Visiting Hamburg? Do the prep
Hamburg is, well, deceptive. This is a big city – population around 1.8 million, the second largest city in Germany. Metropolitan Hamburg numbers more like five million. It’s a port, doing huge business in the container trade. It’s also an industrial city.
None of these attributes – while economically important – are likely to lure tourists to town.
But Hamburg does have a lot going for it, as a place to visit. And once you are in the city – easily accessed by air or by rail (the Europass being one of the great inventions in recent memory) – the means of getting about are varied and interesting – by “hop on-hop off bus”, by boat (more this later) or, surprisingly, on foot. Most of the best bits of the city are actually accessible on foot; all you need is a good map and comfortable shoes.
The tourism promo pieces refer to Hamburg as a “metropolis on water” – and they are right. A glance at a map of Hamburg shows an awful lot of blue – the harbour (on the Elbe River, which offers direct access to the North Sea for the biggest container and cruise ships); rivers, canals, lakes – for an apparently inland city, Hamburg is extremely Maritime.
We stayed at a small, pleasant hotel called the Hotel Baseler Hof, on the Esplanade; it proved to be a block from all manner of aquatic attractions, including the beautiful Binnenalster, an urban lake surrounded by walking trails, cafés, and perfect people-watching posts.
A somewhat more lengthy walk took us to the harbour, where you can find tour boats of every size. It had been recommended – perhaps unwisely – that we take a harbour cruise, which meant considerable time spent navigating among enormous container ships (interesting once, not so much a dozen times), as well as sailing past some very intriguing architecture, including the impressive Elbphilharmonie Hamburg – a glass monolith still under construction, but eventually to welcome music lovers as one of the world’s finest convert venues, and the Dockland Office building, designed to resemble the bow of a great ship.
As with most cities, we would recommend that you take a sight-seers’ bus tour; make sure you choose one with English translation, of course, but these are very common. This will offer a great overview of Hamburg, and you can choose what you might want to visit later.
Those in the know – or of an age to remember the early history of the Beatles – will already realize that Hamburg has a bit of an “Amsterdamish” reputation as a centre of sin and seduction. It’s true. This is the location of the Reeperbahn, where John, Paul and their colleagues honed their craft in clubs and strip joints, and while you won’t see a Beatle in Hamburg, there are still plenty of clubs, strip joints and brothels.
Perhaps the oddest sight on the Reeperbahn is the McDonalds, where the golden arches that rise up the centre of the building are flanked by naked photos of women with information about prices.
Hamburg locals admit to an irony – there are two districts of the city named for Christian saints – St. Pauli and St. Georg – and these are also the locations of most of the erotic attractions in the city.
Speaking of Christian saints, St. Michael’s is the most famous church in the city, a Lutheran landmark guarded by a most impressive statue of reform leader Martin Luther.
Here’s our best advice for a visit to Hamburg: plan it. This is not a compact city where there are marvels around every corner. It is a city with much to discover, but to get the best of your days in Hamburg, decide in advance which of the 22 museums you want to see; do the research to find out where Beatles memorabilia can be found; chart your wanderings on a map; in short, do some homework.
Hamburg will reward the effort. And after you have carried out your planned explorations, Hamburg will also offer innumerable opportunities to sit, sip, savour and see the passing pageant of humanity in this busy, lively city.