IT'S over 60 miles from the coast but Hamburg is a city built on the sea. Everything from its architecture to its after-hours entertainment is shaped by the ships that glide down the Elbe to its port, and by the wind that blasts in from the Baltic.
I visited in December and stayed at the five star Atlantic Kempinski – a classic grand hotel built in 1909 to cater for passengers from the luxury liners.
A century later and it's retained its grandeur. Suited bellboys twirl the revolving door and ballrooms host dances for the city's well-to-do. The Atlantic featured in James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies and has the kind of cocktail bar where you can easily imagine meeting a secret agent in a sharp suit.
Our plush, purple-hued room would have impressed even the pickiest passenger of the QE2. With an Italian marble bathroom and a bed that seemed bigger than kingsize, it was the kind of place you never want to leave. (Which perhaps explains why 1970s German rock star Udo Lindenberg has been living there for 15 years.)
But there's no point in going on a city break if you're going to sit in your marble bath all day. Hamburg in December is threaded with Christmas Markets, from the nostalgic Historical Market outside the faux-Gothic Town Hall, to the over-18s Santa Pauli Christmas Market on the Reeperbahn, where you can take in a strip show and buy hand-crafted wooden toys (adult ones).
The Reeperbahn on Saturday night still offers the kind of entertainment that has attracted cabin-fevered sailors for centuries. Sex shops, legal brothels, table dancing and erotic cinemas line the streets. It's sleazy but not intimidating, at 11pm on a Saturday at least. The clubs, restaurants and bars make it a must-go rather than a no-go area for tourists.
The Beatles famously “grew up” on the Reeperbahn. We did Stefanie Hempel's musical Beatles Tour which takes you to locations such as the Bambi Kino and the Kaiserkeller where the band lived and played. At each stop, Stefanie brought the scene to life with an energetic rock 'n' roll song on her ukulele, anecdotes and photographs of the band. Including one snapshot of them on sleep-suppressing drugs that Brian Epstein tried to bury when he was launching the band as the clean-cut Fab Four.
If you have a big night on the Reeperbahn on Saturday, you'll more than likely wash up at the dock-side Fischmarkt (fish market) on Sunday morning. We arrived there at about 8.30am to find the party still going. Or was it just starting?
Market-goers drank beer and danced and sang in the old auction hall as a band played epic, meandering versions of Rollling Stones songs. And the odd thing was that most of them probably hadn't been out all night. Like us, they'd only just got up.
The Fischmarkt's buffet breakfast was one of the finest fry-ups I've had and no doubt helped fuel the Sunday morning celebrations. But just as the music was reaching a finale, the hall had to close. The Elbe was lapping over the dock sides and threatening to flood the dance floor.
Nobody seemed particularly concerned. The band'll be back next week to finish that 10-minute Joe Cocker song.
We skipped across to the ferry stop before the walkway became submerged to take a boat tour of The Docks. Huge ocean liners sat in dry docks and cranes were busy unloading container vessels. The Elbe is getting deeper to allow these ever-growing behemoths through, but the downside is that the city is more exposed to flooding.
In Speicherstadt, the warehouse district, canal-side buildings cry out to be made into slick city apartments but the water line and insurance companies say otherwise. Instead this area of Hamburg is home to numerous tourist attractions including the Miniatur Wunderland Model Railway – the largest model railway in the world, and the International Maritime Museum where you can learn facts such as the stopping distance of an oil tanker.
From here it was a short walk to Hafen City – an ambitious extension to the city centre – where a new opera house is mid-construction. Designed by architects Herzog & de Meuron, who did the Tate Modern, its towering, wave-like exterior changes with the light and weather. The town planners like any building design that echoes the sea – from the ship-shaped Chilehaus to a new office block disguised as a cruise-liner on the Elbe shore.
The third largest port in Europe and Germany's most affluent city, Hamburg knows where its money comes from – and what makes it special. With a fascinating city centre and a salty spirit of it own, it isn't just cruise ship passengers and sailors who are making the trip here nowadays.
Hotel Atlantic Kempinski Hamburg
Double rooms start from EUR 219 per night, incl. breakfast, VAT and service charges.
To book please call +49 40 2888 0 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lufthansa operates 12 weekly non-stop flights from Manchester to Hamburg with return fares starting from £49 one-way, £89 return (inclusive of taxes and charges).
Lufthansa's high quality product provides passengers with their seat, hold and cabin baggage allowances, in-flight food and drink, the ability to check-in online, from their mobile phone or at the airport, and all taxes and charges included in one all-inclusive fare.
For further information visit the Lufthansa website: www.lufthansa.com
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