Author: Bill Cashmore
In Hamburg, Bill Cashmore encounters modern design and quirky surprises around every corner.
Schadenfreude on my first evening in Hamburg. My taxi driver told me that the Elbphilharmonie, the brand-new concert hall, is massively over budget and not going to open on time. At first, I put it down to the usual problems of large-scale municipal works, but then I remembered I was in Germany, the origin of this word on loan to the English language, and a country renowned for prudence, efficiency and organisation. Double schadenfreude and, I must admit, rather a surprise. Completion date has now been put back to 2016.And surprise was to become a recurring feature of my stay in Hamburg. Carls, the restaurant where I dined on that first evening, is in a modern European office building. But inside is a delightful French brasserie with impressive views over the industrial harbour.
Rain prevented exploration on foot, so I resorted to the city bus tour. A live commentary guided me through the many contrasting areas of the city. HafenCity (Harbour City), home to Carls and the troubled concert hall, has new hotels, museums and art galleries built or being built along the Elbe. And I loved the old, revitalised warehouses. I was also impressed by Rotherbaum with its lakeside and ambassadorial homes. The St Pauli district, once the home of the seedier side of the city, is trendy and full of shops, cafés and the superb East hotel.
But despite all the newness, I was pleased to see that Hamburg still retained the sense of traditional Germany with the inspiring St Michaelis church, the giant Kunsthalle and the Rathaus (town hall) in the centre of the city. Yet even the ornate cellars of the Rathaus have been converted into the Parlament restaurant, with good cocktails and an exciting wine list. And the Kunsthalle, in spite of its history, embraces modernity among its extensive collection.
Above all, though, it is the sense of interior style and design, which pervades the city, that surprised me most. For example, from the outside the Bullerei restaurant looks like an ordinary brick building. But once inside, I found myself in an eccentric conversion of an abattoir. I loved it, despite not having eaten meat for years.
Equally, I found the Mövenpick hotel, in a converted water tower, exciting. Meanwhile, the George hotel has modernity and quirkiness perfected; I loved the lifts with their soothing music, computer screens showing meditative landscapes and tasselled lampshades.
Yes, tasselled lampshades in the lift. I know Hamburg is best known for its nautical heritage but ubiquitous lampshade design could change that. I saw plastic trumpets, intricate carvings and delicate reimaginings; recycled furniture, steel structures and giant topsail-like hangings. No light remains unadorned. I’ve never been that interested in lampshades, but found the range in Hamburg symbolic of a city punching above its design weight.
This is all a far cry from the days of the Beatles getting in their 10,000 hours of practice in the early Sixties or a famously bepermed Kevin Keegan playing for the Hamburg SV team of the late Seventies. Hamburg is beginning to rival Berlin as a destination and, although at the moment there may be a little schadenfreude, I don’t think it’s going to last very long.
Did you know?
Hamburg has 2,300 bridges, which is 1,900 more than there are in Venice
EasyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com ) offers flights from Luton and Gatwick from £94 return.
British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com ) offers flights from Heathrow from £242 return.
Lufthansa (0871 945 9747; lufthansa.com ) offers flights from Heathrow from £311 return.
The best place to find packages is directly through the Hamburg Tourism Office (0049 40 3005 1300; hamburg-tourism.de ) or you can obtain extremely useful information through the German Tourism office in London (020 7317 0914; germany.travel ). One, two and three-night stays with excellent cultural and sightseeing trips are available.
The best hotels
Trendy upmarket hostel in the St Pauli district – lots of eclectic recycled fixtures and fittings (Juliusstrasse 1-7; 40 8079 ; superbude.de ; doubles from £49).
Pictured below, East is a designer’s paradise, an artistic, trendy, stylish conversion of industrial buildings – a fabulous place to stay (Simon-von-Utrecht-Strasse 31; 309930; east-hamburg.de ; doubles from £133).
The George £££
A beautifully organised, lovely hotel in a quieter but still central part of town. Great long bar and a place-to-be-seen restaurant (Barcastrasse 3; 280030; thegeorge-hotel.de ; doubles from £165).
The best restaurants
Run by Tim Mälzer, a Germany celebrity chef, Bullerei boasts a hugely innovative and exciting menu (Lagerstrasse 34b; 3344 2110; bullerei.com ).
Fine dining in a vaulted cellar atmosphere; excellent cocktails (Rathausmarkt 1; 7038 3382; parlament-hamburg.de ).
Superb French cuisine with impeccable German service but in no way stuffy. Bistro also available (Am Kaiserkai 69; 300 322 400; carls-brasserie.de ).
The inside track
Fairmont Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten (Neuer Jungfernstieg 9-14; 3494; fairmont.com/hamburg ) has the best afternoon tea in plush surroundings overlooking the dramatic Binnenalster lake.
Free three-hour walking tour everyday leaves at 11am from Starbucks opposite the Town Hall (Rathausmarkt 5; 4018; starbucksgermany.com ).
For 20th-century history lovers, there are some excellent Second World War relics, including colossal anti-aircraft towers in Wilhelmsburg, the U-boat museum in HafenCity and 65 memorials across the city to those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis.
Three of the four clubs where the Beatles performed are still in business. The Indra Club where it all started is the best place to “get back” to that iconic era. The others are the Kaiserkeller (where Ringo Starr came on board) and the Top Ten Club. Arguably the most famous, the Star Club, has been demolished. Take the Beatles in Hamburg tour ( beatles-tour.com ).
For somewhere different, stay at the Mövenpick hotel ( moevenpick-hotels.com ).
What to avoid
January and February. The city is cold and damp and there is a rather flat post-Christmas market feel.
The central shopping district – apart from one or two classy chocolatiers the shops are depressingly homogeneous, multinational chains (upmarket but ubiquitous).
Attempting to travel free on the unmanned metro system (not that I tried) – there are many plain-clothed ticket inspectors.