In what seems fairly unlikely to me, after my most recent visit I have now been to Hamburg, Germany four times. For someone who travels as his profession and, generally speaking, doesn’t normally like to revisit cities that’s a significant commitment and there’s a reason for that. I didn’t understand the city. Sure, I spent time at all of the recommended tourist spots, I went on tours, ate a lot of food but, at the end of every trip I left not understanding this large and oddly mysterious Northern German city. I’m probably not alone which is why today I want to share my evolution regarding Hamburg, what I enjoy doing and how you can come to better appreciate the city just as I did.
Where to Stay
There are few things I enjoy more than a great luxury hotel, and in Hamburg that meant spending my time at the Fraser Suites Hamburg. This still new 5-star hotel is located in one of the most prestigious areas of the city close to most of the major attractions. It’s in a gorgeous historic building built as a Tax Authority in 1907. The hotel is one of those buildings that just aren’t made anymore, and it adds a special touch of elegance to the hotel experience. I also had the opportunity to enjoy many of the facilities on-site, including their remarkable bar which is a throwback to another era, as well as their delicious meal options. It was my first Fraser experience, but I know that it won’t be my last.
Every city has a list of not to miss sights for the first time visitor, and Hamburg is certainly no exception.
UNESCO – Listed as one entry, the Speicherstadt and the adjacent Kontorhaus district show off the architectural prowess of Hamburg in both the 19th and early 20th centuries. I particularly love the Speicherstadt, which seems plucked out of someone’s steampunk fantasies. Hamburg has long been an important port city, fueling the imperial ambitions of many a leader. At the heart of this commercial success was the turn of the century Warehouse District, nearly a mile long it’s the largest timber-pile founded warehouse district in the world. More than just a utilitarian storage area, the district was constructed with design and grace in mind. Small little alcoves and ornamentation can be found everywhere, an Easter egg hunt for the curious. The nearby buildings of the Kontorhaus district also reward the curious. Exemplifying the best of Art Deco design, these office buildings were created between the 1920s-40s and not only show off the beautiful design of the era, but also speak to the rapid growth of the city’s commercial side during the time period. When put together, wandering around both neighborhoods is a fun way to spend some time in Hamburg.
Miniatur Wunderland – In 2000, twin brothers Gerrit and Frederik Braun made the improbable decision to build the world’s largest model railway. No one believed them, no one wanted to finance it and no one thought visitors would ever come. Seventeen years later and more than 10 MILLION guests later, the brothers have definitely had the last laugh. I’ve been to a lot of transportation museums, but nothing quite prepared me for the Miniatur Wunderland experience. The name suits it well because it truly is a miniature world, built across multiple floors are dozens of recreated cities and countries; everything from Las Vegas to all of Switzerland and even a functioning airport that is deceptively fascinating. I hate to use a tired cliché, but from my brief time there it became obvious to me that the Wunderland really is one of those activities that everyone, young to old can enjoy. I’ve never been a big fan of model railways in particular, but even I couldn’t help but be drawn into the imaginary worlds created by the brothers Braun. Thousands of miniature people living an automated life, where night turns into day and back again during the course of your visit. It’s strange and incredibly odd, but fascinating in its own fun way.
Hamburg’s newest landmark is one I’ve wanted to visit for a while, always unable to because it wasn’t quite finished. Celebrating its grand opening earlier this year though, the Elbphilharmonie isn’t just the city’s latest architectural achievement, but one of the most remarkable in Europe. From afar it’s hard not to be impressed with this massive glassy building, meant to resemble either a hoisted sail or a wave, depending on your point of view. Located in the newly interesting warehouse district, the Elbphilharmonie is meant to be at the center of life in the HafenCity neighborhood of Hamburg. First impressions are everything, and I find it impossible for anyone not to be impressed by the long escalator ride up into the heart of the building itself. Looking around at my fellow visitors, everyone had their phones out, snapping as many photos as they could undoubtedly for their own Instagram galleries. And there’s plenty to admire from a design perspective both inside and out. The lines and angles of the interior are beautiful in their own way, from the stairways to the concert hall itself. A terrace allows visitors to enjoy amazing views of the city, showing that this architectural achievement really was built with the user in mind. The Elbphilharmonie is fun to visit just as a voyeur, but also be sure to enjoy a performance in what is one of the largest and most acoustically advanced concert halls in the world.
Now that the top level of sightseeing has been completed, it’s time to delve a little deeper and really start to learn what makes the city tick. To facilitate this, I tried a few different avenues.
Quirky Neighborhoods – I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn when I say that Hamburg is a little weird, but in the very best possible sense of the word. Famously liberal, forward thinking and just downright odd at times, Hamburg has long attracted like-minded individuals, creating a city that is original and innovative in almost every possible way. While a more ethereal concept, a good way to start to understand this unique spirit is to tour some of its neighborhoods including the famous St. Pauli neighborhood but also more residential areas like the Schanzen- and Karolinen districts. Both neighborhoods are famous for being alternative, hip and undeniably cool and residents are a curious mix of pram-pushing young couples to anarchists ready to join the next protest. Cool shops line the streets and it’s a place where you can get everything from an expertly crafted cappuccino to that 1970s LP you never knew you needed. A fun stop though for me was at the neighborhood favorite, Ratsherrn Brewery. Once a famous name in the region, new owners are now creating small batch beers that reflect the creativity of the neighborhood. With both a restaurant and biergarten though, it’s also just a really nice place to relax with friends, especially on a warm summer’s evening.
Beatles Tour – One of the aspects I love most about revisiting cities is the opportunity to try more offbeat experiences and to get to know different areas of the city. That was my goal on what was my third trip to Hamburg and at the top of my to-do list was to take the world famous Beatles Tour. The brainchild of musician turned guide Stephanie Hempel, this top rated tour is a unique look at the formative years of the Beatles when they learned how to be a band in Hamburg. When the Beatles arrived into the city they were still kids and had no experience performing as a band. The years spent on the stages in Hamburg taught them how to perform and, ultimately, is what created one of the best bands in history. Stephanie takes guests through this history by visiting the clubs they played, meandering around the still quirky St. Pauli neighborhood. Since Stephanie is also a musician, the tour is accentuated with the strum of a ukulele and her melodious voice, bringing to life the early years of the Beatles. The tour is fun and informative and a great experience for just about any type of traveler.
After steps one and two you are now fully prepared to embrace the unexpected and I suspect that means you’ll fall in love with odd and wonderful Hamburg just as I did. One doesn’t normally think that a German city will be inherently weird. I mean, it’s Germany after all, a country known for its stoic adherence to orderliness and things that just make sense. Hamburg has occupied a precarious position for centuries. As a free city-state and one of the most profitable ports in the world, it has drawn upon influences from around the world and most notably from nearby Scandinavian cousins. In fact ask a Hamburger and they’ll more readily identify with Scandinavia and not necessarily Germany. Because of that, people who live there are their own unique beings and this proclivity towards the odd is seen all around town. But ultimately it’s that unexpected quality that has most endeared it to me over the years. In a world where everyone walks around with a computer in their pockets, it’s refreshing to be surprised, to be a little shocked and to enjoy the unexpected joys of travel. For me that’s Hamburg and it’s also why I know you’ll enjoy exploring it just as much as I do.