The band plays “YMCA” by the Village People and an inebriated young man wearing a bright green stovepipe hat dances with anyone who comes near. In the corner of the expansive room, an elderly woman orders a shot of Jagermeister from a vendor. In the back, a middle-aged couple sits down to plates of eggs and sausages with tall glasses of beer. On the balconies above, crowds lean over ornate metal railings to take in the activity below.
This is early Sunday morning at the Fish Market in Hamburg, Germany, but the scene inside the historic Auction Hall looks more like a Saturday night party on the Reeperbahn a few blocks away.
Hamburg’s 300-Year Fishmarket Tradition
The Fish Market, or Fischmarkt, dates back to a dispute in 1703. Fishermen petitioned the city to sell their fresh catches on Sundays, but the clergy objected, saying the market would conflict with religious services. A compromise was reached: The market could open at dawn, but must close at 9:30 a.m. to give the good people of Hamburg ample time to attend church.
In later years, fishermen began dropping off their daily catches in cold storage warehouses elsewhere in Hamburg, and the colorful Sunday market morphed into massive flea market, brunch spot and entertainment venue.
Selling Fish: It’s More Entertaining Than You Think
Stretching along the Elbe River, the market’s half mile of outdoor booths display far more than fish. Along with food items, such as fresh fruit and produce, candy, pastries and Hamburg’s famous fish sandwiches, vendors hawk handicrafts, pots and pans, clothing, jewelry, flowers and sometimes a few antiques.
In Your Bucket Because…
- You want to experience one of Hamburg’s quirkiest attractions.
- You want to rub elbows with locals in a historic marketplace.
- You want to shop and have breakfast.
- Good for early-risers or late-night revelers who want to keep the party going.
But the fish vendors provide the most entertainment. Ripping a sheet of white butcher paper off a roll and laying it across one arm, they begin to shout out the contents of their display cases: perch, Pollack, halibut and eel. Each is held high in a dramatic flourish before it is slapped down on the paper.
Then the clipped banter of an auctioneer begins. Bellowing like carnival barkers, they pause to crack jokes with the crowd and prod for a better price. When an agreement is reached the paper is folded over the fish and handed to the winning bidder. A Hamburg hausfrau comes away with a bargain and onlookers a good show.
Dining and Dancing
The Fish Market Auction Hall rises majestically at one end of the market. Built in 1894, the redbrick building with metal dome is a Hamburg historic landmark. On the main floor where fishermen once hawked their catch, picnic tables are set up for diners who order from vendors stationed along the walls. One sells waffles hot off the iron, another plates of meat, potatoes and eggs. Tables along the second floor balcony are reserved for those opting for a more formal brunch.
And though this is early in the morning, the alcohol flows freely: beer, wine, shots and coffee with or without a little something added.
The band on a stage at one end of the hall attracts dancers in various stages of sobriety. From teens to grandmas they come to move to the music. A middle-aged lady in a rainbow colored mohawk dances with a fat man in suspenders. A young couple shimmies and shakes, careful not to spill beer in plastic cups held in their hands. The crowd parts to make room for a pair of swing dancers who dip and twirl with practiced ease.
About 10 minutes away on the Reeperbahn, Hamburg’s once notorious red-light district, the nightclubs are emptying out, the theaters are dark, the streets growing quiet. The party has moved to the Fish Market where it’s obvious some of Hamburg’s night owls have yet to go to bed.
Getting there: The market stretches along a bank of the Elbe between Hafenstasse and Grosse Elbstrasse.
When to go: The market is held on Sundays only, opening at 5 a.m. from March 15 to November 15 and at 7 a.m. the remainder of the year. It closes at 9:30 a.m., though brunch is served in the Auction Hall until noon.