Even if you’re not familiar with the German city of Bremen, chances are you’ve had more than a taste of this place in your life, and it’s possibly in your fridge this very moment.
by Sharon McDonnell
Not only is Bremen, Germany the beery home of St. Pauli Girl and Beck’s, the number one German import in the United States, this 1,200-year-old city is a fascinating place that’s full of surprises. The first shocker? Don’t bring your lederhosen; there’s no Oktoberfest in sight. The world’s biggest beer festival, which lures 6 million people each year, takes place in Bavaria, in southern Germany. But don’t be fooled—Bremen is still a town focused on festivity.
Christmas market season is all about bustle and celebration, making it the perfect time for a sojourn to the city. The fragrant aroma of gluhwein (hot spiced wine), cinnamon pastries, roasted almonds, bratwurst and, of course, beer wafts from Marktplatz, the main market square. Here, you’ll find tourist jewels like the 15th-century Rathaus, or town hall, with an ornate Renaissance-style façade, and the 11th-century Church of St. Peter. Ever noticed the key on every bottle of Beck’s? It’s actually the symbol of St. Peter, and Beck’s uses the icon to pay homage to the beer’s hometown. But come late fall and early winter, the square turns into a holiday haven with 160 booths selling gifts, tin tree ornaments, hand-carved wooden Christmas pyramids, nativity scenes, nutcrackers and toys, amid decorated evergreens and festoons of little Christmas lights.
A centuries-old tradition in Germany, Bremen’s Christmas market is one of more than 2,500 held throughout the country. The scene is enchanting, with happy shoppers sipping and eating (but never haggling), and the square becomes downright magical when it snows, as it often does. The wares vary by region, with northern German booths showcasing crafts from Scandinavia and the Baltic nations as well.
Bremen hosts another Christmas market with a medieval theme on the Schlachte promenade on the Weser River, a few minutes’ walk from Marktplatz. This means torchlight, wood fires, local brew at medieval-style taverns, and vendors in dark robes selling mostly traditional crafts from more than 170 stalls.
Eating and Drinking: After you’ve had your fill of market browsing, there are a few nearby spots where you can refuel with local fare. In the basement of the Rauthaus, you’ll find the Ratskeller, one of Bremen’s most celebrated restaurants. The cavernous space has vaulted white ceilings, long wood tables, and “booths” that are so large they actually occupy separate rooms. Boasting the world’s biggest list of German wines—the Rosekeller rooms, which hold 800 varieties, feature centuries-old vintages, including a bottle from 1653—the Ratskeller serves only one beer, Beck’s. It also dishes up German specialties like Bremer Pannfisch (salmon and cod from the North Sea in mustard sauce) and a delectable pizzalike dish of melted cheese, mushrooms and onions in cream sauce on a thin crust.
If you’re still hungry for more local delights, head next door to Beck’s am Markt. From the outdoor seating, diners can spy on the daily flower and farmer’s market while sipping the pride of Bremen, Beck’s (including its lime-and-mint and lemon varieties), and Haake-Beck’s Bremer Weisse, a beer that’s traditionally sweetened with fruit syrup.
Those seeking some hometown brew should visit Schüttinger. This small, rustic restaurant near Marktplatz is known for its Schüttinger beer brewed on the premises, and for serving up beer-pairing dinners for groups of six or more.
More in Schnoor: In Bremen’s irresistibly charming Schnoor village, where the seamen once made their roosts, passersby can take in the tiny, picturesque pastel-color homes with steeply pitched roofs. The homes seem to huddle together like pearls on a string (in fact, Schnoor literally translates to “string”). In this pedestrian-only district, visitors can amble the streets and browse jewelry and craft shops, galleries and restaurants. One of the highlights of this qainter-than-quaint village is Germany’s smallest inn, dubbed the “wedding house:” It’s a single, well-appointed room with modern amenities in a green, 17th-century house.
Art Stop: Boettcherstrasse, a beautiful pedestrian-only street near Marktplatz, is where art lovers can find the Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum. The German Expressionist painter was famous for her realistic portrayals of farm life and poverty. Though she died tragically after childbirth at the age of 31, Modersohn-Becker left behind an astonishing body of work including more than 700 paintings and 1,400 drawings. Also housed in the museum is a striking cobalt-blue light installation that U.S. artist Jenny Holzer resurrected in her honor.
A Sip of History: Coffee is the other liquid that flows through Bremen’s history. The very first coffeehouse in a German-speaking country opened here in 1673. Not to mention, Bremen native Ludwig Roselius is the under-lauded inventor of decaffeinated coffee. In fact, it was Roselius who commissioned Boettcherstrasse to be built in 1927, and though the Nazis ordered the area be destroyed because it was considered “degenerate art,” Roselius cleverly persuaded them to keep it standing as an example of what not to build.
The Stuff of Fairytales: Remember the Brothers Grimm fairy tale about the aging animals who head to Bremen to become musicians and escape certain death on their farms? In the story, a donkey, dog, cat and a rooster set off for Bremen and, after scaring off a band of robbers in a farmhouse, take over the home and live happily ever after. Although they never make it to Bremen, the city is flooded with icons of this fantastic four: You can’t miss the depictions of four animals standing on top of each other—from statues to souvenirs to neckties. Lore has it that when you’re at the famous bronze statue of the quartet west of Rathaus, you should rub the donkey’s hooves and make a wish. •
WHEN IN BREMEN, PINKELFAHRT
While wandering through Bremen during the snowy season, don’t be surprised to see groups of colorfully dressed, slightly drunk citizens traipsing about town—it’s likely a Kohl und Pinkelfahrt. The Bremen tradition occurs when a group of friends gets a hankering for Pinkel, a local favorite consisting of kale boiled with meat and Pinkelwurst sausage (some add beer to that recipe). Before eating, the group dons cardboard top hats and glasses of grain schnapps around their necks, and set off for a jolly walk. Often, group members carry a teufelsgeige (literally, a “devil’s fiddle”), a broomstick hung with objects that jingle. In our photo, it seems modern times have replaced broomsticks with umbrellas.