During my two-week trip to Germany last year, I had one full weekend off from work. I knew I wanted to check out another city, preferably in Bavaria, the Germany that everyone imagines. However, I didn’t want to risk getting stuck at an airport or having a flight canceled and not making it back in time for work, and I didn’t want to practice my manual driving skills either, so I settled on Hamburg, just a couple hours west of Potsdam and Berlin. It turned out to be a great choice. Since the entire trip was last minute, I played everything by ear and didn’t plan much. I’m sure I missed a lot of important sights, but just the feel of the city was incredible.
I know people love to talk about the “feel” of cities in vague romanticized terms, and this is the first time I have wanted to do the same and go on about the “energy” of Hamburg. Hopefully I can convey some actual meaning in this post.
This trip gave me one of my best conversation starters: “Did I ever tell you about that time I visited Hamburg and accidentally reserved a room in the Red Light District?” You see, because I didn’t do any research, I didn’t realize that Hamburg had one of the most well-known red-light districts in the world (Oyster, Thrillist), made famous by the Beetles. So imagine my surprise when I walked off the train and onto the Reeperbahn at 10:00 on Friday night, and found myself immediately surrounded by strip clubs and brothels. After a half hour of wandering around and lugging a suitcase, I found my Air BnB and texted Anton (who used to live in Germany) “I think I’m staying in some kind of red-light district..” His response? “Oh yeah, watch where you walk; they dump water on women.” With that thought on my mind, I headed back out to find some dinner, and hopefully not get drenched in the process. All that being said, the streets I was on were quite touristy and felt perfectly safe.They reminded me of Vegas – “anything goes.” The initial shock and confusion upon exiting the train station are what will stick with me forever though. I was a bit too tired to enjoy it to the fullest extent, and also felt a little weird about being on my own in a red-light district at 10:00 on a Friday night, so I explored a few of the bigger streets, had a quick and awkward dinner by myself, and snuck back to my Air BnB for the night. Although I eventually dozed off, the party continued outside all night.
As a side note, I later found the small side street Anton was talking about where they supposedly dump water on women. I’m not sure if that is true because I didn’t test it, but even I could tell (without speaking German) that it was a street I wasn’t welcome on.
In the morning I woke up and first headed down to St. Pauli Landing to book a river cruise along the Elbe. I booked with this company, which offered commentary in English and German. It was a bit difficult to hear the commentary while sitting outside, but the weather was beautiful and just traveling along the Elbe was a great overview of the city. We traveled a small distance toward the North Sea, just making it out to the neighborhood of Elbeterrassen, a popular place for retirement (that’s about all I could hear from the announcements). Being in the second largest port in all of Europe, we also of course saw dozens of enormous shipping barges and cranes. After the cruise I was ready for lunch (I just had to get a hamburger in Hamburg; it was delicious), and then I decided to rent a bike for the next 24 hours.
I rented from a bike shop near my Air BnB, Hamburg City Cycles. The folks there were super helpful in suggesting places for me to go, and with that I headed off to bike through the Old Elbe Tunnel, and to visit the beach my cruise passed by earlier at Elbeterrassen. The Old Elbe Tunnel was opened in 1911 and connected the main part of Hamburg with the docks and shipyards to the south, allowing easier access for thousands of workers. Today, the tunnel is mostly a tourist attraction for pedestrians and bicyclists, but still open for vehicles Monday – Saturday. Pedestrians can walk down the stairs, but I took the car elevator with my bike in tow. On the other side I was rewarded with nice views looking back at Hamburg, and took an hour or so to explore the shipyards.
I made my way back to Central Hamburg in time to ride off to the beach by late afternoon. I found Hamburg to be very bike-friendly, and had a pleasant 25-minute ride out to the beach (the perfect weather didn’t hurt either). There were lots of little restaurants to have dinner or grab a drink at in Elbeterrassen; I locked my bike up and grabbed some gelato and started exploring the beach and surrounding neighborhood. Once the sun started to get low, I headed back to Hamburg, stopping along the way to snap some photos in the golden hour.
My time up until Saturday night was pleasant, but not particularly noteworthy. After seeing how seriously people took the nightlife however, I definitely wanted to go out on Saturday night (but probably not along the Reeperbahn). So I located a rooftop bar, Skyline Bar 20up, and walked myself over there for some drinks. The drinks were delicious and I had a great time just people-watching; plus the bartender kept me amused despite the language barrier. The views were fantastic; however note that they will turn away guests who aren’t dressed to their standards). After a couple of drinks at 20up, I headed over to a nice, more relaxed bar and finished the evening there. This evening, I discovered the earplugs my host had set out and slept more peacefully.
The next day I woke up early and headed to the Hamburg Fischmarkt, a massive market that attracts thousands of visitors every Sunday. Some people go to do some weekly shopping, while others finish up their Saturday night by drinking beer and listening to live music. Even at 8am on Sunday, the party was in full swing. After seeing the Reeperbahn scene on Friday night, having my own night out on Saturday, hearing the party going on all night outside my window, and then witnessing the party at the Fischmarkt, I truly started to appreciate the endless energy of Hamburg. It’s the first time I’ve really understood what people mean when they say a city never sleeps. I couldn’t even think about beer that early on a Sunday (or that early on any day, for that matter). I don’t know how these people did it – especially if they had been drinking all night previously. The mood and energy was downright infectious.
After the Fischmarkt, I biked to grab lunch at Zum Spätzle. Spätzle for lunch! Cheesy spätzle no less! I didn’t expect to find this quintessential German food in the north. The restaurant was on a small, pretty neighborhood street and I enjoyed my meal outside. Delightfully full, I continued onto the Protestant Hauptkirche St. Michaelis in search of a nice overlook of the city. The original structure was completed in 1669 but since then has been completely rebuilt and reconstructed a couple of times. In 1883, the famous composer Johannes Brahms was baptized there. Today, it is the largest and most famous church in Hamburg. The tower rises 106 meters above the Elbe and gave more fantastic views. At the top, you could continue climbing a narrow spiral staircase all the way up to the bell and experience some delightful vertigo. I had to sit down on the staircase to steady myself!
To wrap up my trip to Hamburg, I rode up to Stadtpark (the third largest city park in Hamburg) by way of Außenalster Lake. I covered a lot of ground in a single afternoon – renting a bike was an excellent way to see a lot of the city in a short amount of time. I returned the bike just in time for a downpour (one of the only times I saw rain during my two-week trip), and to head back to the train station to depart Hamburg.
I’m certain I did a lackluster job here explaining why I enjoyed Hamburg so much, and like the rest of my Germany trip, it’s also probably due to the conditions that I’ll never be able to replicate. Getting paid to work there for two weeks and being treated to phenomenal weather throughout really stacks the deck for me. All in all, I highly recommend Hamburg (by bike in particular)! And although I would love to return one day, I hope my next trip to Germany covers the southern part of the country.