Hamburg, street art in the European capital of cool

Many parts of Hamburg’s urban landscape can really only be described as “gritty”. That grittiness often comes accompanied by small oases of street art, both the glorious and the mundane. Whole buildings are frequently used as vast canvases, while small scale pieces can be found just about everywhere. The epicentre of the Hamburg’s street art scene seems to be, predictably, in the streets of St. Pauli, coming with a distinctive dose of social consciousness. You don’t have to go too far to find interesting pieces in other areas of the city though.

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Fittz Kola street art, Hamburg, Germany

Fittz Kola street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

I saw quite a lot of street art that was anti-gentrification, a pretty huge social issue in every Germany city I visited on this trip, but it seemed especially political in Hamburg. I came across numerous pieces by the same artists, one of the most identifiable being El Bocho, a street artist from Spain now resident in Berlin, whose Citizens pieces could be seen in several places. Another street art ‘brand’, literally in this case, is Afri Cola – an actual fizzy drink produced since the 1930s and still on sale today.

Afri Cola was famed in the 1960s for its provocative advertising campaigns, including a poster that featured some very attractive nuns wearing habits and red lipstick. In fact, I’m not actually sure they were bona fide nuns. It was scandalous at the time, and that 1968 advert gets a reprise as three even sexier nuns towering over the Reeperbahn’s Red Light District. Afri Cola isn’t the only fizzy drink to have taken to the walls to get their ‘message’ across. Fittz Kola is big on street art advertising, including a depiction of Delacroix’s Revolutionary icon, Marianne, near Hamburg station.

Like many ‘global’ cities, Hamburg hosts an art festival, Knotenpunkt, that has a strong emphasis on street art. There are many pieces around the city that come from various editions of the festival. They tend to be statement pieces, with perhaps my favourite piece being Cross-section of a Black Widow by Nychos, an Austrian artist. More than 40 international artists took part in the most recent Knotenpunkt, attracting over 10,000 visitors to the city. Street art is big tourism in the 21st century.

Another great piece was the giant image of three blue people in a river by a waterfall by Sao Paolo-based artist, Cranio. They reminded me of the beings from the film Avatar looming over a small park filled with people chatting and drinking. One artist you can’t miss in the streets is St. Pauli resident, Ray DLC, who paints images depicting the area. You can book tours, like many places, but just wandering the streets in and around St. Pauli offers up reward after reward … and you can stop off in some of the areas many fun cafes and bars as you go.

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Hamburg, the seedy and the seriously hip

I honestly never thought I’d find myself saying this, but Hamburg’s Reeperbahn district makes Amsterdam’s red light district look classy. I’m not sure it’s possible for any area that deals in selling sex, and caters to gangs of heavy drinking men and occasional hen nights, to be particularly pleasant, but the Reeperbahn strips bare any pretensions to glamour or even normality. Even at 3pm in the afternoon it’s populated by a selection of seedy characters, at night things take a turn for the even more surreal as tour groups mingle with stag parties and brothel patrons.

Despite the fact that it’s not a particularly pleasant place to visit, it’s an obligatory stop on any Hamburg itinerary. If for no other reason than to know why it’s not worth your time to go there in the first place. Plus, if you want to unearth some of the sites where the Beatles spent their time when living in Hamburg, a trip down the Reeperbahn is necessary. Even then, most of the venues the Beatles played have been knocked down, and the Beatles-Platz memorial to the band is best described as the worst €500,000 the City of Hamburg has ever spent.

Reeperbahn, Hamburg, Germany

Reeperbahn, Hamburg, Germany

Reeperbahn, Hamburg, Germany

Reeperbahn, Hamburg, Germany

Reeperbahn, Hamburg, Germany

Reeperbahn, Hamburg, Germany

Reeperbahn, Hamburg, Germany

Reeperbahn, Hamburg, Germany

ATM and sex in the Reeperbahn, Hamburg, Germany

ATM and sex in the Reeperbahn, Hamburg, Germany

There is an argument that the Reeperbahn represents an alternative world view and its unique history should be respected and protected. Some local residents decry the creeping gentrification that’s taking place, but change is inevitable and most probably desirable. Right now the Reeperbahn’s heady mix of cheap drinking dens, sex shops, discount stores, tacky souvenir shops, table dancing clubs, brothels, kebab shops and street level prostitution is just nasty. Not to mention the rough sleepers, pan handlers and victims of drink and drugs who are scattered around.

I found myself exploring the Reeperbahn while walking between the River Elbe and Hamburg’s legendary St. Pauli district. The Reeperbahn is the southern boundary of the district, walk north and you’ll soon find yourself amidst a maze of fascinating streets that are filled with off-beat, alternative bars, restaurants and cafes. I was staying just north of here in the Karolinenviertel area which, although gentrification has made its mark, still retains a counter-cultural vibe for which this area of Hamburg is famed.

I spent much of my time in Karolinenviertel and neighbouring Schanzenviertel, both are former working class areas known historically for poverty and deprivation. Their transformation into hip, multicultural and uber-trendy districts has taken place over the last decade or two. On Saturday morning I went to the flea market in an area that connects the two districts, the Schlachthof. It’s worth a visit both for the bizarre range of items on sale and to get a real sense of the area’s inhabitants – it’s not always pretty but it’s definitely entertaining.

There are no real ‘sights’ in these neighbourhoods, unless you count the Rote Flora. A former theatre, this now dilapidated building has been a squat since it was seized by left wing activists in 1989, who declared it a “free space for realising an autonomous life”. It’s quite famous in left wing circles, but as sights go it’s less than thrilling. Many would like to see it closed down and redeveloped, but successive city governments have backed off from doing so. In part, because of the fairly well-deserved reputation for violence of the people who ‘run’ Rote Flora.

Karolinenviertel, Hamburg, Germany

Karolinenviertel, Hamburg, Germany

Karolinenviertel, Hamburg, Germany

Karolinenviertel, Hamburg, Germany

Karolinenviertel, Hamburg, Germany

Karolinenviertel, Hamburg, Germany

Karolinenviertel, Hamburg, Germany

Karolinenviertel, Hamburg, Germany

Karolinenviertel, Hamburg, Germany

Karolinenviertel, Hamburg, Germany

Karolinenviertel, Hamburg, Germany

Karolinenviertel, Hamburg, Germany

I went to have a look to see what all the fuss was about, but had more fun just aimlessly wandering the surrounding neighbourhood. There are interesting streets and pleasant squares to explore. In keeping with the rest of this trip, I visited the Braugasthaus Altes Mädchen craft brewery to sample its range of delicious beers. This is also where I ate a hamburger in Hamburg, something of a lifelong ambition. Small things, I know!

Beaches and boat races, a lazy day along the Elbe

Hamburg’s relationship with the River Elbe dates back to the 9th century. Its citizens’ love affair with the Elbe’s riverside beach bars may only be a part of a tradition going back to the 19th century, but it’s equally intimate. On a warm, sunny Sunday morning I arrived at the picturesque harbour of Neumühlen on Ferry 62, and was one of only a handful of people to disembark. The harbour doubles as a maritime museum filled with lovely wooden boats as well as more modern ice breakers, tugs and a floating crane.

I made my way onto land and to a cafe with tables overlooking the harbour and river. It was very peaceful as I ordered up some breakfast and much needed coffee after a night out in Hamburg’s Karolinenviertel. My neighbours at the next table were two of the most drunk ‘sailors’ in the history of sailing. They’d been involved in the tall ships festival, and seemed to have spent the previous 72 hours drinking themselves into a stupor in the Reeperbahn.

Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

Boat racing, Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

Boat racing, Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

Boat racing, Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

Boat racing, Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

Boat racing, Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

Boat racing, Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

As I sat watching boats sail by on the Elbe, I noticed something unusual in the harbour: two boats were being lined up to race each other. Two pilots were stood in the back of the small wooden boats, each with a single oar in the water. Someone shouted ‘go’ and they paddled furiously towards the finish line, a bridge over the harbour. I wandered back towards the harbour to watch the competition unfold. It seemed like a pointless way of propelling a boat forward, but everyone was having fun.

Leaving the harbour sports behind me, I headed over to the remarkably pleasant and clean beach that stretches for about a kilometre along the river bank. It was still quite early and the beach wasn’t particularly busy until I reached the iconic Strandperle beach bar. It and the neighbouring Ahoi Strandkiosk heaved with people enjoying a drink in the sun. It really was a hot day, so I joined the crowds in the shade and had a glass of the locally brewed Astra.

The bars have a laid-back feel and were the perfect place to wash up on a Hamburg Sunday. The views across the river to boats sailing past the giant cranes of the Port of Hamburg seemed perfectly normal sitting on this beach along the Elbe. Fully rested, I walked further down the beach before doubling back through the lovely, upmarket suburb of Övelgönne. Tree-lined pathways weave across the hillside behind the beach and past wooden houses with wrought iron balconies.

It’s very sedate and peaceful, with beautiful views over the river. Interestingly,  there are a surprising number of bars and good restaurants in the area. You could easily go from spending a day on the beach to not leaving until well after sunset. I strolled back to the harbour grateful that I’d made the effort to visit this sublime piece of Hamburg – I almost didn’t. Ferry 62 dutifully turned up a short while later, and I headed back to town as yet more sailing ships made their way towards the open sea.

Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

River Elbe, Neumühlen, Hamburg, Germany

River Elbe, Neumühlen, Hamburg, Germany

Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

Beaches on the River Elbe, Neumühlen, Hamburg, Germany

Beaches on the River Elbe, Neumühlen, Hamburg, Germany

Beaches on the River Elbe, Neumühlen, Hamburg, Germany

Beaches on the River Elbe, Neumühlen, Hamburg, Germany

I made one final stop to visit the Fish Market which, by the time I arrived in the late afternoon, was in a bit of a slump following what looked like a busy lunchtime. The grand wrought iron interior was decked out in bunting and a band was warming up. If this little trip down the river had proved anything, it is that Hamburg really is a city full of surprises. It won’t be the last time I visit.

Tall ships along the Elbe, Hamburg’s old port

It was unintentional, but I’d arrived in Hamburg during a tall ships festival, taking place along the River Elbe to celebrate the anniversary of the port receiving tax free status from the Emperor Barbarossa in 1189. This is credited with catapulting Hamburg on its trajectory towards becoming a global trading city. It’s celebrated annually with the visit of numerous historic sailing ships and more modern vessels. There is also a week-long series of events, not to mention a multitude of pop-up food stalls and beer halls. I’ve never seen so many sausages in one place.

Hamburg harbour and Elbphilharmonie, Speicherstadt, Germany

Hamburg harbour and Elbphilharmonie, Speicherstadt, Germany

Sailing ship on the Elbe, Hamburg, Germany

Sailing ship on the Elbe, Hamburg, Germany

Sailing ship on the Elbe, Hamburg harbour, Germany

Sailing ship on the Elbe, Hamburg harbour, Germany

Statue of Barbarossa, Speicherstadt, Hamburg, Germany

Statue of Barbarossa, Speicherstadt, Hamburg, Germany

Speicherstadt, Hamburg, Germany

Speicherstadt, Hamburg, Germany

Speicherstadt, Hamburg, Germany

Speicherstadt, Hamburg, Germany

The result of all this fun was that the whole of the port area and historic Speicherstadt were packed with people. This is the biggest port festival in the world, an estimated one million people take part throughout the week alongside over three hundred ships, several from the Netherlands and others from Russia. At one point, I saw a large group of Russian sea cadets strolling down the Reeperbahn, the person who thought that was a good idea is very deluded. The backdrop for the whole thing are the warehouses of the Speicherstadt and the extraordinary looking Elbphilharmonie.

The neo-Gothic buildings of the Speicherstadt warehouse district are now an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The huge red brick buildings tower over interlinking canals, and were constructed between the 1880s and 1920s on top of massive oak pillars. They were built at the expense of over 1,100 houses, which were demolished. The 24,000 residents were evicted just so more capacity could be created in the tax free port area. These attractive buildings were the predecessors to the immense port that now sits just downstream on the Elbe.

I’d arrived in the Speicherstadt from the Deichtorhallen, crossing one of Hamburg’s many canals on the way. This was once the epicentre of Hamburg’s trade with the world, and these massive warehouses would at one time have been filled with goods from around the globe. The area was severely damaged during the Second World War by repeated bombings, including the vicious firestorm caused by Operation Gomorrah in July 1943 in which more than 42,000 people were killed. Reconstruction of the area was only completed in 1967.

Today, it’s still a commercial area but one that increasingly relies on tourism and, with so many people visiting, it was a bit touristy. That though shouldn’t take away from the glories of the area. There are also some good museums housed in the old warehouses some, like the Spice Museum, tell the tale of the area’s fascinating history. I decided to visit the very crowded Elbphilharmonie on another day, and crossed the river to see St. Nicholas’ Church instead. Partially destroyed in 1943, it’s an evocative memorial to the horrors of World War Two.

Afterwards, I strolled amongst the crowds to St. Pauli-Landungsbrücken, where Ferry 62 departs to several interesting places along the River Elbe. Once I’d worked out how to buy a ticket, the ferry took me past several tall ships at anchor and then on to the famous fish market, now a popular place for food and a drink, before depositing me at Neumühlen. This small harbour houses numerous historic boats, and is the jumping off point for a stroll through an upmarket Hamburg suburb to some good beaches on the river.

As the ferry heads in the direction of the North Sea, it also passes humungous cruise ships and lots of small leisure boats. On the Elbe’s southern bank, Hamburg’s massive modern container port dominates the views, and you can see cargo ships being loaded and unloaded. Ranks of cranes line the water’s edge like ancient creatures. Watching tall ships under full sail heading out to sea against the backdrop of the modern port was a magnificent sight.

Sailing ship on the Elbe, Hamburg, Germany

Sailing ship on the Elbe, Hamburg, Germany

Tugs on the River Elbe, Hamburg, Germany

Tugs on the River Elbe, Hamburg, Germany

St. Nicholas' Church, Hamburg, Germany

St. Nicholas’ Church, Hamburg, Germany

St. Nicholas' Church, Hamburg, Germany

St. Nicholas’ Church, Hamburg, Germany

River Elbe, Port of Hamburg, Germany

River Elbe, Port of Hamburg, Germany

River Elbe, Port of Hamburg, Germany

River Elbe, Port of Hamburg, Germany

Down-to-earth Hamburg, Europe’s hippest city?

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’.

Law courts, Hamburg, Germany

Law courts, Hamburg, Germany

Law courts, Hamburg, Germany

Law courts, Hamburg, Germany

Rathaus, Hamburg, Germany

Rathaus, Hamburg, Germany

Hamburg, Germany

Hamburg, Germany

Rathaus, Hamburg, Germany

Rathaus, Hamburg, Germany

Heinrich-Hertz-Tower, Hamburg, Germany

Heinrich-Hertz-Tower, Hamburg, Germany

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.

Law courts, Hamburg, Germany

Law courts, Hamburg, Germany

Concert Hall, Hamburg, Germany

Concert Hall, Hamburg, Germany

Deichtorhallen, Hamburg, Germany

Deichtorhallen, Hamburg, Germany

Hamburg, Germany

Hamburg, Germany

Hamburg, Germany

Hamburg, Germany

Museum Mile, Hamburg, Germany

Museum Mile, Hamburg, Germany

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 …