Germany’s ‘second city’? Not so fast! Hamburg is definitely playing in the big leagues – and not only because of its incredibly chic new Elbphilharmonie concert hall. In recent years, the brisk North Sea winds have blown the cobwebs out of this Hanseatic jewel and infused it with a progressive energy reflected in edgy postmodern architecture, a cosmopolitan dining scene and an envy-inducing quality of life. Let us introduce you to the best this exciting urban cauldron has to offer in a weekend.
Rise from fluffy beds at the Hotel Sir Nikolai, a lushly appointed boutique hideaway on one of Hamburg’s oldest canals. Greet the day with spirulina shots and avo toast, then make a beeline to the Elbphilharmonie, (‘Elphi’ to locals), the shimmering new concert hall that juts into the city harbour like a postmodern ship’s prow. Sweeping vistas from the lofty Plaza level over rooftops, church steeples and ocean-bound vessels are especially lovely before the day’s coach bus hordes arrive. Sample more edgy architecture on a spin around HafenCity, the derelict port area turned urban renewal showcase, before plunging into the past in the adjacent Speicherstadt, Hamburg’s Unesco World Heritage warehouse district.
Break for a java jolt at Kaffeerösterei Burg, a coffee roastery that doubles as a museum, then pop into the unmissable Miniatur Wunderland, the world’s largest model railway, for a goose-bump-inducing romp around a marvellously detailed Lilliputian world. Here, you can snap selfies with the Coliseum, watch planes take off at Hamburg airport or follow aliens around Area 51.
Swing by the Chilehaus, a jaunty office building that’s a Unesco-recognized marvel of 1920s Brick Expressionism, before picking your way through the web of canals (called ‘Fleet’ in local dialect) to the pedestrianised Mönckebergstrasse, Hamburg’s main (and mainstream) shopping strip. Follow it west to the Europa Passage mall for a plant-based quarter pounder with a side of sweet-potato fries at Vincent Vegan, a local food truck phenom gone brick-and-mortar. Afterwards, pop into the imposing Rathaus (‘city hall’), a 19th-century neo-Renaissance pile festooned with statues of emperors and punctuated by a soaring central clock tower. Gaze out over the Inner Alster Lake, historic Hamburg’s watery heart, on a stroll along the Jungfernstieg promenade, then relax dolce vita-style over coffee in the Italianate Alsterarkaden.
Spend the rest of the afternoon on an art crawl through eight centuries of works by smock-and-beret masters from Rembrandt to Richter at the venerable Hamburger Kunsthalle. If the sun’s out, you might prefer renting a StadtRad bike for an extended spin around the posh and picturesque neighbourhoods bordering the inner and outer Alster lakes.
Ease into the night with a sundowner at StrandPauli, a funky Caribbean-style beach bar. Ensconced in comfy lounger or deck chair, you can count the container vessels steaming down the Elbe. You’re now in St Pauli, home of the gloriously seedy Reeperbahn red-light district, which, these days, is a lot less vice-fuelled than when the Beatles grew from boys to men in Hamburg. Of course, there’s still plenty of lurid neon and tawdry strip clubs and sex shops, but away from the main drag the scene beats to a less libidinous rhythm. Catch the latest local breakout band at Mojo Club or Golden Pudel Club, or enjoy stiff tequila-based drinks and smooth talk at green-velvet-draped Chug Club, Germany’s Bar of the Year 2018.
If you’re more the beer type, steer towards ÜberQuell, a new craft brewery down by the river. Pounce on the pizza pies in the attached gastropub or keep your brain in balance with creative tacos at Mexiko Strasse, rich ramen at Kokomo Noodle Club or refined Nordic French cuisine at Haebel.
Kick off the day at Milch, an adorable cafe inside a baby-blue-tiled milk shop from the 1950s, right in Hamburg’s lively Portuguese quarter. Wander over to the Landungsbrücken to board either a classic narrated harbour cruise or, for a cheaper alternative, hop onto public Ferry 62. It travels past the fish market, modern architecture and the container terminal to the historic fishing village at Ovelgönne where you can walking among old ships and relax riverside at Strandperle beach bar. Back on land, cross beneath the Elbe via the Old Elbe Tunnel, an art-deco style marvel of engineering inaugurated in 1911. It’s well worth the 400m walk through the fully tiled tube to the other side for fabulous views back at the city skyline and the harbour. Wrap up the morning with a dock-fresh North Sea shrimp sandwich and a cold beer at Brücke 10, the best of the portside piscine kiosks.
Dedicate the afternoon to get under the skin of the compact Karolinenviertel, one of Hamburg’s most charismatic quarters. Known as ‘Karoviertel’, its narrow streets embrace a rainbow of owner-operated indie boutiques, cute little cafes, wine shops, designer ateliers and galleries. On Marktstrasse, the main drag, Herr und Frau Netzer (Marktstrasse 36) is the place to sift through handpicked vintage threads and accessories from the 1950s to the ‘80s. Vinyl-record lamps, oil-barrel tables, and mirrors made from car tires are among the imaginatively up-cycled items vying for customers at Lockengelöt. Down the road, Hanseplatte specialises in music by local labels and Hamburg-themed souvenirs you won’t feel embarrassed to buy. In between browsing, lug your loot to cosy and flower-filled Harbour Cake to refuel on cappuccino and made-with-love cakes.
The Karoviertel segues almost imperceptibly into the Schanzenviertel, the quarter that – despite creeping gentrification – still oozes plenty of counter-cultural cred with the requisite street art to go with it (we recommend browsing Hackenteer's website to take a self-guided tour). On Saturdays, the iconic Flohschanze flea market brings in treasure hunters from near and far (8am to 4pm). After dark, though, the 'Schanze' competes with St Pauli as a party hub, especially along its main drag Schulterblatt. Consider stops at the circus-themed Noisette Bar, the upscale Walfisch Bar with its blue walls and nautical vibe, or the multi-tasking 73, which delivers concerts, parties and poetry slams alongside cocktails and craft beers. Flaunting next-gen hipness is Altes Mädchen, a brewpub in a former cattle market, known for its fine food, bustling beer garden and more than 60 varieties of craft beer. On weekends, insomniacs can turn night into day in a WWII bunker at Uebel & Gefährlich, Hamburg’s best electro club.
This article was originally published in March 2018, last updated July 2019.