Hamburg

Water, water everywhere!

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Germany’s biggest port has always been outward-looking. Its dynamism, multiculturalism and hedonistic red-light district, the Reeperbahn, all arise from its maritime history. Joining the Hanseatic League trading bloc in the Middle Ages, this long-standing duty-free port has been enthusiastically doing business with the world ever since. In the 1960s, it nurtured the talent of the Beatles. In the 21st century, it’s also a media capital and the wealthiest city in Germany.


Still overshadowed internationally by Berlin and Munich, domestically Hamburg is known as a natural achiever. Rarely prone to the self-doubt that’s wracked the rest of Germany since reunification, this thriving ‘harbourpolis’ has seen its container ports growing like topsy thanks to new Eastern European business. ‘Boomtown Hamburg’, Stern magazine declared in 2006 – with a beautiful cover of the night-time harbour lights twinkling.


Such easygoing self-confidence makes Germany’s second-largest city wonderful to visit. Immigrant workers mingle with students among the Portuguese, Turkish and Asian eateries of vibrant St Pauli and Schanzenviertel. Shipping, TV and newspaper magnates drive their Porsches up to mansions in leafy Blankenese. Defying the city’s renowned Schmuddelwetter (drizzly weather), Hamburg’s hipsters lounge on artificial river beaches, while visitors cruise around the Alster Lakes and the neo-Gothic Speicherstadt warehouses, or haggle at the rowdy fish market as cargo ships navigate the Elbe River.


And if this isn’t enough, there are buildings shaped like ocean liners, plus an all-new waterside HafenCity district. The Philharmonic hall being built there is tipped to rival the Sydney Opera House. In which case, the world might finally return some of Hamburg’s attentions.


Shopping
Marktstrasse
For secondhand shopping, try the Schanzenviertel or Karolinenviertel, particularly Marktstrasse.
Ottenser Hauptstrasse
In Altona, along Ottenser Hauptstrasse, hip clothing stores mingle with Turkish vendors.
City Center
West of the Hauptbahnhof, along Spitalerstrasse and Mönckebergstrasse, you'll find the large department stores and mainstream boutiques. However, more elegant shops are located within the triangle created by Jungfernstieg, Fuhlentwiete and Neuer Wall. Most of them are in a network of 11 shopping arcades.


Eating/Drinking
Bok
What the famous Wagamama is to London, Bok is to the Schanzenviertel. A local mini-chain, it has at least four outlets, however, this one has the nicest ambience. The food is mild and aimed at German palates; duck makes a frequent appearance on the pan-Asian (Thai, Korean and Japanese) menu.
Café Paris
A classic in Hamburg's relatively sparsely-populated inner city, this bustling brasserie is an excellent mix of sophisticated interior and laidback atmosphere. The Art Deco touches are fairly subtle, apart from the ceiling, which erupts into spectacular maritime-and-industry themed murals.
Chilli Club
This trendy noodle bar is tucked away in the industrial-looking HafenCity. Asian tapas, dim sum and sushi are also served within the restaurant's red-and-black interior. Main meals are served at dinner only.
Café Gnosa
This attractive olde-worlde café, with its vaguely erotic, vaguely abstract art, is hugely popular and an excellent starting point for gay and lesbian visitors to Hamburg. It stocks hinnerk.


Nightlife
Golden Pudel Club
In a ramshackle fisherman's hut near the waterfront, this underground bar-club plays an eclectic mix of electronic, hip-hop, R&B and reggae to a mixed crowd. There was some building work going on when we visited, however, so double-check listings magazines to make sure it's still there.
Nouar
A popular bar with students and other denizens of the nearby Schanzenviertel, this place has that relaxed secondhand look going on and a fondness for football during the week.
StrandPauli
Tuesday is tango night at this Gilligan's Island stretch of sand overlooking the heart of the busy docks. The reed-thatched shack looks a bit out of place, but the beer, cocktails and sausages hit the spot.
China Lounge
If you go to one mainstream club in Hamburg, this leading venue probably should be it. Stylish without being snootily exclusive, it boasts four areas playing electro, house, hip-hop and R&B - the main floor under a huge laughing Buddha. Thursday is student night, although the crowd always tends towards the young and hip.
Sights
Chilehaus
For some visitors the city's most remarkable building isn't the Rathaus, but another that lies south in the Merchant's District. The brown-brick Chilehaus is shaped like an ocean liner, with remarkable curved walls meeting in the shape of a ship's bow and staggered balconies to look like decks.
Elbphilharmonie
The squat brown-brick former warehouse at the far west of HafenCity is being transformed into the new Elbphilharmonie. Pritzker prize-winning Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron are responsible for the design, which, like their Tate Modern building in London, boasts a glass top.
Fischmarkt
The Fischmarkt has been a Hamburg institution since 1703 and still defines the city's life and spirit. In the wee hours of Sunday morning a fleet of small trucks roars onto the cobbled pavement and hardy types with hands the size of baseball gloves emerge to artfully arrange fresh fruits, seafood and plant matter for trading.
Grosse Freiheit
Just north of the S-Bahn station is the Grosse Freiheit . Grosse Freiheit literally means 'great freedom' street, an apt name with its bright lights, dark doorways and live sex nightclubs. Smarmy doormen try to lure the passing crowd into clubs; if you're interested, ask about the conditions of entry.
St Michaeliskirche
The St Michaeliskirche, or 'Der Michel' as it's commonly called, is one of Hamburg's most recognisable landmarks and northern Germany's largest Protestant baroque church. From its tower you can better understand the layout of this jigsaw city.