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Like a local: Hamburg

For a snapshot of both classic and cool Germany, look no further than its second city. Whether you’re seeking high-brow concerts or bargain cast-offs, here’s where to head for the best of both worlds.

By David Taylor
Published 2 Oct 2019, 18:30 BST
Photograph by Getty


It would be remiss not to start with the Elbphilharmonie, affectionately called ‘Elphi’ by the Hamburgers. After 10 years of delays, fundraising and building, the city’s stunning concert hall opened in 2017 and is now a firm fixture on the cultural scene. Concerts take place throughout the year, covering everything from chamber music to modern jazz, with visiting orchestras such as the London Philharmonic often appearing on the calendar. For a quick meal before a concert, or a post-music pick-me-up, Kinfelts Kitchen & Wine serves the Elphi-Menü, a five-course dinner split into two acts: three courses before the concert, then a main and dessert served afterwards.

Wilhelmsburg, an island suburb between the northern and southern branches of the River Elbe, has gone from industrial corner to creative hub in the south of Hamburg-Mitte. Check out Atelierhaus23, a community project run by local artists showcasing their own and others’ works, with guest exhibitions running regularly.

As one of Europe’s largest ports, Hamburg is indelibly linked with the water — and there’s no better place to learn about its trading past and present than in the wide boulevards and mazy backstreets of the historic Speicherstadt, the world’s largest warehouse district and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Since 2008, the district has made up part of Hamburg’s newest quarter, HafenCity; currently Europe’s largest inner-city urban redevelopment project, HafenCity (‘HarbourCity’) has seen the port area revitalised with a wealth of new waterfront hotels, shops and offices. Don’t miss Discovery Dock, in the shadow of the Elbphilharmonie, which offers an overview of the inner workings of the port and features interactive exhibitions that let visitors search for smuggled contraband and load shipping containers via VR headsets.

If there’s a poster boy of the area’s regeneration, the 137ft-tall Energiebunker, rising from Wilhemlsburg’s 19th-century Reiherstieg quarter, is surely it. Built as a flak tower in 1943, it was designed to defend the city against aerial bomb attacks. These days, the solar panel-adorned building serves as a renewable energy plant and giant heat storage facility. Make your way to the top floor, where you’ll find Café Vju, a 360-degree panoramic terrace and bar offering the finest views of Hamburg’s urban sprawl.

Alternative scene

Seen by many as the city’s counter-cultural centre, Schanzenviertel is where those in the know go to when the Reeperbahn — the city’s main nightlife drag — becomes too crowded. Its main street, Schulterblatt, is home to the area’s best cafes, bars and pubs, as well as a wide array of restaurants focused on plant-based cuisine. Mamalicious is known as Hamburg’s favourite veggie breakfast joint, and its all-day offerings are top-quality and nearly all vegan. For a quick sweet treat, stop by Herr Max for vegan chocolate-blueberry cupcakes and dairy-free ice cream.

Despite gentrification bringing renovation and higher rents to the area, Rote Flora — a former theatre that now houses Germany’s oldest squat — stands as a symbol of Hamburg’s strong alternative scene and is known for its status as a political and cultural hub.

Another highlight is the Flohschanze flea market, a hot, noisy haggler’s paradise offering a heap of treasures, from rare LPs to designer labels. If the action at Flohschanze gets a bit much, nearby Portuguese coffeehouse Café Estrela serves a proper galão — a Portuguese upgrade on your usual latte and the perfect accompaniment to a spot of people-watching.

The narrow streets of the Karolinenviertel neighbourhood are a hotspot for the best independent shops and clubs Hamburg has to offer. Hot Dogs is the place to go for footwear, and designer grotto Goldig offers pieces by a range of Scandinavian, English and Spanish brands. After an afternoon’s retail therapy, take five with a coffee in the rustic, cosy ambience of Café Panter or try Gretchens Villa for some fin de siecle-style decadence.

The area is also home to a booming music scene, with a huge number of record stores alongside bars such as Das Neue Dschungel and Kleines Phi. Live music venue Knust, inside an old abattoir, hosts both international and underground artists.


Kathrin Wittich’s top five pit stops

Kathrin is a Hamburg-based creative communication consultant and blogger. 

Chambre Basse
In addition to classic long drinks, Chambre Basse serves a variety of ‘cocktails de la maison’, which are marked on the menu with important dates in the history of human rights.

Tipsy Baker
There are 10 beers on tap here, five local Hamburg brews and five beers from Denmark, Holland, Belgium and the US. The bar also recommends an accompanying schnapps for each beer as a chaser (known as a ‘herrengedeck’), which could be anything from a cocoa liquor to a blood orange spirit.

Public Coffee Roasters
Housed in a former metal foundry on Goldbekplatz, 2017, this cosy coffeehouse features redbrick walls and vast windows and serves up some of the best coffee in Hamburg.

Old-school vibes and casual flair abound in BernsteinBar, where various DJs perform throughout the week. It’s cool and laid-back, with a simple 1960s vibe, and has a mean drinks menu.

Schmidtchen Jenisch Haus
Located in the beautiful Jenischpark on the banks of the Elbe, this little cafe serves up delicious cakes, including a range of vegan options.

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