
There’s a bustling and lively atmosphere, great people-watching, and lots of tasty things to eat and drink. Pick up gifts or souvenirs from one of the many vendors, or watch as the busy food stalls prepare and serve what looks like an impossible amount of sausages or crepes. And at regular intervals, enjoy a [somewhat creepy] recording from “Santa” playing loudly from the speakers, accompanied by him “flying” over the market in a sleigh. (Of course, unless you speak German, you won’t understand a word he says, but I’m not sure that really matters.)
When you first buy a drink from one of the stalls, you pay a small fee (a couple of euros) for your cup. They’ll take your empty cup and give you a new one 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 — a staggering difference from most outdoor events I’ve been to.
So, what to actually drink at the Christmas market? Simon went traditional with 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 probably worth a try. Something about the flavor of mulled wine 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 more than enough. 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 Hamburg, but the biggest and most prominent is set up in front of the Rathaus (city hall). They typically begin sometime in late November and continue until the 23rd of December. (Keep in mind that most Germans celebrate Christmas on the 24th, so most markets won’t be running that day.)