Beer and boating
Our historic port city is defined by its waterways: the mighty Elbe River, a maze of canals around the warehouses of the Unesco-listed Speicherstadt neighbourhood, and above all the giant lake, the Outer Alster, formed by the Alster River. The best time to discover Alster is on a Saturday or Sunday morning, when Hamburgers set out to hike, walk the dog, jog, bike or skateboard around the lake. Renting a bike and doing a round trip is fun, but nothing beats hiring a canoe or a rowing boat. From the north of the lake, you can steer your vessel into narrow canals, get a bit lost and grab a beer at places such as Cafe Canale, where they pass trays out to your boat like a fast-food drive-thru. Just take care not to fall in when a dozen canoes are trying to get served at once.
• Boat hire from €20 an hour, barca-hamburg.de
In a quiet side street of the hipster Schanze neighbourhood, in between funky restaurants, vintage stores and design studios, is the minimalist fashion boutique Mojo. Minimalist is the perfect word to describe the collections of these young Hamburg stylists, as each item is limited to an edition of 100 – an instant collectible – be it beanie or baseball cap, T-shirt or hoodie. And you won’t find them on sale in any other shop – only in the flagship one here in Schanze or online. Prices are not cheap – T-shirts from €25, hooded sweats from €70 – but each new edition sells out quickly. Just down the street is the legendary all-night truckers’ canteen, Erika’s Eck – worth dropping in for a mammoth wiener schnitzel – and Mojo has created a range just for them. A very Hamburg souvenir to take home.
• Kampstrasse 11, mojostore.de
Cake and chat
When I arrived in Hamburg, I lived in the St Georg neighbourhood and Café Gnosa, my first local cafe, is a place I love going back to. People always talk to you in here when you sit down, whether you want them to or not. This is a bakery and the cakes are out of this world, perfect for what all Germans love – kaffee und kuchen. St Georg is one of the more gentrified quarters of the city, a favourite LGBTQ+ haunt, and the rainbow flag proudly flies outside the cafe. And just 10 minutes’ walk away is the Kunsthalle, the fine arts museum.
• Lange Reihe 93, on Facebook
Village in the city
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My home is in the St Pauli district, where I do a Beatles tour of the clubs they started out in, and I would not live anywhere else in the city. Although gentrification is creeping in, there is still a grittiness to this working-class, seamen’s quarter, and while tourists may identify it with the red-light Reeperbahn, this is actually a tolerant, friendly village where everyone knows each other. Start off at my local cafe, Kandie Shop, where friends catch up on gossip and politics over great coffee, waffles and vegan cakes. For dinner, Krug has a warm, gemütlich atmosphere, serving hearty dishes from the south of Germany, and then it’s on for cocktails at the Chug Club, where owner Betty Kupsa stocks 400 tequilas and mezcals. And if you are in town when St Pauli FC play at home, grab a ticket. They are our very own social club, as well as a football team.
Cycle to an island
The island of Kaltehofe (connected to the mainland by a bridge) in the north branch of the Elbe offers unspoiled countryside in the city centre, and few visitors know about it. After a cholera outbreak at the end of the 19th century, Kaltehofe was where Hamburg’s water was purified – filtered through sand in a series of basins. In 1990, the island was abandoned and made off-limits, left to grow wild, but today it has been transformed into a wetlands reserve. It is ideal for cycling to for a picnic or birdwatching, following a bike path through the docks and along river dykes, or the 503 bus takes you direct to the original Wasserkunst waterworks, with exhibitions and a restaurant. On the landward side of the bridge is the perfect spot for a sunset drink, the golden pavilion of Entenwerder 1 cafe, on a pontoon on the Elbe.
Michelle, ma belle
The vinyl record scene is booming in Hamburg, hardly surprising given the vibrant DJ clubbing scene. Each neighbourhood has its specialist stores but nothing beats the venerable Michelle, a big and beautiful record shop in a quiet side street just off the department stores lining Mönckebergstrasse, the city’s main shopping street. Musicians love Michelle because the staff are so friendly and knowledgeable. It stocks about 30,000 records, from hip-hop and indie to jazz, funk, electro and techno, but you have to come in and browse as it doesn’t sell on the internet. Check Michelle’s Facebook page for its monthly gig, with a band of the moment performing live in the shop window.
• Gertrudenkirchhof 10, on Facebook
Chic French cafe
Café Paris is the most beautiful venue in Hamburg, no question, and every time you go it feels like a special occasion. The 1882 salon is so romantic, with art-deco tiles and a beautiful ceiling fresco. Yes, everything is French – from café au lait and croissants for breakfast, a bubbly glass of crémant for an aperitif, to its signature steak-frites and beef tartare – but the people of Hamburg love it, and it is their favourite place to be seen. For a real slice of local life, come on a Friday lunchtime when it opens Kantine, a no-reservation self-service diner of long communal tables, two floors above the cafe, with the same plat du jour (€14.50) as in the chic brasserie downstairs.
• Rathausstrasse 4, cafeparis.net
Worth a trawl
You can’t come for a weekend in Hamburg and miss the Sunday morning Fischmarkt on the bank of the Elbe. Following a tradition that began in 1703, the church allows fishermen to sell their catch up to 9.30am on a Sunday, so you need to get up early or more likely, given the nearby Reeperbahn’s electric Saturday nightlife, not bother going to bed. The 100-plus stallholders scream out their wares, everyone feasts on our favourite fischbrötchen – rolls stuffed with anything from shrimps to herrings and salmon – then, at the end, the massive auction hall is crowded with partygoers as live bands get the crowds dancing to cover versions of Sweet Caroline, Johnny B Goode and, of course, the Beatles’ Get Back.
A tiny chalet sits in the shadow of the crisscross girders of a railway bridge, leaning dangerously like the tower of Pisa. Built a century ago when this was the heart of Hamburg’s busy port area, Oberhafenkantine is the last genuine dockers’ canteen. And it is the place to try Hamburg cuisine: green cabbage with pork chop and wurstel; marinated salmon; slow-cooked veal cheek with kartoffelsalat (mains from €12). The one dish I tell everyone to try is the traditional sailor’s recipe labskaus. Created to last long sea voyages, it’s a strange but tasty mix of mashed potatoes, corned beef and beetroot, served with a gherkin, pickled herring and fried quail’s egg on top. Although this area looks like an industrial wasteland, the once-abandoned warehouses have actually been transformed into a thriving cultural hub, hosting concerts, theatre, art installations and exhibitions.
• Stockmeyerstrasse 39, oberhafenkantine-hamburg.de
Music to your ears
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For me, as a musician and music lover, Hamburg is one of Europe’s top cities for live entertainment. The clubs the Beatles first played in, the cult Indra and Kaiserkeller, are still going strong and are a dream venue for any up-and-coming band. On the Reeperbahn, Molotow specialises in punk and indie rock, while at Mojo (not to be confused with the fashion boutique, above) there is everything from jazz and funk to roller-disco nights. And since the state-of-the-art Elbphilharmonie concert hall opened three years ago, the city is attracting top classical conductors and musicians. Attending a performance is a memorable experience, and the futuristic building looks like a spaceship.
Take a ferry from Harwich to Hook of Holland or Newcastle to Amsterdam, then train; or Eurostar from St Pancras via Brussels and Cologne.
When to go
The Come Together festival, from 27-29 March, celebrates the 60th anniversary of the Beatles’ first concerts in Hamburg.
Where to stay
In St Pauli, Superbude Hotel (doubles from €65 room-only, breakfast €10.90) also has dorm beds from €19pp.
Discounts and sustainability
The new Hamburg CARD Green (from €10.50) has discounts on 40 sustainable attractions, such as zero-waste cafes and cycle tours
Stefanie Hempel is a singer and ukulele player, and created the Beatles Tour
Looking for a holiday with a difference? Browse Guardian Holidays to see a range of fantastic trips
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