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A city guide to Hamburg, Germany

Germany’s largest port city might be known as a business hub, but its lively neighbourhoods filled with indie boutiques and design hotels suggest it plays as hard as it works.

photographs by Celia Topping
Published 1 Feb 2021, 16:00 GMT
Hamburg’s port, on the banks of the Elbe, welcomes the biggest ships on Earth via the ...

Hamburg’s port, on the banks of the Elbe, welcomes the biggest ships on Earth via the North Sea and still funds many a luxurious lakeside house.

Photograph by Celia Topping

In any other city, repeatedly seeing a skull and crossbones flag flying might be a little intimidating. But in Hamburg, it’s a symbol of the good fight. The city’s St Pauli football club unites a social movement under the rather piratey emblem, which seems to finds its way onto every banner, T-shirt and window sticker in town. The club, notorious for its vociferous fans, social activism, ban on right-wing nationalists, and punk spirit, encapsulates Hamburg’s feisty side.

The club’s spirit can be considered an embodiment of the Reeperbahn, the notorious dockside strip of red lights, happily unsophisticated bars and live music venues that has half its visitors clutching a beer and the other half at their pearls.

This is where the Beatles honed their craft, playing marathon sets night after night, before they hit the big time. That was over half a century ago, but Hamburg’s mix of hard graft and feel-good entertainment still courses through the city’s veins. There are some parts of town where creative bohemianism wins out — St Georg is gay-friendly and wine-drinking and increasingly artisan, while Schanzenviertel plays it unrepentantly grungy. But, most of the time, it’s uncomplicated, rather raucous fun that drives Hamburg’s after-dark personality. For Germans, this is the home of musical theatre, with massive arenas built on the banks of the River Elbe to host the likes of Mary Poppins and The Lion King.

By day, however, the Elbe is home to the city’s serious side. For every docker letting his hair down, there’s a sober merchant checking the ledgers. Germany’s second-largest city has been about financial gain for most of its existence — in the 13th century, it became a key member of the Hanseatic League, a network of port cities across Northern Europe with a focus on prosperity through trade.

Hamburg’s port, on the banks of the Elbe, welcomes the biggest ships on Earth via the North Sea and still funds many a luxurious lakeside house. The third-busiest in Europe after Rotterdam and Antwerp, it’s an awe-striking model of mechanised gigantism. Hulking machinery, allied to 21st-century technology, means shipping containers are processed at a phenomenal rate. Behind the city’s good-natured rowdiness is a higher logistical being – an engine room of ruthlessly efficient globalisation.

Hamburg’s beating, mostly automated heart is astonishingly impressive, and not just for the more geekily-inclined visitor. And while a plethora of maritime museums means those visitors are well catered-for, Hamburg’s soul is something very different altogether, and it comes wrapped in a skull and crossbones scarf.

St Pauli Landungsbrücken buildings, the entrance to the Elbe Tunnel and the River Elbe. 

Photograph by Celia Topping


St Michael’s church: The church’s baroque interior looks like a wedding cake designer has been let loose on a cavern, with the giant organ and outlandish, goblet-like pulpit especially swaggering. But it’s the spire you’ve come for: 452 steps (or 52 plus the lift for cheats) up to a 272ft-high viewing platform with 360-degree city views.

Harbour cruise: The best way to get an overview of Hamburg is on the water, with Barkassen-Meyer Harbour Tours one of several companies offering pootles round Europe’s third biggest port. The one-hour trip (turn up at 11.30am for the English-language version) takes in the looming red-brick warehouses of the Speicherstadt district and some seriously daunting container ships. 

Discovery Dock: For a surprisingly entertaining insight into how the port works, this new attraction employs virtual reality to get you operating cranes and searching containers for illegally smuggled goods. 

Miniatur Wunderland: Speicherstadt is home to numerous museums, including this, the world’s biggest model railway. Spread over two floors, the scale and detail — including sprawling mini models of cities a fully functioning airport — is extraordinary and heart-warming. 

International Maritime Museum: For a more serious, old-school museum experience, this massive beast is all about ships and shipping. There are a healthy number of model shops, and the story of navies is nicely told, while the sections devoted to the history of shipbuilding, navigation and voyages of discovery are also worth checking out. 

Elbphilharmonie Hamburg: The construction of this dazzling concert hall was much delayed, but well worth the wait. A red-brick base is crowned with a bubbled, curving, waving masterclass of glasswork. It’s a justified new icon, the acoustics are world-leading and the long, wiggly worm-like escalator up to the viewing deck is fabulously odd. 

St Pauli: There’s no denying the Reeperbahn is seedily stacked with strip clubs, but head a couple of blocks back from here, and the cartoon sleaze dissipates, replaced by feistily cool neighbourhood bars. Don’t miss the abstract statues at Beatles-Platz, including one of Stuart Sutcliffe walking away — it’s an oddly touching tribute to the Fab Four.

St Nikolai Memorial: The Church of St Nicholas’s spire is the tallest in Hamburg, but most of the rest of the building was destroyed by Second World War bombs. It now stands as a memorial, with the crypt hosting a sobering exhibition about the carnage. 

The colourful beer fermenting tanks at Überquell Brewery.

Photograph by Celia Topping


St Pauli Fish Market: The Sunday morning fish market in St Pauli has been a local institution since 1703. Theoretically, it caters to those who wake up early to buy the freshest fish, but they’re usually outnumbered by those spilling out of the bars and clubs. An acknowledgement of this comes in the form of the live bands that perform here and the stalls selling beer at 5am.

Underground art: Hamburg’s favourite shortcut, the Old Elbe Tunnel, heads under the river from St Pauli to the port area. The art deco design is part of the appeal, as is the viewing platform at the other end.

Beach bars: Hamburg is pretty much the polar opposite of a beach destination, but that doesn’t stop the locals flocking to the ‘beach’ bars that crop up during the summer months. Sand is imported, deck chairs are laid out and drinks are consumed in pop-up resorts such as Hamburg del Mar, in St Pauli, and the larger Strandperle, further to the west.

Property the place to pick up dapper-looking multi-compartment bags, snazzy belts and high-end guidebooks, and a flat white (it doubles as a coffee bar). 

Photograph by Celia Topping


Property Of...: Poststrasse is one of the most interesting, niche-satisfying shopping streets in the city centre, and this store, selling gear for stylish travellers, is the place to pick up dapper-looking multi-compartment bags, snazzy belts and high-end guidebooks, and a flat white (it doubles as a coffee bar). 

Lokal Design: Grungy but gentrifying Schanzenviertel has plenty of indie shopping, particularly along Schulterblatt. Lokal Design is the star, largely selling locally designed, distinctive furniture and homeware. But nosey around and you’ll find ceramics, jarringly angular tea light holders and specialist food and drink books. 

Koppel 66: LGBTQ+-friendly St Georg is the other ’hood with innovative shopping. Here, Koppel 66 brings together several arts and crafts workshops over two floors. The inhabitants range from book binders to jewellery makers, although Stefan Fink’s gorgeously crafted fountain and rollerball pens feel like the standout. 

The meat at Otto's Burger is cooked to taste with extravagant toppings. 

Photograph by Celia Topping


Otto’s Burger: A visit to Hamburg without a hamburger would be a dereliction of duty, and local mini-chain (three outlets in the city) Otto’s does them best. The meat is cooked to taste, the toppings are extravagant — the truffle burger with portobello mushroom, baby spinach and truffle mayo is tremendous — and there’s German craft beer. 

Tasquinha Gallego: The most atmospheric choice in a cluster of good-quality Portuguese joints, set inside a rounded tower by the docks. Theoretically ‘tapas-sized’ petiscos dishes, such as the garlic soup and cod in white wine, are almost a meal in themselves. Predictably, given the location, fish is the focus. 

Die Bank: This former art nouveau bank offers a dazzling glimpse of Hamburg’s showier side. It relies on the wow factor of the first-floor dining hall, along with such quality produce as North Sea oysters, house-made ravioli with bottarga, and rare-roasted local venison. 

Facades lining a footpath close to Elbstrand beach, the stamping ground of locals in the summer. 

Photograph by Celia Topping


Alles Elbe: Summing up the few-blocks-back St Pauli vibe, this simple neighbourhood craft beer joint has a ‘No beer for Nazis’ sign on the door, helpful staff and a whole host of brews that go beyond the standard German favourites. And if that means an 8.5%, papaya-infused monster, so be it. 

Adega: Set in the Little Portugal area by the river, this bar-cum-shop sells wallets and purses made of cork, plus colourful ceramic plates and canned fish. But it’s the wine you come for, and the list dives around the Portuguese wine regions, with drops from the Douro, Alentejo and Algarve. Handcrafted German gins are also available if you prefer to stay local. 

Gruenspan: One of several live music venues just off the Reeperbahn, this spot is still as worth visiting as it was when the Beatles were earning their pre-stardom crust. Gruenspan’s strength is variety: one night it’s Scandinavian metal, the next, a local singer-songwriter, the next Midge Ure or Billy Corgan. 

Al fresco drinks at Hamburg Del Mar in St Pauli.

Photograph by Celia Topping


Superbude Hamburg St Pauli: Tremendous fun, this hostel-hotel hybrid has nets for bedheads, plungers turned into clothing rails and desk lamps strung together on the ceiling; it feels like the pet project of someone who’s really good at DIY. Rope-pattern carpets nod to the shipping heritage, and the lobby full of eclectic seating doubles up as a bar.

Ruby Lotti: This centrally located design hotel goes for a ‘lean luxury’ concept — which means smallish rooms and a trimming back of facilities, but quality bedding, an eagerness for gadgetry, and rough edges that are celebrated as quirks. Vintage furniture and oak floors are part of the look. 

Tortue: Built around an impressive art installation and a boules court in the courtyard, this upscale city-centre option knows it looks good. Free mini-bars, touch-button mood lighting and heated bathroom floors are among the facilities binge. Furnishings and furniture feel hand-picked for impact, rather than snaffled up in a job lot.

Evening beers at Alles Elbe in the neighbourhood of St Pauli.

Photograph by Celia Topping


Getting there & around
British Airways flies direct to Hamburg from Heathrow, while EasyJet goes from Gatwick, Manchester and Edinburgh. Ryanair offers flights from Manchester, Stansted and Edinburgh. Average flight time: 1h30m.

Travelling by train is feasible, although expect the quickest journey to take at least eight-and-a-half hours with two changes. 

Much of Hamburg is slightly too large to be considered a truly walkable city. An extensive combination of U-Bahn and S-Bahn, plus buses, covers the city. There’s a zone-based system in use, although pretty much everywhere of interest — including the airport — is in zone one. Single tickets for zones one and two cost €3.30 (£3), with day tickets costing from €6.50 (£5.80). 

Taxis are relatively pricy (expect to pay around €30 (£27) from airport to hotel). Uber has recently launched in the city after much resistance.

When to go
Hamburg is at its best in the summer (June to September, when temperatures average around 23C) not least because the longer evenings make for perfect outdoor drinking weather. Winter can be tough going, and not necessarily cheaper, given a lot of the hotels fill up with business clientele.

More info
Hamburg Tourism:

English-language news and lifestyle:

How to do it
Easyjet Holidays offers three nights at the Barceló Hamburg, with return flights from Manchester, from £662 per couple. 

Published in the Jan/Feb 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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