When all's said and done, Hamburg's appeal can be narrowed down to one simple calling card: Welcome to one of the coolest cities on earth.
Port City Vibe
Hamburg's historic label, ‘The gateway to the world’, might be a bold claim, but Germany’s second-largest city and biggest port has never been shy. A leading light in the Hanseatic League in the Middle Ages, Hamburg became a centre of international trade, a legacy that continues today: it remains one of Germany's wealthiest cities and Hamburg’s maritime spirit still infuses the entire city. It's the sort of city where echoes of the city's port and history are everywhere, from the incessant cry of gulls overhead to the vibrant neighbourhoods awash with multicultural eateries, seaward-facing architecture and the gloriously seedy Reeperbahn red-light district.
A Musical City
There was one consolation for locals when the city's authorities decided to blow the municipal budget: at least it was done for a new concert hall, the Elbphilharmonie. Hamburg's musical pedigree is staggering: Gustav Mahler once directed the city's 330-year-old state opera, while both Johannes Brahms and Felix Mendelssohn were born here. But it's not just about classical music. Hamburg also has very modern and rather raucous melodic soundtrack, not mention a compelling story. The city nurtured the early promise of the Beatles, and music festivals litter the calendar, while the dynamic live music scene just keeps getting better.
Icons of Architecture
The Elbphilharmonie is an extraordinary structure, dominating the skyline and capturing in glass and brick the essence of Hamburg's polyglot soul. This striking icon of the city has elevated architecture to the centre of public debate and awareness, and it's just the most famous of a rather exciting collection. Office towers that appear as if they are dancing and buildings that from afar look like ocean liners share the streets with half-timbered relics of the medieval city. And only in Hamburg would they think of preserving a former WWII bunker and turning it into a nightclub.
The Good Things in Life
The good people of Hamburg really know how to live. For a start, they've mastered the ingredients of culinary diversity: elevate your local specialties to the level of an obsession and treasure them, even as you remain open to all manner of gastronomic trends. The result is culinary excellence on multiple fronts. So, too, for nightlife: Hamburg is full to bursting with classy cocktail bars, dance-all-night clubs and neighbourhood bars and pubs that both reflect each neighbourhood's identity and define it. So successful are they that it's almost impossible to come to Hamburg and not have a really good time.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Hamburg.
St Nikolai church was the world’s tallest building from 1874 to 1876, and it remains Hamburg’s second-tallest structure (after the TV tower). Mostly destroyed in WWII, it is now called Mahnmal St-Nikolai. You can take a glass lift up to a 76.3m-high viewing platform inside the surviving spire for views of Hamburg's centre, put into context of the wartime destruction. The crypt houses an unflinching underground exhibit on the horrors of war.
Here's the perfect excuse to stay up all Saturday night. Every Sunday in the wee hours, some 70,000 locals and visitors descend upon the famous Fischmarkt in St Pauli. The market has been running since 1703, and its undisputed stars are the boisterous Marktschreier (market criers) who hawk their wares at full volume. Live bands also entertainingly crank out cover versions of ancient German pop songs in the adjoining Fischauktionshalle (Fish Auction Hall).
Welcome to one of the most Europe's most exciting recent architectural creations. A squat brown-brick former warehouse at the far west of HafenCity was the base for the architecturally bold Elbphilharmonie, a major concert hall and performance space, not to mention architectural icon. Pritzker Prize–winning Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron were responsible for the design, which captivates with details like 1096 individually curved glass panes.
A treasure trove of art from the Renaissance to the present day, the Kunsthalle spans two buildings linked by an underground passage. The main building houses works ranging from medieval portraiture to 20th-century classics, such as Klee and Kokoschka. There’s also a memorable room of 19th-century landscapes by Caspar David Friedrich. Its stark white modern cube, the Galerie der Gegenwart, showcases contemporary German artists.
With its spectacular coffered ceiling, Hamburg’s baroque Rathaus is one of Europe’s most opulent, and is renowned for its Emperor’s Hall and Great Hall. The 40-minute tours take in only a fraction of this beehive of 647 rooms. A good secret to know about is the inner courtyard, where you can take a break from exploring the Rathaus on comfy chairs with tables.
‘Der Michel’, as it is affectionately called, is one of Hamburg’s most recognisable landmarks and northern Germany’s largest Protestant baroque church. Ascending the tower (by steps or lift) rewards visitors with great panoramas across the city and canals. The crypt has an engaging multimedia exhibit on the city's history.
Wednesday late afternoon and evening is a terrific time to be in St Pauli when the weekly night market takes over Spielbudenplatz with food stalls, live bands (usually around 6pm or 7pm) and plenty of comfy chairs to knock back a beer.
Even the worst cynics are quickly transformed into fans of this vast miniature world that goes on and on. The model trains wending their way through the Alps are impressive, but slightly predictable. But when you see a model A380 swoop out of the sky and land at the fully functional model of Hamburg’s airport, you can’t help but gasp! On weekends and in summer holidays, pre-purchase your ticket online to skip the queues.
Hamburg's maritime past – and future – is fully explored in this excellent private museum that sprawls over 10 floors of a revamped brick shipping warehouse. Considered the world’s largest private collection of maritime treasures, it includes a mind-boggling 26,000 model ships, 50,000 construction plans, 5000 illustrations, 2000 films, 1.5 million photographs and much more.