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10 Things To Do In Hamburg

Moin moin! Or hello, welcome to Hamburg! This charming northern German city has recently been in the spotlight due to the opening of the glitzy new Elbphilharmonie concert hall in HafenCity, which cuts into the river Elbe like a ship's prow. But Hamburg is so much more than a pedestal for striking modern architecture: it brims with historical significance, as the former jewel of the Hanseatic League and the city where the Beatles cut their teeth. I spent four days there this spring and loved it so much I knew I'd have to write about it when I came home (though exams got in the way!) In fact, I have so much I want to say about Hamburg's food offerings and the splendid Kunsthalle that I shall write about them separately. For now, here are ten things that you absolutely shouldn't miss if you get the chance to spend some time here.

1. Take a stroll along the lakes. 
Hamburg is home to two man-made lakes, the Außenalster and the Binnenalster. Wandering along their banks is a pleasure - there's cafes and benches at which to perch and drink tea and coffee, gazing out at the lake, plus exercise equipment and swings, which B and I had a go on (and found far too funny given our rapidly advancing age). In the spring, the trees are laden down with blossom and little fuzzy cygnets bob along behind their parents. This is a wonderful thing to do on your first day to shake off the pre-holiday and flight stress.

2. Partake in Kaffee und Kuchen
I'm lucky because I have my very own German. And he's taught me a useful phrase - Man gönnt sich ja sonst nichts. It means you have to spoil yourself sometimes. And on this, our first holiday together, worn down from long walks and the chilly weather, we ended up sitting down for a slice of cake and coffee every day. Think I took the dictum a bit far because I spoiled myself all the time. I'll be posting about my favourite cakes in due course, but for now, let it be said that at Cafe Gnosa (Lange Reihe 93), my first taste of German hot chocolate (with accompanying teeny espresso cup of whipped cream, for me) and cake (Rhabarber-Streusel, magnificent) blew me away. 

3. Climb to the top of the Michaeliskirche. 
The Michaeliskirche has become a symbol of Hamburg - while much of the surrounding area was razed by WWII fire bombing, this church escaped largely unscathed. For €5 (or €4 if you're a student), you can slog your way up 453 steps (or take a lift) up to a viewing platform with excellent views of the city. The inside of the church is also beautiful and free to enter. Michaeliskirche is so unlike the ostentatious Baroque churches of Italy. It's almost restrained with its reserved brick exterior, but lavishly gilded on the inside, like a wedding cake.

4. Visit HafenCity and the Speicherstadt.
Hamburg is brilliant for walking, and the network of bridges and canals on the north side of the river Elbe is especially worth exploring. You can enjoy beautiful vistas along the canals here and pop into the sparkling new Elbphilharmonie concert hall (the interior of which, with its insanely long escalators, is free to enter).

5. Downsize at Miniatur Wunderland. 
The quirky Miniatur Wunderland (€13 entrance for adults/€9 for students) is home to the world's largest model railway. Prepare to geek out. Yes, it's a bit touristy - you'll have to brave the crowds - but it's so worth it. There's 10 miles of detail to gaze at, and new sections being built all the time. My favourite bits were the displays detailing the history of a town, the impressive model airport and the Hamburg exhibit, which we spent ages poring over to work out what we'd visited. Come on guys, build London next! Also, you can have schnitzel and beer in a canteen that looks like you're on a train carriage - this amused me far too much. This place is open til 1 AM (!!!) so you can rock up and nerd out at all hours of the day.

Look away now, Mum and Dad.

6. Take a ferry ride to Oevelgönne.
Our Airbnb host, André, suggested this one to us! (On a side note - our Airbnb was superb and I'd really recommend it. It was located in tranquil, residential Winterhude just off the Alster, with bakeries on every corner to choose from for breakfast. It's a double room in a beautiful, well-equipped flat - the rain shower is particularly sublime and André has a very sweet chocolate labrador! I mean, if that doesn't sell it then I don't know what will.) You can jump on a ferry at Landungsbrücken if you've bought a U-Bahn/S-Bahn day pass, as it's included in the price. We were intending to take our ferry to the Blankenese, a purportedly picturesque fishing village, but took the wrong one so got off at Oevelgönne instead, a sweet museum suburb with beautiful houses with tulip-filled gardens and magnolia trees on the riverfront. This is the kind of place where scrappy dogs race along the sandy shore, their owners huddled up with Aperol Spritzes or Fischbrötchen to watch the boats go by. 

7. Go food shopping at the Isemarkt.
The bustling Isemarkt (Isestraße) is tucked away under the U-Bahn tracks and stretches along for almost a kilometre. It has a lovely Borough Market or Maltby Street vibe to it - locals come here to browse for everything from plump white Spargel (asparagus) to woody sticks of cinnamon and brightly coloured Dutch tulips. There's no shortage of lunch spots here (more on that in my food post!) and best of all, it was just a 20 minute walk from our Airbnb.

This scene, witnessed on the way to the Isemarkt, stole my heart. 

8. Rummage for treasures at the Flohschanze.
My second market recommendation is the Flohschanze, a sprawling flea market whose stalls congregate around an old slaughterhouse on Saturday mornings. Here, you can search for old film cameras and get an old-school black and white photo strip for €2 at the Photoautomat to the right of the market. Wandering around here on our last morning, B was tempted by sweet wooden chairs that could furnish a future café, while I was swayed by a bronze watering can. This is why I should never be allowed to set foot in flea markets.

Weather warning: Hamburg is pretty cold even in April and the weather can turn sharply. Bright sun might metamorphose into hail in a matter of seconds. All Hamburgers we saw were wearing thick puffer jackets at all times, so unless you're visiting at the height of summer, make sure you pack layers and knitwear.

9. Drink in nature at Planten un Blomen. 
This little oasis in the city centre is definitely worth a visit and was especially pretty as it burst into bloom in spring. I'd have loved to have lingered here for longer - it'd be great to take a picnic here or read a book reclining in the meadows. We walked through Planten un Blomen on our way to number 10...
10. Immerse yourself in music at the Brahms Museum.
We spent our last day taking shelter from the icy rain in this little row of higgledy-piggledy houses. The Brahms Museum is part of the Composers' Quarter Museum; you can buy a combined pass to both for €5, which I would really recommend. The more modern CQM is dedicated to Telemann, C.P.E. Bach and Hasse. Although B and I have both been musicians since childhood, we hadn't heard of Hasse, so found the exhibits dedicated to his life and music fascinating. We also had a wonderful tour from old Ulrich, the best guide ever. The Johannes Brahms museum, meanwhile, is less well-equipped but very charming, and you can even have a play on the piano he used to teach on (though it's incredibly out of tune!) The museums also have very pretty gardens as well as a fantastic little cafe, perfect for splashing out a little for your last lunch, as we did. 

Keen Hamburg fans will notice that I haven't mentioned anything about the Reeperbahn or St. Pauli districts but that's because I wouldn't massively recommend going there! I have a feeling I'd have enjoyed both if I'd been five years younger and visiting mainly to go out - not really my kind of thing nowadays. To be honest, I found the Reeperbahn quite sleazy - all neon strip clubs and upsetting billboards of women leering lasciviously, it kind of reminded me of Rouge City in A.I. However, it' might be worth walking up and down the Reeperbahn for fun, especially since there's a great bar that we came across by chance nearby - I'll talk about that more in my next post.

Another thing I haven't mentioned is the Fischmarkt, which came up on just about every 'things you shouldn't miss in Hamburg' guide I perused before the trip. It's open from 5 AM-9.30 AM in summer and is the place to go after a night out for fischbrötchen and coffee. I really wanted to go, but sadly we missed out because it's only open on Sundays (and we flew back on Saturday!) Next time.

And so we come to the end of my Hamburg guide. You should all know that I found out about the majority of these places from the wonderful Lisa of Not Quite Enough, who lived in Hamburg during her degree and whose blog should be the first port of call for anyone interested in visiting this beautiful city.

Until next time - stay tuned for my food and Kunsthalle posts!

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Birthday Feasting at Clipstone

Birthdays are a big deal in the Lim household. In the days preceding a birthday dinner, I happily embrace austere supermarket meal deals and minimal pasta-based dinners so as to enjoy myself fully on the big day. This stomach-preparing technique came in handy on B's birthday at Clipstone. Like its sister establishment Portland, Clipstone is named after the street it's located on - fitting for a joint that describes itself as a 'neighbourhood restaurant'. Clipstone Street itself is fairly insipid. One of the capillaries that branches off the great arteries of the Euston Road and Oxford Street, it's at the base of the BT Tower, a quagmire of office blocks, pubs and betting shops. The eponymous restaurant, however, is a different beast, and one that refuses to conform to its environs. Through a heavy door and fluttering curtains is a little oasis, illumined by candlelight and gentle chatter. 

Clipstone is one of those admirable places whose menu - both set and à la carte - revolves around what's in season. Personally I think that it's a sensible as well as exciting way to structure a menu - I like knowing that what I'll get next time will probably be quite different from this visit. On this occasion, we were starving from a day unfortunately spent in classes and quickly settled on the set 'feasting' menu. Fewer choices to make, more food for your money - what's not to love?

The feasting menu is exactly what I love in a meal - seemingly endless dishes that materialise at the table, Hogwarts-style, each one practically a surprise. To start, we mopped up gorgeous lemon-infused olive oil with hunks of sturdy sourdough. Each citrusy bite transported me back to summer in sun-drenched Puglia. Addictive stuff, and unsurprising that we insisted on keeping it on the table right up to dessert.

Sea trout tartare with oyster ponzu and fermented oca root. Fresh and delicate, this tasted of the ocean spray on the seafront, and made me want to jump on a train to Devon.

Lardo di colonnata. This dish was bizarre yet beautiful - a rumpled white handkerchief of cured fat studded with earthy caramelised walnuts, almost impudent in its minimalism and yet making for an extraordinary flavour experience. My first nibble took me back to a childhood spent in the Chinese restaurants in Bayswater. Just like the fat on char siu or crispy pork belly, the lardo tasted silky, faintly porky and melted in the mouth. It wasn't on the feasting menu but I was dead set on ordering it anyway - a good move, as it was easily one of the most striking plates of the evening.

Little roundels of raw Yorkshire hogget with acidic sheep's yoghurt, sheep's cheese and olive oil - perfectly fine but unspectacular. As a teenager, I was a zealous proponent of meat and cheese at every meal, but times have clearly changed. The hogget was quickly jostled from my memory by the following dazzling non-meat dish...

Yellow sprouting broccoli and rainbow chard bathed in dulse butter with a sprinkling of flaked almonds. Smoky, creamy and crunchy, this was vibrant and completely delicious. I love it when recognisable, everyday vegetables take centre stage, and these were made special and tied together by the butter sauce and smooth broccoli purée. The broccoli was a definite contender for my favourite plate of the night, and one that we had no qualms about licking clean. 

Isle of Mull scallops cooked and served in the shell with cauliflower, pomelo and shiso. I have little to say about these other than that they had a lovely texture, were lots of fun to scoop out of the shell and we devoured them in about five seconds flat. A simple pleasure. (In niche scallop-related news, I recently learned about the significance of the scallop shell in relation to pilgrims and now want to know more about the symbolism. Paging all art historians, help please...)

Tortellini of fennel and ricotta, olives and fermented kumquat. This was an experimental dish, and one that I found interesting but ultimately couldn't decide as to whether it worked or not. The shells of the tortellini were slightly too thick for my liking, while I would have loved more ricotta filling and was uncertain about the kumquat. However, the olive and fennel flavours were nicely balanced and I liked the texture of the toasted buckwheat. On another positive note, these are definitely the cutest tortellini I've had. Isn't the one at the front kind of coquettish? And there I go, ascribing anthropomorphic qualities to a piece of pasta.

Yellow foot chicken with burnt aubergine, radishes, ramsons and seeds. A luxurious plate: I really appreciated the combination of creamy, fatty chicken and peppery, crunchy radishes and garlicky ramsons.

Our waitress described the desserts as the 'nail in the coffin' and oh lord, they were. This savarin with gariguette strawberries and chantilly cream heralded B's birthday and the beginning of a serious food baby for me. There was an interesting interplay between heavy and light here: the actual sponge was unexpectedly heavy, lifted up by the summery, quintessentially Wimbledon flavours of strawberries and cream. 

Lemon meringue tart. Just look at it - it's a knockout. I loved the dazzling yellow colour of the lemon sprinkled with the tiny verdant leaves of basil, which produced a surprisingly thrilling marriage of flavours. The array of textures here was delightful: a crisp, super-thin crust, creamy citrus filling and squidgy, sugary blowtorched meringue topping which resembled lava spilling out of a volcanic vent like in Werner Herzog's Into The Inferno (which, by the way, is worth a watch.) This was a classic with subtle twists, done incredibly well. Initially I was disappointed that the Paris Brest of Instagram fame wasn't on the menu, so it's testament to Clipstone's pastry chef's skills that I left with a big smile on my face and no choux-related regrets. She's clearly a rising star.

Clipstone delivered on every front for B's birthday. We were presented with a seductive meal - one whose dishes were amusing, original and yet classic, and made for a lovely time. B was left full of food and excited for a surprise trip to Hamburg (his present from me, and one I was so relieved to reveal after tortuous months of trying to keep it under wraps!)

And beyond Clipstone...I'd be remiss if I didn't mention our excellent nightcap in The Vault, a speakeasy hidden away in a Soho basement. I loved my Old Fashioned with a coconut butter twist, and B discovered true love in Irish whiskey form. A fine chaser to an excellent meal.

5 Clipstone St
London W1W 6BB

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