The hometown of the hamburger, a beloved place of The Beatles… crikey, the 10th most liveable city on the planet! Where is this amazing destination you ask? It’s Hamburg… a place that until a few months ago, I didn’t really have any desire to visit (apart from to gorge on a meaty bap obviously).
When you daydream about taking a city break, your mind goes to climbing cathedrals, gondola rides and eating macarons. Rarely does it envision a boat trip around a German harbour. Yet this is how I found myself on my latest weekend adventure, tucking my windswept hair into my jacket, cautiously pointing my Canon out over the edge of the vessel.
During this penultimate activity - as the guide whittled on in German, the group around me bursting into laughter – I took a moment away from the language barrier to reflect upon my feelings towards Hamburg. Did it measure up to Parisian pilgrimages or Czech Christmas markets? Perhaps.
With trips to Berlin and Dusseldorf under my belt, I had a reasonable vision of what to expect from another German city. Wide industrial roads, dreary historic monuments… and a lot of Currywurst. But Hamburg felt different.
It’s taken me a while to figure out exactly why I took to the city and it wasn’t until I began the lengthy task of editing my photographs that I worked it out. Sure it still had stalls selling ketchup’ed and curry powdered sausages, but there was something else.
It wasn’t grey.
Unlike many of its German neighbours, Hamburg is densely populated with red brick buildings, the epicentre of which exists within the Speichedstadt district. Walking along this harbour-side quarter, I was enveloped among rich neo-Gothic warehouses creating a cosy layer against the looming clouds above. In Berlin, a gloomy grey day would melt into the concrete buildings. But in Hamburg, a darkened sky is stopped in its tracks when met with a warm rooftop, preventing any misery that would otherwise follow. Even drenched through with damp socks and sticky jeans, I still felt the welcoming hug of Hamburg.
What isn’t built in red tones is a contrasting collection of baroque buildings and artistic structures dotted around the city to form a fascinating view from every angle. With each corner turned, a new perspective was created, pairing the old with the new.
The romantic tower of the neo-renaissance Town Hall is classically beautiful, inviting those who visit to tour its elaborate interiors and venture around a fountain courtyard that wouldn’t look out of place in a Florentine piazza.
Yet an equally beloved landmark is its antipode, the Elbphilharmonie, a fascinating concert hall by the water’s edge. Having only opened at the start of the year, the striking work of art reflects the sunshine, waves and city in one thousand curved windows that give it an overall appearance of a slinky shining ship.
Perhaps the most atmospheric of all is St Michael’s, which along with Hamburg’s collection of churches, pierces the sky with shimmering copper.
Entering below the bronze archangel, I was suddenly met with the impressive sound of an organ. There was no player insight, but instead a crowd of visitors who sat along the pews in awe of the festive melodies. It was by no means the most beautiful church I’ve entered but I have rarely seen a crowd so silently enamored by a religious landmark.
Amongst this assortment of bespoke formations are the roots of the river Elbe, Germany’s point of entry to the North Sea. Here, criss-crossing in every direction, are the thousands of bridges that make Hamburg home to the largest collection in the world with more than London, Venice and Amsterdam put together.
The largest snaking part of the river, the Norderelbe, lines the harbour that gives Hamburg its seafaring soul. Along here is where you’ll find the city’s most visited attractions, beginning with Miniatur Wunderland, the largest model railway in the world.
It’s not a place you’d expect in Hamburg, a city so inescapably proud and packed with maritime culture. Yet inside one of the richly red warehouses is 15,400 metres of track. From the Spanish Steps to the lights of Las Vegas, hundreds of thousands of trains, carriages, trees and figurines make up a moving world.
I saved my visit for a rainy morning (it doesn’t always rain in Hamburg… I left for the airport to glorious sunshine). Each packed corner of the three floors was honestly charming, carefully created to entertain its spectators with a clever amount of precision and comical scenes.
It was much like the city it lived in, an unexpected view at every turn…
Along the river Elbe is where you’ll also find the famous Fischmarket which has seen trades of every kind take place in the early hours of a Sunday morning since 1703. Staying at the 25hours hotel, I almost dragged myself out of my cosy warm bed, but then at 7AM I rarely get up for anything less than a spectacular sunrise.
Continuing my walk down the waterway I looked across to see a strangely familiar print, except this time it wasn’t dangling from a West End theatre. The Lion King, there it was, in bright yellow branding. Until that moment I had completely forgotten about Hamburg’s relationship with musical theatre, a city known for bestselling shows.
By now I had almost reached the pièce de résistance, the harbour of Hamburg. I was met with the view of multi-coloured shipping containers, hundreds of them, stacked far and wide along the flowing river.
Upon initial thought, you wouldn’t be judged to consider this a rather mundane area to explore. What could be so thrilling about a long line of cruise ships and containers?
It’s not until you sail past a barge so large that even its tip towers above your head, that you understand the sheer impressive nature of the port. The sound of the gulls, the whip of the wind, even the sprinkle of rain. Every element felt so raw and stripped back like almost no time had passed over the last century.
I pulled my jacket tight, clasping my bag as the boat took a turn and really looked around. Past the speedboats and the trendy cement structures. Past the advertisements and red buses. Even past the sound of the tour guide still cracking German jokes through the Tannoy.
There it was. That seafaring soul. Brought to life by the love and passion of its people. It was everywhere… from the log of seamen’s stories in my hotel room to the crowds of local families who animated the beautiful city with their laughter and affection.
This was Hamburg, and it was alive.