Kaye Holland cuts loose in a city that has become a real hot bed of hedonism
When most people say they have visited Germany, what they really mean is that they have been to Berlin which is bit like saying you’re au fait with London because you once got lost in Leicester Square. Or know New York because you had brunch where Big met Carrie.
But if you’re tired of the same German city breaks (Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt et al), then you, my friend, need to head to Hamburg - Germany’s second metropolis and a city so full of character you may just want to move there.
Admittedly Hamburg doesn’t make it into too many tourist brochures but when you get there it’s hard to see why not: the Port City boasts urban beaches, a buzzy market vibe, great galleries, gourmet eating and a nightlife scene second to none making it ideal city break material.
That said with two inner-city lakes, one river, almost 2,500 bridges, a world-renowned sea port and two oceans close by, Hamburg is - for most visitors - first and foremost a maritime destination. Pretty much everything happens by the water: Hamburg’s port regular welcomes ships including the QE2 from all over the world and hosts spectacular vents such as Hamburg Cruise Days and Hamburg Port Nights. I was fortunate enough to be in town for the latter - a week which saw Hamburg’s Port and landmark buildings and bridges (the city has more bridges than Venice, London and Amsterdam combined) magically illuminated in blue every evening (courtesy of internationally renowned light artist Michael Batz) while sailing vessels, passenger ships and cruise liners made their way down the River Elbeagainst a beautiful backdrop of fireworks.
You, dear reader, will have missed the spectacle but habour tours run until the end of October and the chance to spend an hour or two cruising past the vast container and ship repair port is not to be missed.
There are many museums dedicated to Hamburg’s seafaring past to explore but the best - by far - is the International Maritime Museum in the atmospheric Speicherstadt district. Situated in Hamburg’s oldest remaining warehouse, this museum showcases 3,000 years of naval history on nine floors. Exhibits include some 40,000 miniature models, maps and paintings plus a treasure chamber with ships made of gold, silver and amber. After you’ve had your fill of history, stroll around Speicerstadt’s cobbled streets and admire the spotlit warehouses rising from the waterways...
But it’s not all about tradition. For while Hamburg continues to flaunt its ‘Free and Hanseatic Town’ title, the Port City is also reinventing itself with HafenCity - aka the largest urban development project in Europe. The old port warehouses have been replaced with showy steel and glass offices, shops and apartmentsthat are a must for fans of modern architecture. However the jewel in HafenCity’s crown is arguably the Herzog & de Meuron (the Swiss architects of Tate Modern fame) designed Elbphilarmonie concert hall at the symbolic convergence of river, city and habour. Due to open in 2017, Hamburgians believe it will rival the Sydney Opera House...
Gastronomy is a further pull: Hamburg hums with places to eat. I enjoyed a memorable meal on Rickmer Rickmers ship - a destination lunch spot if ever there was one. Local delicacies to try on this floating landmark that recalls the age of the large windjammers include Labskaus (a sailor’s hash consisting of corned beef, beetroot and potatoes, that’s topped with a fried egg) and Rotes Grutze (a rich dish made of red berries swimming in cream) washed down with an Alsterwasse ( a shandy in a 50:50 ratio of beer and lemonade).
For all that, Hamburg is at its best at its most local. This means seeking out Strandperle - a buzzing beach club located right on the River Elbe that rivals party places such as Ibiza. Surprised to hear this? I was until I rocked up one Saturday afternoon (when the atmosphere is at its best) and found myself sipping a cocktail and soaking up the sunshine and scenery (ready your favourite Instagram filter, for the views of the docks opposite are unbeatable) to the drum of the DJ.
Or spending a not to be missed Sunday morning ambling around the Fischmarkt. Despite it’s name, you don’t have to be a fan of fish to visit Hamburg’s legendary market where surviving night owls, early birds, Hamburgians and tourists alike cross paths for a beer, breakfast or both. And all before 9.30am (the Sunday market retains the same hours as when it first began in 1703).
Going local also involves supporting FC Pauli (Hamburg has two teams but it’s FC St Pauli, with its skull and crossbones symbol, that enjoys cult status in Germany) - even if they endure yet another morale-sapping hammering at home.
It means catching a show (Hamburg is the world’s third most successful musical centre) or cycling along the River Elbe past pretty pilots’ houses and parks.
But above all it’s about enjoying a banging night out: Hamburg rivals Berlin- not to mention most cities in Europe - when it comes to nightlife which as varied as it is plentiful, stretching from trendy dive bars to smart clubs, edgy discos and live music venues.
St Pauli (Hamburg’s former red light district) in particular is full of hormones, hedonism and a whole lotta fun. This is where the Beatles started out more than 50 years ago and the Fab Four have always acknowledged that it was in St Pauli that they developed their sense of style (or as John Lennon put it: “I was born in Liverpool but grew up in Hamburg.”) You can breathe the same air as the Beatles in the grimy Grosse Freiheit 36. Sure it’s not the most salubrious spot in town but for cheap drinks and and liveliness, it certainly does the job.
However if you want to drink with the local jet set, check out Clouds rooftop bar. Downing an aperol spritz here while drinking in the views of the renowned Reeperbahn is a real 'pinch me' moment guaranteed to make you feel like a film star. Some advice: Hamburg’s bars only really get going around midnight but panic not. You can stay out until sunrise without worrying about getting a dirty look from the hotel receptionist because absolutely everybody in the city does it.
My last night in town ended late, natch, but while I woke up the next morningwith my head ringing, my heart was singing. Underrated Hamburg may just be my favourite European city.
NEED TO KNOW
Quick, cheap daily flights with easyjet from Gatwick mean that you won’t get eaten up by your wallet.
Carls is set apart by its location right next to the Elbphilarmonie. And by its cooking: think fabulous French-Hanseatic cuisine such as Pannfisch with a Pommery mustard sauce.
Where to stay
Motel One am Michel Hamburg is the perfect hotel for urban explorers who don’t like to much fuss. The rooms won’t set your pulse racing but they’re clean, comfortable and boast the best beds you will ever sleepin. Service is warm and efficient in equal measure and the motel is only a hop and skip away from Hamburg’s most happening areas.