HAMBURG suffers from image schizophrenia. To many of its tourists, Germany’s second metropolis is simply sin city – a place of prostitutes and strip shows in the Reeperbahn red-light district – while in its homeland it is revered as a cosmopolitan, stylish city-state, rapaciously commercial and home to the highest head-count of millionaires in the country. Either way the cause is the same: through one of the greatest ports in Europe it has sucked in wealth – and probably vice – ever since a canny piece of diplomatic manoeuvring in 1189 led Emperor Friederich I (also known as Emperor Barbarossa) to grant tax-free imports down the Elbe. Hamburg never looked back. The good times began to roll in the early Middle Ages after it fostered links with Hanseatic leader, Lübeck, and the city paused only to congratulate itself when declared a Free Imperial City by Emperor Maximilian I in 1510.
Today a restless boom-town, forever reinventing itself, Hamburg still flaunts its “Freie und Hansestadt” (Free and Hanseatic Town) title. And that umbilical link to maritime trade continues in a sprawling container port that grounds the city, adding a workaday robustness to the sophistication that comes with its postwar role as Germany’s media capital. Though the port makes Hamburg fairly grimy in places, seedy even, it adds an earthy flavour to the rich cosmopolitan stew. It brings dive bars to a city renowned for its arts and theatre; nurtures a strong counter-culture movement alongside hip media types; and helps support a nightlife that is as depraved as it is refined. Even the drizzle that blankets the place for days at a time can’t dampen the spirit of Germany’s most life-affirming city.
The surprise, then, is that Hamburg is so manageable. Despite a population that nudges towards 1.8 million, just under a fifth of which has immigrant roots, Hamburg has the lowest population density of any European city. Only around a third of the land area is urban development, the rest is parks and water. Canals that once carried produce now provide breathing space among the offices as they thread from the mercantile heart on the Elbe’s banks to the shimmering Alster lakes. The city’s 2302 bridges are more than Venice, Amsterdam and London combined.
Accommodation in Hamburg is among the most expensive in Germany, but while the city boasts a quota of design hotels that are big on the wow factor there are also some excellent hostels. Reservations are advisable for all. Which area you stay in depends as much on your plans as your budget. Hotels in the city centre provide sights on your doorstep, but leave you marooned from the nightlife. Gay-friendly St Georg is another option, although a minor red-light district means you should be wary of any bargain hotel around the Hauptbahnhof and Steintorplatz. St Pauli and the Schanzenviertel are the best bets for hostels and nightlife. Private agency St Pauli Tourist Office (Beim Grünen Jäger 7–8; 040 98 23 44 83, pauli-tourist.de) is a good source of budget flatstays in the St Pauli area.
Altona is the Schanzenviertel thoroughly gentrified. It is the first in a series of ever more exclusive districts west of the centre, an erstwhile working-class district of immigrant settlers that has been colonized by Hamburg’s thirty-something hipsters and, with them, all the requisite fashion outlets and bars – a sort of Hamburg-style Notting Hill, albeit less affluent. At least part of the appeal is that Altona retains the feel of the separate town it was until the Nazis dragged it within Hamburg’s jurisdiction in 1937. Before then, the free city of Altona was an upstart to its larger neighbour; an irritating one, too, since it poached Hamburg trade when Napoleon mounted a continental blockade against England in 1806.
As the port characterizes the south of the city, the Binnenalster and Aussenalster lakes define the centre. Created when the Alster rivulet was dammed in the thirteenth century, the lakes were ignored until the 1800s, when they caught the eye of the city’s wealthy burghers, who colonized the area around them and strolled their banks. During a Sunday constitutional, families paraded their unmarried daughters (“Jungfern”) beside the Binnenalster’s banks on Jungfernstieg, still a pleasing promenade lined by cafés despite its current incarnation as a busy road. Eligible offspring in tow or not, the Alsterwanderweg path remains a popular walk around the adjacent Aussenalster lake – the picture-postcard view across the Binnenalster to the city spires is from Lombardsbrücke. Alternatively, cruises on the Alster lakes depart from quays on Jungfernstieg and also tour into canals of the wealthy northern suburbs; maps from tourist information have details.
The lakeside enclaves around the Aussenalster north of the centre are among the flashest in Hamburg. Rotherbaum and Harveststude remain as prestigious now as when they emerged in the late 1800s as the des res of business tycoons, their smart villas still home to the affluent and foreign consulates. One favoured hangout is Pöseldorf, located just behind Fährdamm wharf in the northwest. Between lunch with Hamburg’s media high-rollers and browsing the boutiques and galleries in Milchstrasse, there is superb Jugendstil architecture in the side streets to discover – nowhere else in Hamburg boasts such a diverse mix of large white villas, courtyards and mews. Allow three hours for a straightforward eight-kilometre circuit of the lake – or you can take one of the hop-on, hop-off tourist ferries operated by ATG Alster-Touristik, which call at the nine quays around the lake every hour.
Cosmopolitan flavours rule in Hamburg, fusion food is a favourite. Nevertheless, many restaurants offer at least one time-proven traditional dish on the menu.
Aalsuppe The soup is largely vegetable despite the seeming reference to eel; “aal” means “all” in Low Saxon, apparently, though most chefs now add eel to avoid arguments.
Alsterwasser Fortunately not the water of the Alster lakes but shandy in a fifty-fifty ratio of beer and lemonade.
Bohnen, Birnen und Speck Literally, green beans, pears and bacon – a tasty, light dish that’s ideal for summer.
Hamburger The world’s favourite fast-food has its origins in the mists of time, but was introduced to the States in the late 1800s by emigrants from Hamburg, who knew it as a dockers’ street-snack. Ironically another immigrant food, the doner kebab, is far more popular in the “home” town.
Labskaus A sailor’s hash that minces corned beef, potatoes and beetroot and is topped with a fried egg and rollmop herring. The result: a bright pink stodge that locals swear cures hangovers. One theory also attributes the dish as the linguistic derivation of the Liverpudlian nickname “Scouser”.
Rotes Grütze Rich dish made of red berries swimming in cream, popular in summer.
Though Blankenese is the next Elbvororte (Elbe suburb) west of Övelgönne, it feels more coastal village than city suburb. The sea captains of old have long made way for captains of industry – probably the only people who can afford some of the most expensive real estate in Germany. For the tourist, there’s little to tick off, which is a relief after the high culture of Hamburg, and Blankenese demands little more than exploring a nest of paths and ambling along the riverside.
It’ll take strong legs, though. Blankenese is a suburb of stairways – 58 in total – which spill off Blankenese Hauptstrasse then trickle like tributaries down to the Elbe, threading through the half-timbered cottages, nineteenth-century villas and modern glass-and-wood statements shoehorned onto the hillside. A surprisingly fine beach fronts the river. Go west along Strandweg, past a varied selection of restaurants and cafés, and the sand becomes purer, the beaches more isolated, and you find the bizarre summer scene of beach balls and bikinis as the container ships chug past.
Such is the hubris of boom-town Hamburg that its role as the principal emigration point in Germany is largely overlooked. Yet the unprepossessing patch of wasteland opposite HafenCity was the last piece of Europe experienced by millions of Europeans and Russians. Nearly five million people embarked at Hamburg for a new life in the New World – almost 1.9 million people left during the peak period of mass migration between 1891 and 1914, when poverty and pogroms proved the final straw for many in southern and eastern Europe. A cholera epidemic that claimed ten thousand lives in three months prompted city authorities to demand that the emigration shipping lines relocate from the docks at St Pauli to Veddel island opposite Speicherstadt. Located beside the south exit of Veddel S-Bahn station, the last brick Emigrant Hall to house the masses is the centrepiece of the BallinStadt museum (Veddeler Bogen 2; daily 10am–6pm; €12; ballinstadt.de), whose interactive exhibits seek to re-create the emigrant experience with dioramas that combine contemporary exhibits and personal narratives. Most emigrants were bound for the United States – a research area provides access to online records of émigrés from 1850 to 1934, plus a partner database with 34 million records.
Hamburg has blossomed into the great gourmet centre of Germany, its role as a prosperous media metropolis nurturing a community of discerning diners with a penchant for eating in style – traditional restaurants are thin on the ground compared to the rest of Germany – and a voracious appetite for the next big thing. For the hippest new openings, source Szene Essen & Trinken (€7) at larger newsagents and some tourist information centres. There are two caveats. First, your options are limited in the city centre, especially in the evenings. Streets such as touristy Deichstrasse and Colonnaden or squares such as Grossneumarkt provide choice in one location, as does Ditmar-Koel-Strasse near the port. The second caveat is that, notwithstanding student-budget dining in the Schanzenviertel, eating out in Hamburg is notably more expensive than in many German cities. Cheaper brasserie and bar options are listed with cafés.
It should come as no surprise that a liberal metropolis such as Hamburg has a thriving gay and lesbian scene. Its centre is the St Georg district, with a number of mainstream gay cafés and bars sited along main-drag Lange Reihe. Café Gnosa at no. 69 is the daytime lynchpin and best source of information for what’s on. There’s usually a copy of local gay listings magazine Hinnerk (hinnerk.de) knocking around. The best clubbing tends to be found in the one-nighters that shift between venues, many in St Pauli; again consult listings and local knowledge. Hamburg also has a separate but important leather scene – the annual Hamburg Leather Party, organized in the second week of August by fetish club, Spike (spike-hamburg.de), is a major event on the scene’s European calendar.
Ever ambitious, Hamburg is shoring up its economic clout with a €5bn redevelopment of derelict docklands that will extend the centre by forty percent south and east of Speicherstadt. By its completion in 2025, the area is expected to provide sufficient office space for 40,000 people and 5500 apartments. Notwithstanding the fact that HafenCity makes the former building site at Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, seem like minor roadworks – its 1.55-square-kilometre area is fifteen times bigger – Europe’s largest construction site is rapidly resolving into showpiece steel-and-glass offices and modernist apartments that are cantilevered over former quays – a must-see for any fan of modern architecture that presently looks its best from Marco-Polo-Terrassen. A fleet of traditional ships is moored incongruously in the middle dock.
The figurehead building over the Elbe, at the symbolic convergence of river, city and harbour, will be the Elbphilharmonie concert hall at the tip of Am Kaiserkai. A bold design by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron of London’s Tate Modern fame, it places a futuristic tower of glass on the shell of a brick industrial warehouse. When open in 2013, it should be worth a visit for the views from its public plaza 37m above the river alone. Former boilerhouse Kesselhaus at Am Sandtorkai 30 provides information on the HafenCity project, plus occasional tours of the development.
Hamburg rivals Berlin for nightlife. Freesheets in visitor information centres provide what’s-on basics; they’re especially useful for a rundown of which blockbuster musicals have settled in for a long run. But for a breakdown of the fun – clubnights, bands, art-house cinema and the gay scene – look to local listings magazines such as Szene (€3) or Prinz (€1.50), or check out their websites, szene-hamburg.de and hamburg.prinz.de. Visitor information centres at the Hauptbahnhof and St-Pauli-Landungsbrücken have ticket bureaux that can handle most mainstream venues or try Ticketmaster-affiliate Kartenhaus at Schanzenstrasse 5 (Mon–Fri 10am–7pm, Sat 10am–2pm; 040 43 59 46, www.kartenhaus.de).
The port that nourished Hamburg also made it a prime target for the Allies. In retaliation for earlier Luftwaffe raids, British and US raids wiped ten square kilometres of Hamburg off the map and obliterated eighty percent of the harbour during a week of relentless sorties at the end of July 1943. Over seven thousand tonnes of high explosives and incendiaries rained onto the city, killing nearly 40,000 people; by way of comparison, the famous Luftwaffe raid on Coventry killed 538.
As the flames sucked in oxygen, typhoon winds blasted western residential districts and the Germans had to create a new word to describe the apocalypse – “Feuersturm” (firestorm). Winds of nearly 1000°C set asphalt streets ablaze, trees were uprooted, cars flung into superheated air. “Every human resistance was quite useless,” Hamburg’s police chief reported later. “People jumped into the canals and waterways and remained swimming or standing up to their necks for hours … Children were torn away from their parents’ hands by the force of the hurricane and whirled into the fire.” Third Reich architect Albert Speer later revealed that Hitler and Hermann Göring had been shocked at the devastation. Even Air Chief Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris conceded that the attacks on the Reich’s second city were “incomparably more terrible” than anything previously launched at Germany. Operation Gomorrah was well named.
The waterfront beneath Altonaer Baalkon is a throwback to a bygone era of neat gardens and gas lanterns. This is the introduction to Övelgönne, one of the most prestigious addresses in Hamburg. Twenty or so restored craft nod at their moorings as an open-air harbour museum beside the city’s finest beach, where passing container ships provide waves and locals linger over lattes at the Strandperle café.
Return towards the centre along the river and you’re on the Elbemeile, a former fishing docks that is rapidly morphing into an epicentre of gourmet Hamburg. Part of this redevelopment is the cutting-edge Dockland office building on the Fischereihafen; from the top of its glass-and-steel wedge (steps up on the outside) – intended to suggest the superstructure of cruise liners – you get great views downriver.
Not just the name, Speicherstadt (Warehouse Town), but also the atmosphere of cobbled streets, gables and turrets combine to make the area on the other side of Zollkanal (Tax Canal) a world apart from the city opposite. The red-brick architecture – a deliberate nod to Hanseatic days – of the largest continuous warehousing in the world sprang up from 1885 to 1927, providing storage for a city that had recently signed up to the fledgling Customs Union (1888) of the Second Reich. An entire residential district was razed, and nearly 24,000 people displaced to make way for it. Trade has leached away to deeper water, but things haven’t changed much in concept. A few importers still hoard goods tax-free until market prices provide a tidy profit and so strict are preservation orders on the area that goods are hoisted by block and tackle. Carved up by canals, its warehouses are piled high with crates and Middle Eastern carpets (it still houses Europe’s largest stock). While a museum provides details of the area’s past (see Speicherstadt museums), much of the pleasure comes in simply nosing about, especially from dusk, when spotlit warehouses rising sheer from the waterways is one of Hamburg’s most evocative sights. You can also experience the area at water-level on boat trips from St-Pauli-Landungsbrücken and Jungfernstieg.
Here it is then, the Sündermeile (Sin Mile) counterweight to the Kunstmeile on the opposite side of the city. Hamburg’s citizens are miffed that the Reeperbahn’s red lights still attract so much attention abroad. While the “Kiez” (the local term for the Reeperbahn area) is a far cry from the road where immigrant ropemakers weaved hemp warps for the docks (Reep is rope), and its seedy underbelly attracts more than the usual quota of dubious characters – a few don’t seem far removed from those in Tom Waits’s lowlife bar ballad, Reeperbahn – the area has come a long way from the rough dockers’ quarter where sailors spent shore leave. Gone are the excessive prostitution and hard drugs that characterized the late 1970s to be replaced by theatre venues that trade on tourist-friendly titillation. A few grungey bars and clubs hark back to a counter-culture past evident in the arts-squat communes along Bernhard-Nocht-Strasse/Hafenstrasse, but nowadays they sit alongside a five-star hotel. A no-nonsense police force keeps crime figures among the city’s lowest, too, despite the legion of stag parties.
The street-spanning neon along Grosse Freiheit recalls the area’s rollicking Sixties prime, popularized during The Beatles’ residence. The street’s name – Great Freedom – alludes to a liberal area of free trade and religion in the seventeenth century, rather than loose morals. Spielbudenplatz, on the other side of the Reeperbahn from Grosse Freiheit, is the hub of the area’s regeneration. Its latest incarnation as home to musicals in the Operettenhaus, Spielbudenplatz 1, and waxwork figures in the Panoptikum, Spielbudenplatz 3, follows the pattern set two centuries ago when tightrope walkers, snake charmers and acrobatic riders performed stunts. Nearby on the corner of Taubenstrasse, a condomerie (noon–midnight; free) that peddles saucy tourist tat as a pseudo-museum typifies the area’s makeover.
The focus of local boozing is the seedy streets south, principally Friedrichstrasse and Gerhardstrasse. Where the former meets Davidstrasse, the small St Pauli Museum presents a concise history of the area’s unsavoury past. Its present is the Amsterdam-style red-light district a block south on Herbertstrasse, screened off at either end. Women, though not expressly prohibited, are strongly discouraged from visiting.
That locals have spent weekends on their river beaches since the late 1800s at least helps explain why no town in Germany does the Stadtstrand (city beach) with such flair as Hamburg. The Elbe views help, of course, as does sand on the riverbanks. But even away from the river, bar owners import sand to create a little piece of coastal paradise, scattering deck chairs among the potted palms and adding a soundtrack of lazy funk and chilled house beats. The city’s beach clubs – nine at the last count – operate daily in summer (roughly mid April–Sept); the exceptions are StrandPauli and Ahoi, which open year-round. Those on the river with views of the container port are quintessentially Hamburg.
They arrived in Hamburg as amateurs in August 1960. They left two years and five visits later as a fledgling Fab Four. The Beatles have always acknowledged the debt they owe Hamburg. As John Lennon put it: “It was Hamburg that did it. We would never have developed so much if we’d stayed at home.” Its red-light district area was also an eye-opener for the teenagers: “I was born in Liverpool, but I grew up in Hamburg,” Lennon quipped.
Many of the shrines are still there to make St Pauli as holy as Liverpool for Beatles pilgrims. The boys’ first address in the city was a squalid cell in a cinema, Bambi Kino (Paul-Roosen-Str. 33), that was convenient for gigs in the grimy Indra club (Grosse Freiheit 64). Here they earned thirty Marks a day each by entertaining sailors and strippers for up to six hours a day. The venue’s manager, Bruno Koschminder, was unimpressed after their first lame performance and demanded they “Mach shau!” (put on a show). Lennon duly hung a toilet seat around his neck and George Harrison played in his Y-fronts. They transferred to nearby Kaiserkeller (Grosse Freiheit 64) and found haircuts from Hamburg’s hip Existentialists, and a new drummer, Ringo Starr, then playing for Rory Storm and the Hurricanes.
This stint was truncated when Paul McCartney and former drummer Pete Best hung a lit condom outside their room then spent a night in the Spielbudenplatz police station accused of arson before being deported. In truth, the tour was at a close anyway because 17-year-old George Harrison had been deported for being underage and the boys returned to Liverpool, billed as “The Beatles: Direct From Hamburg”. In 1961 the band returned to Germany for a 98-day run at the epicentre of all things beat, the Top Ten Club (Reeperbahn 136), and afterwards a seven-week stint at the Star Club (Grosse Freiheit 39), also host to Jimi Hendrix circa the release of Hey Joe. A short way along the Reeperbahn from a sculpture of the Fab Four at the entrance to the Grosse Freiheit (renamed Beatles-Platz), museum Beatlemania (daily 10am–10pm; €12;
beatlemania-hamburg.de) celebrates The Beatles’ formative years with exhibits and features such as a karaoke booth that allows recording. Incidentally, true Beatles devotees can follow in the boys’ footsteps and buy their first cowboy boots from Paul Hundertmark Western Store (Spielbudenplatz 27–28).
Official records reveal the Fischmarkt as the city’s oldest market, but that rather misses the point. Hamburg’s Sunday market retains the same hours as when it began in 1703 – from 5 to 9.30am (from 7am Nov–March) – yet its focus shifted long ago. Just as it’s doubtful that modern traders pack up to go to church as their predecessors did, so fish now takes second place to a mind-boggling sprawl of wares, from genuine bargains to tat, from fruit and veg to livestock. The story goes that in the early 1960s The Beatles received a police warning for chasing a live pig they bought here among the stalls.
Even that is civilized stuff compared to the action in the iron Fischauktionshalle. Where Altona’s fishing fleet once sold its catch, late-night casualties from St Pauli cross paths with early birds, as everyone sinks a beer and bellows along to live rock bands while bemused tourists look on. Unless you’re in a sympathetically booze-fuelled frame of mind, such raw exuberance at such an early hour can be hard to stomach. Fortunately, cafés on the first floor are a safe haven from where to watch the chaos over a buffet breakfast.
The area south of the Rathaus is Hamburg’s historic wellspring; the location where Charlemagne rode out across a sandy hummock between the Elbe and Alster rivers in 808 and built the “Hammaburg” fort. Lost among the office blocks south of Rathausmarkt is the Trotsbrücke, Hamburg’s oldest bridge. That it marks the transition to the site of the first settlement on the other side of the Alster – today channeled as the Alsterfleet canal – explains its statue of Count Adolph III of Schauenburg, the nobleman who expanded the city and pulled off the 1189 tax concession that kick-started Hamburg’s ascendancy. Like all good businessmen, he clinched the deal with a sweetener – a donation to the crusade of Emperor Frederick I. Opposite him is St Ansgar, the “Apostle of the North”, who slotted in fourteen years as Hamburg’s first archbishop from 831 between spreading the gospel to Vikings and Danes.
The massive stone blocks of St-Pauli-Landungsbrücken are an exercise in solidity for a city fond of brick. Four years after work on the quay began in 1906 the first ocean-going liner processed up the Elbe to moor alongside; the occasional cruise-ship still docks nearby, dwarfing everything else around. The centre of the action today is the floating wharf where ferries come and go to up river districts or across the river; the Stintfang balcony behind the U/S-Bahn station provides good views of the nonstop bustle on the water.
Forty-four years after the Great Fire of 1842 razed the Altstadt, city fathers began work on their morale-booster, a monument to inspire Hamburg’s citizens and embody her phoenix-like revival. If the neo-Renaissance Rathaus oozes civic self-confidence today, it must have positively swaggered when the final stone was laid in 1897. It isn’t shy about boasting either: above a parade of German emperors are statues of the tradesmen who won the city’s prosperity; protectress Hammonia casts an imperial gaze from above the balcony; and triumphant classical figures and wreaths of plenty adorn the bases of two flagpoles crowned with gold ships. Hard to believe, then, that only four thousand oak poles prevent this bombastic pile from subsiding into the sandbank beneath. The senate and city government still dictate policy from the Rathaus’s 647 rooms, a taste of whose opulence can be seen on 45-minute guided tours. With a coffered ceiling and oversized murals of the city’s founding, the Great Hall is a knockout. At the back of the Rathaus, on Adolphsplatz, you’ll find the Börse, the current incarnation of Germany’s first stock market (1558), and a revealing symbol of mercantile priorities at the heart of government.
St Pauli segues leafy residential streets north into the Schanzenviertel. A former working-class district that nurtured the city’s alternative culture, the Schanze has evolved into the epicentre of the hip Hamburg scene, with a good spread of cheap eats, bars and boutiques and a nicely scruffy laidback vibe; only Rota Flora, a semi-derelict former theatre on Schulterblatt, remains as a reminder of its radical counter culture past. Yet its bar-scene is thriving – this is the locals’ choice over the rather tacky options off the Reeperbahn. From Neuer Pferdemarkt where Feldstrasse meets Budapester Strasse, the region fans out around its spine street, Schanzenstrasse, its core being a plaza where Schulterblatt meets Susannenstrasse. Marktstrasse just north of Feldstrasse U-Bahn station has a good spread of independent boutiques.