November in Hamburg is very different from November in Sicily. From wandering around eating gelato in the sun to mittens in a blizzard…! And these countries share a border! Anyway, cold or not, Hamburg is a fascinating city. Last November I submitted my thesis and traded my flight from London to Nürnberg for a flight from London to Hamburg! (Fyi, the train from Hamburg to Nürnberg cost around 6 times as much as the flight) (seriously). Why Hamburg? For a Uni re-union : D My friends from Mary’s make some sort of an effort roughly once a year to meet up somewhere around the world. Last year it was Marseille, this year Hamburg (and, spoiler-alert, summer 2017 it was Amsterdam & Edinburgh!). It’s awesome to have an international group of friends : )
So three of us landed roughly at the same time at Hamburg airport and embarked on a search for the S-bahn. Buying tickets cost us around half an hour because the queue was of British proportions; if you know a way around this, please comment! The S-bahn conveniently stopped next to our hostel (I would tell you where, but it it was nothing special and if you are on your own Couch Surfing will probably be more fun!). We got there around about lunch time, so we quickly headed for the centre in search of food! I have to say, as a vegetarian I am nog the greatest fan of German foods, so I cannot make any particular recommendations. Except for one, but keep reading for that!
The first afternoon we just sort of wandered around town waiting for others to arrive. I can’t remember if it was this day or the next, but we decided to go on a series of free walking tours. The guide was very friendly and also jokingly told us (each time we went on a tour) (yeah, every time) that his mum loves hearing good reviews. So here you are, Mr. Brent.
The first tour took us around the historic town centre. I honestly can’t remember a thing, and I am a historian. All I recall is nearly freezing to death and forming a little penguin huddle with all my friends. It is really stupid to go on a slow-moving lots-of-standing-still walking tour in a blizzard. I am sure the city centre is very interesting, but I will have to google it to learn more. However, because I endeavour to be a helpful travel blogger, I will write out a couple of things I have at hand from general memory: Hamburg was once part of the famous Hanseatic League, and it remains Germany’s biggest port today (and also second biggest city). The League was a medieval commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and their market towns. This results in some beautiful merchant-made architecture across all these towns; also long after the peak of the Hanse. Especially the Deichstraße has a lot of nice narrow houses (like in Amsterdam!). Erm they are re-built though, because a fire destroyed the originals a while back.
We also embarked on our own walking tour, of the Hamburg Speicherstadt. It is the largest warehouse district in the world, and on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Its current rendition consists of 19th century neo-Gothic brickwork, which was magically enhanced by the cold November fog. The district was a free economic zone for over a century, but this was dissolved in 2013. Apparently nowadays the main attraction is a miniature railway museum? We gave it a miss and headed straight for the coffee.
The Speicherstadt Rösterei-Café is one of the most beautiful, fascinating, but also hipster and instagrammable, places I have ever visited. Clearly it is a space for coffee enthusiasts, because I was so overwhelmed by the variety of coffee and coffee-making-methods that I just sort of whispered ‘kaffee… bitte?’ and received one of those deadly ‘you don’t know what you are talking about, do you’ looks by the girl serving me. We also went for a selection of delicious cakes. It was all pricey, but not extortionate, and definitely worth it.
Coffee (and tea, cacao, etc.) was big business back in the 17th-18th century and in 1887 the first coffee exchange was opened. Whereas Hamburg never quite became famous for grand coffee houses like Vienna, smaller ones did start popping up all over the place. See this page here for some more great present-day coffee places in Hamburg.
Hamburg also recently opened its much-discussed new concert hall, the Elbphilharmonie (or Elphi). It a nutshell, it took way too long to complete, and way too much money; but it is also magnificent. If you are very rich and lucky you can buy an apartment in it and live there. Hashtag apartment goals. We were there literally the first month it was open and joined a huge stream of people in a queue up to the top (with wavy escalators) (for free). The building is meant to look like a hoisted sail, or waves, and fit into the natural and industrial landscape of the river Elbe. It is a beautiful example of modern architecture.
Another big attraction in Hamburg is the Sunday-morning fish market, dating back to the 18th century. Man, you really have to get up on time to see this, which is not so easy after a night out on the Reeperbahn (more on that below). The market is on from 5.00am (or 7:00am in winter, i.e. November) until 9.30am. And they will ring some sort of giant bell and make you leave at 9:30am. Besides fish, the market sells fruits, flowers, clothing and souvenirs too. For example, you can make a bid on whole baskets full of fruit : )
Another interesting November activity, if you cannot convince your friends to visit some of the interesting local museums (hint, Johannes Brahms Museum, hint), and you arrived just a week too early for the Christmas market… is ice-skating! We stumbled on the massive outdoor skating ring in the Planten un Blomen park. In my opinion it was expensive (mabye 15 eur per person total?) and of course the ice-skates do not measure up to Dutch standards – but, at least it was big. Not like those little central-square rings where you have to stumble around small children and their drunk-on-glühwein parents just to say that you went ice-skating. So if this is your kind of thing, give the Planten un Blomen arena a go : )
For our final walking tour with Mr. Brent we went around the St. Pauli district. This is one of those hip places, with people who squat in colourful buildings, open up eccentric coffeeshops, and defend refugee rights. I love it. Also, Brent gave us a long speech about how it is being gentrified and yuppified and that is sad. I agree, but what can you do.
St. Pauli includes the rather famous Reeperbahn, the nightlife and entertainment district of Hamburg. It is known for being wild, and messy, and dodgy, For example, there is a particularly offensive street where prostitutes still work and, here is what I take offence to: women are not allowed to walk through. Not a cute historic detail. No. Just sexist and wrong. On a more positive note, the Reeperbahn is also famous for insanely good music and many well-known bands started their careers in little bars around there.
If you did not know already, this is where the Beatles started as well. I am a massive fan and it was very cool to kind of walk in their footsteps, looking around the places they played at (the most famous of which sadly no longer exists). This is so early on, that the Beatles still included Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best. They just played all day, every day, for very little money. Imagine having been there for that!
St. Pauli and the Große Freiheit were definitely my highlights of Hamburg. I did not know it yet then, but half a year later I would have the chance to explore Liverpool, and having come to Hamburg first really enhanced the experience.