On this trip I discover what makes the Brits such a great musical export that keeps on giving, go cycling and see some mighty impressive ships with lots of fireworks, it can only be Hamburg!
In the early 1960’s Hamburg had the reputation of a racy place to be as well as dangerous. The docks were not for the faint hearted and there wasn’t much to do except follow the sailors to the red-light district where you might have heard The Beatles who cut their teeth there. But that was then, and this is now.
That’s exactly what Hamburg is, ‘now’ it’s having its moment. There has never been a better time to visit. The docks once the no go area are rejuvenated, the new shiny beacon to lure the crowds. I visited during a biannual highlight for the cruising fraternity: Great Hamburg Cruise Days Parade. This is a big event here no less than five mega ships are in port for a impressive sound and light event. It’s also a perfect time to book your next cruise as the accompanying trade fair offers the best deals you won’t get elsewhere.
The dock area that has now been given UNESCO status is full of warehouses and historic buildings. There are bars, galleries and restaurants aplenty. One of the big and I mean big attractions, is the new Elbphilharmonie Hamburg. A giant temple to music, this enormous building has it all, restaurants, hotel, viewing platforms offering brilliant vistas across the docks and cityscape, a roof that looks like a glass wave and a superb concert hall.
The Elbphilharmonie is in the Hafencity area of the docks, designed by Herzog and de Meuron it is placed on top of an old warehouse. It is the tallest building in Hamburg. The concert hall sits in an area of mass regeneration. A lower brick facade is crowned by a series of glass ‘squares’ some of which have distorted bubbles in them. A large wave crests on top. The main lobby is a confusion of perspectives with sloping lines one way curves the next with plenty of wood. The main concert hall is a jewelry box of modern design with custom made seats (some doubles) and acoustically tempered walls designed to give an exact resonance.
You could swing by the Reaper Bahn to get yourself something to eat and find some fun into the bargain, but I’d recommend chilling out at the achingly cool Restaurant Heimat at the 25 Hour Hotel in Hafencity where you can chow down on Eastern Mediterranean sharing dishes and drink craft beer to your heart’s content.
Another cool thing to do in this city of water is go for a boat ride at night. The waterways are blue at this time of night. That is to say that there are blue light installations over the ten days of the boat fair. It sounds simple but the effect is brilliant. Every corner you steer there is another light positioned on the quay, bridge, boat or crane projecting blue lasers across the water. There are dozens of elaborately illuminated buildings along with the cruise ships link the city with the water over the Hamburg Cruise Days celebrations.
Where to stay? I hear you ask. Well there are plenty of places to rest your head but a firm favourite is the quirky boutique Henri Hotel. With retro personalised wallpaper (where can you buy it? I loved the look) with old typewriters, high heels and telephones graphically depicted in muted hues of taupe and white and black. The rooms are very comfortable with a mid century feeling of cosy and functional. Mine had a drop-down desk and old-style telephone.
Food and drink are on an honesty box arrangement. Feel like a bottle of wine or a few beers? Just head on down right of reception (which also doubles as a bar) and help yourself noting what you took and settle up later. Simple things make for a stress-free life. I loved this place. Friendly staff (who encouraged me to write a love letter to the hotel on the manual typewriter in reception, I did of course) that if it’s good enough will be displayed.
One of the best things I did was not at night as you’d expect but in the day. I went cycling along the water’s edge for about 15km on a Sunday morning. I was a bit worried about this, as I hadn’t had much success with cycling on the continent. My experiences have been marred by people who say, “it’s not far, you don’t have to be fit” only to discover (to my embarrassment) that not only is it far, but you have to be ‘mountain’ fit to even contemplate it. This experience was very different. With a guide (stopping often to explain where we were or about a view) we ambled out of the city along past captains’ houses and into the countryside. It was at times an incongruous view, on the one hand a lovely riverbank with green countryside behind it, plenty of people walking their dogs and cycling and on the other side of the river vast industrial machinery of a working dock. This ebbed away as the river widened and the only unusual sights are tall mast ships navigating down the Elbe.
Hamburg has so much to offer it deserves a few days of your time. The burgeoning foodie scene, galleries and cool shops with the backdrop of the water (and all those boats) and let’s not forget the music either. On the weekend I was there who chose Hamburg to kick off their European tour? The Rolling Stones – proving that there ain’t no keeping us Brits away (Whatever our age).
Neil Hennessy-Vass is a widely-published globetrotting food and travel writer and photographer and one of our regular writers.
Photographs by Neil Hennessy-Vass