Gingerbread and mulled wine at the festive markets, with added Van Gogh ÿ it's time to enjoy the Christmas season in this historic and picturesque German city. By Jim Choi

Why go now?

The Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Market) opens in Bremen on 28 November. A historic setting, carol singers and organ concerts, stalls selling traditional toys, the smell of roasted chestnuts, Lebküchen (gingerbread biscuits) and Glüwein (mulled wine) wafting through the air – if this doesn't get you in the mood for Christmas, nothing will. The Weihnachtsmarkt opens daily from 10am (11am on Sundays) to 8pm until 23 December.

Beam down

Take the DFDS Seaways (08705 333 000; overnight ferry from Harwich to Cuxhaven on Wednesday, Friday or Sunday at 4pm, arriving at 9.45am the next morning. Bremen is a one-hour coach ride away. Fares for foot passengers start at £58, or £78 with a cabin. The coach to Bremen costs £12 return. British Airways (0845 77 333 77; flies three times a day from Gatwick to Bremen. Return fares from £94. The journey from Bremen airport to the Hauptbahnhof (main railway station) takes 15 minutes on tram 6, for €1.85 (£1.15). A taxi costs about €10 (£6.25).

Get your bearings

Most of Bremen's main attractions are in and around the Altstadt (Old City) on the right bank of the river Weser. The Hauptbahnhof has an imposing 19th-century façade. The tourist office (00 49 18 05 10 10 30, outside the station opens daily at 9.30am, closing at 6.30pm (Mon-Wed), 8pm (Thu and Fri) and 4pm at weekends. A two-day Eventcard Bremen (€8.50/£5.30) gives one adult and two children under 17 unlimited travel on trams and buses plus discounted admission to museums and theatres. If you haven't bought one, an EinzelTicket (single to anywhere in zone 1) costs €1.85 (£1.15), while a TagesTicket (day ticket) for one adult and two children costs €4.50 (£2.80). Remember to fold the ticket in half lengthways and get it date-stamped in the orange machine on the tram.

Check in

The five-star Park Hotel (00 49 421 34 08 66, overlooks the southern end of Bürgerpark. Rooms start at €155 (£97) single and €205 (£128) double. Closer to the Hauptbahnhof and the Altstadt is the Best Western Hotel zur Post (00 49 421 3 05 90, at Bahnhofsplatz 11; singles €105 (£66), doubles €132 (£82). At Hotel Hanseat (00 49 421 14688), singles cost from €80 (£53) and doubles €105 (£70). Romantics should try the Hochzeitshaus – "Wedding House" (00 49 421 6 58 09 63) – in the Schnoor Quarter. For €512 (£320), a couple get this three-storey house to themselves for two nights. B&B in the youth hostel at Kalkstrasse 6 (00 49 421 17 13 69) costs €25 (£16.60).

Take a hike

From the Hauptbahnhof, follow Bahnhofstrasse on to Herdentor and cross the old moat into the Altstadt. Continue along the pedestrianised Sögestrasse to the Marktplatz. Here, providing the backdrop for the Weihnachtsmarkt, is the Rathaus, the 598-year-old Statue of Knight Roland (the city's symbol of independence), St Petri Dom (St Peter's Cathedral), Unser Lieben Frauen Church, Haus Schütting (the former guildhall), and Haus der Burgerschaft (the State Parliament). Alongside Schütting is the entrance to Böttcherstrasse, a 120-yard alleyway that leads to the waterfront. Walk along here on the hour between noon and 6pm to catch the Carillon at Haus des Glockenspiels chiming old seafaring tunes. If you miss that, listen out for the bells of St Martini church at 9.15am, 12.15pm, 3.15pm or 6.15pm. At the end of Böttcherstrasse turn left and then left again when you reach Landherrnamt. This brings you into the charming Schnoor Quarter, with its narrow streets and colourful 15th- and 16th-century gabled houses.

Take a ride

Take tram line 6 to the Universitat/NW1 stop on Wiener Strasse 2 for the Universum Science Center (00 49 421 33460). Shaped like a giant silver whale emerging from the lake, the Universum is divided into three levels, which explore the Earth, mankind and space. Among the interactive displays is a pitch-black tactile room and the room of frozen shadows, where you can see your silhouette captured on a light-sensitive wall. It opens 9am-6pm Monday to Friday (to 9pm on Wednesdays), and 10am-7pm at weekends, admission €10 (£6).

Take a view

One of the best views of the city is from the cathedral's spires. Or walk along the Weserpromenade and cross either Bürgermeister-Smidt-Brücke or Wilhelm-Kaisen- Brücke to enjoy a view of the busy river Weser. Ocean-going vessels used to sail this far upstream, but by the early 19th century the river became so silted that a new port, Bremerhaven, had to be built 30 miles away.

Lunch on the run

Grab a bratwurst (grilled sausage), sandwich or salad from the Martin Kiefert stall outside the Hauptbahnhof or in the Marktplatz . Prices start at €1 (60p).

Cultural afternoon

When the Kunsthalle Bremen (Bremen Art Museum) at Am Wall 207 (00 49 421 32 90 80) acquired Van Gogh's Poppy Field in 1911, it incited a protest by German artists who objected to the arrival of Impressionism from France. Ninety-one years on, Poppy Field is joined by 50 loaned paintings, watercolours and drawings in a celebration of the Dutch master's landscape works. "Van Gogh: Fields" runs until 26 January. It opens at 10am daily except Monday, until 10pm on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday, and to 6pm on Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, admission €9 (£5.60).

Window shopping

The main shopping streets are Sögestrasse, Obernstrasse/Hutfilterstrasse and Knochenhaurstrasse. But for more exclusive stores try the covered mall of Domshof Passage or the walkway at Am Wall. Arts and antiques shops can be found along Bottcherstrasse and Fedelhoren. Most shops open 10am-8pm Monday to Friday, and 10am-4pm on Saturdays. In Schnoor, some also open 11am-4pm on Sundays.

An aperitif

There's good selection of places to drink along the Schlachte promenade . Bremen is the home of Beck's – the beer not the footballer. The local brand, Hakke-Beck, includes a Pilsner, a malty dark beer (Dunkel) and a naturally cloudy beer (Kräusen). There are guided tours around the Beck's Brewery (00 49 421 50 94 55 55, at Am Deich 18/19 every hour from 10am-5pm from Tuesday to Saturday, and 10am-3pm on Sundays. There are daily tours with an English-speaking guide at 1.30pm. The two-hour tour costs €3 (£2) and includes a sampling session. Another local tipple is Eiswette (Ice Wager) schnapps. This takes its name from the traditional bet that takes place on 6 January, when merchants throw stones into the Weser to determine whether or not it is frozen. Apparently, the river hasn't frozen for a century.

Dinner with the locals

Flett (00 49 421 32 09 95) at Böttcherstrasse 3-5 offers traditional German cooking and fish specialities, with menus from €15 (£9.50). The Haake-Beck Ausspann (00 49 421 32 11 24) at Schnoor 1-2 provides good simple cooking in rustic settings. Prices start at €10 (£6.25). For regional dishes try Tafelhaus (00 49 421 165 55 99) at Schlachte 15-18, where set menus start at around €50 (£33). A seasonal dish to look out for is Kohl und Pinkel (curly kale and spiced sausages).

Sunday morning: a walk in the park

Bürgerpark is Bremen's largest park, and reckoned to be one of the best landscaped parks in Germany. Wallanlagen was the city's first public park, and this year it celebrated its 200th birthday. Created after the old fortifications were demolished, Bremen's "green belt" includes a mixture of native and exotic plants.

Out to brunch

The restaurant at the bottom of the windmill in Wallanlagen is open 10.30am-11pm in winter. Alternatively, Beck's Bistro (00 49 421 32 65 53) behind the statue of Roland, serves Frühstück, or breakfast, from 9am-3pm at weekends for €7.60 (£4.75), or an English breakfast for €6.50 (£4). On Sundays, König-Kontor in Katharinenstrasse (00 49 421 3 38 74 00) serves a buffet brunch 10am-3pm for €12.50 (£7.80).

Sunday afternoon: go to church

Services in St Petri Dom start at 10am on Sundays, but if you just want to look around, it opens to tourists at 2pm-5pm on Sundays, 10am-5pm from Monday to Friday and 10am-2pm on Saturdays. It was in St Petri on Good Friday 1868 that Brahms conducted the first performance of his German Requiem. The spires are out of bounds during the winter, but you can go down into the Bleikeller (lead cellar) to view the mummified bodies of 17th- and 18th-century aristocrats. Admission is €1.20 (75p).

Write a postcard

In the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, the donkey, dog, cat and cock never actually made it to Bremen to become town musicians. Nevertheless, their images appear throughout the city. On the west side of the Rathaus, the bronze statue of the animals standing on each others' backs was created by Gerhard Marcks in 1953. Locals say that if you hold both front legs of the donkey and make a wish, it will come true. Buy a postcard of the statue and write it while enjoying Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake) at the Konditorei Knigge at 42/44 Sögestrasse.

The icing on the cake

A visit into the Ratskeller (00 49 421 32 16 76) is a must. The 600-year-old Bremen Ratskeller is one of the oldest and most famous town-hall wine cellars in Germany. Even if you don't plan to sample any of the 650 different German wines on offer, admire the high, vaulted ceilings, the huge carved wine vats and the cosy little cubicles (Prialken) built into the side of the main hall. These settings provided the basis for Wilhelm Hauff's 1827 book Fantasies in the Bremer Ratskeller. Heinrich Heine was also inspired to write a poem about the rooms. An added attraction is the Michelin-starred L'Orchidée restaurant, which, along with chef Arnd Feye, moved to the Ratskeller from the Hotel Zur Post this month. The Ratskeller is open from 11am-midnight.