Hamburg isn’t really an underdog. It can just feel that way. It doesn’t have the weird reputation of Berlin, despite owning its own weird history (it’s burned twice, caught cholera once, and helped birth The Beatles). But it has money, which can be, in its way, limiting. It has the most millionaires in all of Germany. It’s a business city and a journalism hub; Der Spiegel calls it home. It has the second biggest port in Europe (after Rotterdam), making it an international trading hotspot. It’s doing just fine.
But this doesn’t make it seem liveable, or even tourist-able. In fact it’s both. It’s the largest city in Europe that’s not a capital, meaning there’s plenty of room for everyone and everything. Strolling (or, preferably, biking) from one neighborhood to another can feel like embarking on an epic journey, going from scenic harbors to rich shopping districts to gritty youth living. It doesn’t always feel rich. In fact, it often feels approachable and homey.
If Berlin is New York City, then Hamburg is roughly Philadelphia, only much bigger — the more affordable living space that has its own unique charm. (Berlin is easily accessible via a two-hour Eurorail ride, and vice versa.) Indeed, you won’t see many Rich Uncle Pennybags types strolling around the city. You see young people. Many of the city’s artist-types live in Sternschanze, which is filled with cafes, bars, green markets and record shops, some specializing in Hamburg-only music. But they migrate everywhere, including the port and the vast Alster lake, a favorite place for sailing on one of Hamburg’s many, many windy days.
There’s even a growing craft beer scene. There are plenty of places to get giant, refreshing, traditional German weisses and pilsners. And there’s the longtime Hamburg-brewed Astra — a staple of any German alehouse. But there’s also the Ratsherrn Braurei in Sternschanze, a brewery that has been trying to catch a pioneering beer country up with the modern day, even including an American master brewer.
Of course, it also has another major attraction: the Reeperbahn — a stretch of the St. Pauli neighborhood that’s long been a thriving Red Light District. It’s right by the port, and historically it was where sailors from around the world came to have fun. As it happens, prostitution is legal in Germany (though pimping is not), and the street teems with women posing in windows and sex shops to shock puritanical Americans into dropping their monocles. (One store sells a certain toy in the shape of the Eifel Tower.)
The Reeperbahn is also one of the sordid birthplaces of The Beatles. They came to Hamburg to set up residency at one of the street’s many clubs, playing numerous sets every day and, amazingly, never repeating a song on the same day. (Paul McCartney and Pete Best were at one point deported for starting a small fire with a condom.) If you want to savor the sights of the Fab Four’s origins, do it during the day time; at night it’s obscured by massive, revved-up crowds and blinding neon.
Hamburg boasts another significant milestone, though this one is more debatable: It’s one of the possible mothers of the hamburger. Though history has proven vague on exactly who invented the modern hamburger, it almost assuredly has roots in the “Hamburg steak” — a patty of minced beef created in the 19th century. Who put a bun around this contraption is a mystery, but some Hamburg restaurants — including the Oberhafen-Kantine in Hafencity, situated in a leaning building — still serve an early version of this: the “rundstuck warm,” which piles vegetables and gravy on top of a round patty.
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