How many travelers would guess that Hamburg is the second largest city in Germany, and one of the most affluent, with the second largest port in Europe, after Rotterdam. Unlike glitzy Berlin, the colossus to the south, Hamburg’s image is far from high definition, at least to most North American visitors. Bordered by the by the North and the Baltic Seas, Hamburg is closer to Scandinavia than to Berlin (which is a comfortable 90 minute train ride away) Fish is on many a menu – and are open-faced sandwiches are popular. And two years ago, a high speed train began to bring in eager shoppers from Copenhagen.
Water seems to be Hamburg’s element, with rivers, canals, lakes and bridges everywhere. The name Venice of the North is deserved – the city has more bridges than the Italian icon. Now that Berlin is Germany’s capital, and there’s competition, Hamburg is drawing on its long history of shipping and trade and its international outlook to find a new energy.
Some of the country’s largest media headquarters are located here – AOL Germany and the magazine, Der Spiegel, for example. And Hamburgers (that’s what they are called!) like to talk about ad agencies moving to Berlin, then coming back. These trendy companies are right in synch with the city’s new vanguard development, the Hafen City, the transformation of a former industrial area, and now the largest construction site in the European Union. A place to work, live and play, the project has engaged starchitects including Rem Koolhaas and Renzo Piano.
Red Light District
If Hamburg is known for anything, it’s the Reeperbahn the red light district which continues to offer everything erotic, from sex shops, to strip clubs. Hamburg’s brothels are located the Herberistrasse, where sex has been for sale since the l9th century. Prostitutes are still on display in windows, but are protected from prying eyes by a blocked-off section bounded by tall red doors; women are not encouraged to enter.
The Reeperbahn is only one a part of the district called St. Pauli’s, which is home to clubs, bars and restaurants. After dark, and late into the night, crowds, including families, stroll the area, the trendy coexisting with the sleazy. The theatres draw their own crowds – Hamburg ranks third in the number of international musicals, after New York and London. St. Pauli’s more wholesome delights are getting so popular that some locals fear that the neighbourhood will lose its edge.
The Beatlemania Museum, which opened in 2009, is a reminder of how that edge helped shape the fab four. For it was in Reeperbahn dives, from l960-62, where they honed their skills, often playing night after night, all night long. “I might have been born in Liverpool,” said John Lennon, “but I grew up in Hamburg”. The four floors of Beatlemania contain photos, a mockup of the Yellow Submarine, guitars and other memorabilia, bittersweet pleasure for fans.
Outside is Beatles-platz, a square with stainless steel cutouts of the group. Who can resist getting a corny photo taken of themselves with their head emerging through one of the cut outs of the lads.
This area is still grungy, but nearby, still in St. Pauli district, is the Bavaria Quarter, site of a former brewery, where some of the most chic nightspots are found. Hamburg scenesters drink and dine at Hotel East, a super trendy hotel converted from a foundry. The brick walls are intact, but Chicago architect, Jordan Mozer, has added surreal, Gaudi-like curved white sculpted walls and hanging lamps that look like giant teardrops.. The restaurant is known for its fine Asian-fusion food . www.east-hamburg.de
Hamburg might be reinventing itself, but its maritime tradition continues to be imbedded in the soul of the city. Over l3,000 cruise and container ships dock here each year. A Russian billionaire’s yacht is currently being refurbished. And the tall, narrow, red brick warehouses that tower above the dreamy canals still house coffee, tea, spices and the largest concentration of Persian rugs in Europe.
In this area, known as the Speicherstadt, some of the warehouses have become museums. There’s a spice museum, where you can smell and touch a variety of spices. However, there is no English translation for the explanations.
The Model Train Museum (miniatur-wonderland.com), the largest model train exhibit in the world, is a huge (1100 sq. metres) multi-display fantasy world for all ages. At the push of a button, you can see any one of eight hundred trains ride through the snowy Alps, and endless other places. Also on view are scale models of the Champs Elysees, the Grand Canyon, Mt. Rushmore – and Hamburg itself. Miniature boats float on real water and there will soon be a miniature airport, with model planes taking off.
You can get to the train museum, the spice museum and several other sites via the Maritime Circle Line, which is a hop on and off boat service costing eight euros. Most people board the colourful red barges at the Landungsbruchen in St Pauli. . There is a running narration on the boats, but only in German.
One of the stops is another unexpected but must-see museum – BallinStadt, or “Port of Dreams”, named after shipping magnate, Albert Ballin. The thirteenth son of a Danish Jew who moved to Hamburg before Albert was born, Ballin helped make Hamburg Europe’s major port of embarkation during the waves of emigration between 1850 and l910. Ballin’s ships sent 5 million people to the New World from l901 until l918. He is also credited with inventing the overnight pleasure cruise.
BallinStadt displays the interiors of some of the ships, and tells the story of the lives of various classes of people when they arrived in the New World. There is also a genealogical computer centre on the main floor. Opened in 2007, the museum displays the sleeping and dining facilities Ballin built in l901 for the thousands of people who couldn’t afford to stay in hotels while waiting to depart.
The museum’s casual restaurant closes at 6, but it’s worth trying the Finkenwerder School, pan fried plaice. The apple strudel is also top notch.
Hamburg has a range of restaurants. Eleven boast Michelin stars, and there are many reasonably priced eateries serving a range of cuisines. For traditional German food – bratwurst, schnitzel – locals head for Freudenhaus Bar and Restaurant in the St. Pauli area. The restaurant’s name means brothel. But the food is wholesome and the portions are large. Chilli Club is a trendy Asian-fusion restaurant in the Hafen City area which attracts a smartly dressed crowd who spill out onto the deck overlooking the harbour. It’s known for its crispy duck, Asian Tho Pau Salad (lime, bamboo, bean sprouts, shiso cress) and its inventive cocktails.
The town’s centre, near the grandiose Town Hall, an ornate Neo-Renaissance building, is flanked with cafes with a view of the bridge and the river. There are numerous covered shopping arcades and major shopping streets. Jungfernstieg is the place to go for luxury goods, but Monckebergstrasse and Spitalerstrasse are the magnet for mid-range shopping.
For stylish, moderately-priced German clothes (which fit those who are not model-skinny), head for Peek and Cloppenburg. Shoe lovers will find their paradise in Goertz, which has four floors of foot wear, and is the largest shoe store in Europe. My quest was for Think shoes, which are made in Austria and are comfortable yet fanciful.
Just up the pedestrian-only street, Spitalerstrasse, is the fish restaurant, Daniel Wischer, with its tempting outdoor french-fry bar. Indoors, the traditional wood-paneled restaurant sells all manner of fish.
Yet I must confess that my most memorable meal was…..a hamburger. Lusciously grilled, topped with cooked cabbage, slathered with local mustard, and accompanied with pan-fried potatoes. Deligious, even though it was not the authentic dish, which consists of sliced, not fried meat and does not include a bun.
I was dining outdoors at a dockside diner called Oberhafen Kantine, one of the oldest remaining in the city. The place is a local tradition – and now it’s an objet d’art. There’s a wooden copy of the brick building in Berlin, part of a traveling art exhibit. Berlin copying Hamburg? The competition continues.