Germany’s North Pole

Vendors make and sell their wares in Hamburg.

By: Susan James

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Bremen Christmas market
Germany invented the Christmas market during the Renaissance, and while the markets in the south of the country are older and better known, those on the shores of the Baltic and North Sea are becoming increasingly popular with natives and visitors alike. The cities of Hamburg, Bremen, Celle and Luebeck were once part of a powerful medieval trading conglomerate, the Hanseatic League, and the best time of the year to experience their continuing devotion to commerce is during the Christmas season when all four cities turn into festive open marketplaces.

Beginning with the first Sunday in Advent in early November and continuing until Christmas, long lines of brightly decorated wooden booths and temporary shops dedicated to seasonal food, drink, arts and crafts crowd the open spaces of German cities. Part fun fair, part medieval market, part theater and part outdoor restaurant, Christmas markets offer unique opportunities for shopping, eating and enjoying a mug of traditional gluehwein, the hot spiced wine that defines the German holiday season.

One of the largest northern Christmas markets takes place in the port city of Hamburg, a destination on the cutting edge of German tourism. The second largest port in Europe, media capital of Germany, fashion design hot spot and legendary music center (the Beatles, among others, performed here on the notorious Reeperbahn), Hamburg is only a 90-minute train ride from Berlin or Frankfurt. There are more Michelin-starred restaurants here nine than anywhere else in Germany. The city’s commitment to trade has made it one of Europe’s major shopping centers. One square mile of the town center, from Moenckebergstrasse in the east to Jungfernstieg in the west and from the River Elbe in the south to the lakes on the River Alster in the north, is devoted to shopping, from exclusive boutiques with international labels to major department stores connected by trendy malls of soaring glass and steel. Every redundant building has been given an up-market architectural makeover and pressed into commercial service, with all of the open space between crammed with a cornucopia of Christmas markets.

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Shoppers get a taste of the holiday spirit
in these northern Christmas markets.
Strands of illuminated Christmas stalls flow down streets radiating from the Nordhauptbanhof train station to the exclamation point of the neo-Renaissance Rathaus (Town Hall) and the market that spreads beneath it.

Every afternoon at 4 p.m., Santa and his sleigh cross the sky on a wire high above the market. Here things are not only bought but made. Walking past stalls, visitors can see leatherworkers, glass-blowers, goldsmiths and woodcarvers at work. Candymakers cut long rolls of hot candy into nibble-sized bites. Donut-makers drop spoonfuls of dough into boiling vats of oil, and steaming copper tubs of the ever-present gluhwein waft gusts of lemon, cinnamon and cloves into the cold air.

Historically, Hamburg’s great rival has been the town of Bremen, famous as the site of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, “The Musicians of Bremen,” which is performed on several small stages throughout the city during the Christmas season. If Hamburg offers big-city shopping delights, Bremen has a small-town atmosphere. Its main Christmas market of 120 stalls clusters between the 11th-century St. Peter’s Cathedral and the town’s medieval Rathaus, which sits over the largest wine cellar in Germany. Between noon and 8 p.m. from the last Thursday of November, Bremen’s Christmas market offers the smells of ginger, vanilla, cinnamon and anise, sizzling bratwurst, roasting potatoes and caramelizing sugar for mandeln, or candied nuts.

Two other outstanding Christmas markets take place in the smaller towns of Celle, 35 miles northeast of Hannover, and Luebeck, 35 miles northeast of Hamburg. Celle retains most of its old buildings, which date back to the end of the 15th century, and its Christmas markets thread their way through overhanging houses decorated with brilliant paint and Renaissance wooden sculptures. Carved wood and horn, herbal remedies and fortune-telling are featured in the medieval market, and at the main market, wine-sellers brew flaming vats of feuenzangenbowle, a rum punch guaranteed to warm even the coldest shopper.

Luebeck has also kept most of its Renaissance buildings and its specialties include the Niederegger Marzipan Bazaar, with animal molds and frosted cakes and cookies, and Ice World, a labyrinth of carved ice sculptures, ice slide and ice skating rink. Luebeck’s Christmas arts and crafts fair, in a frescoed medieval hospice, the Heiligen-Geist-Hospital, is one of the most beautiful in Germany.

Big city or small town, Germany’s northern Christmas markets offer unique seasonal delights for visitors.


Hilton Bremen
Boettcherstrasse 2
D-28195 Bremen
Single room: $165-180
Double room: $200-220
Commission: varies

Hotel Fuerstenhof Celle
Hannoverischestrasse 55
D-29221 Celle
Single room: $170-$366
Double room: $237-$386
Commission: 10 percent

Kaiserhof Luebeck
Kronsforder Allee 11-13
D-23560 Luebeck
Single room: $115-$262
Double room: $134-$289
Commission: 10 percent

Steigenberger Hotel Hamburg
Heiligengeistbrucke 4
20459 Hamburg
Single room: $225
Double room: $250
Commission: 10 percent

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