Neuer Wall, a street lined with luxury shops.
By FRANK BRUNI New York Times Published: January 19, 2012
NO one tells you how pretty Hamburg is. That’s because so few people mention Hamburg in the first place. American tourists and businesspeople gravitate toward other German cities: Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt. And so Hamburg, bigger than all but Berlin, remains a bit of a mystery, poised to become a thrilling discovery. Did you know about the lake? It’s smack dab in the city center and skirted by regal buildings, a postcard-ready tableau if there ever was one. And the canals? They lattice the part of the city nearest the Elbe River, allowing Hamburg to joust with Stockholm, Amsterdam and Bruges for informal rights to call itself the Venice of northern Europe. Hamburg in winter is cold and often gray. No getting around that. But the indoors migration of many Hamburg residents gives the city a quiet and peace that I relished on a recent visit. Sure, the blustery weather persuaded me to skip the lake ferries and Elbe cruises recommended in summertime. But it wasn’t an obstacle to appreciating Hamburg’s formidable charms.
1. SIGHTS AND SHOPS
Plant yourself in front of the Rathaus, Hamburg’s stunning architectural centerpiece and, fittingly, city hall. A neo-Renaissance-style sandstone structure, it sprawls and swirls across an entire city block, offering a first hint of Hamburg’s longstanding vanity and ambition. Hamburg is not only a major port but also the capital of Germany’s news media and one of its wealthiest cities, with more gilt than grit. You’ll appreciate this as you walk north from the Rathaus to Jungfernstieg, a majestic thoroughfare that faces the central lake, Binnenalster. From there zig-zag among the narrower streets to the south and west, sizing up the luxury shops and well-heeled shoppers around Neuer Wall, in particular. Pause along Alsterarkaden, a Venetian-style arcade of shops and cafes along a broad canal.
2. TEARS OVER CAVIAR
For an old-fashioned dining experience that’s a pampering hoot, splurge on Cölln’s (Brodschrangen 1-5), a Hamburg institution with colorful tiled floors, immaculately painted wainscoting and tiny rooms with only one to three tables each and doors that close tightly between servers’ visits. You’re given a button to buzz the help; ...a lulling sense of intimacy...
3. AFTER-HOURS LAIR
If Cölln’s connects you with the past, Le Lion (Rathausstrasse 3) tugs you into the present. Just a few blocks away, it’s a stylish, cozy lounge with all the tropes of contemporary cocktail culture: boutique spirits, classic glassware, ambiguously marked entrance. Press a tiny doorbell in the mouth of a lion’s head, and only if there’s space — or if you’ve made a reservation — are you allowed inside a plush room with felt wallpaper, dim lighting and superb drinks, served past 4 a.m.
4. STROLL ACROSS BORDERS
A counterpoint to the upscale shopping district near the Rathaus is the scruffier, cheekier, more ethnically diverse craft stores, galleries and cafes along Lange Reihe, in the St. George neighborhood. Here you’ll find Chinese, Portuguese and Italian restaurants; terrific German bread; Tibetan art; and bulky Himalayan woolens. Start by fueling yourself at a marble table in the shag-carpeted back room at Cafe Gnosa (Lange Reihe 93), an amusing place for breakfast (about 25 euros for two), coffee and desserts — try the ethereal cheesecake (3 euros). As you cover the five or so blocks from Gnosa back toward Binnenalster Lake, note the inadvertently hilarious New Age redoubt Kräuterhaus (Lange Reihe 70), which sells spices and teas along with illuminated Himalayan salt crystals, which, an employee told us, “clear the air of ionic smog.”
5. A LILLIPUTIAN WORLD
The humdrum entrance to the Miniatur Wunderland (Kehrwieder 2-4) and the drab rooms that house it don’t prepare you for this eccentric museum’s singular collection of model train scenes. Lilliputian locomotives move through mountains, forests, seacoasts and cities that replicate parts of Germany, Scandinavia and even America. Watch miniature figures flick on miniature lighters as they stand before a miniature concert stage with miniature portable toilets nearby. (Admission, 6-12 Euros.)
6. GLORIOUS GLASS
From Miniatur Wonderland, head south a few blocks and over several canals into HafenCity, an urban construction project of dazzling heft and quality. A little more than a decade ago Hamburg decided to repurpose nearly 400 acres of docklands on the Elbe as a commercial, residential and recreational district that would increase the city center’s size by 40 % and showcase mesmerizing glass towers. In a watery area of about 15 square blocks are stunning examples of contemporary architecture, including apartment buildings with jagged, terraced exteriors; the shiplike Unilever building (Strandkai 1); and the Elbphilharmonie, or philharmonic, at the western point of Am Kaiserkai, a deliberately lopsided, wavy, spectacular monument of what looks like frosted glass.
7. TEA TIME
Break up your amble through HafenCity with a stop at Messmer Momentum (Am Kaiserkai 10), a teahouse and tea museum that honors Hamburg’s role as the port through which much of Europe’s tea has flowed. There are hundreds of teas for sampling or sale; an enchanting gift shop with tea paraphernalia and exotically flavored candies to be dissolved in tea; and a sleek cafe with a wall of windows and wood deck overlooking a canal.
8. ALTITUDE AND ATTITUDE
A fashionable place for cocktails is 20Up, on the 20th floor of the Empire Riverside Hotel (Bernhard-Nocht-Strasse 97), but drinks aren’t its real glory. The view is. The bar, with walls of glass, overlooks the Elbe, and as you survey the ships and docks and cranes, you get a sense of Hamburg’s maritime might. Walk to the northeast corner and you can see the pulsing neon of the Reeperbahn, the city’s famous red-light district.
9. NOT FOR VEGANS
For a festive atmosphere, handsome crowd and superior beef, pork and more, Bullerei hits the bull’s-eye. Apart from a wine bar, the restaurant is one enormous industrial-chic room, with walls of concrete and exposed brick. Fleshy atmospheric motifs include a display window of hanging beef and a thick piece of transparent plastic over each menu that evokes the vertical strips in the doorway of a meat locker. There’s fish here, too, along with salads and such, all deftly prepared. Dinner for two with beer or wine is about 110 euros; reservations are recommended.
10. PRAYER AND CARDIO
Whether you’re in need of God or exercise, St. Michaelis Church can oblige you. It’s a Baroque gem that’s also a monument to resilience, having rebounded from, and been rebuilt after, lightning, fire and World War II bombing. And its white-and-gold interior makes you feel as if you’re inside a royal wedding cake. Be sure to glance up at the most colossal of several pipe organs. You can come for the 10 a.m. service or wait until it’s over to explore the church; either way, visit the viewing platform in its tower. There’s a tiny elevator, but the staircase — twisting, narrow, endless — is the way to go, a calorie burner that gives you a sense of having earned the 360-degree panorama.
IF YOU GO
The Hotel Atlantic Kempinski, a short walk from the train station, offers lake views and a gorgeous blend of historic and contemporary touches. Although the listed price for a standard double is more than 300 euros, online deals sometimes bring that down below 200.
In the livelier St. Pauli district, the Hotel Hafen Hamburg (Seewartenstrasse 9; 49-40-31-11-30) has a prime harbor front perch and hundreds of rooms with all the amenities. Doubles start at 79 Euros in the winter, depending on the date and availability.
Several, of many, COMMENTS:
• Photos don't do this lovely city justice, and there's a lot more to Hamburg than streets of upscale shops. The city is an architectural gem, and is wonderful to walk.
• Oh my God, how can you forget THE red brick Masterpiece, the renown Chile House built in the 20s and miraculously surviving the bombings of ´43, it's one of the most fab buildings of the world - and I have seen quite few.
Also, not the NEW HafenCity but the old part is the real deal - a marvel. And how about the Elbchaussee by the Elbe, with its majestic villas?
Anyway, good to see some enthusiasm about my hometown! And please, please, never ever forget to mention the Beatles who started in the Star-Club in 1963!!
• Great city, very accessible. Good to see Hamburg highlighted. However the article does not do it justice. A jog around the Aussen Alster is a treat during all seasons. The springtime rhododendrons are beautiful and everywhere to be enjoyed. A bike ride through the city or along the Elbe can go for miles. The great cafes and the penchant of the stylish locals to enjoy the outdoors at the first sign of good weather makes it all the better.