In March 1910, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin convinced the citizens of Hamburg that they needed to make room for the wave of the future: the airship. By the next year, the city had opened one of the world’s first airports. This spirit of openness to new ideas is a defining quality of Hamburg, which has welcomed outsiders since it was a major trading post in the 13th century. “In other German cities you can expect people will speak English, but in Hamburg you can expect them to help you,” says relocation expert Brigitta Moeller. North of the port, downtown is built around two artificial lakes, a network of canals, and 2,300 bridges. Blanketed in trees and parks, Hamburg is one of Europe’s greenest cities. And the former warehouse district is being transformed into an über modern place to live, work, and play.
The North Sea wind can be brisk, even in the summer, so a sweater comes in handy. To get a sense of the port, start in HafenCity, now Europe’s largest construction project, where warehouses are becoming apartments, cafés, and a flagship glass concert hall designed by Herzog & de Meuron: the Elbphilharmonie. It opens only in 2017, but you can stick your head—Alice in Wonderland style—into a miniature version of the building to test the acoustics. Head a few blocks to the east and take the pedestrian bridge across Brooktorhafen canal to the International Maritime Museum Hamburg. Divided into ten “decks,” the museum spans 3,000 years of maritime history. Among its oldest items: a primitive boat carved from a 1,400-year-old tree trunk that was discovered in the Elbe River. From here, walk along the area’s canals to another architectural wonder: the triangular Chilehaus. Built by a merchant who made a fortune in Chile, it exemplifies a 1920s style known as brick expressionism.
At the Landungsbrücken subway station, take a stairwell deep into the Old Elbe tunnel. On weekends, the 100-year-old underground link between the city and the shipyards closes to traffic, allowing pedestrians to walk or bike through. (Rent bikes from one of the 70 rental points for the bright red StadtRAD public bikes.) Look for the 1911 tile friezes of, among other things, rats scurrying over a pair of boots. Once back on the city side, skip organised boat tours and hop on public ferry 62 to crisscross the Elbe River, cruising alongside giant cargo ships or the Queen Elizabeth in season, passing a Cold War-era submarine. Get off at the Altona Fischmarkt stop to peruse Stilwerk, eight floors of furniture and design shops with a decidedly northern European aesthetic. Grab a quick meal at one of the fish restaurants along Grosse Elbstrasse leading to the fish market. Hummer Pedersen serves seafood fresh from the port; the cold appetiser trio makes a good sampler.
At the Michelin-starred Landhaus Scherrer, the Old-World service and family atmosphere are in stark contrast to the racy charger plates portraying a model posed among fruits and vegetables. (A local artist produces a new version each season.) The restaurant deftly creates dishes such as beets four ways, including a shot glass of foamy crimson soup. In the middle price range is Parlament, a relatively young restaurant in the cellar of the Rathaus, the historic town hall. The location imposes a gravitas that modernisation has luckily not erased.
Order pannfisch (fried fish fillets), a simple local speciality, or try the Salt Meadow lamb, raised in the salty marshlands north of the city. To check off a tourist “must,” go to the St. Pauli red-light district to stroll past the seedy clubs of the Reeperbahn, where the Beatles honed their signature sound.
Have breakfast at the branch of Mutterland near the Hamburg Hauptbahnhof, the main train station. Former flight attendant and Hamburg native Marge Ziegler produces the jams. “Making and eating jam is typical German,” she says. “There’s no country where they eat so much of it.” Two flavours are specific to Hamburg: Moin Moin Hamburg (“hello, Hamburg”), a blend of the exotic fruits that come through the port; and Hamburger Kirsch, a riff on Black Forest cake made with native cherries and chocolate liqueur. Besides local jams, this emporium of all things German carries artisanal whiskys with cartoon labels and single-source chocolates. This is a good launching point for the museums along the Kunstmeile (“art mile”). Start at the imposing Kuntshalle. Although the collection runs from Old Masters to contemporary—from Rembrandt to Andreas Gursky—its forte is modern German art, such as Swiss-German painter Paul Klee’s gleaming “The Golden Fish” (1925). Head south, parallel to the railroad tracks, to the Deichtorhallen, Europe’s largest exhibition centre for contemporary art and photography.
Although Hamburg claims no paternity of the hamburger, the patty of minced meat called a frikadelle is a close relative. (It is usually served with tomato sauce, no bun.) There is no dispute, however, over Hamburg’s ownership of the franzbrötchen, a buttery pastry weighed down with just caramelised sugar and cinnamon. Try one from the Dat Backhus chain. (Choose the branch at Speersort Street to see the preserved base of a tower, which may or may not be Hamburg’s first building, dating back to A.D. 800.) Another native is designer Jil Sander, who has built her international reputation on a minimalist vision of simple lines and a restricted colour palette—and has credited her city with honing this vision. Visit her shop along Neuer Wall to see her collections.
To sample the signature northern German dish labskaus, purportedly a favourite of sailors since the 1800s, visit the Old Commercial Room (established in 1795). The mess of potatoes, corned beef, onions, and beets looks unappealing, but topped with an egg and accompanied by pickles, it comes together in a rich, satisfying meal. Cold War buffs should ask to sit at former chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s favourite table. Say goodbye to Hamburg with a drink and an almost panoramic view of the city and harbour from the bar on the top floor of the Empire Riverside Hotel. Or opt for one more shot of high culture with an evening at the Staatsoper Hamburg. The current venue opened in 1955—all gleaming glass and marble—carrying on the city’s tradition of public opera that begun in 1678, when merchants opened a theatre for opera despite objections by the city’s religious leaders, who decried its secular nature.
Appeared in the July 2013 issue as “German Ingenuity”.