Everything about this German city is superlative: the biggest port, the brightest red light district, the most industrial town, the freest spirits. Our challenge? We’ve got just 36 frenetic hours to experience it all.
TEXT: MARTÍN Echenique @martinechenique | PHOTOS: Pamela Ross
The train car is packed with half-drunk Germans. They speak words I don’t understand but share plenty of beer, which passes from hand to hand, from mouth to mouth. It’s almost 11 p.m. on the train from the airport to the city, and Hamburg is waiting with what many Websites had warned me about: a wild welcome after the sun goes down. The city is home to an over-the-top red light district, whose daring spirit inspired the Beatles to immortalize it as the “mile of sin.” Without further introduction, the nightlife of Hamburg shakes off its chains and loses control.
Once off the train, I head up to street level on the Reeperbahn, the neighborhood’s main drag. Packed with outlandish characters, it’s a far cry from the stereotypical notion of an ordered, tidy, robotic Germany. My first impression is that it’s like being in a Disneyland of the neon lights and the promise something out of 50 Shades of Grey.
Unlike the Latin American custom of treating sex shops as an embarrassment, hiding them behind tinted windows in low-rent shopping centers, those of Hamburg are decidedly proud, lined up one after the other, like enormous department stores that unabashedly display their wares and leave little to the imagination. “Get three toys for the price of one,” announces a sign in the sex-shop window next to my hotel. There are even discounts for international tourists. I decide to save the window-shopping for later and enter the reception area to check in. Here, I meet Peter, the receptionist and self-proclaimed guru of the red light district. “First time on the Reeperbahn, huh?” he asks. When I say yes, Peter resolutely moves my passport to the side. He opens a map and circles the street Große Freiheit, just four blocks from the hotel. “This is where you have to go,” he says. My German-Spanish dictionary tells me that name means “Big Freedom,” which makes sense. There are XXX videos shown on the sidewalk, leather bars, peep shows, drag queens and Star, the famous bar where the Beatles played from April to December of 1962, before their leap to superstardom. It’s like a carnival but without the faintest hint of modesty.
The clock is ticking, but the night is still young by Hamburg standards. It’s almost four in the morning, and since the provocative Reeperbahn refuses to sleep, I decide to recharge my batteries with a can of Red Bull and a kebab for less than six euros. Between bites, in a kind of epiphany, I remember Peter’s other wise recommendation: the southern part of the neighborhood, specifically Hans-Albers Platz. I finish my kebab and head out.
In just five minutes, I am flirted with more than in my entire life and in every language imaginable. Despite the linguistic skills and persuasive invitations, I decline the multiple come-ons with a politically correct, “Nein, danke,” which works in most cases. However, two women just refuse to give up. They each grab an arm, and as we walk along, they ask me – in a studiedly sexy English – if I’m on my own, if I need company and where I’m from. “South America,” I respond. In no time at all, they’re teasing me about Latinos’ international reputation as good lovers, peppered with the stereotypical “ay, papi,” that makes all three of us laugh.
And so I make my way to Hans-Albers Platz: a completely parallel universe. Unlike Große Freiheit or the sidewalks of the Reeperbahn, the neighborhood’s reputation isn’t as explicit, and the atmosphere is a little more relaxed. It’s great for going from bar to bar, taking advantage of the three-euro happy hours that run all night. The bolder side of the neighborhood is on Herbertstraße, two blocks from the Platz. Less than 400 feet long, this narrow street is identical to the ones in Amsterdam lined with pretty girls sitting behind red-lit windows. But there are three big differences: the Herbertstraße is exclusively reserved for men. Women and minors are forbidden entry. Two doors – red, of course – block both ends of the street, along with signs that intimidate anyone thinking of breaking the rules. “Enter at your own risk,” said Peter before I left the hotel.
It’s already six in the morning, and I’m starting to yawn uncontrollably. A successful nocturnal outing should end at the classic after-hours spot, the Fischmarkt, a 20-minute walk from the Reeperbahn towards the port. Here, hundreds of late-night partiers gather on the banks of the Elbe, clinking beer bottles in a collective toast. Two Danish girls and a man from Ukraine invite me to share a beer. The man, who is from Kiev, quotes the 17-year-old George Harrison’s sage observation about Hamburg: “This is the naughtiest city in the world.” And who am I to argue with George (or the Ukrainian)
After three cups of coffee, I leave the hotel for the Innenstadt, a district offering the best of a European city in the daytime: open-air restaurants, glorious old architecture and alternative bookstores.
The excursion begins at the Rathausmarkt, the market square in front of the impressive 1886 building that houses the city’s government offices. Every Saturday, the square hosts different outdoor festivities. On this occasion, my stomach is grateful for the nearly 30 food truck and stands offering German and international fare, including Bratwürste, carnes na espada, tacos, feijoada and other home-style fare at extremely reasonable prices.
Just two minutes away is the Jungfernstieg, a must-visit boulevard with a bizarre history that dates back to the 19th century. As part of Sunday tradition, the city’s aristocratic families would parade their virgin daughters here as trophies in search of suitors who would eventually propose marriage. The name derives directly from jungfern (virgins) and stieg (pier). Fortunately, today it’s merely the city’s most exclusive shopping district and an essential stop for anyone looking for independent design and big-name fashion. It’s also a great place to take a breather with your feet dangling over the Binnenalster, the second largest lake in Hamburg.
A 20-minute walk from the Jungfernstieg, the district of Sankt Georg is a bastion of the city’s liberal and intellectual life. The neighborhood boasts unique organic cafés like Mutterland, specialty LGBT bookstores like Männerschwarm and classic and contemporary art exhibitions at Hamburger Kunsthalle, located next to the gigantic train station.
Classical and elegant by day, wild and crazy by night: Hamburg really knows how to compartmentalize its identity.
Bigger Than Ever
Hamburg’s outstanding reputation as a port city is undeniable: nearly ten million containers and 139,000 tons of cargo passed through in 2013. The second largest port in Europe behind Rotterdam, Hamburg has been functioning non-stop for eight centuries. A great way to explore this sector is aboard a barkasse, which you can catch at the port’s piers for €18. You’ll get an exhaustive tour of bay, from the impressive container terminal, to the iconic Köhlbrand Bridge and the Speicherstadt (the world’s largest warehouse and storage district, today a UNESCO World Heritage Site).
Hamburg’s latest challenge is the Elbphilharmonie: a super-building on the banks of the Elbe, standing 360 feet high. When it opens in 2017, the “Elphi” will be the largest cultural and musical center in the world. The latest in a long line of Hamburg superlatives had an initial budget of €241 million, but this year, the cost more than tripled, making the project a target for criticism in the context of Europe’s economic crisis.
It’s time to say goodbye and admire Hamburg from the clouds. I remember reading in a Lonely Planet guide that the city has more canals than Venice, more bridges than Amsterdam and more millionaires than any other city in Germany. My eyes are glued to the window, and even though everything seems tiny, one thing looms large: Hamburg, the city of hyperbole, has no limits. in
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$$$ Park Hyatt Hamburg
Bugenhagenstraße 8, Altstadt
$$ The Madison
Schaarsteinweg 4, Neustadt
Högerdamm 28, Altstadt
Restaurants & Bookstore
Ernst-Merck-Straße 9, Altstadt
Lange Reihe 102, Sankt Georg
Grosse Baecker Straße 2, Rathaus
Am Kaiserkai 46, HafenCity
Museo de Arte Erótico
Bernhard-Nocht-Straße 69, Sankt Pauli