When all’s said and done, Hamburg’s appeal can be narrowed down to one simple calling card: Welcome to one of the coolest cities on earth.
Hamburg’s historic label, ‘The gateway to the world’, might be a bold claim, but Germany’s second-largest city and biggest port has never been shy. A leading light in the Hanseatic League in the Middle Ages, Hamburg became a centre of international trade, a legacy that continues today: it remains one of Germany’s wealthiest cities and Hamburg’s maritime spirit still infuses the entire city. It’s the sort of city where echoes of the city’s port and history are everywhere, from the incessant cry of gulls overhead to the vibrant neighbourhoods awash with multicultural eateries, seaward-facing architecture and the gloriously seedy Reeperbahn red-light district.
There was one consolation for locals when the city’s authorities decided to blow the municipal budget: at least it was done for a new concert hall, the Elbphilharmonie. Hamburg’s musical pedigree is staggering: Gustav Mahler once directed the city’s 330-year-old state opera, while both Johannes Brahms and Felix Mendelssohn were born here. But it’s not just about classical music. Hamburg also has very modern and rather raucous melodic soundtrack, not mention a compelling story. The city nurtured the early promise of the Beatles, and music festivals litter the calendar, while the dynamic live music scene just keeps getting better.
The Elbphilharmonie is an extraordinary structure, dominating the skyline and capturing in glass and brick the essence of Hamburg’s polyglot soul. This striking icon of the city has elevated architecture to the centre of public debate and awareness, and it’s just the most famous of a rather exciting collection. Office towers that appear as if they are dancing and buildings that from afar look like ocean liners share the streets with half-timbered relics of the medieval city. And only in Hamburg would they think of preserving a former WWII bunker and turning it into a nightclub.
The good people of Hamburg really know how to live. For a start, they’ve mastered the ingredients of culinary diversity: elevate your local specialties to the level of an obsession and treasure them, even as you remain open to all manner of gastronomic trends. The result is culinary excellence on multiple fronts. So, too, for nightlife: Hamburg is full to bursting with classy cocktail bars, dance-all-night clubs and neighbourhood bars and pubs that both reflect each neighbourhood’s identity and define it. So successful are they that it’s almost impossible to come to Hamburg and not have a really good time.