Venice is said to be best approached by sea. But when I return to my former home town of Hamburg – known for having more canals than Venice and Amsterdam combined – I prefer to arrive by train.
On a small stretch of track, just before reaching the main station from the north, I fall in love again with this city. Lombards bridge, built in 1865, spans the river Alster. Famously disguised during World War II – an artificial bridge and makeshift lake were built adjacent – to confuse Allied bombers, it is not the bridge’s design so much as its distinctive location, separating the city’s inner and outer Alster lakes, that makes it so spectacular.
Looking left, I see the artificial lake, the Aussenalster (outer Alster lake), which is bordered by many of Hamburg’s most exclusive suburbs. I remember cold winters of my childhood when at weekends everyone was out on the ice, skating and enjoying the sunshine.
To the right I look on to Hamburg’s famous spires and the smaller, inner Alster lake, the Binnenalster, which borders the city’s commercial heart. It is surrounded by a tree-lined promenade and distinctive white buildings with copper roofs. In the distance are six towers, including the beautiful town hall and the city’s landmark, the tower of the Lutheran St Michael’s Church near the harbour, nicknamed “Michel”. Its tower offers stunning views over Hamburg’s major commercial attribute: its harbour, almost 100 kilometres inland, on the Elbe River.
Hamburg, the second-biggest city in Germany, has Europe’s second-largest container terminal, which is the basis of the city’s wealth and status as a key trade hub. The harbour is also home to a large urban renewal project, HafenCity, with a mix of commercial and residential architecture and featuring the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg’s answer to the Sydney Opera House. An innovative design, the Elbphilharmonie has cost and budget overruns – and public controversy – and may not open its doors until 2014-15.
I never miss making a trip to the nearby old Speicherstadt, or warehouse city, to look at row after row of Hamburg’s beautiful old six- or seven-storey red-brick stores. The stylish old warehouses, seemingly similar but each slightly different, feature traders who specialise in coffee, spices or Persian carpets and store their goods under the warehouses’ distinctive copper roofs. Not far away is what Hamburg is perhaps most famous for: its red-light district, the Reeperbahn. While there has been gentrification and some sex shops have made way for nightclubs and theatres, the only reason a local usually comes here is to go to a musical or to show one off to friends from out of town.
I never skip my rituals involving Hamburg’s food, including a good sausage, usually from Mo Grill, a small, busy stall in the city’s main pedestrian mall, the Moenckebergstrasse. I love the schinkenbratwurst, plain or as a currywurst with plenty of tomato sauce and curry powder, usually served with bread. A more acquired taste is labskaus, served in many pubs and restaurants around town, but none so famous as the Old Commercial Room, which even cans the stuff. It’s far from visually appealing – being a mash of potato and corned beef served with egg, beetroot and pickled herring – but if it’s seasoned properly, I can’t go past it. Hamburg also has its share of international cuisine (especially around the anarchist suburb of Schanzenviertel) and several Michelin-star restaurants – if you like your food styled and your seafood cooked.
Often I will stop for a snack at one of the city’s fantastic bakeries, and have recently rediscovered a type of basic cinnamon snail (franzbroetchen) unique to Hamburg. A long-established cafe at Hamburg’s prime address, the Alsterpavillion, on the other main shopping strip, Jungfernstieg ( it translates as Virgin’s Walk), has been replaced by a chain. But the view to the little Alster ferries remains one of Hamburg’s pleasures – which I now prefer to enjoy from the less-salubrious top-floor self-service restaurant in the Alsterhaus department store opposite.
From there, a fun way to enjoy the city (after finishing window shopping around Neuer Wall and the Alsterarkaden) is a walk along the banks of the Alster or a ferry ride to Winterhude, where the Alster is no longer a lake but becomes a river.
If I’m tired of walking, a metro train trip (the U-Bahn) at dusk before the inhabitants close the blinds of their gorgeous apartments in the charming homes that line the route is a favourite voyeuristic pleasure. The stretch on the U3 line south of Eppendorfer Baum is especially appealing, and on Tuesdays and Fridays there’s a farmers’ market underneath the raised metro.
As for historic buildings, the style here is the low-key red brick so common in other Hanse towns around the Baltic. But my favourite building remains the Renaissance-style town hall in the city centre, which – like much of Venice – was built on stilts on the muddy banks of the Alster. And I can see it from the train window when I once again cross Lombards bridge as I leave this underrated, understated city.FAST FACTS
Getting there Singapore Airlines has a fare to Frankfurt from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1855 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Singapore (about 8hr), then to Frankfurt (13hr 30min); see singaporeair苏州美甲学校. From Frankfurt, take the train and stay on after Hamburg Hauptbahnhof to Hamburg Dammtor or Altona station (both are close to the city), as it means you travel over the bridge.Dining there
The Old Commercial Room is on Englische Planke 10. See oldcommercialroom.de.
The Alsterhaus store is on Jungfernstieg 16-20. See alsterhaus.de.
Mo Grill, in the Moenckebergstrasse pedestrian mall, is open Mon-Fri 10am to 8pm; Saturdays 10am to 6pm.While there
To tour St Michael’s Church, see st-michaelis.de.
Entry to the Speicherstadt (dockland museum) Hamburg, Am Sandtorkai 36, costs €3.50 ($4.25) a person. See portofhamburg苏州美甲学校/en.
More information Hamburg-tourism.de.
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