Home, in my opinion, is a feeling as much as it is a place: a warm, fuzzy feeling inside, a sense of belonging. That was Hamburg, for me. Germany’s second-largest city – and Europe’s third-biggest port – has a heck of a lot going for it, and the fact that it isn’t (yet, at least) a tourist honeypot is a serious plus in my books.
After a brisk walk around Bremen’s Bürgerpark (and a substantial amount of time spent checking out the alpacas, piglets and assorted other furry and feathery creatures at the park’s petting zoo), we caught a regional train over to Hamburg.
When we arrived, we headed over to Hans im Glück for a late lunch; I first came across this burger joint in Nuremburg with my friend Simone, and upon discovering there was one in Hamburg, I decided to introduce Laurence to it. If you’re there at lunchtime, their lunch special offers the best value for money: simply choose your burger, and for an extra €5.50 you can have a side and a cold drink with your meal, plus a hot drink for afters.
Fuelled up and ready to explore, we made a quick detour to our hotel to offload some things, and then set off to get our fill of Hamburg’s Christmas markets. First up: Hamburger Weihnachtsmarkt, a twinkling mass of wooden chalets spread in front of Hamburg’s grand city hall. We passed stalls selling scented candles, baubles, hand-crafted toys, jewellery – you name it, there was a stall selling it.
Overhead, four illuminated reindeer pulled a sleigh on a (thick) tightrope-esque wire; amusingly, when it reached the other side of the square it had to reverse, as it couldn’t turn round. Falling temperatures meant only one thing: it was time for a hot drink (glühwein for Laurence, kinderpunsch for me) in a penguin-like huddle round a drinks stand. Having warmed up a little, we set off in search of a bratwurst for Laurence. (Has anyone else noticed they’re significantly cheaper at German Christmas markets than they are at those in the UK?)
Hamburg has five Christmas markets (though we gave the erotic one in St. Pauli a miss), and our next stop was Weißerzauber auf dem Jungfernsteig, which was just a short walk away. Before browsing the stalls, we both tucked into fresh crêpes; mine had a generous portion of apple sauce in the middle, while Laurence (as per) opted for lashings of Nutella. I love seeing the stalls selling illuminated paper lanterns, though I’ve never felt the need to actually own one.
Our last Christmas market for the night (fear not, I’ll get to the fourth one later) was Fleet Weihnachtsmarkt, a market entirely devoted to eating, drinking and being merry (very merry in the case of some enthusiastic glühwein gluggers). Once I’d munched my way through a scrumptious hog roast baguette, we decided to head back to our hotel and hit the hay.
We kicked off the last day of our trip with a wander round HafenCity and the Speicherstadt, a maze of warehouses and waterways reminiscent of Liverpool’s Royal Albert Dock. Seamlessly blending old with new, HafenCity brings together historic warehouses and futuristic façades. Having passed on the pricey hostel breakfast (as per), we sought out a café for breakfast pastries and steaming cups of tea.
Coming in at a gobsmacking €870 million euros, the Elbphilharmonie (so-called as it stands on the River Elbe) is HafenCity’s crowning glory: an old warehouse turned cultural haven, topped with a striking wave-like glass structure. Even on a grey day, it’s a sight to behold.
Leaving the Speicherstadt district behind, we headed over to Hauptkirche St. Michaelis, the largest of Hamburg’s churches and a landmark on many-a-visitor’s itinerary (and for good reason – the interior is stunning). Inside, there’s not one, not two, but five (!) organs, alongside a marble altar illustrated with biblical scenes, and the usual lavishly gilded columns and furnishings. (Fun fact for fans of classical music: pianist and composer Johannes Brahms was baptised here.)
When doing some pre-trip research, Laurence had come across Mö-Grill, a cheap and cheerful currywurst spot, so we ambled over there in search of lunch (I pinched some of Laurence’s chips, as I’m not the biggest wurst fan.)
Afterwards, we scouted out the Lindt shop (pick ‘n’ mix Lindors should be more of a thing over here) and paid a visit to Lebkuchen Schmidt (Steinstraße 16), a teeny weeny store specialising in gingerbread. Hamburg’s Christmas Parade (every Saturday during Advent) saw floats, bands and festively dressed schoolchildren (think elves, candy canes and the like) parade through the city’s streets; the last day of our trip coincided with one of these, so we spent a little while watching the parade, before touring Hamburg City Hall (€5 adult).
Hamburg is a city-state, and Hamburg City Hall is therefore the seat of the Hamburg Parliament, the Senate and the First Mayor. Our guide gave us the lowdown as we passed from one opulent room to another (though with 647-odd rooms, we barely scratched the surface). When a chemical-based fire broke out in 1842, locals blew up the city hall to try and extinguish the flames and stop the fire from spreading. Unfortunately, the wind changed direction, and it was all for nothing. Some forty years later, Hamburg City Hall was rebuilt; the great fire is commemorated in the Room of Catastrophes, where couples can tie the knot on the first Friday of the month.
Years later, in 1942, an unexploded WW2 bomb landed in the square outside Hamburg City Hall. It’s since been detonated, and is now displayed in a glass cabinet in the Room of Catastrophes. A little further on, we came to a narrow waiting room; oil paintings of previous mayors hung on the walls, creating a ‘Mona Lisa’ effect, whereby the eyes of the mayors appear to follow you as you move around the room.
Many of the rooms featured ornate panelling and felt wallpaper stamped with the city’s coat of arms; my favourite room (by some margin) had an elaborate ceiling depicting the different regions with which Hamburg traded. If you pay for only one attraction in Hamburg, make it this one.
Despite the overcast skies, we were both keen to get an aerial view of the city, so our next stop was Mahnmal St. Nikolai (€5 adult; €4 student). In 1943, the church was struck repeatedly during air raids and destroyed; today, the spire remains, as a memorial to the victims of war and tyranny. Views from the observation deck extend across the harbour and city centre; an exhibition gives readers a glimpse into the city’s wartime history.
We rounded the trip off with a browse round Winterwald Hamburg, around Gerhart-Hauptmann-Platz. Laurence sampled some kartoffelpuffer (potato pancakes); I’d recommend not looking too closely at what they fry them in while you munch away, as it’ll likely gross you out. Then, while he polished off his third bratwurst of the trip, I tucked into a meaty skewer.
- Trains from Bremen to Hamburg run twice an hour, with a journey time of 1h10m. If you’re travelling as a couple, or in a small group, ask for the Niedersachsen-Ticket, which is valid across the region. It’s cheaper than buying tickets (even singles) individually, and (as of November 2018) cost €29 for two. Just remember to write the names of each traveller on the ticket to validate it. See this page of the Deutsche Bahn website for more information on regional passes.
- We stayed at Superbude Hamburg St. Georg (Spaldingstraße 152), a no-frills hostel and budget hotel within walking distance of the city centre.
- Getting to the airport is simples: just ride the S-1 all the way there, for the princely sum of €3.30 (as of December 2018). Make sure you sit in the front three carriages, as the train splits in half along the way.