When it comes to visiting Germany for a city break, travellers gravitate somewhat predictably to Berlin or Munich.
But Hamburg - the country’s second biggest city - is rapidly proving it can not only compete with its more established cousins, but it has the culture, history and exciting, possibility-fuelled energy to go one better, and edge them out.
From its vibrant music scene, to its funky accommodation, mouth-watering food and drink smorgasbord, and brilliantly unpredictable night life, it’s a city positively buzzing with a youthful, creative and welcoming energy.
The Reeperbahn Festival is one of the fastest growing and downright ace music showcases in the world, offering around 600 events in over 70 venues on and around the city’s infamous Reeperbahn strip.
Over the space of just a few nights, around 400 concerts are played around the area, in intimate venues, and often offer music-goers their first look at the indie, pop, rock, folk, electro, jazz, soul, hip hop, and folk stars of the future.
Our guide chuckled at how he remembered watching a young Ed Sheeran play his little heart out to a tiny crowd, and comment on how it was first ever gig in Germany. Fast-forward six months, and + was released, Ed-mania was on the rise, and pop music would never be the same again.
The Greatest Beatles Tour Of All Time
Unless you’re a massive Beatles fan, the chances are you never knew how important Hamburg was in the creation of one of the world’s biggest, best and most iconic bands of all time.
For while everyone knows about their formation in Liverpool, and probably have an awareness of their gigs at the Cavern Club, they’re probably less clued up about their numerous residencies in Hamburg between 1960 and 1963. It’s no hyperbole to say that Hamburg turned them into the band that went onto conquer the world.
Thankfully, we have the frankly brilliant Beatles mega-fan Stefanie Hempel to get you up to speed. The creator of Hamburg’s first Beatles tour, her tours have become so popular that they’re now oft-xeroxed, but never beaten.
Not only does Stefanie lead you around the band’s old haunts (where they lived, slept, gigged, and loved) around the Reeperbahn and St. Pauli, but she does it with an enthusiasm, warmth, intimate knowledge and musicality that’ll keep you entertained throughout.
Because yep, Stefanie is equal parts tour guide and musician, and regularly cracks out her ukulele to serenade you with Beatles classics along the way. Cue mass public singalongs and grins guaranteed.
Even better, her legacy with the band means that she’s full of personal stories you wouldn’t have heard anywhere else. When the band’s own relatives champion her tours, you know she’s doing their legacy proud.
Attractions Both Teeny-Tiny and ABSOLUTELY ENORMOUS
The Elbphilhamonie is Hamburg’s shiniest new attraction, and it’s really rather glorious. Its construction may have gone over-budget and way-past-deadline, but its decade-long production was worth it.
Sitting proudly on the harbour’s edge, it straddles the UNESCO world heritage warehouse quarter and the modern architecture of the HafenCity, and stands as a gleaming architecturally impressive statement of intent for the city’s future.
Inside, you’ll find a spectacular, world-class concert hall with note-perfect acoustics, along with a plaza offering a 360° view of the city and its surrounding waterways.
A mere 10 minute walk away, you’ll also find one of the city’s more surprising attractions. You don’t need to know fluent German to hazard a guess at what the Miniatur Wunderland may house.
We had our reservations at visiting the largest model railway in the world, but know this… it’s the country’s No.1 most popular paid-for tourist attraction, and attracts over 1.3m visitors a year. From teeny tiny recreations of Hamburg and Las Vegas, to Where’s Wally-esque Easter Eggs, it’s one of the most random and amusing attractions we’ve visited in Europe so far.
And we’ve visited The Gnome Reserve in Devon, so that’s saying something.
Creativity, Liberalism and Intrigue Literally Everywhere
At a time when the world is so wilfully fractious, Hamburg wears Germany’s progressive, liberal heart on its proud sleeve, and it’s a genuinely heart-warming thing to experience.
During a tour of the Schanzen and Karolinen districts, our guide Tomas delighted in not only discussing the fascinating history of the city (who knew it used to be part of Denmark?!), but the ways in which it’s embracing the future.
From the enormous World War II forts that are being re-imagined as eco-attractions (one way to hide their blocky ugliness = cover them in living greenery wallpaper), to the awesome graffiti, andaccepting spirit that pervades even the unlikeliest of areas (the local football team makes honey with bees on-site, and they proudly display a statue outside the grounds of two gay footballers kissing to ward off homophobic visitors), it’s a haven of creativity.
Taking liberalism and all-round heart-warming fuzzies to the max, Tomas pointed out the cafes and accommodation in the fashionable, hipster-tastic (minus the ego) quarter of Karolinen that were housing Syrian refugees. Then, as casually as possible, he mentioned how his wife and he had actually housed two refugees during the immigration last year. Hamburg’s residents are pretty lovely.
And that’s all before we’ve even addressed the diverse, boutique cafes, bars, restaurants (our picks - Altes Madchen for craft beer and gastro-joy, and ROK-Rock our Kitchen for DIY pizza), fashion outlets, flea markets, pop-up bars (more on those below) and cake shops (HOLY MUPPETY MOTHER OF ODIN, THE CAKES) littered throughout both Schanzen and Karolinen.
Then there’s the accommodation. We stayed in the character-stuffed Hotel Superbude in St. Pauli. Sure, ‘hostel’s in the title, but this enormous, quirky and welcoming building hits a sweet spot between hostel and hotel, with private rooms and remarkably classy finishings in abundance.
From the newspaper-print wallpaper, to the nautical themed bathroom (with a shower bigger and better than our one back home), its rooms as fascinating as they are homely, while the chill-out areas offer the finest craft drinks, chairs repurposed from wheelbarrows (as you do) and a surprisingly nom-tastic breakfast spread (hello pancake maker!).
Party Party Party
Stag do fans will know the Reeperbahn all too well, but there’s a host of more interesting, surprising and Berlin-beating bars hidden just a stone’s throw away. Wander around St. Pauli, Schanzen and Karolinen in the evening, and the areas transform - full of enticing Speakeasies, bustling bars overspilling into the streets, and a collection of fascinating pop-up bars and clubs (our favourite was a club situated in a gypsy wagon/trailer that can only fit 20 people).
Then there’s obviously the club scene, which is just as bold, dynamic and pulsating to match its city peers. It’s the kinda city where people only really start getting in the mood around midnight, hit the clubs around 2-4am and then party the night away to all manner of electro, rock and pop hits.
'MTV Travelled With… Hamburg Tourism(follow them on Facebook too), and stayed in the Hostel Superbude. We travelled around using the very handy Hamburg Card, which gives you unlimited transport on the buses and subway.'
'And if you can’t wait to visit Hamburg, then Hamburg is coming to you. Hamburg on Tour is a pop-up event hitting London between 20-21st October, based at The Boiler House in the heart of Shoreditch and aimed at recreating the live music, craft beer and festival vibes of the city itself.'