The greatest rock and roll band of all time, The Beatles, famously came of age in the bars and clubs of Hamburg in the early 1960s. Decades later, the city's passion for music hasn't lost a beat and remains part of its soul today. From orchestral overtures in the stunning new landmark concert hall to intimate, sweaty clubs where you’ll hear great new bands, plus countless venues in between, Hamburg is Germany's premier destination for live sound.
Hamburg, city of music
Maybe it’s the cacophonous drum of non-stop activity at Germany’s biggest port, which is visible – and audible – from much of the city, or maybe it’s the local spirit for living life to the full (only snow closes the ‘beach’ bars on the banks of the Elbe River), but there are no bad days of the week for music in Hamburg. Every night is the night to prowl through venues where you can hear every style played by bands big and small, famous and obscure.
So ingrained is music in Hamburg’s culture that up to 70,000 people turn up at the city’s famed Fischmarkt at 7am on a Sunday morning in summertime (5am in winter) to close out a night of partying at the city's bars and clubs. Besides hangover-busting good eats, there’s plenty of, yes, live music.
The new Elbphilharmonie
Any doubts about Hamburg’s commitment to sound should be allayed by the 2017 opening of the Elbphilharmonie, the soaring riverfront venue that melds new and old architecture in the same way it does with the music inside. Already forgotten are the long-overdue opening deadline and hugely blown-out budget; even at seven years late and almost €700 million over the original estimate the concert hall has been affectionately embraced by locals, who have given it the nickname ‘Elphi’.
The venue's prominent motto, a quote borrowed from Leonard Bernstein, sets the tone for what you’ll hear: ‘There is no serious music or unserious music, just good music and bad music.’ Sure you might be there to catch the portentous tones of Wagner played by the renowned in-house NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra in the 2100-seat Great Hall. But on any given day you could also be listening to new music, experimental jazz, a medley of James Bond themes or even singing karaoke backed by a live orchestra in one of Elphi’s many other venues.
Best neighbourhoods for music
With its position overlooking the harbour, St Pauli is Hamburg’s most famous area for nightlife. The district includes the notorious Reeperbahn strip and attracts rowdy groups of drunken partiers, but look further and you’ll also discover dozens of bars and clubs showcasing live bands, with some of the best to be found tucked away on the backstreets away from the neon.
Dating back to when the young Beatles took the stage in 1960, St Pauli’s Kaiserkeller has stayed relevant by being a top venue for indie rock bands on tour. It has a large stage, but its low ceilings mean it can feel surprisingly intimate. Meanwhile, cheap drinks, a great courtyard and three floors of music are just some of the highlights of Molotow, a local favourite that leans towards indie rock but books plenty of acts that defy easy characterisation.
Still channelling St Pauli's energy, the Golden Pudel Club is run by old punkers and has a raucous line-up of music that starts with alcopop, but don’t bother coming before midnight. And right down by the river, Hafenklang is fittingly located in a large old recording studio. There’s a punky vibe here too, and the bands on the roster are some of Germany’s best. The sounds run dark and heavy.
Schanzenviertel is north of St Pauli and is the first place savvy locals go when they want to hear a hot new band in grungy surrounds. West of the centre, Altona has a similar vibe and anchoring the nightlife here is Fabrik, a venue with several spaces housed in a converted factory. Look for bigger names on tour as well as jazz, rock, world and other music.
Where pigs once met their maker, you can now make your own fun at Knust, a sprawling former slaughterhouse that’s been converted into a great mid-sized venue that draws top indie bands.
Under busy railroad tracks, Astra Stube looks suitably rough for a place known for indie, punk and new wave. The party often spreads out into the street, where the beat from inside the bar mixes with the rumble of passing trains.
Another district to try is St Georg, to the east, which has all manner of gritty and not-so-gritty joints.
Rocking up to a show
It could be Hamburg’s devil-may-care attitude or perhaps it’s because sailors who once fuelled the city’s nightlife never knew exactly when they’d wash ashore, but Hamburg lives on spontaneity.
Sure, advance tickets bought on the internet are necessary if there’s a specific concert or big-name performance you want to enjoy at Elbi or one of the other major venues. But most locals venture out on a whim, with maybe a small wait for entrance or a modest fee for admission to one of the more popular bars and clubs. For venues like Fabrik and Knust, check their calendars in case there’s an upcoming show you just can’t miss.