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Travel: Hip to be in Hamburg

Emma Payne jets off to check out Germany’s buzzing harbourside scene

Ask any seasoned travellers where the trendiest spot in Germany is and you’re guaranteed a lengthy discussion about the indie coffee shops, bountiful street art and Instagram-worthy sights in the go-to cities – think Berlin, Munich and so forth. And sure, you can follow the latte-toting crowds and tick off the most famous sights, but we reckon we’ve found the perfect harbour-town-meets-party-city blend in a chic, vibrant metropolis way up north . . .

On first impression, central Hamburg comes across as a utilitarian, industrial place – rather fittingly, it being an economic hub for import, export, and production. Its maritime identity pervades in every corner of the city, from the shipping container apartments of the rapidly developing HafenCity (harbour city) and the buzzing Sunday morning fish market to the impressive, hull-like architecture of the Chilehaus building.

Affectionately known as Fischköpfe, or ‘fish heads’, Hamburg’s locals have a lot to be proud of, boasting a major European port (Germany’s largest) which sprawls across the Elbe river with the harbourside industrial cranes and disused tram lines forming the backdrop of a waterside stroll.

Away from the cut-and-thrust of the international trade scene, however, is a refined, cosmopolitan and bohemian side to the city. Home to national publications Der Spiegel and Die Zeit as well as an ever-expanding games design and digital hub, Hamburg has its finger on the pulse. And as night draws in, the St Pauli district takes on a trendy Parisian air as locals, beers in hand, sit outside bars and pubs.

Wanting to check some of the beer-guzzling culture-soaking action, we boarded a BMI Regional flight from Bristol Airport and found ourselves in the midst of the city in under two hours. We hopped onto Hamburg’s underground – a no-fuss way to get from A to B.

The redbrick warehouse district of Hamburg

Our jam-packed itinerary allowed little time for recovery at the four-star Hyperion Hotel – a pity given the plush, air-conditioned rooms and tempting spa – so after hastily ditching our bags we pushed on to Hamburg’s newly opened Elbphilharmonie. Built on an old harbour warehouse on the Elbe, the resplendent Elbphilharmonie is very much a jewel in the city’s cultural crown – it glittered in the sun as our guides enthusiastically discussed its three concert halls, hotel and restaurant. Not without controversy, its creation cost almost ten times the original budget, but as we gaze out at the 360° bird’s eye vistas, we’re convinced it’s worth the price tag.

After roaming through the disused redbrick Speicherstadt (warehouse disctrict), we were glad to settle our weary selves at Nil – a bustling St Pauli eaterie offering seasonal gourmet cooking, and where seating options include a cool Art Deco gallery. We were more than satisfied with a simple yet expertly executed dish of braised ox cheeks, however the highlight was a take on English home-comfort rhubarb crumble – delicate pink rhubarb, biscuit crumb and vanilla ice cream.

We turned our attention to the evening’s entertainment – a Beatles tour from Fab Four authority and singer-songwriter Stefanie Hempel. Initial misgivings at the sight of a ukulele were quashed as Stefanie – clad in a velvet blazer, eyes twinkling – flew through St Pauli, serenading us with all the classics. The charming mix of history, pop culture and music made for a memorable and unique insight into the city – and an ideal start to a night on the town.

Being a harbour town, and historically a place of respite for well-travelled sailors, Hamburg has a thriving nightlife, from cocktail bars and live music venues to theatres and racy clubs. Top of our list was the Clouds bar on the dizzying top floor of the Dancing Towers high rises – possessing panoramic views and an expansive drinks menu spanning highball classics, beer cocktails and more than 40 types of gin (seriously, they’ve got them in alphabetical order).

The newly opened Elbphilharmonie concert hall. Picture by Maxim Schulz

After a night of revelry on the neon Reeperbahn strip, the sensible morning-after options include a harbourside stroll, a boat tour and leisurely browse of the Schanzenviertel district’s flea market. Brave early risers (or, more often, late partygoers) might even make the bustling fish market, open between 5am and 9.30am. We opted for a bountiful hotel breakfast, followed by the Ratsherrn brewery tour – a hair of the dog alternative, complete with tastings and tales of the city’s brewing history.

No visit to Germany is complete without wurst making an appearance, and if traditional Teutonic snack food is what you’re after, you can’t go wrong with no-frills eatery Schmitt Foxy Food in the Karolinenviertel quarter of St Pauli. Surrounded by cool independents, boutique shops and graffiti-laden backstreets, Foxy Food’s currywurst and Fritz-Kola was a welcome restorative. Just don’t expect anything close to resembling curry because, despite the name, it’s more tomato sauce with sausage pieces (delicious nonetheless).

After stuffing ourselves with samples at the Chocoversum chocolate museum and marvelling at the Miniaturwunderland (so much more than a miniature railway, just take my word for it), we rounded off our sunny city break with one last trundle around the districts.

From the industrial harbour and the charming old town, to carefree St Pauli and the flashy Reeperbahn, I reckon Hamburg is up there with Europe’s trendiest big cities. Bis bald, Fischköpfe!

Getting there: Direct flight from Bristol to Hamburg – from £95 one way, including 23kg hold luggage, on-board refreshments and speedy check-in: flybmi.com. We stayed at Hyperion Hotel Hamburg and used comparison platform HotelsCombined to find the best option for our trip.

main picture, view over the Landungsbrücken jetties, where beach clubs spring up in summer. Picture by Jorg Modrow