Couture capital of Germany, Hamburg is also home to some of the country's classiest restaurants and coolest bars. Add in great museums and green oases, and it's perfect weekend break material
When The Beatles began their rise in Hamburg (they made their first professional recording here) in the early 1960s, its port city vibe probably felt much like their native Liverpool with an added dash of Swinging London. Nearly 50 years later, Hamburg remains a cosmopolitan mix of grit and glitter.
City on the water
Stretched along the banks of the Elbe river, 60 miles from the Baltic coast, Hamburg is defined by water. A guided boat trip from the central pier, Landungsbrucken (www.abicht.de), is a good introduction, heading along the Elbe then into a maze of waterways lined with striking 19th-century warehouses and massive container ships towering like nautical skyscrapers.
A half-mile back from the river, the Alster provides Hamburg’s other watery focus. One of Europe’s finest city lakes, its five-mile circumference is ringed by parks and the luxury homes of Hamburg‘s elite. These include fashion designers Karl Lagerfeld and Jil Sander, both locals who have helped make the city Germany‘s couture capital.
Shops and stops
You might spot Sander if you wander along Milchstrasse, an enclave of designer outlets near Sander's house by the Alster. At the lake’s southern end, Neuer Wall is another cluster of chi-chi arcades and canalside boutiques near the imposing Town Hall.
If you can’t afford haute, Hamburg also offers a clutch of rising German design stars, such as Regine Steenbock at Sium (27 Markstrasse), Tobias Jopp and Stefan Harm at FKK (21 Hegestrasse) or Anna Fuchs (27 Karolinenstrasse).
While the gorgeous houses around the Alster are the most visible mark of Hamburg’s wealth, Blankenese is its prettiest neighbourhood. Draped across hills above the Elbe at the end of the four-mile-long Elbchausee (take the S1 train or 36 bus), this former fishing village is nicknamed the Staircase District, thanks to the 5,000+ steps meandering up and down between its old cottages and modern villas - great exercise before a coffee or beer at the wooden-decked riverside cafes.
Drinking and eating by the water is a Hamburg ritual, with locals debating whether to hang out on the Elbe or the Alster. On Sundays, the former usually wins, thanks to the street market that springs up around the 19th-century Fish Market by Altona pier, attracting Sunday morning risers just out of bed and Saturday night clubbers who haven’t yet been.
Other days, Café Alsterperle by the Alster on Schöne Aussicht is the place for alfresco coffee and cake, with a view of the city’s spire-dotted horizon. The Schanze neighbourhood offers hip alternatives, centred on Markstrasse near a giant WW2 bunker that doubles as a rugged clubbing venue.
For classy consumption, Hamburg boasts some of Germany’s finest dining. The waterside Fischereihafen (143 Grosse Elbstrasse) is considered the country’s best fish restaurant, while river views accompany the food on the Lime Tree Terrace at the 200-year-old Hotel Louis C Jacob along Elbchaussee. Hipsters, meanwhile, head for D.O.C. (56 Jungfernstieg), a striking glass cube serving fusion food overlooking the Alster.
The atmospheric Bergedorf (museumshafencafe.de), meanwhile, dishes up robust German dishes in a converted boat moored amid historic vessels on a pretty section of the Elbe. And for a distinctly Hamburg vibe, check out Freudenhaus (Heinhoyerstrasse), a former brothel offering a dash of sauciness with your sauce, just off the neon-studded Reeperbahn.
Now less sleazy than in its 60s heyday, the streets around the Reeperbahn are where The Beatles made their name, kicking off at Indra and Kaiserkeller, both still packing them in on Grosse Freiheit. The two other venues where they played - Top Ten Club and The Star Club - are, alas, no more, though the latter went out in a blaze of glory when it burned down in the 1970s.
While Hamburg still has a decent music scene, it’s more renowned for bars than beats, with around 3,000 joints to choose from. Sophisticates can go retro at Kostbar (Susannenstrasse), a temple to 1920s cocktail style, or get seen in the futuristic bar at the East Hotel (Simon von Utrecht Strasse). Silbersack (Silbersackstrasse), meanwhile, is a Hamburg institution, a 1950s dive with the quirkiest jukebox in town. In Schanze, Mutter (junction of Stresemannstrasse and Neue Pferdemarkt) offers a laidback lounge vibe.
Culture and nature
The Fab Four weren’t the first, however, to start on the path to fortune in Hamburg. Global trade has made the city rich for centuries, a history chronicled by the Speicherstadtmuseum in an atmospheric docklands warehouse.
Hamburg has poured its wealth into architecture and culture as well as hedonism. Its 50 or so museums cover a vast spectrum - my favourites were the Applied Arts Museum (mkg-hamburg.de), a showcase for design and photography on Steintorplatz, and the ravishing Jenisch Haus (altonaer-museum.hamburg.de), an art-filled 1830s mansion set in parkland along Elbchaussee. Architecture fans, meanwhile, can admire the efforts of the world’s leading architects as they transform the Hafencity (Harbour City) area as part of Europe’s largest urban regeneration project.
After indulging in the culture, shopping and bars, you may appreciate the city’s green oases. The Planten un Blomen walled gardens near the Alster are the best known, but find time too for the historic Ohlsdorf Cemetery - the second-largest in the world, with miles of green walkways amid beautiful statuary. In Hamburg, even the dead have style.
Visit the Hamburg Tourism website: hamburg-tourismus.de.