I’m going to be honest here pals: when I first arrived in Hamburg, I was not a fan. I was staying on the Reeperbahn, a notorious red light district road with such an array of sights to see that I don’t even know where to begin, but I’m pleased to say that since then I managed to find my feet, got stuck into things and life carried on. I also managed to see past the needles, blood and smashed bottles spattered across the streets of Sankt Pauli in the early mornings (I’m really selling Hamburg to you, aren’t I!?), to the silver lining that lies beneath. Despite elements of the city that are kind of unpleasant, this can be said for probably any city in the world, and there are places here that are actually pretty awesome having given it time to acclimatise to. Every cloud does have a silver lining, I’m sure of it. Here is what I think you should be doing if you ever find yourself in Hamburg and wondering what on earth to do with yourself…
The really great thing about the area that I lived in was the amount of amazing food that was readily available to get your hands on (weirdly none of the restaurants I visited were serving German food so for a genuine schnitzel-based meal, I’m sorry but I can’t help you), and these restaurants were highlights of my time in St Pauli.
For coffee and cake (and their ‘proper’ meals look delicious too), Hej Papa is a cute little restaurant/coffee shop with a nice peaceful atmosphere and homemade deliciousness. For Indian food, check out Maharaja. I lived opposite this restaurant so the smell of the spices wafted up to me every day along with the sound of the accordion player who plays outside. It gets very hot and very crowded as it’s such a popular place but the food is worth it. For burgers and the most thirst-quenching lemonade in the history of life, head to Altona for an Otto’s Burger or in Sankt Pauli at Quentins or The Bird.
We also found some lovely Mexican and Italian restaurants (whose names I can’t remember), but the real key here is that the best food almost always comes from local businesses where they really know and take care in what they’re cooking. I’d never visited a Hard Rock Café before, but having friends who rave about this chain of restaurants, we went to the one in Hamburg and I was not impressed, pals! Bad service, overpriced and substandard food. What is all the fuss about with that place!? I don’t understand it.
Finally, if you want to go to somewhere with a far swankier vibe (the interior reminded me of a cross between the inside of a cave and a noughties music video ft. well-dressed glamazons with high ponytails and higher heels), check out East Hotel. We’d tried to get a table at Twenty Up (a restaurant at the top of a tower with views across the city), but it was fully booked, so we went here instead and I wasn’t disappointed. They’re known for their sushi- which looks incredible and is served in boats, fancy that- but I went for a lobster risotto instead which was beaut. Obviously this is a place you pay more for, but that meal was one of the tastiest I’ve ever eaten so 100% worth it.
Climb the bell tower of St Michaelis church
And make sure you wear a coat while you’re at it. It’s a windy old location but if you’re a sucker for a good old-fashioned viewing point it’s a nice place to go for a bit to see the city from above. Also bear in mind that you have to climb approximately four hundred thousand stairs to reach the top so if you get tired easily or are prone to bouts of vertigo you should maybe consider taking the lifts. I saw the bells (and heard them loud and clear, too), from inside the tower- they are absolutely ginormous so if you can bear the noise it’s cool to go and see them ring.
Marvel at the Street Art of St Pauli
Whilst there is an air of griminess about it at first inspection, St Pauli is actually a really cool place to be, and part of what makes it that way is the graffiti all over the place…whether gigantic murals or just a plain crazy mish mash of multi-coloured tags, there’s always something to look at round those parts. And if you run out of enthusiasm for the artwork, you’re sure to find plenty of weird and wonderful characters to people-watch instead.
Chill out at Planten un Blomen
This is a really lovely park right in the centre of the city, split into a few different sections and gardens, and it was basically my saviour for when I needed to get away from the griminess of the Reeperbahn and pretend I was in the countryside. It was also really hot whilst I was first there, so many many people would be there too, sunbathing or playing games (or splashing about in the stream, although I’m not sure I’d be too up for that myself as it didn’t look like particularly disease-free water). At 10pm every night during the Summer they have a fountain and light show which I’m told is amazing although I didn’t get a chance to go and see it myself. That is way past my bedtime, obviously.
In winter you can switch up the lights for a spot of casual ice skating right in the middle of the park, on a rink that has a slightly retro vibe to it. I’m a fan.
Cross the Elbe by tunnel
The tunnel that runs underneath the Elbe is over 100 years old and is really full on long, and it’s pretty cool to get the massive clanking elevator down to the start of the tunnel and then back up the other side. There’s really nothing more to it than that, but it makes for a nice change of scenery apart from anything else.
See the city from the river
If you want to be a full on tourist about it, you can book onto a river cruise and have a meal and a drink and go up and down the canals till the cows come home, (I went on a casual steamboat ride, but that’s a story for another day), but you can see most of the same just by getting on one of the river ferries that are part of the public transport network here. These ferries also have an open deck on the top so you can sit up there feeling the wind in your hair and surveying the city across the water and generally feeling glorious about life. From afar the shore of St Pauli actually looks pretty cool, it has to be said, and you can also find beach bars up and down for you to stop and have a drink at.
Check out the Elbphilharmonie
Hamburg’s newest landmark is the Elbphilharmonie: a concert hall designed to look like the sails of a boat sitting on the river. Whilst it doesn’t really blend in with the other boats on the water, I think it looks downright marvellous. And even better than its exterior, word has it that inside of the Elphi (that’s its rather cute nickname) is one of the best acoustically designed places in the entire world. I think that’s a rather fascinating notion, if you ask me.
Shop in Neustadt
Neustadt is one of the sleeker areas of the city, right next to Lake Alster, and if an afternoon of hardcore shopping is your idea of a good time, this is the place to visit. There are some beaut bars, cafes and restaurants around, and I’m pleased to report that I also saw zero needles lying around each and every time I visited the area. The Rathaus is worth checking out (that’s the town hall to you and me), particularly around Christmas time when the markets are open in full force and wafting the smell of mulled wine all around.
Hang out at the market on the Reeperbahn
Spielbudenplatz, in the middle of the Reeperbahn, is a big square filled with food trucks, pop-up bars, and tables up and down to hang out at in the evenings. It has a mildly hipster vibe to it (it is in Sankt Pauli, after all), and you can be guaranteed to find all sorts of weird and wonderful characters there if you’re the people-watching type. You can also just about forget that outside of the confines of the food-truck zone you are surrounded by brothels and suspicious characters. Similar to an oasis in a desert, if you will.
Hafencity is another one of the sleeker areas of Hamburg, and involves a great many canals- kind of like Venice but with a far more industrial and less weathered vibe, and lovely to explore on a sunny afternoon. This is also the location which houses a great many museums, so if you’re up for learning a thing or two then I would say check it out (particularly the coffee museum, what a good subject to be learning about).
Go Out-out (but choose your partying locations wisely)
So. The main reason people seem to visit Hamburg (as far as I can tell), is to go mental on the Reeperbahn, drink all the alcohol, and make the most of it’s roaring trade in prostitution and sex shows. Fair enough if you’re into that sort of thing- prostitution is a legit job here and hookers even pay tax on what they earn just like your average Joe Bloggs office worker. Personally that doesn’t really float my boat, however, if you’re going to go to Hamburg you should probably have at least one night out to say you’ve done it. If you look hard enough and stay away from the sticky-floored tourist bars directly on the Reeperbahn you can find some pretty good places to have some pretty good drinks and pretty good times. We managed to get VIP entry to a party at NOHO- a massive club at one end of the strip- so if you want to go all out raging clubbing then that’s an OK place to visit. There is also a tonne of quirky bars and pubs around for you to explore at your own leisure.
BEWARE- some pals of mine decided that they would go to a strip club, because ‘when in Rome/Hamburg…’ A mixed group of lads and lasses who decided they should go because that’s what you do when you’re in Hamburg rather than because they were the normal type of strip club clientele. Upon entry two strippers asked them if they would buy them a drink, so of course they obliged because that is the polite thing to do, not realising that when the two strippers said they’d like them to buy them both an Orange Juice that an Orange Juice is actually a lap dance. When they were presented with a €150 bill for five vodka lemonades and two orange juices they were obviously rather confused and refused to pay; I mean, they didn’t even want a lap dance, duh! Next thing you know they were attempting to escape while one stripper grabbed one of them by the ponytail and wouldn’t let go until he paid the full €150- even though they didn’t drink the vodka lemonades OR get the lap dances. Not that they wanted them anyway. What a palaver.
Also a word of warning if you’re female- don’t enter this street. The entrance to Herbertstraße is blocked off to stop women and children entering as this is the workplace of around 250 women who might possibly claw your eyes out if you dare to take a stroll past the shop windows.
In conclusion, Hamburg is actually a pretty cool place as long as you embrace the oddballs and stay out of the scarier parts of the city. It’s a strange but interesting city filled with strange and interesting people and one thing that I will say for certain is that this place certainly has character. No messing.