A mysterious city on the Elbe... At Hamburg Airport, there is a long line of quotes attributed to famous people who have described their love of the city in popular culture from John Lennon to Karl Lagerfeld. As I walked past, there was one line that stood out for me...
‘Die Stadt ist ein Mysterium. Immer noch. / The city is a mystery. Still.’ John Neumeier
I have travelled throughout Germany and visited nearly every major city, yet it is Hamburg that I have never quite understood. The city feels like a cultural combination of the UK port cities of Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester which is probably why going to Hamburg never really feels like being away from home. Even The Beatles attribute their success to their early years gigging in Hamburg in the early 1960s.
A bit of history about Hamburg...
Having also grown up surrounded by ships and a busy harbour in Portsmouth, I can relate to the history of Hamburg, but it is not the Germany that I love. Hamburg is very much a gateway to the world and probably not the stereotypical German city a tourist might expect given its size, history and importance.
Hamburg is the richest city in Germany and the main port city for the country but was also largely destroyed by Allied bombing raids in World War II. The city is also one of the main container ship ports of Europe alongside Rotterdam, Felixstowe and Antwerp as well as a hub of the German media and aerospace industries.
Interestingly, it is the second biggest city in Germany with over 1 million living in the city region and is visibly more multicultural than other parts of the country. I have been to the city 4 times previously and know my way around fairly well, however, Hamburg is the only German city that gives me nervous energy each time I visit.
Despite the city’s obvious wealth, there is an undercurrent of seediness along the famous Reeperbahn, a problem with substance abuse amongst the homeless and lots of ‘alternative’ guys hanging around that give off an air of menace.
Another £20 day trip on Ryanair...
We booked £20 return flights on Ryanair from Manchester and I was ready to go back for a day (and a bit) with my friend Simon who had never been to a German city outside of Berlin. I told him not to judge other German cities by what you see in Hamburg as it is a unique place.
We arrived at 1000 and headed through the modern city centre towards the waterfront to see the new Elbphilharmonie Concert Hall that has recently opened to much fanfare. After ten years in the making and a final completion cost of £500 million despite a budget of only £50 million, the new building was one of my main reasons for coming back.
We walked along the busy harbour promenade to a popular bike shop called HH City Cycles and collected two city bikes for just €13 per bike. Hamburg is a large city to get around and going by bike, as ever, is the best way to see most of the cityscape despite an excellent public transport network.
Cycling to St. Pauli and HSV...
Setting off from the bike shop in the heart of the gritty St.Pauli district, we headed towards a local flea market in the trendy counter-culture area of Schanzenviertal which was full of superb German retro and vintage items. We didn’t have time to look around properly and I am still regretting not buying a 1980’s replica Hamburg football shirt that I saw for sale!
After the flea market, we rode to the nearby Millerntor-Stadium and the home of the cult football club – FC St. Pauli. Unusually my interest in the stadium was diverted to a hulking Nazi-era concrete flak tower that imposes on the local skyline like a grey, concrete medieval castle without purpose.
We didn’t really intend on visiting St Pauli's footballing rivals SV Hamburg but cycled out to the outskirts of the city anyway to the 'Volksparkstadion' and the impressive home of the sleeping European giants and former European Cup winners.
Through the Elbe Tunnel to industrial Hamburg...
We made our way back to the Elbe through suburban industrial parks to the waterfront where redeveloped, modern riverside apartments face cranes that unload container ships from around the world. One particular highlight of this area was riding through the Elbe Tunnel to the other side of the river and completing a tour of Hamburg’s more industrial landscapes.
The issue was that we really could have been riding through any port location in Europe with the typical mix of shipping containers, abandoned railway lines, wastelands and heavy industry as we pedalled to our main destination of the day – HafenCity.
This was once Europe’s largest construction site as billions of euros were invested into creating a new district for the city to make use of the large warehouses that were sailing into decline.
Exploring HafenCity and the new Elbphilharmonie...
Similar to other regeneration projects around Europe in port cities such as Bilbao, Liverpool and Oslo, Hamburg has built an iconic concert hall called Elbphilharmonie. Designed by famous architects Herzog & de Meuron, this is now one of the finest musical buildings in the world. Despite its aesthetic quality and iconic shape, the project went massively over budget, was delayed by years and wounded Germany’s reputation as a country that prides itself on timely efficiency.
However, from what we saw on Saturday, the building has worked as a driver for tourism. There were thousands of people milling around the area and queues snaked to gain entrance to the viewing platform.
This is Hamburg’s ‘Bilbao’ moment and their city defining Guggenheim Museum type building.
We continued the ride back to St. Pauli following the elevated suburban railway along the waterfront and dropped the bikes off back at the bike shop. We took a stroll down through the notorious Reeperbahn with its sex shops, stag parties and dubious bars all getting ready for a busy Saturday night before heading out for a typically German meal in a Bavarian-themed bar near the Town Hall.
For most of the day, it had felt like we had been riding around in the familiar post-industrial surroundings of Liverpool and Manchester. Having sausages, sauerkraut and potatoes acted as a reminder that we were still in Germany!
Reflections on our time in Hamburg...
I imagine that if you lived in a landlocked part of Germany and were impressed by the big ships and the bustling port then Hamburg might be a unique place to visit.
Whilst being a great place to ride around by bike and home to a wealth of redevelopment, Hamburg is not my favourite German city, but I would say that the new Elbphilharmonie concert hall is a must-see modern building.
As I said before, Hamburg is a real city of evident contrasts.
There is wealth where there is poverty. There is the biggest port in Germany, yet the sea is actually 100km away. Hamburg has a football team that has never been relegated from top-flight football, yet hasn’t won anything significant since 1987. There is now the most expensive concert hall in the world, but visitors flock to the Reeperbahn for tinny dance music and cheap drinks.
It’s an eclectic city with many positive quirks and like the quote, Hamburg remains a mystery to me. Still.