A couple of weekends ago, we found ourselves with a cancellation of guests and suddenly a bit of time. A change of scenery sounded nice and I’ve had the Hamburg Christmas Markets on my list since we’ve arrived here in Copenhagen and never seemed to made it. This was our list winter to give it a go so I looked up the train schedule and off we went!
Since this was entirely last minute, I didn’t have too much time to plan and research or read up as much as I normally do. Plus, traveling with two kids in tow ensure that you do no further research once you’re there. Still, if you’re headed out for the markets explicitly, it’s easy enough to figure it out once you’re on the ground. Hamburg is big (especially compared to our petite Copenhagen!) but the area where most markets are is fairly compact which helps you get the lay of the land quickly.
We had a lovely time and it was nice to get that extra shot of Christmas vibe. I’ll state my usual disclaimer here and note that I’m extremely biased to Vienna (followed closely by Salzburg and Berchtesgaden) for obvious reasons so that always influences my opinion somewhat but we had a great time. Also, there is no Krampus (boo!). Nonetheless, there is nothing like a legit mug of gluwein or punsch (even the kinder version) to make you feel the warmth of the holidays. Also, I have to say that in most stands, especially in the Rathaus market, I was truly impressed at the quality of many of the goods that were there for sale, whether wooden toys or individual houses or the freshly baked ginger cookies (Vienna, take note!).
The trip is definitely a bit of a haul – especially with two small children. It’s a four and a half hour train trip, and while it’s direct, you still have to disembark to get on the upper decks of the ferry for about 45 minutes (it’s enclosed, don’t worry – good thing too, since it felt like sailing the high seas at times) and then reboard. You can leave your stuff of course but still, with two kids it’s an added complication. I don’t think driving would have been easier but just fair warning. On the plus side, kiddies ride the train free which keeps costs much more manageable. If you do take the train to/from Copenhagen, make sure you pay extra for the “sitzplatz”, you’ll need it and with these crowds a seat is not otherwise guaranteed.
- Aim for a Weekday: This is probably easier said than done but if you can do a weekday, definitely aim for that. We did a Friday and Saturday, which was packed. Friday was already pretty crowded with wall to wall people but Saturday those walls just became thicker (even with the streets closed to cars). If you are on your own as adults it’s not so bad but if you are navigating with a stroller or small children, it can be a bit exhausting just getting through crowds and it sometimes makes the various goods hard to see. That being said, I have to say we never had to wait long to buy anything, it was more just the navigation piece that was complicated.
- Bring the carrier: Which reminds me, if you do have small children, see if you can get by with the carrier/ergo option rather than stroller. Having the stroller definitely helped with our long walks but in the markets themselves I wished I hadn’t bothered with it. It’s hard to push that thing through and having your littlest ones close to you makes working your way through the crowds much easier.
- If you’re going for the Christmas markets, focus on the Christmas markets: I had originally thought we could incorporate a few museums as we went overnight but number one, the markets were a blast as they were and number two, with two kids we moved around much slower than I thought we would due to the crowds. And this isn’t Denmark, you can’t just leave the baby in the stroller outside while you run in to check out the Miniature Museum. So if you’re going with the markets in mind, just enjoy the markets to their fullest extent as well as all the winter decorations and brisk breezes. Save the sightseeing for another time unless you really are staying several days.
- Plan (loosely) around the schedule: The Hamburg Tourism office is on top of their game. Their website and also printable program helps with figuring out which markets to visit when and where they are located in town. Also, there are things like the Saturday parades and such, so to make the most of your time, take advantage of the good information that they’ve already put out there for you.
- Eat the market eats: Part of the fun of Christmas markets is the food – and especially drink – that is unique to the market experience. Plan on having a crepe…or a bratwurst (curry wurst is the name of the game in Hamburg, that stuff is EVERYWHERE!), and lots of fun sweet treats. The lebkuchen at the Rathaus market was amazing (truly) and pretty much all of the things we tasted were fresh and really good quality, I wish I had had a little more!
- Bring cash and change: In order to do the above, you’re going to need to have euros at the ready. Definitely bring cash, small bills and have it ready to go. No credit cards here! Also don’t forget there are oodles of carousels and ferris wheels and the like for young and young at heart.
- If you didn’t get it at the market, you can probably get it at Mutterland: Walking from the train station, I spotted a little shop that we visited on our way home. Mutterland is a small delicatessen chain, with absolutely gorgeous things in the most lovely retro packaging. If you didn’t quite get to all the lebkuchen your heart desired, this is a great place to make up the difference. Give yourself some time to browse, products are truly beautifully packaged and not all that expensive. My only regret is that I didn’t get more!
- Have a bit of empathy and compassion: One thing that really hit home on this trip was how isolated we are from what’s going on in Europe more broadly here in Copenhagen. And you’ll realize it the moment you step off the train. You might have arrived by train for a day or two to take part in the holidays and the joy they bring, but there is a growing number of people in and around the station who have come for much different reasons with many different struggles. This isn’t a political statement about the refugee situation but it is a reminder to have a bit of human compassion for those seeking to change their fortunes in life, whatever your perspective is on the issue. It’s Christmas; extend your holiday spirit.