Northern Germany, on the River Elbe, approximately equidistant from Poland, Denmark and the Netherlands.
A striking mix of modern cityscapes and green spaces, with canals snaking through the city and picturesque bridges everywhere you look — more bridges, in fact, than Amsterdam and Venice combined.
Hamburg-Fuhlsbüttel Airport (HAM) receives regular direct flights from London, Paris and the United States. It’s two and a half hours by train from Berlin, with upwards of a dozen daily departures.
For the best of Hamburg’s famous nightlife, skip the peep shows and casinos of the Reeperbahn strip and head to the bars and restaurants of the Schanzenviertel, then cure the late-night munchies with a Fischbrötchen (raw fish and pickled onions on a fresh roll).
While tales of gentrifying old quarters and modernizing peripheries are commonplace among Europe’s major cities, the birth of a gleaming new neighborhood is a rarity. Developed right alongside Hamburg’s port city-center, atop decommissioned docklands and an island in the River Elbe, HafenCity is Hamburg’s newborn, nearly 400-acre waterfront quarter — an architectural hodgepodge spanning the range from converted abandoned warehouses to the ambitious Elbphilharmonie, the city’s long-awaited Philharmonic Hall that’s scheduled to open in 2014.
As HafenCity continues to develop — it’s currently only 40% done, with a due date of 2025 — shops, galleries and markets are steadily appearing, lending support to the enclave of artists and creative types who reside in the neighborhood. There’s no better showcase than Der.Die.Sein Markt, Hamburg’s first-ever weekly design market, held each Saturday with live music and homemade snacks to go along with the wares. Stroll through the market and you’ll find quirky handmade items like the heart-shaped couple-gloves from Kah Manufaktur and clever cashmere knitwear designs from the appropriately named Witty Knitters. And in HafenCity’s spirit of humanizing a former industrial quarter, the team behind Stoffsüchtig is dedicated to introducing up-and-coming designers to an equally striving neighborhood in a raw, crate-filled space.
Their gung-ho endeavors are aided by a series of warm-weather festivals established to encourage leisurely afternoons and evenings in HafenCity. The Elbjazz Festival in May delivers outdoor concerts, while in September, the ten-day Harbour Front Literature Festival features readings from a host of German and international authors.
To put all the upstarts in context, it helps to visit the Speicherstadt, a waterfront warehouse area where goods were brought to trade in Hamburg’s old port. It’s now home to several museums. The Maritime Museum, with its private collection housed in the city’s oldest warehouse, showcases Hamburg’s 3,000-year-old seafaring history. The museum’s café, Austernbar, has the freshest oysters around, and for a proper meal, check out Catch of the Day with its wood-paneled walls and floor-to-ceiling windows. There’s no shortage of acreage to walk off the meal. A system of boardwalks and bike lanes has been created to limit car usage, and the residential parks encourage waterfront picnics and friendly games of boules.
For all the residents’ efforts to turn the port-like landscape livable, the hotels make it just as inviting for visitors. One of the first openings was the boutique hotel 25hours HafenCity, whose irreverent operators won favor with heritage-minded city planners by filling the hotel with maritime memorabilia, designing some of the guest rooms like ship cabins and fashioning its meeting room from a cargo container. And it doesn’t hurt that their cantina-like restaurant and bar, Heimat Küche, is a local hangout.
If staying in HafenCity itself proves tricky, the next best option is the Hotel Louis C. Jacob, just across the water and an easy trip away. A decidedly more grown-up hotel than 25hours, housed in a former merchant mansion with views of the Elbe, the 85-room property is home to the Michelin-starred Jacobs restaurant as well as an impressive cellar of French and German wines. Staying there, the feeling is one of anticipation for an area that’s about to come into its own. The locals already know that once the Elbphilharmonie is finished, it will be next to impossible to secure a spot at either Jacobs or CARLS for a post-concert glass of wine.