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7 December 2017 - Kerstin Radtke

Europe’s finest Christmas market, the famous Freimarkt funfair and much more besides

Quality of life
Bursting with charm: Bremen’s much-loved festivals and fairs

View to Christmas market from Bremen's town hall
Bremen’s Christmas market is one of the finest in Germany. © BTZ Bremer Touristik Zentrale

It doesn’t take long for visitors or new arrivals in Bremen to discover that this is a city that loves to celebrate and have fun. Some locals even book time off work to enjoy events such as the Christmas market and the Freimarkt to the full. Their enthusiasm is infectious, as evidenced by the growing popularity of these occasions. Everyone is welcome at Bremen’s festivals and fairs – whether you’re just visiting or you’re here to stay.

The town hall and Roland statue: the perfect backdrop

When it’s cold and dark outside, the people of Bremen have the perfect antidote to the winter blues: a merry get-together. Festive aromas waft through the city’s beautifully decorated squares and along the streets of twinkling lights. With its festive wooden huts, Bremen’s Christmas market is the perfect place to soak up the magic of the season. The market square, at the heart of the old town, is filled with hundreds of market stalls of every size, providing visitors with ample opportunity to eat, drink and be merry, as well as do some Christmas shopping! It all takes place against Bremen’s UNESCO World Heritage backdrop, comprising the Roland statue and the town hall with its magnificent Weser Renaissance facade. Just a short walk from here is the Schlachte-Zauber medieval Christmas market on the banks of the river Weser, whisking visitors back to a bygone age. The trees that line the promenade are decorated with thousands of little lights to create an icy blue glow. What could be more atmospheric?

Schlachte-Zauber Bremen
The Schlachte-Zauber medieval Christmas market on the Weser embankment whisks visitors back to a bygone age. © BTZ Bremer Touristik-Zentrale / Ingrid Krause

Nothing compares to the atmosphere in Bremen – and it’s not just the locals who say so. There’s something truly magical about the city’s festive celebrations and the Christmas market is one of the finest in Germany. The market’s ever-growing visitor numbers and its high rankings in surveys speak for themselves. The Bremen Christmas market and Schlachte-Zauber have evolved from an insider tip to a firm favourite among Christmas market fans.

In 2016, the Brits, who are in the grips of Christmas market fever, made official what Bremen locals have known for years – that the city’s two-part Christmas market is the best in Europe thanks to its incomparable charm. That was the verdict delivered by newspaper Kent News. One in three of the 3.5 million visitors to the market travel from other European countries and in some cases people come from as far away as China and America. It’s not only the stallholders who delight at these figures, but also tourism industry experts, hoteliers, retailers and restaurateurs. Bremen’s Christmas market and Schlachte-Zauber market attract huge numbers of people to the city and are therefore major contributors to the local economy.

Sixdays and samba

No sooner are the new year celebrations over than Bremen gets ready for its biggest sporting event. The Bremen six-day cycle race (or simply Sixdays) has been bringing drama to the velodrome ever since 1965. As the world’s cycling elite chases record-breaking times one lap at a time, the party atmosphere builds inside the ÖVB Arena and the surrounding halls of Bremen’s exhibition centre. There is also an extensive programme of live music and entertainment for all ages, including a schools’ day and kids’ day.

Cyclists on the cycle race
Bremen’s sporting event of the year: the Sixdays cycle race © WFB / Frank Thomas Koch

A few weeks later, the events calendar features a festival that you might not instantly associate with north Germany. The samba carnival sees dancers in elaborate sparkling costumes parading through the streets to infectious rhythms, bringing some much needed sunshine to Bremen’s grey skies and transforming the city into a flamboyant street party. Who needs Venice or Rio when you’ve got Bremen?

Samba carnival in Bremen
There’s nothing dreary about a winter’s day in Bremen – least not when the carnival comes to town © BTZ Bremer Tourismus Zentrale

Each spring, the Bürgerweide grounds between the main train station and the exhibition centre are transformed into a giant funfair complete with games stalls, food stands, a Ferris wheel and other fairground rides. Somewhat smaller than its sister event – the Freimarkt in autumn – the Osterwiese funfair is the perfect place to get together for Easter. As part of a city initiative, major events like these are often accompanied by extended shopping hours and special promotions.

Summertime fun with La Strada, Breminale and the Maritime Festival

A further embodiment of Bremen’s rich variety is La Strada, the International Festival of Street Performance. One weekend in early summer, acrobats, jugglers, mime artists, puppeteers and other performers come from all over the world to turn Bremen city centre into one giant circus ring. Passers-by are compelled to stop and watch, and at the end of each act can show their appreciation by throwing money into a hat.

Acrobats show off their skills at La Strada
Acrobats show off their skills at La Strada © WFB / Frank Pusch

Despite being a relative newcomer to Bremen’s festival scene, the Breminale has already gained near-legendary status. This series of free live concerts is held in tents and open-air stages on the steep green banks of the Weser river, a setting that provides naturally tiered seating for the thousands of spectators. Past line-ups have featured brand-new stars as well as artists about to make their big break. The summer event, which is most popular with young music fans (and the young at heart), also incorporates an impressive array of traditional and trendy food offerings and an extensive programme of children’s activities. The people of Bremen are unanimous: there’s no better open-air event around!

Breminale music festival on the banks of the river Weser
THE summer event in Bremen: the Breminale music festival on the banks of the river Weser © bremen.online

For obvious reasons, seafaring plays a huge role in the Hanseatic city of Bremen. This heritage is the focus of the Maritime Festival, the only event of its kind in Germany. The festival, which takes place in the Vegesack district of north Bremen, celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2018. Numerous bands and artists take to the stage to perform sea shanties, maritime folk and folk rock. Ships, maritime history, sailing tours and food – including seafood of course – also feature prominently. Year after year, ‘pirate land’ delights the festival’s youngest visitors.

Freimarkt from above
The Freimarkt: the biggest volksfest in the city and the second-largest in Germany © WFB / Hellmann

Highlight of the events calendar: the Freimarkt funfair

The biggest event of the year is the time-honoured Bremen Freimarkt, which started as a goods market during the Middle Ages and was first mentioned in records in 1035. A thousand years on, this spectacular officially opens when a special gingerbread heart reading Ischa Freimaak is hung from the Roland statue on Bremen’s market square. The festivities kick off with a grand fireworks display above the Bürgerweide grounds, the huge site where more than 300 fairground rides and food stalls guarantee 17 days of thrills and spills. The event attracts up to 4 million people each year – only Munich’s Oktoberfest draws a bigger crowd.

Roland statue on Bremen’s market square wearing a special gingerbread heart
The Freimarkt officially opens when a special gingerbread heart is hung from the Roland statue on Bremen’s market square. © WFB / Katharina Müller

The second Saturday of the funfair features the Freimarkt parade, a tradition that now dates back half a century. Starting in Bremen’s Neustadt district, 4,000 men, women and children in fancy dress are accompanied by around 150 floats as they make their way through Obernstrasse and the market square, past the cathedral and on to the fairground, where they are judged for the best display. Thousands of spectators line the streets to cheer the procession along and to catch the sweet treats that are thrown into the crowds.

There’s time for one last uplifting event before winter really sets in. The Bremer Lichtermeer lantern procession first began in 2003. Held every November, the flickering candlelights and heart-warming singing of the parade give people something to look forward to during the wait for the Christmas market. It’s a real highlight (in every sense) for children and parents, locals and visitors, attracting crowds of around 20,000 at the last count – a figure that is set to keep rising.

For more information on the fairs, festivals and other events in the city, visit bremen.de.

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