I always thought if there was one city in Germany that was for me, it’d be Hamburg. The city’s reputation as a creative & cultural hotbed was always something I’d known when studying graphic design. Hamburg has long been the publishing home for Germany’s creative class of advertisers and graphic designers but with all the hype surrounding that other city in Germany, Hamburg’s international status seems to be faded in comparison. So, with some travel tips from Germany.travel, I set out to explore the city that had my heart before I even set foot on its shores.

My fascination with Hamburg began because of a longtime attraction to The Beatles. The Fab Four famously played some early gigs in the port city of Hamburg. Add in a healthy dose of creative agencies, some prostitutes and some trendy young things—and that’s Hamburg! Here’s how I spent a weekend exploring the design-friendly city…

Jungfernsteig
Jungfernsteig district of Hamburg

Exploring downtown Hamburg

My weekend in Hamburg started with a walk around the downtown area—near the Hauptbahnhof (central train station). We stumbled into the rather ritzy district of Jungfernstieg—several shopping streets with the likes of Gucci and Prada. There was even an Apple Store! That’s when you know for sure that you’re in a design-friendly city.

hamburg central square
Rathausplatz

The Jungfernstieg neighborhood runs up against the main city square in front of the Rathaus (city hall). The old buildings mixed with the big shopping centers really felt quite grand and luxurious. We decided to ground ourselves with one of Hamburg’s specialities—a currywurst. Something I haven’t been particularly fond of in the past, but for some reason, the Hamburg variation was tasty! Or maybe the hot sausage covered in ketchup was just a perfect way to stay warm.

train hamburg
Hamburg u-bahn

Hamburg is half the population of Berlin so the u-bahn system is a bit smaller. Public transportation in Hamburg is pretty simple to use and everything is connected easily. The above-ground trains were especially scenic with views of the port. There’s no denying the industrial nature of Hamburg!

hafen city
Hafen City

Lost in Hafen City

From the main city center, we visited the Hafen City district. The area is one of Europe’s largest redevelopment zones and is home to one of Germany’s most controversial architectural projects—the Elbe Philharmonic Hall (the blue-windowed building seen above with the cranes towering overhead). The architecture throughout Hafen City was photogenic and pretty—modern buildings on the seaside. But the atmosphere (at least on the cold, winter day we visited) was rather stale.

Spicy's museum
Spicy’s museum

In Hafen City, after warming up with a cappuccino at a cafe, we headed to Spicy’s Gewürzmuseum. The museum is all about spices and there are hundreds of samples that you can touch, taste & smell. It’s a small museum upstairs in one of the many warehouses since converted into galleries & showspaces, but it was a fun way to learn a bit more about Hamburg’s port. And pretty tasty, too!

Design Hotel Hamburg
EAST Hotel

A night out in the Reeperbahn

Our design hotel for the weekend was located right in the heart of Hamburg’s nightlife scene. The Reeperbahn is famous for its strip clubs and prostitution, but, as it turns out, the area is actually so much more than all of that. Our hotel, the EAST Hotel, was so trendy it seemed it was more of a nightclub than an hotel! There were people in the bar & restaurant all night long and the lobby even had a bouncer.

beatles in hamburg
Star Club – The Beatles in Hamburg

Slightly intimidated by the high heels and suits in our hotel lobby, we headed out onto the Reeperbahn street. That’s when we stumbled onto the Star Club memorial—a plaque remembering all the legendary musicians who had played at the small Hamburg club in the ’60s. There’s a famous Beatles recording from the club as well (available on Amazon).

Grosse Freiheit nightlife
Grosse Freiheit

Down the corner from Star Club is the Grosse Freiheit street — with drag shows, punk venues and just about any type of character you can imagine. It was a scene!

St. Pauli / Reeperbahn bar
Talstrasse in St. Pauli

The whole St. Pauli area was intense and much bigger than I was expecting. There were the seedier areas with prostitutes legally working on the street (Reeperbahn), but then the Grosse Freiheit street and some of the surrounding ones were filled with their own characters seemingly pulled out of any nightlife-riddled neighborhood. Talstrasse had a late-night pizzeria (tasty and quick!) as well as a few more posh bars—but all next to their fair share of sex kinos (sex cinemas) and strip clubs. A night out on the Reeperbahn was hardly boring! We ended our first night with a drink on Hamburger Strasse—a street with bar after bar full of twenty-something hipsters.

bus tour Hamburg
Beatles Platz in St. Pauli

Around the city on a bus tour

The next day we went to check out the main streets around the Reeperbahn (in St. Pauli) after a weekend night out. Seems nobody told some people because at 10am, there were still handfuls of crowds in some of the bars! On a mission, we found the Beatles memorial which we’d seen the night before—this time in the daylight! That’s when we caught one of the city’s hop-on, hop-off buses for a more comfortable way to get around the city. We went in almost a full circle (2 hours!) before getting off at the Hamburg pier.

fish sandwich
Fischfrikadellen

At the Landungsbrücken

Hamburg, up on Germany’s northern coast and with the full-on port & pier, is famous for their fish as much as their currywurst (maybe more so). A fried fish sandwich (fischfrikadellenwas less than 2€ and made for a great snack before we hopped on a harbor tour.

boat tour Hamburg
Harbor boat tour

Our Hamburg harbor tour was just an hour (and, unfortunately, entirely in German), but it was nice to be on a boat for a little bit and to see the Hamburg port from a different perspective. The boat was full of people but we stayed inside to keep warm.

fashion
Markstrasse in the Karolinenviertel

Exploring Hamburg’s trendiest areas

After spending so much time sitting on a bus and then a boat, we went off to explore two of Hamburg’s trendiest areas: the Schanzenviertel and Karolinenviertel neighborhoods. Sunday morning we visited the “Flohschanze” flohmarkt (flea market) where I found some pretty cool t-shirt designs.

On Markstrasse in the Karolinenviertel we did some window-browsing among the independent and local designers’ shops.

squat
Rote Flora

Elsewhere in the Schanzenviertel, along Schulterblatt, we stumbled on the Rote Flora (@florableibt)—a former theater turned into a squat. Still today there are political demonstrations and activists in the area. Just across the street from the squat, in fact, is the multi-purpose, cultural center & nightclub: Haus III & 70.

bookstore in hamburg
Hanseplatte store in Schanzenviertel

In the Schanze, we also walked into the music shop Hanseplatte. The store promotes Hamburg-local artists and sold books and CDs specifically about Hamburg. The plaza out front is also obviously a street theater—easy to see that impromptu concerts & festivals happen there in better weather!

design shopping
Kaufhaus Hamburg on Lange Reihe

Looking for style in St. George

Another trendy area of Hamburg—more central and nearer to the Hauptbahnhof—is St. George. Particularly gay-friendly, we did some window-shopping and then spotted the Kaufhaus Hamburg shop. The store (new since November!) sells products made in or near Hamburg—everything from vodka and beer to cutlery and designer fashion. The shop owner has even partnered with Hanseplatte in the Schanz to feature some local musicians from Hamburg.

kunstmuseum
Hamburger Kunsthalle art museum

Oh yeah, there’s art, too!

Hamburg is bursting with art and design and it all culminated on our final day at the Hamburger Kunsthalle. Hamburg’s largest museum is also one of the best I’ve visited in Germany. With galleries from the old masters to contemporary & modern art, a museum aficionado like myself could easily spend a day here. I checked out the current exhibit featuring Giacometti’s surrealist work (on until May 2013) before getting lost inside The Cube—the museum’s contemporary wing.

With just a weekend in Hamburg I didn’t have time to explore more of the arts scene, but I did learn that the city’s passion for art & design is as strong (if not stronger) than the one here in Berlin.

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19 comments

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  1. Hi Adam,

    Thanks for this great post. You sure saw a lot in your stay there. I particularly like the photo of the Rathouseplatz with its stately buildings and pedestrian area.

    I have only been to Freiberg and other smaller cities in the south, but love Germany’s vibe — a healthy mix of science/technology with delicate and gorgeous art. I’ll be looking for “The Cube” when I finally get to Hamburg.

    Happy and safe travels to you,
    Josie

    • Hey Josie, Thanks and glad to hear you liked it. Freiburg is a beautiful little city, isn’t it? Hamburg is still probably my 2nd favorite city, though…right after Berlin of course :)

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  5. Leonora

    Most of my german friends live in Hamburg, the city is much more popular than Berlin in Germany. Probably because it’s much more beautiful and it’s inhabitants have this big city coolness the Berliner don’t have. Anyway. if I had to live in Germany I would choose Hamburg !

  6. Hamburg is a fascinating city! We live in Bremen, that’s one hour away from Hamburg, and we love to visit during the weekends for shopping, art, nice restaurants… basically to have a great time! When we moved to Germany two years ago we thought Berlin was the best city in Germany, but now we are in love with Hamburg, it’s much better than Berlin ;)

    • Totally understand you visiting Hamburg on the weekends. I visited Bremen once last year and really enjoyed the city. I was there mostly for the Weihnachtsmarkt—one of the prettiest I visited that year!

      Definitely can understand now why so many people prefer Hamburg over Berlin. Had to see it for myself and the city makes some very convincing arguments!

  7. That sounds like music for our ears. We are always looking for art and design while traveling, one of the reason why we love Europe so much and we felt in love with Berlin it’s because of the amount of art we can find everywhere.
    We’ve never been to Hamburg, it is now on our list, thanks Adam for the tips! :)

    • Glad to hear it Franca! Hamburg is definitely one of the most design-friendly cities in Germany — probably more so than Berlin but Berlin’s got it’s own reputation, maybe a bit more “indie” and “hip” or trendy at the moment.

  8. That is not actually true, that women are not allowed on Reeperbahn – only not on Herbertstraße. And that is really for their own protection. It’s all about rivalry with the prostitutes. Women could go in I suppose, but they might be beaten up – by other women.
    Love the post, Adam! You captured so much of it and I am beyond happy that you liked it so much. You reminded me how much I love Hamburg and why.

    • Yes – that’s right Mariella.

      Glad you liked the post, too. Hope to explore even more of the city over the summer!

  9. M & L, that’s weird and uncool about women not being allowed to visit the Reeperbahn. I’m not sure I heard that before, but my tour guide friends must’ve mentioned it. I guess the “shopping” area is less (visually) touristy than Amsterdam, where the RLD is totally touristy and the only thing they freak out about is when people take out cameras.

    Adam – Nice write-up! I, too, was really charmed by The Beatles history / aspect of Hamburg. St Pauli has a great vibe. I used to go there more often when I knew more people living there.Now it’s been too long since my last visit. Quite a few cool galleries from Berlin have opened branches there.

    • Thanks Justin! Not surprised to hear about Berlin galleries having a presence in Hamburg as well. The cities have quite a bit in common—more than I suspect most Berliners would admit to.

  10. Patrick Smith

    Thanks so much Adam! We were in Hamburg for a few days some years ago and loved it! The city is so green, with tons of parks, flowers everywhere, canals, and the beautiful buildings. You totally described what a fun and interesting city Hamburg is!

    • Glad you enjoyed the post Patrick! I imagine the city is much more green in the spring and summer rather than in winter when I visited :-/

  11. We lived in Berlin for 3 years and definitely did not spend enough time in the relatively close city of Hamburg.
    Still think it’s not right that women (unless you’re working there) are not allowed on the Reeperbahn though.

    Great post filled with lots of good info and great pics!
    :)

    • I’ve been in Berlin for a looooong time already and this was just my first (of hopefully several!) visits to Hamburg, so I can definitely relate.

      The Reeperbahn is the big street with all the clubs and restaurants, which is just like any other nightlife-heavy street. There’s one little alley where women allegedly aren’t allowed as Mariella points out above.

  12. We lived in Berlin for 3 years and definitely did not spend enough time in the relatively close city of Hamburg.
    Still think it’s not right that women are not allowed on the Reeperbahn though.

    Great post filled with lots of good info and great pics!

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