There is something oddly exciting about taking the first train to the airport as the sun is still hiding behind the horizon and the city is not yet awoken from its slumber. Or maybe it’s just to do with flights being cheaper first thing in the morning. And that I can actually get a seat on the train. Either way, I was on my way to airport for my early flight to Hamburg.
Just over a couple of hours later I was stepping off into the brilliant sunshine in Germany’s second biggest city. The clean, spacious airport has won numerous awards including Best Regional Airport in Europe and is a breeze to get through. The train station for Hamburg’s mass transit system, the S-Bahn, is just a short walk away from Arrivals and within 15 minutes takes you to Hauptbahnof (Central Station). All for just over €2.
I was in Hamburg to see some friends as well as sightsee and was lucky enough to be picked up by one of them and spared me the embarrassment of using my rusty German to ask for directions. We made our way to the trendy area around Feldstraße U-Bahn (underground) station and checked out the Hochbunker, an imposing concrete structure that served as an air-raid shelter during the Second World War. After dropping my bags off at my friend’s apartment, we headed out for some lahmacun (dough topped with meat) and çay (tea) in a local Turkish restaurant (don’t worry I had enough German stuff too…) before taking a stroll past the Planten un Blomen park which opened back in 1930 and is a popular spot with joggers and families.
We continued towards the Altstadt (Old Town) and soon arrived at the Rathaus (Town Hall). Constructed in the late 19th Century following the destruction of the old city hall in The Great Fire of 1842, the building towers above the Market Square and still serves as the seat of local government. The large clock adorns the tower while figures from Hamburg’s long history line the façade of the building. After several attempts trying to fit the whole building in one shot (I really need a wide-angle camera lens!), we continued to the edge of the square where a stone monument stands to commemorate the dead of the First World War.
We walked along the Alsterfleet and up to the point where it flows into the Binnenalster (Inner Alster), the manmade lake that is a popular meeting place for locals and tourists alike. The bigger Außenalster (Outer Lake), further up the Alster river, is a haven for water sports fans and joggers who make use of the track snaking its way around the lake. Apparently the water is clean enough for swimming, but it was way too cold for me to even consider going for a dip!
Speaking of the cold, I clearly wasn’t prepared for the temperature and, having admitted defeat, bought a hoodie from a local department store. Now that I was ready to face the elements, we took the U-Bahn train to Landungsbrücken and made our way to the banks of the Elbe. The river has played a huge role in Hamburg’s history as a major port and trading hub throughout the ages and is almost synonymous with the city.
We wandered along the waterfront as the sun began to set behind towering cranes in the port which looked like giant steel birds protecting the passage to the city. Ferries and tour boats drifted past blowing their horns as the Elbe was bathed in neon lights from the Theater im Hafen (Theater in the Port) across the water and the passing ships. After enjoying the views, it was time to have some traditional Hamburg food as we picked up a couple of Fischbrötchen (fish sandwich). Hugely popular in Hamburg and Northern Germany, these come in many varieties including herring, salmon and even prawns. I went for smoked mackerel while my friend had the herring. It was amazing. Fresh fish and tasty German bread make for a great combination especially when they are washed down by a cold Astra beer.
We continued walking along the waterfront and then climbed the steps to Davidstraße, and continued past bars, liquor stores and the hidden entrance to the short Herbertstraße, infamous for its prostitution and serving as a mini red light district. A few minutes later we reached one of Hamburg’s most famous locations, the Reeperbahn. An iconic nightlife destination, Reeperbahn is a hub of clubs, restaurants and sex shops. We walked down the street and watched groups of young men drinking beer outside bars and musicians setting up their equipment in Spielbudenplatz next to the street. The cowboy bars, throngs of tourists and almost enough neon to rival Vegas, Reeperbahn of today is very different to the road that got its name in the 17th century when it was used as a ropewalk, producing rope for dockyards in Hamburg.
The temperature was dropping close to freezing at this point and we decided to head home via the supermarket, picking up a few German beers (50 euro cents a bottle!?) and some snacks. I needed to rest because I had another early start coming up next morning.
Despite my early start the previous day, I was up again before 7 am. It was a crisp and chilly Sunday morning but I was keen to check out the historic Fischmarkt (Fishmarket) that attracts early morning crowds to the harbour, a stone’s throw from Reeperbahn. On my way through the party area, I passed revellers staggering home, queuing for early morning fast food or still finishing their last beers as the city was starting the clean up operation.
I soon joined the crowds of tourists and locals heading the same way – the market opens at 5am in the summer months so I wasn’t exactly early. I took the stairs down to the market area itself and was soon walking past countless stalls selling fresh fish, fruit, vegetables, souvenirs and clothes. Stall holders were trying to shout over each other promoting their wares and crowds were gathering to grab the best deal. Coffee stalls selling hot drinks and cakes were busy as people took a break from shopping while attempting to keep warm.
I walked around taking in the sights and smells before heading inside the Fischauktionshalle (fish market hall) for some warmth. Even though it was only just past 8 am, the place was full of locals eating their Fischbrötchen for breakfast while washing them down with cold beers all while a rock band performed upbeat songs on a stage. It was a bit surreal and crazy but I loved it. A few minutes later I was singing along to Sweet Child O’ Mine while enjoying a Bratwurst sausage and a cold Erdinger beer. When in Hamburg…
I enjoyed the music and the atmosphere for a bit longer before heading back out to the market and browsing some more. I stopped at the coffee stall and picked up a Tiramisu Latte (I love my flavoured coffee) and a Hamburger Franzbrötchen, a warm and sweet cinnamon pastry. I people watched for a while before continuing towards the Landungsbrücken area we walked through last night. On the way, I passed a Russian U-Boat, now a museum and countless tour boats offering harbour cruises and lunches.
I caught the train to Central Station and took a stroll towards the Rathaus, among empty shopping streets that were teeming with people the day before. Shops in Germany, like in many countries in continental Europe, are not open on a Sunday with the exception of bakeries and some convenience stores. I checked out the Hygieia fountain in the hidden courtyard of the Rathaus with its neo-renaissance statue and popped inside the historic building to admire the lobby.
I wanted to check out a museum while I was in Hamburg so I took a 15 minute walk to the Hamburg Museum. Located right next to the Planten un Blomen park, the museum houses exhibitions that gave an interesting insight into the history of the city and its prominent role in Europe over the ages. I learnt about the city’s maritime past and present, how the city expanded over the centuries and explored a replica of a steamship’s bridge. The museum isn’t huge and I was able to explore it in a couple of hours – and I would definitely recommend a visit if you wanted to learn more about history of Hamburg. Click here to find out more about its collections and exhibitions.
I sat in the park for a while on steps overlooking a skate park/playground with families enjoying the beautiful sunshine and then met my friend for a stroll to the recently UNESCO-listed Speicherstadt, the warehouse district of Hamburg. Construction of the area started in 1883 and the area was intended to be a customs free zone for companies who wanted to store goods in the area. We stopped for a beer at one of the cafes overlooking the district before wandering around, crossing the loading canals and checking out the impressive red-brick facades of the warehouses themselves. The district is still used for storage and reportedly has one of the world’s largest stores for carpets.
All that walking was tiring so we headed to the Central Station and found some comfy sofas in Coffee Fellows and chilled out for an hour or two, watching people stream in and out of the station, taxis and trams gliding by and the sun slowly disappear behind the rooftops. It was time to go back to my friend’s apartment and relax with movies and fresh German bread and cheese.
I allowed myself a bit more of a lie in the next day. I decided to do a free walking tour of the city that I spotted an advert for the previous day. For those unfamiliar with the concept, there is no upfront fee for the tour – you just pay the tour guide whatever you feel it was worth at the end. I always try and do one of these when I am in a new city as these tours can be very informative and fun. I went for the Historic City Centre tour but there are quite a few different ones available. Check out all the tours at http://www.robinandthetourguides.de/en/. I definitely recommend these guys!
The tour started at the Rathaus and continued to the site of the Old Town Hall which burned down in the Great Fire of 1842 before continuing to Deichstraße, the street where the Great Fire itself started. We wandered through cobbled alleyways and stuck our head into office buildings with open paternoster elevators, learnt how goods were winched through warehouse windows in Speicherstadt and what effect World War II had on the city. The tour guide, Matej, was funny and very knowledgeable and we were sad when it was time to end the tour at St Michael’s Church, one of the most famous sights in the city.
I had a look inside the church and climbed the 450 steps to the tower with fantastic panorama views around Hamburg before running back down and doing some souvenir shopping in a nearby store. I had to call upon my best German to explain that I wanted something out of the window display but I definitely did better than the American tourist who was puzzled that the elderly store owner didn’t speak English.
I met up with my friend again and we caught the ferry to the manmade Elbe beach – situated on the banks of the Elbe, overlooking the cranes in the port of Hamburg, this oasis is full of activity in the summer, but even on a cold Monday in October attracted plenty of people. A couple of busy cafes served beer and light meals while people relaxed in deckchairs, watching the ships drift by. I would love to visit this place in the summer as locals sunbathe, play volleyball and dance the night away in cool bars.
We headed back to Central Station where we caught up with a good friend of mine. We also met in Australia and realised that we were going to be in the same city only a couple of days before I flew out to Germany. It was great catching up and reminiscing about our travels. It reminded me how awesome it is to meet people from all over the world when you travel – I love having friends around the world and being able to see them when I travel. Easily one of the best things about travelling!
After an extended catch up, I headed back to the apartment and got ready to head out. We decided to check out a local bar around Feldstraße and chilled out with a couple of friends over some (very cheap) cocktails and beers in large comfortable sofas. It was a fitting end to an amazing weekend in this great city. I vowed to come back when it’s a bit warmer as I was running out of layers to put on!
It’s amazing how much you can fit into a weekend if you try and I didn’t even mind the 4:30am alarm that meant I had to head to the airport to catch my flight back to London. The things I do to get a seat on the train…