Hamburg may well be Germany’s second city, but its fearsome reputation as one of the hottest and, simultaneously, coolest cities in Europe is second to none. Its hotness and coolness are off the hip-o-metre if the numerous articles I’d read about it were close to being true. Cementing a status as one of Europe’s hippest destinations, Lonely Planet recently ranked it fourth in its Top 10 Cities 2018 index. That’s a level of adoration that could unfairly raise expectations, but after four days of exploration I was left with the impression that it’s not possible to visit Hamburg without having fun. A lot of fun.
Hamburg has a long, rich and colourful history. Founded in 825 on the River Elbe, the city was an important centre for early Christianity, a fact that seems particularly ironic after a visit to the modern-day Reeperbahn; but it was Hamburg’s role in global trade that made it wealthy and saw it become one of the most important cities in northern Europe. A key member of the Hanseatic League, Hamburg grew and prospered until, by the end of the 17th century, it was the second largest city in Germany after Cologne. By the 19th century, it was considered Germany’s ‘gateway to the world’.
Not that it was all plain sailing. Vikings burnt it to the ground in 845, a fate repeated numerous times over the centuries, including the great fire of 1842 which destroyed a quarter of the city. A thousand years after the Vikings, the city was virtually destroyed again. This time it was British and American bombers targeting military, civilian and naval targets in the greatest port in Germany. By 1945, 55% of Hamburg’s residential area had been destroyed, along with 60% of its port infrastructure. Considerably more than 50,000 civilians were killed.
The sixty years since then has seen Hamburg rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes to its current exulted position as global trendsetter. Some things never change though, and Hamburg’s port is still the third biggest by volume in Europe. A visit to the port and a trip down the River Elbe is fascinating and should be on everyone’s itinerary when in Hamburg. The city is home to around 1.8 million people, and is quite spread out, luckily public transport is excellent and many of the central sights are walkable if you have the time.
The sun was shinning as I set off early towards the Museum Mile, a road that contains five world class museums, passing by Hamburg’s courthouses and through the park that surrounds them. People were out jogging or walking their dogs, otherwise it was very peaceful. Nearby is the classical concert hall, the Laeiszhalle, with its memorial to Johannes Brahms, from where I headed across to the Alster. This lake at the heart of the city is one of its defining features, and is surrounded by beautiful 19th century buildings.
It’s a short stroll from here to Hamburg’s rightly famous Museum Mile, but first I took a detour to find an ATM. You have to carry cash in Hamburg, many places don’t accept cards, others don’t accept non-German cards. It came as a rude awakening after the Netherlands where cash has essentially been outlawed. Luckily, the ATM was close to the glorious Rathaus, the City Hall, and the Rathausmarkt in front of it. From here I wandered through a patchwork of pleasant streets to reach the museums.
I visited the two ‘bookends’ along Museum Mile. The imposing 19th century Kunsthalle houses a magnificent collection of European art spanning a period of over 700 years, ranging from old masters to the 20th century’s greatest names. A special exhibition of the Dutch Golden Age reunited me with numerous artists I’ve come to love over four years living in the Netherlands. I walked past Hamburg’s main railway station to the very different but equally wonderful, Deichtorhallen, housing contemporary art and photographic exhibitions.
The Deichtorhallen is an easy walk from Hamburg’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a definte ‘must see’. Next stop, the Speicherstadt …