A wise man once said “I might have been born in Liverpool– but I grew up in Hamburg”. That man was none other than John Lennon. And it’s easy to see why this vibrant city left such an impression on him as the place he and his mop–headed bandmates fist discovered their hallmark sound and launched their name in the early Sixties.
Made infamous in those days for its ‘colourful’ port culture of lights, music and action, Hamburg today still twinkles with much of that same excitement and sense of indulgence The Beatles discovered, whilst also boasting a really family-friendly holiday destination.
The most startling thing about this second biggest city of Germany, which is often overlooked in favour of its neighbours, Berlin and Munich, is the feeling that it’s been left unspoiled. There’s no congested tourist traps, no crowd-pleasing gimmicks, prices are fair and the locals fiercely welcoming, just as long as you respect this unique city they’re so humbly proud of.
It’s a city that marries the thrill of the urban and the quiet of the country with as much success as a frankfurter with sauerkraut. A slow potter round the central Alster Lake, a boat ride round the Elbe river or a velotaxi tour of the city (85,000 per tour for two people, call +49 (0)162-1089020) offers a delicious chance to unwind and take in some fresh port air.
Here you can admire the local scenery– an impressive mix of grand gothic warehouses and pretty painted houses, tiny fishing boats and hulking great cargoes that keeps Hamburg’s port the busy trading point it still is today.
One particular highlight for me was the Miniatur Wunderland, a museum of 930 tiny trains, 15,000 dinky railcars, 215,000 teeny figures, 13,000 metres of track and 3,700 petite buildings and bridges that crosses a mini Scandinavia, Germany, Austria and America.
Really not just for miniature train buffs (although this would be their dream), it’s a spectacular place to visit, if only to enjoy watching a miniature Las Vegas flood into light, the Americans send a teeny rocket into space and a fully-working mini airport send a diminutive plane shooting into the sky.
Other gems include St Michaelis Church where twice a day trumpeters scale to the top of the tower (where you can also visit to see a beautiful bird’s eye view of the city) and play at all four points of the compass in a tradition that’s lasted more than three centuries.
And if you want to get off the beaten track, there are some fascinating suburbs well worth the visit. The Schanzenvertiel is a modern, up-and-coming neighbourhood that many locals seek out for the best eating places, markets and boutiques.
Then there’s St.Pauli and the notorious Reeperbahn, Germany’s red light district and the place where The Beatles used to play (alongside the likes of Chubby Checker and Jimi Hendrix) which is full of history and scribbled all over with amazing stories.
While the streets are safe here, it’s a place that lives by its own rules, especially at night, and is definitely best explored with the help of a guide. Ours, Sebastian Saavedra, had such a passion for the place he calls home, he really brought this heady, thrilling place to life. Beatles tours are also available.
When dining out, you certainly won’t go hungry if you like fish. I left Hamburg absolutely hopping with omega 3 - I ate so much of the stuff, which tasted fresher than I’d ever had back home. The best was a yummy selection of sushi followed by halibut at the Restaurant Slowman in the Reichshof Hotel where we stayed, all overseen by local celebrity chef, Frank Bertram, who strums on his guitar for you on a Saturday night when he's not in the kitchen.
You don’t have to be a guest to dine here, but if you’re after something extra special, this 1920s–styled hotel, part of Hilton’s new Curio Collection, is a real treat. If, like me, fluffy duvets and a coffee machine in your room feel like thrilling little luxuries, just wait till you see the art deco décor and that buffet breakfast they serve.
It’s a really special and unique hotel (in a prime central location) that captures all the early 20th century glitz and glamour of its original heyday. Prepare to feel like Kate Winslet making her way to the Titanic ballroom, eagerly looking out for your Leonardo DiCaprio, as you make your way into the marbled dining room, initially designed to resemble a cruise liner. The place is charmingly opulent and the feather in the hat of a brilliant trip to this greatly under-appreciated and wonderful city.
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- Pics ©Katharine Wootton /©Hotel Reichshof