At ease in Hamburg with roving reporter John Gall.
As one more naturally inclined to the warmth of the South, a trip to Northern Europe normally fails to raise the pulse beat beyond a steady trot, but family ties mean I get to regularly jump on a jet and an hour later find myself striding out amongst those masters of the former Hanseatic region, the Hamburgers. And I’ve got to know them well, these fine, prosperous, hard-working volk, who inhabit a city with its own distinct identity built upon the industry of the modern world – shipping, media, manufacturing and finance.
Here is a place plugged into the physical practicalities of trading in the globalised market of the 21st century. At its best Hamburg city centre recalls one of the great medieval Italian cities, Bologna in particular, exhibiting a similar sense of well-established, comfortable wealth and delight in the fabric of urban living.
In Hamburg you see men in the kind of suits and shoes you really think you should encounter in equivalent British provincial cities like say Manchester or Leeds, yet never do. The skies may be as leaden as those above British heads and the food as prosaic but you’re in Continental Europe, and the feel and priorities seem distinctly different from those back in Blighty. I remind myself that I don’t always need to head south to find succour; any old hop across the channel serves to satiate my xenophilia. The following pursuits would happily fill up three days of your time in Hamburg.
Take a 20 minute journey on the S2 line of the Underground and get off at Blankenese. This very pretty and wealthy suburb offers an arresting range of interesting shops as you emerge from the station and a series of beautiful descending winding paths that lead down to the riverside. Imagine a Cornish fishing village crossed with Marylebone High Street. Once at the bottom there are a number of beaches upon which to flop and imagine you have found yourself a slice of Cape Cod on the banks of a major commercial river in Northern Europe. This exquisite incongruity can be most keenly felt from the open-air terrace in front of Restaurant Ahrberg at Strandweg 33. Sip your hefeweizen and nibble your currywurst whilst sitting in a strandkorb and gazing at the gigantic container ships easing their way towards the Hamburg docks.
Strong, confident and un-gimmicky modern design is ubiquitous in Germany and Stilwerk at Große Elbstraße 68 is a must-see for anyone with an eye for an Eames or a craving for a Cassina. Housed in an enormous converted warehouse with a large central atrium this place functions essentially as a temple to high bourgeois living. So dramatic is the building it lends itself effortlessly to showcasing the very best of Scandinavian, German and Italian design, a smattering of high-end fashion and top-notch coffee and dinner on the ground floor.
It’s well worth the journey to devour the sublime ice-cream on offer at Eispiraten at Mendelssohnstraße 78. While a bit out of the city centre it’s only a five minute walk from Bahrenfeld S-bahn, near to Altona, and the quality of the ingredients and the organic milk they use will ensure a blissful conclusion to your ice-cream mission.
A happy day can be spent at Hamburg’s zoo, Tierpark Hagenbeck, Lokstedter Grenzstraße 2. Of particular interest is the progressive design of many areas of the zoo. Founder Carl Hagenbeck was keen to avoid the sense of the animals being caged, so you can get closer to the lions, or the brown bears and polar bears than would normally be the case because they are separated from the public by a number of discreet moats. The atmosphere this creates is one of openness and integration. You will also never go hungry at Hagenbecks – the range of sausage options is bewildering and occasionally disturbing, and beer, wine and prosecco are on offer at prices to make the Londoner weep. Get blind drunk and fill your boots for 10 euros while checking out the pretty flamingos.
Take the number 62 ferry down the Elbe from Landungsbrucken to Finkenwerder and back (just make sure you stay on the ferry). This service is part of the city’s public transport system so is included in the price of a daily travelcard. Unlike the private boats you’ll avoid any naff commentary or cheesy soundtrack (no Gerry and The Pacemakers a la Mersey Ferry) and can just enjoy the wind in your hair and the sense of being a part of the essential lifeblood of this city – its river.
If you have a hankering, as I occasionally do, for a bit of 1970s style Berni Inn/steakhouse/unreconstructed dining where there are beer mats on the table and a schooner of sherry might just be on the cards then step into Fischerhaus, at St. Pauli Fischmarkt 14. A long-established landmark restaurant down by the river, this place is all about what’s just been pulled out of the Baltic and the Elbe, served in an old school German way with lashings of kartoffelsalat.
Take the U3 tube line, alight at Eppendorfer Baum, and meander along the wide boulevards which offer up a range of high-end shopping and snacking opportunities. Where in my younger days I enjoyed the less refined joys of the Sternschanze or Grindel areas of the city, my mature self now delights in the padded charms of Eppendorf. Check out the glorious Jugendstil houses leading off the main roads and be sure to indulge in the great German gastronomic custom of kaffee und kuchen at Konditorei Lindtner which can be found on a delightful corner at Eppendorfer Landstraße 88. Cake is something they do well over here and this place does it better then the rest. A sombre, elegant, dark wood interior is populated by disapproving tweedy grannies slurping milch-kaffee and picking out Black Forest gateux from their false teeth. Actually a very special place with a charming feel.
Head over to the historic and atmospheric inner-city area of Altona for a general look around, but more specifically to dine at Eisenstein, Friedensallee 9, a Mediterranean-oriented restaurant located in a corner of a converted factory. This place has its own austere, post-industrial glamour and their pizzas in particular hit the heights. If, as often happens, you can’t get a table here head next door to Filmhauskneipe at number 7 on the same street. The feel is laid-back, informal and retro bistro – Robin’s Nest circa ’79 – with a welcome dose of German gemütlichkeit. Food is simple and well-cooked and comes in portions of Helmut Kohl dimensions.