The best antidote for fighting off feelings of “bah-humbug” would have to be a trip to Hamburg, Germany for an infusion of genuine Christmas cheer. The festive atmosphere there, emanating from numerous Christmas Markets, is sure to lift your spirits.
Lured by promises of tasty mulled wine and abundant shopping opportunities for hand-crafted goods, I recently made my first trip to northern Germany. Seated next to me on the flight into Hamburg was a pleasant, round-faced fellow who struck up a conversation. After learning the purpose of my visit, he said, “The Christmas Markets in Hamburg are really fun. My girlfriend and I have been three times this year already.” This was on December 3—when the Christmas Markets had been open just eleven days (and he’d been away traveling on business for the last few). If locals love them enough to make multiple visits, I thought, these Christmas Markets must be something special. My excitement grew.
Christmas Markets originated in Germany in the Middle Ages and after World War II grew in popularity across Europe. They are held in cities, towns and villages throughout the country. Each Christmas Market is a unique combination of craft fair and food festival. They share in common a diverse mix of vendors selling a range of foodstuffs and merchandise from decorated stalls that are positioned in tidy rows along streets or in spacious public spaces like parks. (Most Christmas Markets are held outdoors in the crisp air, but a few are held inside churches and other historic buildings as fundraisers.)
Twinkling lights, shining stars and decorated trees set the scene. Scents of roasted chestnuts and almonds, baked apples, grilled sausages and warm nutmeg and cinnamon waft through the cold air. Folks in wool hats sip from steaming mugs of glühwein (mulled wine), feuerzangenbowle (red wine punch with rum), apfel punsch (hot apple cider with rum) and other hot toddies. Lovers stroll hand-in-hand, carrying shopping bags stuffed with seasonal goodies. Familiar carols—piped from sound systems or played by musicians on accordions—mix with laughter into an uplifting melody.
With artisans vying to get accepted as vendors, Christmas Markets emphasize quality and favor hand-crafted over mass-produced goods. Among the treasures are Christmas tree ornaments, decorations, pottery, fur hats, nutcrackers, candles, paper stars, toys, and treats like gingerbread cookies, marzipan figures, schneeballen (balled pastries), cinnamon stars and much more. While strolling through any market, nibble on made-to-order crepes, bratwursts, fish sandwiches, seasonal candies and other temptations.
Hamburg, billed as one of the best-loved shopping cities in Europe—and now with an exchange rate more favorable than it’s been in years—is an experience any time of year with its impressive range of department stores and boutique shops that sell an eclectic assortment of bargain and designer brands. But shopping options expand during Advent when twelve Christmas Markets open across the city (it’s especially easy to wander among the seven markets located in the city center).
Hamburg’s assorted Christmas Markets offer something for everyone: Some emphasize tradition, others are designed for children, one has a maritime theme, and the ‘Santa Pauli’ market in the Reeperbahn red light district earns distinction as Germany’s only erotic Christmas Market (among its items for sale are thongs and, ahem, risqué playthings). So there’s the opportunity to find something for virtually everyone on your list.
One of Germany’s most renowned Christmas Markets, referred to as “Historischer Weihnachtsmarkt”or “Hamburger Weihnachtsmarkt,” is located in front of Hamburg’s City Hall. Established by Roncalli’s Circus and attracting nearly three million visitors each year, it boasts more than 80 merchants from across Germany. Three times each day Santa Claus glides overhead on a sleigh (that’s secured to a cable). And twice each Saturday a parade of people dressed as gnomes, angels and gingerbread men stroll past the market down Moenckeberstrasse, the city’s largest shopping street.
Getting around Hamburg as well as traveling to outlying areas is easy thanks to an efficient train system. Daytrips to Lübeck and/or Celle offer a relaxed small-town contrast to Hamburg’s vibrant urban energy—plus the chance to shop at additional Christmas Markets.
About a 45-minute train ride away from Hamburg, Lübeck boasts six different Christmas Markets with 400 merchants. One market evokes the Middle Ages – you know, the real Medieval Times – and another aims to bring fairy tales to life for children. Two are located inside historic churches, making it easy to combine shopping with sightseeing.
About an hour away from Hamburg on the fast ICE train that reaches speeds of up to 200 kilometers an hour, Celle houses more than 500 half-timbered houses (which is likely the style of building that comes to mind when you think of Germany). The village boasts three Christmas Markets, one of which is specifically for children, plus dozens of inviting boutique shops with appealing retail prices.
If all you want for Christmas to recapture the joy of the season, Germany is where to make your wish come true.
Enjoy the taste of Germany at home.
Christmas Cinnamon Stars
500 g unpeeled almonds
5 egg whites
1 pinch salt
1 tsp lemon juice
500 g icing sugar
2 tsps cinnamon
200 g ground almonds
Set a little beaten egg white aside for the glaze
Finely grate the almonds. Whisk the egg whites with a pinch of salt until stiff, then slowly add the lemon juice and sugar. Continue whisking until the mixture is firm and shiny. Scoop off 6 Tablespoons of the mixture and set aside for the glaze. Stir the almonds and cinnamon into the remaining mixture. Sprinkle the work surface with a little of the ground almonds and roll out the mixture to a thickness of 5 mm. Cut out star shapes and place on a baking tray. Brush the stars with the beaten egg white. Bake at 285º F for approx. 30 minutes. Do not allow to brown. Leave to cool. Store in an airtight container.
—Recipe Courtesy Lübeck Travemünde Marketing
If You Go
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Grand Elysée Hotel Hamburg
Rothenbaumchaussee 10, Hamburg
Phone: +49 (0) 40 41 412 0
This upscale hotel is independently owned and thus offers local flavor. Friendly staff members create an inviting, homey atmosphere. The hotel offers spacious rooms, luxurious amenities, numerous on-site services (including free Internet and spa access), plus a convenient location near the Dammtor train station.
Krayenkamp 10, Hamburg
Phone.: +49 (0) 40 365 800
This local treasure serves traditional North German fare in a quaint setting.
St. Pauli Fischmarkt 28, Hamburg
Phone: +49 (0) 40 300 60 19 0
This upscale dining destination has a hip swanky vibe. Menu features creative, contemporary dishes based on local ingredients.
Breite Straße 2, Lübeck
Phone: +49 (0) 451 767 70
This restaurant is located in a medieval building that’s been owned by the Guild of Blue Water Captains since 1535—even more impressive, the banquet tables and benches are original. Both the satisfying regional fare and cozy historic setting are authentic and memorable.
Neue Straße 36, Celle
Phone: +49 (0) 51 41 2 29 44
This local favorite has a cozy atmosphere. Enjoy hearty portions of traditional regional dishes from the menu that emphasizes pork.
Beyond Christmas Markets, each community offers attractions worth exploring in any season:
Phone: +49 05141 12-372
Special Christmas exhibit features a collection of nativity scenes from around the world.
Celle Castle (Schloss Celle)
Phone: +49 (5141) 12 373
The four-winged Ducal Palace is the largest castle in the southern Lüneburg Heath region and the oldest building in town (circa 1292). Beyond impressive art, antiques and architecture, guided tours reveal the juicy love stories of former residents of the House of Braunschweig-Lüneburg.
BallinStadt – The Emigration Museum
Phone: +49 (0) 40 319791616
An emotionally moving tribute to the people who sailed to the New World from the port of Hamburg. The museum also supports genealogical research and manages www.ancestry.de and www.ancestry.com.
Die roten Doppeldecker
Hop aboard a red double-decker bus for a 90-minute narrated tour of Hamburg’s sights. (English tours available.)
Learn spooky truths of Hamburg’s history.
Founded in 1143 as the first German city on the Baltic Sea, Lübeck’s medieval Old Town has been designated an UNESCO Cultural World Heritage site since 1987. Surrounded by water, the city center is dominated by seven church steeples. The Gothic structure of St. Mary’s Church was constructed over the course of 100 years (1250-1350) and is the third-largest church building in Germany. The Holstein Gate, built between 1464 and 1478 and one of the best-known and best-preserved town gates from the Middle Ages.
Phone: +49 (0) 451 122 4129
Exhibits the life and works of Heinrich and Thomas Mann.
Phone: +49 (0) 451 530 1126
This top-quality marzipan producer has been a family business since 1806! At the marzipan museum learn about the history of the almond paste treat. In the retail shop peruse a breathtaking array of marzipan specialties.
Phone: +49 (40) 300 51 111
Top photo: Lübeck Christmas Market in the evening. CREDIT: © LTM S.E.Arndt