Stuart Forster looks at Christmas markets in Hamburg, Germany, visiting the Hamburg Christmas Market and the Santa Pauli adult advent market.
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Members of a band wearing Tyrolean-style felt hats stand playing jaunty, accordion-led music under the entrance to the log cabin. The scent of pine makes me think of the Alps but this is Hamburg in northern Germany.
People are milling about, enjoying the festive atmosphere while chatting over mugs of warm, aromatic Glühwein (mulled wine). Others hold tall, curving glasses of Weißbier, the name for wheat beer here in Germany.
I’m standing on pine chippings in the back corner of the rustic, open-fronted market stall. Temptation won. I just bought myself a Glühwein and I’m enjoying the sensation of warming my hands on the mug.
Christmas in Hamburg
Dusk is settling over the country’s second biggest city. Lights twinkle in the chilled air and there’s a festive joy to conversations among friends and colleagues meeting up at this centrally located Hamburg Christmas market.
This is my favourite time to be at Christmas markets in Germany. As the sky darkens the atmosphere seems to become ever more seasonal. You might argue that my perception is being skewed romantically, relational to my intake of mulled wine.
Moving to the front of the stand, I see the clock tower and neo-Gothic facade of Hamburg’s 647-room city hall. A brochure that I picked up in my hotel claimed that the grand, sandstone-fronted building has more rooms than Buckingham Palace. That prompted me to pick up my phone and head to the British Royal Household‘s website and look up the number of rooms in the British monarch’s London residence. It turned out that it has 775 rooms.
I wonder what Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II would think if she could see a Christmas market like this one from her front room.
Hamburg City Hall Christmas Market
Under normal circumstances, around three million people visit this Hamburg Christmas market each year. Of course, 2020 was an exception because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s known in German as Hamburger Weihnachtsmarkt, Roncalli Christmas Market or the Weihnachtsmarkt am Rathausplatz, because of its location on the square in front of the city hall. This Christmas market is the largest in the city. Traditionally the stalls open late in November and remain open until 23 December.
If that seems a day or two earlier than you might have expected, it’s worth remembering that the evening of 24 December is the most significant time in Germany’s Christmas calendar. Families gather to celebrate what is referred to as ‘the holy evening’.
As many as 200,000 fairy lights help this market look particularly attractive after nightfall. Around 20,000 of those are mounted around the wrought iron of the market’s main gate. A model of Santa Claus is perched there, driving a reindeer-pulled sleigh.
It’s under the gate that I meet Frau Mömbacher, the market’s spokesperson. She explains that the market is named after the Roncalli Circus, whose director, Bernhard Paul, came up with the concept.
Roncalli Christmas Market
As we wander along the four main lanes between the market’s wooden stalls Frau Mömbacher pauses and points towards the roof of one of the stalls. We’re in Spielzeuggasse (meaning ‘toy street’). “Keep watching,” she says enthusiastically.
A toy train chugs around the corner and past us. Onlookers attempt to grab a picture. A wave of cameras and mobile phones tracks the train’s progress.
“We have a no plastics policy and our stalls sell only goods hand-made by craftspeople,” she explains while we’re between stalls selling colourful glass candle holders and carved wooden Christmas decorations.
Gingerbread baked in the cities of Nuremberg and Aachen catches my eye on a nearby stall. It also sells Stollen, a type of traditional German marzipan-filled Christmas cake dusted with icing sugar.
Leaving the market to travel by U-Bahn to the St Pauli district I stroll past a crib bearing large carved wooden figures of animals, cherubs and kneeling adults gathered around a baby lying on straw.
Santa Pauli Christmas market
The St Pauli district is known to Hamburg’s residents as the Kiez. The district’s bars, clubs, restaurants and theatres make it a nightlife hub. It’s also one of Europe’s most famous red light districts. St Pauli’s most (in)famous thoroughfare is the Reeperbahn. You’ll still see sex shops and touts promising live shows in bars along the 930-metre-long street.
The Santa Pauli Christmas market plays on that reputation. It is located at Spielbudenplatz, a public square with two permanent stages in the heart of St Pauli.
“I would say Santa Pauli is the cheekiest and most frivolous Christmas market in Hamburg and the whole of Germany,” says Christian Feder. We’re chatting under a red, oval sign bearing the grinning face of a cartoon Father Christmas and the words “Moin Moin Santa Pauli.”
“We have an adult area where you can watch strip shows, featuring men and women, and burlesque. We also have porn karaoke.” This, it turns out, is an opportunity for people to groan and pant voice-overs to screenings of adult films.
I walk with Christian on pine-scented wood chippings past the market’s stalls. We enter a tent guarded by burly doormen. As we pass the bar he gestures towards a raised stage with a metal pole and shimmering, glitzy curtain. This is where the entertainment goes down.
Santa Pauli in St Pauli
Back outside a dark-haired woman called Norma stands by the door of a tiny cabin. The word Wahrsagen, meaning ‘fortune teller,’ is etched in wood under the cartoon figure of a bulldog with angel wings.
She’s kind enough to pose for a few photos and I learn she reads palms and cards. The fact she doesn’t ask if I’d like to enter is, I suppose, testimony to her ability.
The next stall I view is selling a selection of what, at first, appears to be jewellery. I assume the glittering pieces are earrings. A closer examination reveals they are ornate intimate piercings. Anyone feeling game can get their genitals pierced here at Santa Pauli. They’re not the kind of Christmas baubles that appeal to me.
Moving on, I spot a board bearing a selection of pubic toupees in a variety of colours. “They’re made from real human hair,” Christian assures me.
The parted and plaited ‘Heidi’ toupee catches my eye but I walk on without making a purchase. “You don’t find pubic toupees at other Christmas markets,” adds Christian with a wry smile. I certainly can’t argue with that.
Vibrators and vegetarian food
Vibrators, ranging from shocking pink to shockingly large, are offered for sale at another well-lit stall. A display case shows off bobble-formed, hand-crafted glass pieces.
Alternatives to meat abound at Santa Pauli. “We have a wide selection of ‘Gemüse Dinge,’ that’s what we call vegetarian food,” explains Christian, standing by a fast food stall called Der Vegetarier.
It’s a cold, crisp night and we warm ourselves with a cup of mulled wine. As we drink Christian explains that Santa Pauli is most popular on weekends when it stays open until 1.00 am. The closing time on other days is 11.00 pm.
Friends tend to meet here at Santa Pauli heading on to late-night bars or going clubbing. I’ll decide what I’m going to do after one more mulled wine.
Christmas markets in Hamburg
The city has more than 30 Christmas markets. Their character and range of offerings vary. Consequently, it’s fun to visit a handful to browse stalls and taste the food and drink that they offer.
An upscale market overlooks the Inner Alster lake from the Jungfernstieg.
Seasonal food and drink is one of the key draws of the market at the Gänsemarkt.
The markets in Ottensen and Blankenese are reasons to visit districts that remain off the beaten tourism trail.
The Christmas page on the city’s tourism information website provides a comprehensive overview of the Christmas markets in Hamburg.
Travel to Hamburg
Hamburg Airport is a one-hour and 45-minute flight from London Heathrow with British Airways. Eurowings also operates flights on that route. Meanwhile, easyJet flies to Hamburg from London Gatwick and Ryanair has services from Stansted.
Prefer more environmentally friendly travel? It’s possible to travel by rail between London and Hamburg. The journey takes from nine hours and 18 minutes.
Hotels in Hamburg
Looking for a place to stay in Hamburg while visiting the Christmas markets? Search for accommodation in Hamburg via the Booking.com website:
Books about Hamburg, Germany
Considering travelling to Hamburg? You may find the following books useful:
Only in Hamburg: A Guide to Unique Locations, Hidden Corners and Unusual Objects by Duncan JD Smith is an informative introduction to quirky places and interesting aspects of the city’s heritage:
See the Hamburg website for ideas about things to do and see in Germany’s second city.
The Germany Travel website has information about Christmas traditions in Germany and German Christmas markets.
Thank you for visiting Go Eat Do and reading this post about Hamburg Christmas Market. Looking to visit Christmas markets in Germany but not yet decided where to head? Please take a look at posts on the Christmas markets of Munich, Christmas markets in Stuttgart and visiting the Christmas markets in Berlin.
Stuart Forster is the author of this post about Hamburg’s Christmas markets. Stuart speaks fluent German and has visited Hamburg on numerous occasions. His work has been published by magazines, newspapers and websites including Culture Trip, Love Exploring and Selling Travel.
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