Early every Sunday morning in Hamburg, something happens that brings the whole city together. The locals and the tourists. Families up early to grab some bargain fruit and veg. Hoary old fishermen flogging their catch. Drunk lads who’ve wandered in from one of the seedy clubs on the Reeperbahn. Elderly couples haggling over the price of prawns. Butchers, bakers, candlestick makers... Of all the things to do in Hamburg, the Hamburg Fish Market on the shores of the Elbe in St. Pauli is - for me - the ultimate little slice of Hamburg life.
And Hamburg has a lot of life to it. That’s something I noticed from the moment I stepped off the train in St Pauli. The place is heaving with energy. From the packed-out harbour and ferries, to the bustling cafes and shops of the Schanzenviertel and the teeming streets of the Reeperbahn at night, Hamburg never seems to rest. Not even at 5am on a Sunday morning.
The Fischmarkt has been a Hamburg stalwart since 1703, but back in those days it was pretty much all fish. Soon enough, the footfall was enough to attract other traders, and everything from fine porcelain to exotic spices and even exotic animals could be bought down by the famous fish auction hall every Sunday. These days you can’t get the exotic animals anymore, but you can find all manner of crafts and clothing, food, souvenirs, and of course fish - which still makes up a big part of trade at the market.
You’ll have to get up early (or stay up late) to get the most from the Hamburg fischmarkt, as it runs from 5am (7am in winter) until just 9:30. The reason for such unsociable hours is down to the local clergy objecting to trading on a Sunday. They didn’t want the noise and the haggling to get in the way of the preaching and the praying. ‘Fair enough’ said the city, and it was decided that the traders could sell their wares early on a Sunday and Hamburg fish market could operate on Sundays, but never past 9:30am when church bells would ring and services would start. And that’s how it still is today.
So set your alarm and get down there.
If you get there really early and you’re waiting for your stomach to wake up before you start on the fish sandwiches and rolled herring, don’t worry. There are loads of ‘breakfasty’ things to munch, so why not kick start your day with one of Hamburg’s famous Franzbroetchen and coffee. You can get a proper sit-down brunch there but it’s a pretty fancy affair and little pricey, and you’ll probably want to wander round the stalls and trucks anyway, or dance, graze, and do some people-watching. My recommendation is to go for the pastries and fish sandwiches (fischbroetchen) – they’re cheap and portable.
Inside the actual auction hall is where the action is. The building itself was built in 1894 to resemble a Roman market hall, and its red brick walls and dark metal dome fast became one of the city’s most recognisable landmarks. Almost totally destroyed during WWII, it was a shell until the 1980s when the city returned it to its former glory – it now plays host to thousands of people every week, dancing and dining and enjoying the music and atmosphere.
Bands that perform at Hamburg fish market play anything and everything from rock & roll to jazz and pop, and people are not a bit shy about getting up to dance to whatever is playing. There was rock & roll band playing when I first wandered in, and I was genuinely taken aback by not just the size of the crowd up cutting a rug, but its diversity too. Young couples in each other’s arms, a group of slightly worse-for-wear lads who’d clearly come straight from the Reeperbahn, and the coolest lady I’ve ever laid eyes on – easily well into her 60s and decked out in leopard print while she busted moves that put everyone around her to shame.
And that’s the beauty of the Hamburg fish market. It’s truly for everyone. People who are there to drink beer and end their night, and people who are there to drink coffee and start their day. The old and young, shoppers and eaters, dancers and people-watchers… whether you’re a tourist browsing the anchor-emblazened souvenirs or a local looking to buy a plant from the auctioneer/comedian outside the main hall, you’ll fit right in.