A visit to the capital of Christmas

Chris Carter takes a stroll around Hamburg to find out why the northern Germany city fancies itself as northern Europe's "new Christmas capital".


Hamburg's selection of Christmas markets will leave you spoilt for choice
(Image credit: Joerg Modrow)

Ever since Queen Victoria's husband, Albert, pitched up on these shores clutching a pine tree, many of our most beloved Christmas traditions have had a distinctly German flavour. So perhaps it's only fair that Hamburg, in northern Germany and just a short flight from London, has declared itself "Northern Europe's new Christmas Capital". A grand boast, maybe. But the old Hanseatic port on the Elbe is laying on 16 fantastical festive markets this year from Monday until 6 January.

The Rathausmarkt, located in the Altstadt (old town), is the pice de rsistance of Hamburg's Christmas markets, with the venerable, old town hall, lit up at night, making for a spectacular backdrop. Everything from Tyrolean wood-carvings to ceramics are to be found among the crowds foraging for presents and snaffling gingerbread in and among the stalls.

Adults with children can expect to be dragged down the Spielzeuggasse (toy street), where toymakers from around the world set out their stalls. Is that the sound of sleigh bells you hear? Look to the skies and you may even see Santa.

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Then wander down to the markets around Mnckebergstrasse, replete with festive carousel, concerts and choral singing. It's here that you can catch the Hamburg parade, which runs every Saturday up until the week before Christmas. There's also the maritime-themed Fleetinsel Christmas market on the Alsterfleet, close to the Unesco World Heritage Speicherstadt (literally "warehouse town"), where, say the organisers, two vintage sailing ships will be decked out with fairy lights "reflecting on the surface of the quiet, frozen inner-city canals".

If you'd be naughty than nice, nip down to Hamburg's infamous Reeperbahn, where the red-light district will be hosting a "frivolous" Santa Pauli market. Just be sure to put the kids to bed first.

No trip to Hamburg's Christmas markets this season would be complete without a visit to the "White magic on Jungfernstieg" and its scattering of snow-white tents. Grab a hot drink of Glhwein (mulled wine), and take a break from the excitement to admire pretty Lake Alster and its fountain. Facing the lake on the west-hand side is the Fairmont Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten, one of Europe's magnificent "grande dame" hotels, founded in 1897 (pictured below). Opera starlet Maria Callas, actor Peter Ustinov and a host of Prussian royalty have all checked in over the years.


(Image credit: © kai abresch photography)

Inside, the interiors are soft creams, velvet red sofas and antique furnishings. The rooms, however, are modern, the beds comfortable and the bathrooms spacious. In the spa, you will find saunas and steam rooms just the thing after coming in from the cold as well as an indulgent menu of massages and treatments. Speaking of menus, the food's not bad either.

The hotel boasts two Michelin stars in its Haerlin Restaurant, headed by chef Christoph Rffer, as well as the authentically Art Deco Vier Jahreszeiten Grill, opened in 1924. If you fancy something a little more relaxed, Condi Lounge is retro-chic and the go-to place for tapas and wine assuming you haven't filled up on afternoon tea in the Wohnhalle lounge in front of the open fire.

But before tackling all that, an aperitif is in order. The cosy wood-panelled Jahreszeiten Bar is more a snug than a bar, set over two tiny floors with views on the lake. On the shelf behind the mahogany bar, a row of red lights illuminate the selection of amber bottles of rums and whiskies, while American jazz classics and the happy chatter of its jet-set clientele, permeate the cigar haze. Might I recommend the Gin Basel Smash? It's Hamburg's signature cocktail and just the drink to soak up the atmosphere after a long day's Christmas shopping.

See here, for more on the Fairmont Vier Jahreszeiten, and Hamburg-travel.com for details on the Christmas markets.

Other German Christmas markets

The market at Worms, an hour south of Frankfurt, is more intimate, but no less beautiful and runs from 21 November to 23 December. Over the same dates, Cologne, with its stunning cathedral, is laying on seven Christmas markets this year, while beer lovers will of course want to head to Munich. The festive markets there run from 25 November until Christmas Eve.

See Germany.travel for details.

Chris Carter

Chris Carter spent three glorious years reading English literature on the beautiful Welsh coast at Aberystwyth University. Graduating in 2005, he left for the University of York to specialise in Renaissance literature for his MA, before returning to his native Twickenham, in southwest London. He joined a Richmond-based recruitment company, where he worked with several clients, including the Queen’s bank, Coutts, as well as the super luxury, Dorchester-owned Coworth Park country house hotel, near Ascot in Berkshire.

Then, in 2011, Chris joined MoneyWeek. Initially working as part of the website production team, Chris soon rose to the lofty heights of wealth editor, overseeing MoneyWeek’s Spending It lifestyle section. Chris travels the globe in pursuit of his work, soaking up the local culture and sampling the very finest in cuisine, hotels and resorts for the magazine’s discerning readership. He also enjoys writing his fortnightly page on collectables, delving into the fascinating world of auctions and art, classic cars, coins, watches, wine and whisky investing.

You can follow Chris on Instagram.