A long Weekend in Hamburg
Few visitors venture to this northern German city, but you are missing out, says born Hamburger Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey.
Hamburg is a city of superlatives. Set between the North Sea and the Baltic, the city is not only Germany’s largest port; it also has more bridges than Amsterdam, Stockholm, and Venice combined. With more than 2,500 of them, spanning the city’s three rivers, countless canals, and two lakes in the centre of town. The city plays host to an annual influx of more than a million visitors who come to see the musicals, operas, theatre plays and dance shows every year, many of them taking place in the hyper modern Philharmonic building presiding over the port.
In the face of northern understatement, Hamburg modestly calls itself ‘the most beautiful city of them all’, and whilst I might count as being slightly biased, being a Hamburger myself, I tend to agree that the city at least has a very good shot at being in the Top Ten of most beautiful cities around the globe.
Day One – The sights
To get to know Hamburg, today is the day for touristy-things. Make straight for the inner city, to the Rathausmarkt. The imposing town hall sits on a square which is always bustling with markets, entertainers and shows, so it’s a great place to get your bearings. Feed the ducks and swans in the canal and have a coffee under the Alster Arcaden, the colonnaded shop fronts alongside it. Then head off toward the International Maritime Museum in Hafencity to learn about Hamburg’s centuries’ old maritime history. On the way there, pop into St Michaelis Church, whose iconic steeple is a much loved part of the city skyline and offers great views across the harbour. If you find yourself there at mealtime, make a beeline for The Old Commercial Rooms, where you get the best Labskaus in town, a typical sailor’s dish.
Saunter from the old warehouses in the Hafencity along the river to the Elbtunnel, the old tunnel beneath the river Elbe, and soak up the atmosphere of the busy port with its gigantic docks, the bustling ferries and the tempting fish and chip shops.
Day Two – The ‘burbs
Now that you have covered good ground on the history side, today you will find out what the suburbs have to offer. Take the river ferry from the Hafenbrücken to Blankenese, one of Hamburg’s poshest suburbs. First settled in 1301, Blankenese was formerly a fishing village clinging to the steep hillside leading down to the river, with some 4,864 steps connecting the small and larger houses whose owners make the most of the premium space and the inviting views across the river and the lush farmland behind.
Paths along the river are bustling with people enjoying the parks, cafés, and restaurants, whilst children are feeding the ducks or waving to the large ships tooting a welcome, and the air has a slightly salty tang to it. One of the most attractive places to stop for a respite is the Strandhotel – the beach hotel – dating back to 1902. Once a private villa it is now an excellent restaurant serving the freshest fish and home-made cakes, whilst offering the best views over the river and its sandy islands mid-stream.
Once you have either valiantly climbed back up the hill on foot, or taken one of the minibuses up, the Blankeneser Hauptstrasse – the high street – is an upmarket area with excellent delicatessen shops, individual boutiques, and charming cafés. Three times a week, on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, the market on the village square offers fresh delights and useful knick-knacks, plus freshly prepared food from stalls, and if you are hankering for a little light history, the nearby dolls’ museum is a quirky way to spend an hour or two.
Day Three – The seaside
With two seas being so close to the city, it would be a shame to miss out completely. A quick train ride up to the North Sea coast will allow an insight into German sea culture, complete with Strandkorb, i.e., those wicker seats which shelter you from rain and shine and are like a little home from home on the beach. And then there are the seals. At Friedrichskoog a seal sanctuary looks after abandoned baby seals or howlers, as they are called due to their pitiful crying when abandoned by their mothers and is open to visitors. Twice daily feeding and information displays will make you fall in love with the saucer eyed seals chasing after fishy offerings. This is a research facility so you will be able to learn about the seals and even see them perform some stunts, but you are being kept away from the seals to enable them to go back into the wild. Nevertheless, the visit will leave you with a sensation of a day out by the sea: windswept, sunned out and full of information on, and souvenirs from the seal sanctuary.
Day Four – Fishy business
Sunday mornings, and I mean early Sunday mornings, i.e., a start at 5.30am, come complete with an assault on all your senses: the Fischmarkt is noisy, smelly, crowded, and exciting. Considering it opens at a time at which most of us are oblivious to anything at all happening in the world, the crowds are amazing: a mix of people who have gotten up very early and those who are left over from the night before and display various stages of decay. The vendors are indulging in eardrum bursting shouts of: “Eels, fresh eels”, “Come over here, we need your money too,” and: “Buy one pineapple, a kilo of oranges, a melon and some strawberries; get a free wicker basket to carry it home in.” Slowly push your way past the fresh fish (to eat), rabbits and baby ducks (hopefully not to eat), food stands, flowers, plants, and souvenir lures to the old fish market hall. There, two live bands take it in turn to entertain the crowds. The atmosphere is amazing, the bands pelt out old rock classics that really get the crowd going, people of all age groups are dancing, and the rest hug their drinks, listen and chatter. This is where the leftover revellers from the night before can be found eating truly savoury breakfasts and trying the hair-of-the-dog approach, drinking beer and champagne. Others stick to coffee. People dance, sing, drink, eat and are having such a good time, normally unimaginable at this time in the morning.
Spend the rest of the day sauntering through Planten un Blomen (plants and flowers), one of Hamburg’s best loved parks full of lakes, cafés, and greenery that will allow you to get over the early morning’s excesses. Take in the Kunsthalle, a superb art museum next to the spectacular Hauptbahnhof , the main train station, that is well worth a look and end your day walking back into the city centre along the Alster lakes.