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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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