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…
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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).
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!
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.
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.
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 (fischfrikadellen) was less than 2€ and made for a great snack before we hopped on a harbor 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.