WE are in Deichstrasse after dark. Across the Zollkanal waterway the great brick cliff faces of the Speicherstadt warehouse district are lit up a treat. The spice and carpet trades no longer rule in one of Europe’s most spectacular townscapes, but it still radiates mercantile imperatives. Rather like uncompromising Hamburg itself. Which makes it so refreshing for a weekend break. Real. Out there in the current docks, the giant container ships and cruise liners slide in up the River Elbe.
'We puffed our way to the eyrie inside the tip of the spire, feeling pleased with our efforts, to find it occupied by a group of kindergarten toddlers enjoying their packed lunches and not out of breath, like us'
Deichstrasse was here before all this. This modest little street dates back to the 14th century and some of its lopsided properties are restored 17th century. We are torn between two Hanseatic culinary options. The Kartoffekeller (Potato Cellar) is a restaurant devoted entirely to the spud. From soups and souffles to pancakes and a shot of digestif spirit, all offerings are based on that tuber. Even the staff are clad in potato sacks. Its rival across the road is the Alt Hamburger Aalspeicher (Old Hamburg Eel House), offering eel soup, eel in green sauce, smoked eel... you get the message. Or, if you can wriggle out of eel, it serves that other Baltic favourite, the herring.
We said Nein to both and resumed our evening Bummel – a lovely German word for sauntering aimlessly. Nothing to do with what goes on down along the Reeperbahn. We’d encountered Hamburg’s red light district in passing mid-afternoon. Perhaps window-framed whores were flaunting it in broad daylight along notorious Herbertstrasse, closed off by a wall to women and minors. I was in primmer female company, so dared not check it out.
There is so much more than sleaze in Germany’s second largest city. Such as? The Opera, for one. It’s a better bet than the Hamburger Kunsthalle, a glum, difficult to navigate art gallery, where we’d been drawn by the great Romantic works of Caspar David Friedrich and Philipp Otto Runge. The main station, the Hauptbahnof, next door was more exciting. Cultural compensation came with a delightful production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Hamburg Staatsoper – at affordable (subsidised) prices compared with at home.
It helped that we were staying five minutes’ walk away in one of Hamburg’s two great, traditional hotels, the Vierjahreszeiten (Four Seasons), a gleaming white palace overlooking the smaller of the two city centre lakes, the Binnenalster.
From our deluxe lakeside room we could see the spires of old Hamburg, lit up as dusk fell. Nearby is the impressive Rathaus (city hall), the Venetian-style Alster Arcades and the city’s luxury shopping district.
These days the Vierjahreszeiten is owned by the international Fairmont group, but there’s barely a trace of the corporate about it. Its Michelin-starred restaurant is called Haerlin after the Swabian Friedrich, who bought it at auction in 1897 and transformed it into a hotel. The restaurant Haerlin, recently refurbished in spectacular fashion, was originally opened in1914 and the Jahreszeiten Grill in 1925.
We dined at the latter and were glad we did. Not just for the glorious Art Deco space overlooking the lake and for the immaculate service, but for the quality of ingredients and cooking, in particular the local venison and Holstein beef.
The best place in the city to eat with a Slow Food nod to North German culinary traditions is cutting-edge Vlet, which occupies part of an old warehouse among the Speicherstadt’s canal maze. Vlet is Old High German for “Fleet”, meaning a canal in a coastal city. We spent a reasonable 24.5 euros each for a two course set lunch featuring dishes such as “beef brisket, oat sauce with a gratin of blue potatoes” or “lamb’s lettuce, marinated bread, liver of Heidschnucke (species of sheep), turnips”.
No visit to Germany is complete without a huge plate of Schweinebraten (roast pork) and cabbage. So when it featured on the menu as lunchtime special at the Altes Mädchen, there was only ever going to be one accompaniment to my pint of IPA. Even if it meant missing out on sandwiches, made with sourdough from this self-styled Braugasthaus’s in-house bakery.
For Braugasthaus, read brewery tap. Ratshernn, Hambug’s own take on craft brewing, is based here and there’s a brilliant global beer boutique alongside the contemporary-styled beer hall, which is a far oompah from the old Hofbrauhaus variety (there is a dull offshoot of the Munich original on the Esplanade in Hamburg City centre).
It’s a trek by underground up to this new operation, but worth it. Nearby is Hamburg’s own “Northern Quarter”, the Sternschanze, full of interesting, offbeat shopping and bars. Continue south to St Pauli, Hamburg’s graffiti-daubed, libertarian heartland. From here cross the Reeperbahn and you are down on the river.
Early each Sunday morning the dockside Fischmarkt (Fish Market) hosts a huge party – really a continuation of all-night revels. My hedonistic colleague, Sarah Tierney, fetched up there on her trip to Hamburg for Planet a while back.
We were there midweek, so missed the action. Still the walk along the riverfront, quite sober, is intoxicating enough, past the 10 floating pontoons of the Landungsbrucken (landing stages) to the three-masted sailing ship, the Rickmer Rickmers, now moored as a nautical museum.From here across the river in Speicherstadt the futuristic prow of the Elbephilharmonie concert hall rears up. A landmark project, its building has been fraught with problems. Way behind schedule, it is currently swathed in plastic protection.
Stray inland from the Landungsbrucken and you are in the Neustadt (New Town) which, like the Old Town, looks equally neither particularly new or old. Traditional street corner bar decked out almost like an old wooden ship, the Thämers Stube is the best haunt for a restorative beer after all that Bummeling. Try a Jever, a raspingly dry local beer speciality.
St Michaelis, five minutes away, is Hamburg’s iconic church, its 433ft high tower dominating the city skyline. You can climb it, but I’d recommend the altogether cheaper ascent at St Petri, the oldest (11th century) and most characterful of the city’s parish churches. It’s on Kreuslerstrasse.
The spire is actually the 3ft higher than St Michaelis and the views of the city are awe-inspiring. We puffed out way to the eyrie inside the tip of the spire, feeling pleased with our efforts, to find it occupied by a group of kindergarten toddlers enjoying their packed lunches and not out of breath, like us.
I like St Petri, but it’s not my favourite Hamburg building. That honour goes to the Chilehaus – a 10-storey office building on the cusp of the dock district that is the best example of 1920s Brick Expressionism. Its angular top is like the prow of a ship, but its the way that the 4.8 million dark brick used in its construction create a curve that is so captivating.
Another nearby must-see that makes you reconsider your whole attitude to the humble brick is the city’s International Maritime Museum, the world’s largest seafaring museum with over 100,000 exhibits – hi-tech stuff as wells model ships – over 10 storeys.
Our second port of call, the 25 Hours Hafen City hotel, was 200 metres away down the Osakaalle, on the edge of the giant building site planned to transform the “Harbour City” wasteland. Our lodging is part of an acclaimed German boutique chain. This one boasts a seafaring theme – held together with sailors’ yarns: 25 seafarers from around the world tell real-life stories of dangerous voyages, romantic encounters, violent storms and painful farewells. Anecdotal accessories and objects refer to these adventures, which are told in full in each cabin’s logbook.
One wall of the foyer is the side of a container, other nautical materials feature and the corridors are lined with images of unemployed fishermen (disconcertingly these were all English, we were told). It was cool to hang out in 25 Hours’ buzzing bar/kitchen, Heimat, but even cooler to batten down the hatches in our Captain’s Cabin suite.
Water is never far away in Hamburg. On our final morning, we trekked (this is a great walking city) to the larger of the city’s two artificial lakes, the Aussenalster, separated from the Binnenalster by road bridges. There is pedestrian access all round the 1.6 sq km lake, but the western side, mostly parkland paths, is the one to go for. In summer there are boat trips, too. Add the wealth of walking and river cruising along the Elbe and you have a city that breathes a sense of freedom. Perfect for a a city break, as I said.
Neil Sowerby flew from Manchester to Hamburg with easyJet. For full details of the regular six days a week (exc Saturdays) service and to book visit www.easyjet.com.
Fairmont Hamburg Vieresjahreszeiten
156 guest rooms and suites. Aim for one overlooking the Binnenalster lake. The hotels Deluxe Package includes accommodation for a minimum of two nights in a luxurious room, a 6-course surprise menu in the Restaurant Jahreszeiten Grill, including a glass of champagne as aperitif. Plus use of Spa and Fitness Club. Offer year-round, subject to availability.
From 422 euros per person in a Deluxe Room with two beds.
From 507 euros per person in a Deluxe Room Lake View with two beds.
From 602 euros per person in a Fairmont Room with one bed.
From 692 euros per person in a Fairmont Room Lake View with one bed.
Neuer Jungfernstieg 9-14, 20354 Hamburg, Germany
+49 40 34940, www.fairmont.com/vier-jahreszeiten-hamburg/
25 Hours Hafen City
This purpose-built, nautically themed hotel building has 170 “cabins”. An M-Cabin costs from 105 euros; an M-Cabin + from €115 euros, an L-Cabin from 125 euros and captain’s Cabins from155 euros.
Under-25s and MINI drivers get a 15 per cent discount.
Überseeallee 5, 20457 Hamburg, Germany +49 40 2577770, www.25hours-hotels.com/de
Hamburg State Opera House, Große Theaterstraße 25, 20354 Hamburg, Germany +49 40 35680 www.hamburgische-staatsoper.de
Vlet Restautant, Am Sandtorkai 23/24, 20457 Hamburg. Complimentary car parking included. +49 40 33475375-0, www.vlet.de
Altes Mädchen, Braugasthaus, Lagerstraße 28b, Sternschanze, 20357 Hamburg. +49 40 8000 777 50, http://altes-maedchen.de/en/
Thämers Stube, Großneumarkt 10, 20459 Hamburg. +49 40 345077. Charmingly old-fashioned New Town bar with snacks and Ratsherrn beer.
FleetschlosschenFleetschlösschen, Brooktorkai 17, 20457 Hamburg.+49 40 30 39 32 10. www.fleetschloesschen.de/. Quirky, tiny castle of a building near Speicherstadt a with bistro menu
Klimperkiste, Esplanade 18, 20354 Hamburg. 040 346 350, www.die-klimperkiste.de/
Long narrow pub with a cave like feel, much more fun than the neighbouring Hofbrauhaus.
Hamburg Tourism information: http://english.hamburg.de
Manchester Airport parking:
Neil Sowerby left his car park in T3 Long Stay.
Here are all the options:
VIP Valet – drop and collect your car right next to the terminal and get fast tracked through security. Your car is parked on site.
Meet and Greet – drop your car off with staff next to the terminal and collect on your return. Your car is parked on site.
Multi-storey car park at T1, 2 and 3 – ultra-convenient multi-storey car parking right next to the terminal. Park and walk under cover to reach the terminal.
Long stay car park at T1, 2 and 3 – ground surface car park offering free, regular 24 hour bus transfers direct to the terminal.
Shuttle Park – secure parking at great rates for cost-conscious travellers. Free, regular 24 hour bus transfers direct to the terminal.
JetParks – low-cost parking option run by Manchester Airport, fully manned 24/7, parking from £2.99 per day. Visit this link.
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