Why Hamburg?

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

Why not… says Jen Muehlbauer. Here's her insider's guide to the city that taught the Beatles about sex, drugs and rock and roll.

Welcome to Hamburg.

Your friends and family might have said "Why Hamburg?" or maybe "Why not Berlin?"

Never mind - Hamburg's a hip European city too, and you won't have to share it with nearly as many tourists.

Settle back, have a beer - I recommend the hefeweizen - and I'll tell you all about it.

Getting oriented - housing

Look at a map - that big lake in the middle is the Alster.

As you can imagine, you'll usually pay more for a flat near the Alster or downtown (in the Altstadt).

If you want and can afford an upscale neighborhood, head west to Övelgönne and Blankenese.

Trendy young people trek to Altona, St. Pauli, Eimsbüttel, Eppendorf, and Sternschanze.

East of the Alster tends to be less expensive than the west, and suburbanites and families will probably want to put down roots in the north or west.

But these are just rough guidelines; you can find rip-offs and relative bargains in any neighborhood, so look around and don't set your heart on any one area.

Parks and river strolls

The Elbe River and Hamburg's Hafen (port) lie to the south.

Without getting into a boring history or economics lesson, let's just say Hamburg is a port city so this area is a big deal, at least to those in the shipping industry.

Others can enjoy strolling along the river, eating inexpensive, fresh fish sandwiches, and hopping ferries.

In addition to all the water, Hamburg has plenty of parks.

There's some green space around the Alster full of joggers, cyclists and frolicking dogs (cute, but watch out for the poop).

The Stadtpark to the north hosts open-air concerts and Hamburg's planetarium while the Planten and Blumen has, yes, plants and blooms.

As you probably know, Hamburg has dreadful weather, so enjoy these outdoor oases whenever the sun pops out for a few hours.

And bring an umbrella, just in case.

Getting around

Hamburg's public transit system, HVV, is extensive and efficient.

Be quick; drivers usually won't wait for commuters who run for the bus, but don't despair if you're left in the dust - there'll usually be another one in 10 minutes or less.

Transport runs on the honour system, so you won't have to flash, stamp, or insert your ticket anywhere, but there's a DM60 fine if you're caught traveling 'black.' .

The Nachtbus system runs less frequently, but fills in the hours between the regular HVV services and can save club-goers a fortune on cab fare.

To figure out the time, distance, and best route between Point A and Point B, visit www.hvv.de/frames/auskunft.htm, or pick up the inexpensive software program Geofox, sold at train stations.

You can also get HVV information at www.hvv.de/frames/sms.htm, or via SMS on your cell phone.

The public transport system is fairly safe and clean, but less so on Friday and Saturday nights, due to party people and their beer-can litter.

As in many large cities, the Hauptbahnhof (main train station) is a little dodgy, but the drunks, drug peddlers, and panhandlers are far more annoying than dangerous.

Getting understood

"Sprechen Sie Englisch?" will yield the best results in areas along the west side of the Alster, the university neighborhood, the businesses surrounding the Hauptbahnhof, and of course, the airport.

Some locals don't speak English and a rude few will simply refuse, but most will tell you they speak "a little" (which often turns out to be quite a lot).

Other locals, especially the younger ones, may relish the chance to practice their English on you.

You may be offered an English menu at some restaurants, and you can always ask if the restaurant has them.

Larger bookstores like the Thalia chain often have a section for English books, the Hauptbahnhof has a large book/newspaper store that sells familiar publications, and the International Herald Tribune is available at quite a few U-Bahn stops and better newsstands.

Duck into the lobbies of hotels to grab tourist-oriented restaurant and entertainment information in English.

For 50 DM a calendar year, you can join the small but decent library, but beware, the hours are awful. See www.amerikanizentrum.de.

A few movie theatres, notably the Abaton near the university, sometimes show movies in the original language with German subtitles. See www.abaton.de for more information. The rest, along with German television, unfortunately tend to dub foreign media into German.

Unless you're already fluent, try to square away some time and money for German lessons. .

Getting out

Like any self-respecting European city, Hamburg doesn't really get going until around midnight, so drink your Kaffee.

From stylish clubs with model-like patrons to low-budget warehouse dance-fests, you'll find a nightlife scene to suit you.

This is Germany, so techno is big, but you can also find rock and pop pretty easily: those are the shows that tend to advertise heavily on the U-Bahn and in magazines.

Regardless of your moral stance on prostitution and porn, be aware of Hamburg's most infamous district, The Reeperbahn - partially because, like it or not, many of the city's bars and dance clubs are located on or near that neon-lit street.

The 'sin mile' contains mostly sex shops, XXX movie houses, and nightclubs (both mainstream and tawdry). The actual red-light district lurks on a side street called Herbertstrasse where minors and women are not allowed.

And if the Reeperbahn makes you ill, good clubs do exist throughout the city - pick up a copy of Hamburg Pur (free), Prinz (2DM) or Szene (5DM) for details, schedules, and locations.

As for pubs, just walk a few blocks in any neighborhood and you should be able to find one, and it will usually have decent food and great beer.

If you want to get specific, the bars of Karolinenviertel have an alternative vibe, Altona and Eimsbüttel's pubs attract hip young things, and the gay and lesbian community is well-represented at the hangouts (from all-inclusive cafes to raunchy male-only saunas) of the St Georg neighbourhood.

If you're after food and not beer, try Universitätsviertel or Schanzenviertel for ethnic fare, and the Altstadt and Speicherstadt for classy places designed to please business travelers.

Culture vultures can catch some theater at Deutsches Schauspielhaus in St Georg or Thalia Theater near the Alster, opera at the downtown Staatoper house, and classical music at Musikhalle near the Dammtor S-Bahn.

Active types can go sailing or canoeing on the Alster or join one of the area's many football (soccer) leagues, while true thrill-seekers can bungee-jump off the TV tower.

Families will enjoy Hamburg's many parks and its excellent zoo, as well as the Hamburger Dom amusement park, which opens for several weeks each season.

Seriously, there's no excuse for boredom here - not even the weather.

Getting settled

If you're new to Germany as well as Hamburg, there'll be some peculiarities to get used to.

  • Do your weekend's shopping by 4pm Saturday, for instance, or you'll be running to the Hauptbahnhof or a gas station for overpriced milk.
  • Don't walk on the bike paths.
  • Tip five to 10 percent and don't leave money on the table.
  • Make eye contact, clink glasses, and say "Prost" when drinking.
  • Give 50 pfennigs to washroom attendants.
  • Get used to asking the pharmacist for your aspirin and other over-the-counter sundries.
  • Don't try to use your Visa in a grocery store.

Oh, you'll get the hang of it.

In the meantime, relax and have another hefeweizen.


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