I wasn’t expecting that smell. Of grease and batter frying in hot oil. Oh, I did appreciate it but it certainly wasn’t the briny overpowering seafood smell I expected right away from a fish market.
That was the first scent – deep fry – that hit me as I strolled onto the strip along the harbor where kiosks, trunks, and mobile caravans were setting up for the morning laying out fresh Fischbrötchen (fish buns) filled with herring. Massive cruise ships rested in the background under early morning’s blue light like sleeping giants. Amidst the morning blues were streams of warm rays from vendors guiding me down – guiding the late night partiers down – the makeshift alley of fried mackerel, smoked salmon, pickled herring, and cooked prawns.
I wandered past a few stalls until I felt that familiar pungent smell of sea salt and fresh fish interspersed between fast food kiosks. Further along was a sea of vibrantly colored fruit and flower hawkers with neatly arranged baskets of fresh fruit. This was clearly more than an assembly of fishmongers.
Hamburg’s historic Fischmarkt (fish market) is held at the crack of dawn at 5am every Sunday morning (6am during the winter) between March and November. Running since 1703 along the banks of the Elbe River and crowned at its end by the 100+ year old Altona auction hall, the fish market has morphed from a sweat-it-out haggling ground between fishermen, fishmongers, and customers to a place that draws thousands of tourists – roughly 70,000 every year – with business still being conducted amidst it all. There are even live bands playing jazz, country, and rock music as patrons dig into all manner of fish for brunch.
The industrial auction hall itself, with its burnished red brick walls and a dome roof made of steel and glass, was inaugurated in 1896 by Kaiser Wilhelm II and remains the city’s waterfront icon.
There is a clear difference in clientele when you come to the market at 5am versus 6am.
That crucial hour between 5-6am – amidst locals who come to call dibs on the freshest fish and seafood before anyone else, as well as revelers who stumble out of hedonistic St. Pauli and off the Reeperbahn looking for early morning grub and coffee – is when the market is most alive at its truest form.
And of course, those of us who roll out of bed in time to soak up the lively vibe with camera in hand are rewarded before the rush of tourists come rolling in shoulder-to-shoulder from 6am-9am and the fishmongers put on their show.
When it came to over-the-top personalities bellowing from their stands or kiosks, the market certainly doesn’t disappoint. Coming in earlier meant they hadn’t started in full force yet so you got to experience a more relaxed side of them. For example, Aale-Dieter or “Eels” Dieter Bruhn who has been in the business for over 50 years, and who I frankly call the “Godfather of Fish” is one of the modern-day founding fixtures of the Hamburg fish market.
As you round a turn in the market, you catch him from the corner of your eye. Right there. All knowing. All seeing. Red suspenders, white turtleneck, navy blue-and-white striped shirt with sleeked back hair. So influential he has his own dedicated page on Hamburg’s official website.
And then there is Michel.
If you thought there was no way in the world anyone could be so upbeat at such an hour, Michel instantly injects you with adrenaline. You’re awake. Alert. Excited and ready to explore more of the market. But first, you’re planted. Stuck. Right by his kiosk not wanting to leave his side.
With a backbeat of reggae music blasting across the slowly waking morning and lightning speed skills churning out cup after cup of coffee and espresso, he screams “Lecker lecker“…”Lecker lecker“… Yummy, yummy in German.
“Quality, not quantity”. Here is what he sounds like (50 seconds in).
And his melodic singing of the words “lecker lecker” are forever ingrained in my mind now.
Matching the number of kiosks and vans selling fish buns alongside fresh fish are also scores of fruit and vegetable vendors selling carefully packed baskets in case you wanted to gorge on something healthier in the wee hours of the morning. So in addition to revelers with deathgrips on seafood sandwiches, I found them also carrying baskets filled with apples, bananas, oranges, pineapples, grapes, coconuts, just to name a few.
Oftentimes with a bottle of beer in the other hand.
And of course, the fish vendors were there. Admist the bustle and energy the other merchants were giving out that threatened to dwarf them out. But they remain the cornerstone of this historic trading place which truly is worth getting up at 4:30am to experience.
You can check out more photos from the Hamburg Fish Market in my image bank. As part of the #JoinGermanTradition campaign, I explored the Hanseatic cities of Hamburg and Bremen as a guest of the German National Tourism Board.