How Hamburg won my heart: From cool canals to the best wurst ever
From cool canals and coffee to the best wurst ever, Tom Sweeney takes a surprising - and tasty - tour of Hamburg
Germans aren't noted for their riotous sense of humour, but an ad for the Hamburg School of English on a packed commuter train has me laughing out loud.
It's the slogan: "We have ways of making you talk."
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Later, in Restaurant Oberhafenkantine (oberhafenkantine-hamburg.de), the laughs continue. I sit at the head of a long table whose surface dips away at a crazy angle towards the far end. As I peruse the menu, a waiter leans in and whispers: "I wouldn't order the soup if I were you."
Tourism professional Jens Becker tells me taxpayers weren't laughing, however, when construction of the Elbphilharmonie concert hall (elbphilharmonie.de) ran wildly over schedule and over budget. It was meant to open in 2010 at a cost of €240m. It opened in 2017, with a bill of €790m.
Far from being a monumental folly, this former red brick warehouse, with an enormous prismatic glass crown that resembles an iceberg, has become a source of great civic pride and a tourist (and fridge) magnet. The open-air walkway (free entry; €2 priority) 37 metres up offers all-round views of the city, harbour and River Elbe.
In Miniatur Wunderland (miniatur-wunderland.com; €15), those same views can be seen in detailed scale reconstructions through which the world's biggest model railway runs on more than 16km of track. "Everybody who comes to Hamburg visits the model railway," says Jens, "so you could say this is Alles in Wunderland."
Lewis Carroll must be spinning in his grave.
I could watch all day, but tour guide Tomas Kaiser wants to show us around the old port district, Speicherstadt, a canal-lined labyrinth of 19th century warehouses. This was the entry and exit point for the commodities and spices on which Hamburg's considerable wealth was built - the city has more millionaires per capita than any other in Germany. King among those commodities was, and still is, coffee - one in seven cups drunk around the world are made from beans that have passed through here. In Kaffeemuseum Burg (kaffeemuseum-burg.de), I try Indonesian kopi luwak, made from beans that have passed through the guts of civet cats - a fact kept from me until I've drained the last drop. At €650 a kilo, it's the dearest coffee in the world, so I'll stick with Starbucks.
Next, we board an open-topped boat for a tour of the city's harbour and canals (barkassen-meyer.de; €18), chugging through parts of Speicherstadt inaccessible to pedestrians. Businesses occupying the warehouses include importers of exquisite, handmade Persian rugs, many of which are draped from windows, like the Irish flags that festoon hotel balconies in Santa Ponsa.
"These are the best carpets in the world," says Tomas. "You can't beat them."
If this was a pirate ship, he'd be walking the plank.
My visit to Hamburg coincides with the autumn Food Truck Festival, which returns this year to Spielbudenplatz in the St Pauli district from September 7 to 10 (spielbudenplatz.eu), when everything from Polish pierogi dumplings to tacos will be on offer while bands play on the stage. There are also, of course, hamburgers - served from a hatch in the side of an old London double-decker - but as you'd need the detachable jaw of a python to tackle one, I settle for a more manageable foot-long sausage in a bun.
It's the best wurst ever.
St Pauli is home to the Reeperbahn red light district, where the fledgling Beatles played 300 gigs between August 1960 and December 1962. It was in Hamburg that the band adopted their trademark mop tops, slept on bunk beds in a stinking toilet and were advised to change their name because 'Beatles' sounds like the German slang word for teeny-weeny willies.
It's with these and other fascinating facts that guide Stefanie Hempel regales fans on her Beatles tour of the Reeperbahn (hempels-musictour.de) while playing a ukulele and singing Fab Four favourites.
As gimmicks go, it's a toe-tapping triumph.
After a packed day, bed beckons as I have to be up at 5.30am - to go partying. Every Saturday night, revellers head for the riverside Fischmarkt's auction hall to drink and dance beyond dawn, so Jens and I join the crowds, including three newly married couples still in their white-wedding gear, to breakfast on beer, herring and hard rock. We then take a taxi to the Schanzenhofen district, where dreadlocked activists have been resisting gentrification from their HQ in the Rote Flora cultural centre since 1989, and have done the place up nicely - street art fans will love it.
In the nearby Ratsherrn brewery (ratsherrn.de), beer sommelier Daniel Hertrich says he went to Bavaria for a foundation course in his craft. "I was there for two weeks," he says during a tasting. "When I came back to Hamburg, it took me two days to sober up."
The brewery shop sells 500 different beers, including one of the strongest and most expensive in the world, Schorschbrau Schorschbock 57 (57pc ABV), which gets easier to pronounce the more you drink. Compared with that cat poo coffee, it's a steal at €199 for 330ml.
Over a farewell Mediterranean-inspired lunch in the waterside Strauchs Falco restaurant (falco-hamburg.de), Jens tells me that 80pc of people rent their homes in Hamburg, where a three-bedroomed furnished apartment with river views costs around €1,500 a month.
He nearly chokes on a chunk of chorizo when I say a similar property in Dublin would leave little change from €3,500.
"That's not funny," he splutters, and for the first time in two laughter-filled days, joker Jens is lost for words. Well, plays on words - but he quickly recovers.
"You must all be flat broke," he says. "Get it? Flat broke?"
They should rename this place Ha-ha-hamburg.
Take Three: top tips
Combine beer tasting in the Ratsherrn brewery with lunch in Restaurant Bullerei (bullerei.com). It's owned by TV chef Tim Malzer - the German Jamie Oliver.
Fill up on free samples at the open-air Isemarkt fresh food market, set beneath the U-Bahn track between Hoheluftbrucke and Eppendorfer Baum (Tues & Fri, 8.30am-2pm).
Enjoy a cocktail while taking in river views and watching the sunset from the posh Skyline Bar 20up on the 20th floor of the Empire Riverside Hotel. empire-riverside.de
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) and Ryanair (ryanair.com) both fly daily from Dublin to Hamburg. S-Bahn trains run from the airport to the city centre (€3.30, 27 minutes). Tom travelled with Hamburg Tourismus. More info at hamburg-travel.com and germany.travel.
Tom stayed at the four-star Best Western Premier Alsterkrug Hotel (alsterkrug-hotel.de). A three-night, weekend B&B package costs from €60pps per night, including public transport ticket and use of the spa. Airport and city buses stop outside.
The International Maritime Museum (imm-hamburg.de, €13) charts 3,000 years of history on nine 'decks' in the Kaispeicher B, Hamburg's oldest warehouse building. Anyone with even the slightest interest in what happens on and beneath the sea will find it fascinating.
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