The northern German city of Hamburg is famous for its harbour, its network of canals, its lakes and its historic trading history as a one-time member of the Hanseatic League. However, although many visitors arrive to explore this maritime heritage, others also come on the trail of the Beatles, to explore the Reeperbahn and its annual music festival, enjoy the Christmas markets or just to revel in one of the most multi-cultural and exciting cities in Germany. It has a wealth of bars and eateries, with those at its Fischmarkt being particularly popular. With the addition of a whole street of museums (the Kunstmeile), a renowned zoo, many beautiful parks and a model railway like none other, it is easy to see how a weekend in Hamburg could never be quite long enough.
This is also a city that can surprise its visitors. A winter trip, perhaps for the Weihnachtsmarkt, might just coincide with the Alstereisvergnügen. This occasional and entirely unpredictable event occurs whenever the Alster lake freezes sufficiently for the ice to reach a thickness of 20 centimetres. When this happens, city officials permit people to skate, ski, sled or walk on the ice. To help with the celebrations, Glühwein (mulled wine) and sausage stands set up nearby, and the party atmosphere, which is so characteristic of festivals in Hamburg, quickly develops.
Things to do
Whatever your interests, Hamburg has something to offer. Its attractions range from its historic port and the many activities associated with its famous lake to the more unexpected -- such as an enormous miniature railway. Meanwhile, music fans can visit venues where the Beatles once played, while enjoying the city's vibrant contemporary music scene.
More than a model railway
The Miniatur Wunderland is every bit as good as its name suggests. Yes, it is a model railway, but with over 890 trains and 12,000 metres of track, it is also the world's biggest and appeals as much to adults as to children. Divided into nine sections, its attractions include the Alps and the Grand Canyon, the lights of Las Vegas and the doomed city of Pompeii. There is also a miniature version of Hamburg Airport, complete with aeroplanes that really take off. Admission queues are often long but can be bypassed by reserving tickets online in advance.
Eating and people-watching at the Fischmarkt
Sunday mornings at the Fischmarkt are a Hamburg institution. This fish auction house is the home of a market that dates back to 1703. Fresh fish still features prominently but many visitors come just to enjoy a coffee and perhaps a fish roll after a hard night's partying on the nearby Reeperbahn. Aside from fish, the market's vendors sell a variety of different produce, including other foodstuffs and antiques. Although the market opens relatively early, at 7.30 a.m., there is usually also live music, with dancing encouraged.
Explore the Alster
The centre of Hamburg is focused around two artificial lakes: the Binnenalster (Inner Alster) and Außenalster (Outer Alster). Both connect to the Alster and Elbe rivers. One of the city's most elegant areas, it features beautiful squares and a whole series of parks. The lakes are ideal for walking or jogging around, and water sports are also popular. Careful observers may spot the Atlantic Hotel from where Pierce Brosnan, as James Bond, climbed out onto the roof in Tomorrow Never Dies.
A Hard Day's Night
Hamburg is known as the city that noticed the Beatles when nowhere else was doing so. Fans can still visit two of the venues where the band performed: the Indramusikclub and the Kaiserkeller. Both are near the Reeperbahn, which, although famous as a red light district, also has a huge number or bars, clubs and restaurants to enjoy. The area is very well policed and is an exciting place for an evening out. At one end of the Reeperbahn is the Beatles-Platz. This small square, paved to resemble a black vinyl record, features statutes of Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, Stuart Sutcliffe and a fifth that represents Pete Best and Ringo Starr.
The Sea! The Sea!
With so much of the city's history coming from the sea, it is almost impossible to visit Hamburg and not explore its port. At 100 square kilometres, the Hamburger Hafen is huge. Luckily, there are plenty of boat tours leaving from the landing stage at Landungsbrücken. Aside from the attractive old warehouses, the 3.9-kilometre Köhlbrandbrücke bridge, which spans the harbour, is a photographic opportunity that is not to be missed.
Calendar of events
As Germany's second largest city, Hamburg has something for everyone. No matter whether you want to dance, see Santa Claus, ride a Ferris wheel or admire some of the world's most impressive cruise ships, this city will deliver for you.
The Reeperbahn Festival. Held in September, this annual music festival centres around the famous Reeperbahn. Over 70 venues get involved to host approximately 800 events. Established in 2006, it is already the largest club festival in Europe and attracts a host of international performers. As well as around 500 concerts put on by a range of established and emerging artists, the accompanying Reeperbahn Festival conference programme covers film, literature and fine art.
Weihnachtsmarkt. Like many German cities, Hamburg marks Christmas enthusiastically with a Christmas market. However, with seven separate markets, Hamburg manages to outdo most of its rivals. The largest and most popular of the city's Christmas markets is the one at the town hall. However, all seven feature wooden stalls that sell crafts and traditional seasonal consumables such as gingerbread and Glühwein. A particular highlight of the town hall's market is the appearance of Santa Claus, who flies above the festivities three times daily.
Hafengeburtstag. The Hamburg Harbour Birthday celebrations occur in the second weekend of May. They mark the city's accession to the Hanseatic League, which, through the trading links generated, enabled it to earn it so much of its wealth. Visitors to the celebration can see a spectacular collection of cruise ships, frigates and steamboats proceed through the harbour. Back on dry land, hundreds of stalls sell crafts and food and drink, while museums offer discounted entries and several free concerts are held.
This travelling carnival visits the city three times a year. Each visit (March - April, July - August and November - December) lasts a month, offering plenty of opportunities to enjoy the fun. When it's in town, the Holy Spirit Field becomes an amusement park filled with traditional fairground rides and high-octane rollercoasters.