Nicknamed Gateway to the World (Tor zur Welt), Hamburg is a cosmopolitan city with people from all over the world living here. Germany’s second-largest metropolis is renowned for its economic wealth, northern brick architecture, musical heritage, and maritime flair.
It’s impossible to see it all in the 24 hours I have here, but I might as well try. As I explore three incredibly diverse neighbourhoods, the city’s many faces come to light.
Speicherstadt Warehouse Complex
Always an early riser, I join a morning tour of Hamburg’s newest UNESCO World Heritage Site: the Speicherstadt, the world’s largest historic warehouse complex. A district of connecting roads, canals, and bridges dating from 1885 to 1927, Speicherstadt’s gothic red brick buildings once stored high-value goods such as coffee, spices, and tobacco. Today, some of the warehouses are still in use as storage facilities, for example as Oriental carpet showrooms, while others house advertising agencies and other creative industries.
Opposite the Speicherstadt stands the Kontorhaus office district, built in the 1920s and 1930s, which UNESCO also listed in 2015. It includes the Chilehaus, an example of Brick Expressionism in the shape of a ship’s bow, which no standard work of reference on 20th-century architecture fails to mention. Thanks to the early hour, my guide Nicola Janocha was able to sneak me into the Sprinkenhof office building to see Hamburg’s most beautiful staircase (also the city’s “most popular site on Instagram”).
Fittingly, the tour finishes at the most impressive warehouse conversion to date. In January 2017, the new concert hall Elbphilharmonie opened to much critical acclaim. After nine years of construction—and widespread unhappiness about the cost, which soared 10 times over-budget—the locals now love “Elphi.”
With its swooping roof and glass façade of 1,000 curved window panels perched atop a historic warehouse, Hamburg’s new landmark rises like a quartz crystal along the waterfront. Its centrepiece is an airy 2,100-seat concert hall that places the orchestra centre stage. For a small fee, visitors can access the observation deck on top of the brick section for fantastic views of Hamburg’s skyline and the industrial port.
After devouring a traditional fish roll for lunch (the north Germans love their pickled herring just as much as their Dutch neighbours do), I make my way by tram to trendy Schanzenviertel.
Together with guide Marc Mueller I stroll past stylish cafes, organic food stores, record shops, and vintage clothing boutiques. An unusual shop window catches my eye as shoes and wine are displayed side by side. “People here always come up with new ideas,” says Marc, laughing.
Or they don’t bother with advertising their products at all. An unnamed store of rather rundown appearance displays a sign saying “As long as flowers last.” The store only has one type of flower each day, and it closes the minute they are all sold. According to Marc, no one ever knows in advance what’s on offer, but the flowers are a real bargain.
“You can get 50 tulips for $10,” he says. “When the shop is open you’ll know as the quarter is full of people carrying large bouquets.”
I could get lost here for hours, but Hamburg’s famous nightlife awaits.
St. Pauli and the Beatles
The legendary Reeperbahn Street, in the heart of St. Pauli, has changed a lot since its heyday when it was a popular destination for seamen and others looking for amusement. In the 1960s, the red light district turned into somewhat of a hothouse for pop culture with four musicians from England propelling to international stardom from here. “I was born in Liverpool, but I grew up in Hamburg,” John Lennon once said.
If there is such a thing as the world’s biggest Beatles fan, it must be Stefanie Hempel who takes visitors on a musical journey to the original sites where the mop tops took their first steps into musical immortality. It’s impossible not to be charmed when Stefanie, armed with a ukulele, stops here and there to sing the songs that the Beatles performed night after night in the smoky clubs of St Pauli. Today, the Reeperbahn area is largely a mixture of nightclubs, bars, restaurants, art galleries, cabarets, and theatres, with the red light district relegated to one street.
Way past my normal bedtime, I taxi to my accommodation, the historical Hotel Reichshof, for a good night’s sleep. The bed is so comfy and the room so quiet, I’m not sure I’ll manage to get up early again. I’d love to experience Hamburg’s fish market, though … after all, there are still a few hours left before my time in the Gateway to the World is up.
Wibke Carter is a world traveler who hails from Germany, has lived in New Zealand and New York, and presently enjoys life in London, England.