Cool, calm and collected, Hamburg is a breath of fresh, salty air and quite unlike any of Germany’s other big cities. Perched proudly on the River Elbe, Hamburg is home to Europe’s second busiest port, which has given the city both its history of affluence and its reputation as a truly international metropolis. Alongside shipping trade, the media industry booms in Hamburg with the city producing 15 of Germany’s 20 largest publications and the energy of immigration has diversified culture, religion and cuisine. And then of course there’s the Reeperbahn, one of the world’s most famous red light districts which pulses alongside the wide, clean plazas of luxury boutiques and quiet calm of the city’s parks. There’s a breezy confidence to this wealthy harbour city, where sex shops, designer shopping and Neo-Renaissance architecture all have a rightful place.
Hamburg has enjoyed a long and colourful history; it spent four years as part of Napoloean’s First French Empire in the early 1800s, was the main port of departure for the wave of Germans emigrating in the mid 1800s and the home of the world’s largest transatlantic shipping company in the early 1900s. Much of Hamburg was destroyed during WWII, with the city suffering heavily from allied bombing and it wasn’t really until post unification of Germany, that Hamburg returned to making progress as a shipping city of international importance. Today it offers a high standard of living to its people, many of whom have moved to Hamburg from around the world for precisely that reason.
Hamburg vibrates with its own, distinct culture and maritime charm. With a population of 1.8 million, it is Germany’s second biggest city and one of its most popular destinations. Its ornate, Neo Renaissance town hall, a symbol of the city’s wealth, sits in the middle of a clean, elegant city centre. From there, visitors can make their way to Germany’s largest art museum, the HamburgKunsthalle, the Ballinstadt, a museum dedicated to the five million European immigrants who sailed for new shores from Hamburg’s harbour or become acquainted with the darker side of Hamburg’s past at the Hamburg Dungeon. The bright lights of the stage shine from around forty theatres, including the renowned Deutsches Schauspielhaus, and the Philharmonkier Hamburgaccompany the Hamburg State Opera. Several notable churches call Hamburg home, including the Baroque style St. Michaelis. There are the huge fish markets to be seen (and sampled) down by the water and for serious shoppers, the beautiful Jungfernstieg street. The Reeperbahn does indeed boast sex shops and strip clubs and is famous for it – but these days restaurants, nightclubs, live music venues and theatres populate the district as well. The companionable co-existence of high brow culture and bright red lights against the back drop of a proud, mercenary history, is what makes Hamburg such an exciting place to be.
For those wanting to take in some bracing salt air, you can partake in the classic German summer pastime of grilling on the Elbe beach, take on the challenge of Hamburg’s many bridges – more than Venice, Amsterdam and London put together – enjoy a stroll around the Alster, taking in the lights of the city, or the peaceful surrounds of the Alter Botanische Garten. If you’re lucky, your visit may coincide with The Hamburger Dom, the biggest fun fair in Northern Germany, held three times a year.
Hamburg’s somewhat mercurial culture comes from a combination of its all-important port, history of immigration and fierce independence as a city state. A city of great financial success since the early Middle Ages, thanks to its convenient location on the Elbe, Hamburg’s position as a trade centre has helped cultivate its openness to the rest of the world. Once the point of departure for thousands of people in search of a new life in the new world, today Hamburg welcomes new citizens with open arms. As a result, Hamburg is as stylish as it is progressive and diverse, with a happening vibe all of its own, quite distinct from the other big German cities it keeps company with.
Dominated by Hamburg’s beautiful and imposing Rathaus and home to most of Hamburg’s main attractions, the city centre is a good place to start with getting your bearings. The Rathaus – which you can take a tour of – is situated at the end of Mönckebergstraße, which itself is home to St Petri and St Jacobi as well as plenty of good shopping. Nearby Mönckebergstraße and Hamburg’s central station (Hauptbahnhof) you will find the beginning of the city’s ‘art mile’, marked by the Kunsthalle, one of Europe’s finest art museums. For more shopping – and Hamburg is full of it – then follow the Hanse Viertl canal to Jungfernstieg, Hamburg’s historic promenade of luxury shopping. Here you can have a drink at the Alster Pavillon, built in 1799,overlooking the Alster Lake. The Alster Lake is the city’s heart and worth taking the time to stroll around with a coffee in hand. There are plenty of peaceful places along the way to stop and take in Hamburg in all her glory.
From wherever you may in the city, you will likely notice a spire piercing Hamburg’s silver skies. It belongs to one of Hamburg’s most important landmarks, St Michaeli’s church. Built between 1648 and 1661 in Baroque style, ‘Michel’ is the city’s most famous church, and its biggest. Its 132 metre high copper spire is an icon of Hamburg and clearly visible from most points in the city.
In central Hamburg’s east, lies St Georg, home of Hamburg’s vibrant gay scene and several important cultural points of interest. Hamburg’s famous Deutsches Schauspeilhaus Theatre can be found in St Georg, as can the Museum of Art and Crafts (Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe). South of the city centre, on the harbour, you’ll find the brand new development, HafenCity, Europe’s biggest town planning project and an official quarter of Hamburg since 2008.
To the west of the city centre, lies multicultural Altona. A city in its own right until 1937, Altona’s biggest pull comes from its diverse population and fascinating history. Under Danish administration between 1640 and 1864, Altona’s history is contained in the Altona Museum in Altona-Altstadt and the stately Altona City Hall offers a glimpse into the past. For a little time out, you can take a walk through the Botanischer Garten, also located in Altona. In the west, you’ll find trendy Ottensen. Once a community of Turkish immigrants, now Ottensen boasts expensive real estate, designer shopping, vibrant nightlife and plenty of international restaurants and cafes, the pleasant result of the area’s multicultural fabric.
Probably best known for one of the most famous red light districts in the world, Saint Pauli is a neighbourhood that never sleeps. The Reeperbahn has ensured this area is probably Hamburg’s best known but there is more to it than sex shops and strip bars, although there is no shortage of both if that floats your boat. While once upon a time, the Beatles played shows here in the early 60s – and a monument to them remains in the form of the Beatlemania Museum – these days musical theatres and restaurants share the space with the Reeperbahn’s bawdier real estate regulars and the combined energy drives the partying well into the early hours of the morning. And if your visit coincides with a football match featuring Saint Pauli’s team, then be prepared for even harder partying. An early morning visit to the Fish Markets on Landungsbruecken for a fischbrötchen- fish bread roll – may well be in order to replenish energy reserves.
Three times a year the huge Hamburger Dom fun fair, the biggest and longest of its kind in Germany, takes place in Saint Pauli, on the Heiligengeistfeld fair ground.
A big city just isn’t a big city without its hip quarter, and Hamburg’s bright young things can be found in spades in Schanzenviertel, just north of Saint Pauli. Creative, young and a little grittier than other parts of Hamburg, Schanzviertel is where you’ll find cool cafes and boutique shopping. Once a working class district, with its growing reputation as the cool quarter, costs have risen in Schanzenviertel over the past few years. But it remains one of Hamburg’s best places for shopping and dining, its flourishing dining scene thanks to Schanzenviertel’s lively immigrant population. It also has the added bonus of being less inundated with tourists, like Hamburg’s better known Saint Pauli or city centre. Make your way to Schulterblatt street, the heart of Schanzenviertel and go from there.
Uhlenhorst & Rotherbaum
Hamburg’s suburbs deserve a mention, if only for their quiet beauty and change of pace. North of Hamburg’s centre, on the west bank of the Alster, lies Uhlenhorst a suburb that blends culture, class and high incomes. Here you’ll find the Literature House am Schwanenwik (and authors doing book signings, if you’re lucky) the English Theatre and the Ernst Deutsch Theatre. The as-wealthy Rotherbaum, on the other hand buzzes with student energy, courtesy of neighbouring the main campus of Hamburg’s university.