“Approaching Hamburg from by air one day, I startled the person in the next seat by saying ‘Bloody hell, it’s built in a frigging forest!’”
Lots of cities have tree-lined suburbs; but Hamburg is a tree-lined city. Its fans claim that it is the most beautiful city in Europe, they may be biased, but it is easy for a visitor to see why they say it.
The central focal point of visitors’ Hamburg is the Alster. This is the double lake in the centre of the city. You can sail on the Alster, walk or jog around it, picnic on its banks, eat in restaurants overlooking it, drink in bars on top of it, skateboard or roller-skate beside it, and if you cannot be there in person, you can admire it on the AlsterCam. http://www.alstercam.de (Well worth a look).
Hamburg was a free city, independent of the rest of Germany, until the end of the 19th century; and it has a strong sense of itself, even now. It is about as far north as Manchester, it is a major port, and sits on the river Elbe which flows into the North Sea; and so the weather bears an unhappy similarity to Manchester’s.
It is only fair to add, that although it is physically a lovely city, and a very prosperous one, graffiti is widespread. Hautbahnhof (central station) in particular is full of policemen, street people and junkies.
“I lived in Glasgow for a while, where a lot of the street people are clearly under more than just the influence. But it was in Hamburg that I saw someone with a worryingly bloody needle in a railway station. The trains are spotless, but I once saw a hypodermic land gracefully on the track next to my train. It has been tossed from the car park above us while we cruised slowly into one of the stations in the middle of town”.
Even so, Hamburg remains a clean and beautiful city, which is fun to be in, attractive to look at, and easy to get around.
Parts of Town
Where to Live
If you like the parts of town which tend to attract alternative ventures (mediation centres, vegetarian cafés, etc) then check out Altona.
Barmbek has a mild reputation for being studenty, its main shopping street with a good selection of everyday shops. It is also fairly central and served by 3 railway lines, and numerous busses.
Blankenese is on the banks of the Elbe and is a very attractive former fishing village: pretty but steep. No need for step classes if you live here. It is has a good selection of restaurants and shops, and you can go down to the river and gaze up at ships the size of 10 storey buildings as they go from the docks to the sea. The rents are high, but the quality of life would be good if you worked on that side of town.
Things to do
Hamburg of course is famous for the Reeperbahn, but the brochures assure us that “parts of it are now respectable”, if you call a 10 year old production of Cats respectable, that is.
The Volkparkstadium is where the big names stop on their European tours. It is easy enough to get to, and the organisers tend to lay on busses from the S-Bahn station. But it is almost impossible to find either the busses or the station on the way back!
The Stadtpark is a great venue, intimate and cosy, unless it is raining, when it is intimate and wet!
Restaurants, Pubs, Bars, Clubs, Live music
Hamburg has plenty of restaurants and cafes, and the hotels have English language guidebooks to what is on which include restaurant reviews. But if you are new in town here are a couple of suggestions.
Collenaden is a useful street to head towards if you are hungry. It runs diagonally from one end of Jungfernsteig and has half a dozen Italian restaurants, a couple of Japanese ones, and at least one very teutonic looking German one. It also has interesting shops and a truly dreadful language school (more about the language school elsewhere). It is within 200 yards of 5 separate train stations, so it is easy to get to, too.
Alster Arkaden, forms one side of the canal which runs out of the little Alster. It has Habitat at one end, and three cafes; the first specialises in chocolate, the one in the middle is a middle-eastern café; and the one at the end nearest the Alster sells serious Kuchen. A great place to sit, while you watch the swans in the canal and the people in the Rathausmarkt, and enjoy the carbohydrate hit which is the best punctuation to a long and arduous afternoon’s shopping.
The Rovers Return in Großneumarkt is an Irish pub with live music on Sunday nights.
The Hamburg Live section of the Abendblatt web site has an events guide. http://www.abendblatt.net
The Wednesday and Saturday editions of the evening paper Hamburger Arbendblatt have advertisements for accommodation. http://www.abendblatt.net
“I ended up talking to a woman in one of the accommodation agencies, who was very helpful, and sorted me out with exactly what I had described at short notice. One of her colleagues on the other had just sent me a listing in German, and a bunch of phone numbers, telling me to phone the landlords myself. So her attention to detail was welcome.”
What if I don’t speak German?
You can function ok in Hamburg even if you speak no German, but you will find some things frustrating. A lot (but not all) of the shop and restaurant staff speak English. If you start off in German, they will often switch to English, sometimes it seems out of pity. But there are situations which will trip you up if the person either refuses to or just cannot speak English.
“When I needed to buy a season ticket I had to take the leaflet away, check it out with a dictionary, and go back the next day to buy the one I needed”.
“You would think the founders of a language school would speak good enough English to know that they had chosen a really unsavoury name for their business. Accurate though. I hate to use this sort of forum to dis a business; but I had a series of really lousy experiences with this language school. One or even two I could right off, but five is way too many”.
International House is not a Language School as such.
“When I rang them they gave me practical advice, and recommended some private tutors. Worth the phonecall”.
Inlingua and Berlitz
These schools come recommended as good quality schools catering to business people and ex-pats.
Good, but obviously more expensive. Even so, this is a good route to go if you are not that bothered about meeting other English-speakers, and if you want to progress quickly.
Shops selling English language books or newspapers or rent English language videos?
The larger newsagent at the Hautbahnhof (central station) sells English language books upstairs. Some of the bookshops in town do to, in particular the Thalia bookshop.
There seem to be 3 kinds of food shops.
Some of the big department stores (Kaufhof, Karstadt) have wonderful foodhalls; the nearest equivalent would be the food department in Markies, or Waitrose, but they are pricey.
“These are the only place I buy raw meat – but I am very fussy about butchers”.
There are small supermarkets dotted around the place. (Spar, PennyMarkt, etc - the loo roll in PennyMarkt is called “Happy End” – which is the best you can say about it really). These are like Co-ops, Somerfields, or KwickSaves in the UK. These are shut on Sundays, and may well shut at 6.00 on weekdays and 4.00 on Saturdays.
There are no equivalents to Tescos or Sainsburys.
“I have found one large supermarket called Familia; this is like the small ones, but bigger, with quite a broad range of things, including Organic foods”.
The layout in German supermarkets can seem bizarre beyond belief. The mixers will be in the diagonally opposite corner to the spirits; you can find biscuits in three different aisles, with other aisles in between.
PCs, Software, Gadgets
Brinkmann in Spitaler Straße sells all the great gadgets a geek could want.
Wiesenhavern in Mönkebergstraße sells photographic equipment, audio, video and tv.
“Their staff are knowledgeable, and courteous, a great place for photographers. I wanted to just hang out there.”
Hamburg is definitely Retail Heaven. There are several shopping centres dotted around the place.
In the centre of town, the guides all rightly recommend Mönkeberg Straße (which runs from the Hautbahnhof to the Rathaus). Jungfernsteig runs along the shortest end of the inner Alster (the lake in the middle of the city). And all sorts of wonderful, and wonderfully expensive, shops line the roads which butt onto Jungfernsteig.
Hamburg also has a large number of indoor malls and arcades which are really useful when rains. Useful railway stops are Hautbahnhof, Jungfernsteig, Mönkbergstraße, Rathaus, Rödingsmarkt, Stadthousbr, Gänsemarkt, and Stephansplatz.
Closing time on Saturdays varies from 3.00pm in the smaller shops to 6.00pm in the department stores. Shops in the centre of town may be open until 6.00 or if you are lucky, 8.00 on weekday evenings.
But if you have not got enough food by closing time on Saturday you will have to starve or eat out all weekend, because Sunday opening has yet to reach the Fatherland.
Hamburg airport is really nice: clean, spacious, with a soaring glass ceiling, and a range of cafés and restaurants.
“This is a good thing, because the 18.10 to Heathrow never once left on time while I was there”.
What is the public transport like (buses, trains, trams)?
Hamburg is easy to get around using public transport. There is a substantial urban railway network, and a lot of good bus services, run by the same company, HVV. http://www.hvv.de The two systems compliment each other, running on different routes. Trains usually run every 5 or 10 minutes; busses every 10 or 20.
You can get different levels of season ticket.. Commuter cards are in the range of 200DM to 300+DM per month, depending on distance. The calculation is complicated, and the staff in the Büro do not necessarily speak English. However off peak cards are great value.
Brits tend to assume that the strips of tarmac running along the pavements are snail-trails left by Deutsche Telekom when they install cables. But unlike BT, Deutsche Telekom put the pavements back the way they find them. These are cycle paths; and it is courteous - and wise - to avoid walking on them.
You can take your bike on the trains, so Hamburg is good for cyclists – so long as you can avoid dumb Brits who ignore the cycle paths of course!
Web Sites and City Guides
There is very little printed information about Hamburg in English. The hotels and tourist information offices do have leaflets, but there are not any more substantial guidebooks.
Official city site: http://www.hamburg.de has some pages in English, and a useful map utility.
Hamburger Abendblatt – the city’s evening paper - has a lively and very useful site: http://www.abendblatt.net
A city-guide created as a family home-page by an ex-pat Brit which gives a quick and enthusiastic overview of Hamburg and one of its cuter suburbs - http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/mikebailey1/index.htm
A news and events site for residents: www.kloenschnack.de
Local radio station: http://www.alsterradio.de
Local sights, events, festivals
The one leaflet that is in English is small but comprehensive, with a map, and it gives phone numbers and the nearest station for each attraction.
Hamburg has three times as many bridges as Venice, it is run through with canals. Boat-trips of the canals leave from Jungfersteig; boat-trips of the harbour leave from the wharf just below Baumwall U-Bahn station.
“I thought the harbour trip would be more interesting, but it was the canal trip which I found really compelling”.
If you are an air-head, there is a 6-seater sea-plane which does sightseeing trips over the harbour and the centre of town 6 days a week. Its “airport” is also in the harbour below Baumwall.
“I loved this; I wanted to go straight up there again, and I have been a passenger in a lot of light aircraft. The fact it is a sea-plane makes it very compelling; and they make a lot of effort to show you the town and the docks, circling over them everything twice. It is worth getting to know the town a bit first, so that you can recognise it from the air.”