Slow City Guide: Hamburg

Hamburg resident Brian Melican gives tips on how to enjoy his adopted city the slow way…

You’ll find no shortage of people convinced of Hamburg’s charms – not least the Hamburgers themselves, many of whom refer to it without irony as die schönste Stadt der Welt.

But if you’re new in town, you might find it a little underwhelming at first. The area around Hauptbahnhof could be pretty much any major European city, with its faceless buildings, rumbling traffic and queues of sightseeing busses: the grey post-war architecture in the geographical centre of town is equally unlikely to have you hopping with excitement.

Follow this slow itinerary below, however, and you’ll soon be convinced that, even if Hamburg isn’t the most beautiful city in the world, it’s certainly got a shot at being one of its finest.

Here’s what to do with your first 24 hours in Hamburg (and, yes, we really do mean a full twenty four hours…).

#1 Take the under(over)ground

1. underground
Image by Paul Sullivan

Starting at the main station, head straight down to the U-Bahn and take the number 3. It’s a circle line, so although it theoretically doesn’t matter which direction you go in, we’d recommend southbound to the harbour. You’ll know you’re headed our way if, after two stops, your ‘underground’ train suddenly goes into a (mildly alarming) 45-degree ascent and you suddenly find yourself flying over a canal.

This disconcerting experience behind you, it’s time to start drinking in the view. To your left as you come into Baumwall is the adventurous modern architecture on the Kerhwiederspitze – literally “come back spit” – a bulwark in the mighty River Elbe, alive with ferries, tugs, ships, and tankers. Turn to the right for another ship of sorts: the Gruner&Jahr publishing house, built to resemble a battleship (and, in terms of its business concept, about as outdated as your average dreadnought, too…). Now you’ll hear that public transport announcement that every Hamburger loves to listen to: “Nächster Halt, Landungsbrücken!”

#2 Take the ferry

Image by Paul Sullivan
Image by Paul Sullivan

Landungsbrücken, the landing docks, is the real heart of the city. It’s the central stop for the harbour ferries and, even if the mighty steamers to America disappeared over half a century ago, there’s still a vague sense of possibility and adventure here (as well as some horrific tourist tat). Indeed, looming behind you, there’s the beautiful late nineteenth-century brick-built Institute of Tropical Diseases, itself now in the shadow of new glass and steel towers. In front of you, gangways bob gently, leading down to the harbour ferries: look for the biggest crowd – they’ll all be waiting for the number 62, which does laps of the harbour lasting around one hour, and you’ll be joining them.

If you were smart enough to buy a day-ticket at Hauptbahnhof, there’s no need to buy another, as – and this says a lot about the importance of water in Hamburg – ferries are part of the deal. If anyone does come around the boat in uniform, by the way, no need to get your ticket out: it’ll the on-board kiosk owner asking whether you would like coffee, or perhaps a beer.

Since the coffee on board is frankly appalling, we’d recommend the latter.

#3 Get some sea legs

Image by Paul Sullivan
Image by Paul Sullivan

The ferry will take you downstream along the harbour front: the colourful buildings draped with scrawled slogans to starboard (that’s to your right, landlubber…), once derelict, were occupied by left-wing activists back in the 1980s; when the location switched from shoddy to shabby chic in the mid-90s, the buildings’ owners mysteriously re-materialised and took the squatters to court. The trial, however, didn’t go according to plan and the squatters were given the right to stay, and have been using their windows, magic markers, and bedsheets to stick it to the Man ever since.

To port, you’ll see “the Man” in the form of the iconic Blom&Voss floating dry docks and a sweeping industrial panorama. Hamburg is Europe’s third largest harbour in terms of tonnage after Rotterdam and Antwerp, as the walls of cranes and container ships make clear: it’s not a pretty sight, but an impressive one nonetheless.

#4 Stretch your legs

Fischmarkt by Wojtek Szkutnik
Fischmarkt by Wojtek Szkutnik

The next stop is Fischmarkt – once an actual fish market and now a popular all-night drinking location – followed by Dockland, which was also once home to actual docks, but is now the preserve of chichi ad agencies and thus more known for USB ports than anything else. The general rule nowadays is that the northern side of the Elbe is city and the southern side is harbour, as becomes clear at the next stop, Övelgönne: this charming set of jetties and vintage boats used to be part of the working harbour, but is now a dainty museum. Across the river meanwhile, today’s gargantuan cranes, silos, and ships stretch into the distance.

Set off on foot downstream, past the cafés and restaurants, and within minutes, you’ll find yourself on the Elbstrand – or Elbe beach – with genuine sand and, weather permitting, genuine beach activities. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can go for a paddle in the water, although it’s best to retire when the container ships pass by unless you fancy getting a little wetter than planned… Or if you’d rather stay dry, take the detour past the old fisherman’s cottages as you head down the beach out of town.

#5 Lunch at Teufelsbrück

Teufelsbrück by Markus Lüske
Teufelsbrück by Markus Lüske

The stroll down to Teufelsbrück takes you parallel to what is by many measures Germany’s wealthiest street, the Elbchaussee. If you look up the hill to your right, you’ll spot the odd mansion or faux French chateau. The connection between this street and big money was that the wealthy harbour merchants used to like to look out over their dominions and underlings to the south of the river, sailing over every morning to crack their whips and collect their dues.

Teufelsbrück, the landing stage at the end of the path, is a perfect place to stop off for a bite to eat, either at the nautical Dübelsbrücker Kajüt in the pleasure port if you fancy something traditional (read: with herring and/or pork) or at the Engel Restaurant on the jetty if you’d rather go for a more modern ambiance.

#6 Stroll round the Botanical Garden

Botanical Gardens by Dietmut Teijgeman-Hansen
Botanical Gardens by Dietmut Teijgeman-Hansen

Next, head up Baron-Voight-Straße and turn into Jenisch Park, a lovely landscaped patch of green with a resplendent neo-classical country house designed by Schinkel set at its centre. Continuing up away from the water, you’ll cross the S-Bahn tracks and find yourself at the Botanical Gardens, named for environmentalist Hannelore “Loki” Schmidt, the deceased wife of former German chancellor and general cigarette-puffing Hamburg legend, Helmut Schmidt.

The gardens are, in the best possible way, an assault on the senses, featuring everything from a traditional northern German arable meadow through to a bona-fide desert garden. Then there’s the tropical greenhouses, the Duftorgel or “scent organ” which ‘plays’ a variety of smells, and a range of thematic sections, such as the Plants of the Bible…

#7 Dinner and drinks at Sternschanze

Sternschanze by Tine Nowak
Sternschanze by Tine Nowak

Once you’re finished here, you’ll have – between the beach stroll and the botanical gardens – seen more than enough greenery for one day, so it’s time to head back into town: take the S1 for Poppenbüttel and change at Altona onto the S31, getting off at Sternschanze.

Die Schanze, as locals call it, is essentially the Kreuzberg of Hamburg, a once unloved, run-down part of the inner city which has gone through the classic cycle of gentrification. Now, it’s firmly in the yuppification stage, but – thanks in equal measure to German tenancy law and fervent local activism – even now, it still retains much of its former charm. Double back out of the station down Schanzenstraße, stopping off for a beer at Omas Apotheke or at one of the bars up Susannenstraße, and soak up the eclectic mixture of people, shops, and eateries.

As evening falls, move up to Schulterblatt, the main drag and location of the legendary Rote Flora, a former theatre which now functions as a kind of anarchists’ club and anti-gentrification guerrilla headquarters. There’s a range of excellent options for dinner here in the form of Iberian tapas bars, as well as several popular hang-outs for pre-dinner cocktails/post-dinner drinks that should just be starting to fill up.

#8 Saunter through St. Pauli

St Pauli by Dirk Knight
St Pauli by Dirk Knight

Just down Schulterblatt is where the legendary harbour quarter, St. Pauli, begins. “Pauli” isn’t just a part of town, but an identity and a left-wing lifestyle choice, as you’ll see walking down the lively Wohlwillstraße. Just a few hundred feet to the left is the Millerntor stadium, home of the Pauli football club with its proud tradition of anti-Fascist, anti-hooligan fandom; up ahead are the back-streets to the famed Reeperbahn.

St. Pauli started life as a lawless area outside of the city jurisdiction in which passing sailors sought their pleasures, and its residents – even if most of them no longer work in the long-standing local industries of whoring, gambling, and bartending – retain a headstrong intention to do as they please. You’re bound to come across impromptu al-fresco meetings of punks and their dogs, smoky bars and cafés open until the small hours, and a thriving biotope of corner shops and kiosks selling everything you need (and lots you don’t) round the clock. We’d recommend grabbing an Astra beer in its signature stubby bottle and going for an aimless stroll towards the harbour (take Astra Rotlicht for extra ABV and increased street credibility).

#9 Run across the Reeperbahn

Reeperbahn by deano7000
Reeperbahn by deano7000

At some point, you’ll stumble across the Reeperbahn. It may be midnight already, but for this part of Hamburg, the day is just getting started. Named for the rope-makers who needed a long, straight street to weave their threads on, and not for the impulses of some of its more unpleasant guests, this street is the heart of the red light district, second only to Amsterdam’s in terms of size – and way ahead of it in terms of debauchery.

Take a walk along it. The experience can be best be described as a mixture between Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and a stroll through London’s Soho late on a Friday evening: gaudy, humming neon signage; dive pubs, strip clubs, and cabaret theatres pouring inebriated masses onto the pavement; hookers, pimps, and johns eyeing each other up as they engage in humankind’s oldest trade. It’s nothing short of the end of the world – and the dawn of the next day, by the time you leave one of its motley collection of trendy bare-walled bars and unreconstructed dockers’ watering holes…

#10 Recuperate on the Alster

Image by Paul Sullivan
Innenalster  by Paul Sullivan

What’s this? The midday sun peeping through a crack in your curtains? Yes, it is exactly as late as you think it is. One way to get an excellent impression of the city centre – while combating your headache and feeling civilised – is to head down to the Alster, the two lakes around which central Hamburg was built. The Innenalster, the smaller, interior pool, is lined on three sides by sturdy, graceful late-nineteenth-century buildings and offers plenty of well-situated benches or (mildly overpriced) cafés for recuperative purposes

If you can handle a five-mile walk, move out to the Außenalster, the larger body of water to the north, lined by strips of parkland and Notting-Hill-style rows of genteel townhouses. Head past the crowds on the left bank to the top of the water, by Krugkoppelbrücke, where you’ll find the secluded charm of the Red Dog Bar, a great place to have a coffee – or something stronger – and get ready both for the walk back, and for whatever else the coming days may bring.

Next in Slow City GuidesSlow City Guide: Warsaw »