As the waterway to the North Sea, some claim that Hamburg has 2579 bridges, but the official count is “more than 2300.” Whichever way you count, Hamburg has more bridges than Venice, London, and Amsterdam combined. And that’s really something; the city’s water is breathtaking. But if water, water, and more water isn’t your thing, Hamburg’s also the perfect place to explore fantastic parks, chic shops and old factories.
Hamburg’s geography is notoriously complex, so consider pulling up a map to look over as you read through this. Hamburg lies on the northern bank of the Elbe River. The city’s Altstadt, full of old façades and labyrinthine canals, lies north of the Elbe and south of the Alster lakes. Binnenalster, the smaller of the two Alster lakes, is located in the heart of the Altstadt, with the bustling Jungfernstieg on the south corner. The much larger Außenalster, popular for sailing in the summer and skating in the winter, is slightly farther north, separated from the Binnenalster by the Kennedy- and Lombardbrücken.
Five unique spires outline Hamburg’s Altstadt. Anchoring the center of the Altstadt is the palatial Rathaus, the ornate town hall, and its exquisite doorstep and regular home to both political protests and farmers’ markets, the Rathausmarkt. Alsterfleet Canal bisects the downtown, separating Altstadt on the eastern bank from the Neustadt on the west. The city’s best museums, galleries, and theaters are within these two districts.
The Hauptbahnhof lies at the eastern edge of the city center, along Steintorwall. Starting from the Kirchenallee exit of the Hauptbahnhof, Hamburg’s gay district, St. Georg, follows the Lange Reihe eastward. Outside the Hauptbahnhof’s main exit on Steintorwall is the Kunstmeile (Art Mile), a row of museums extending southward from the Alster lakes to the banks of the Elbe. Perpendicular to Steintorwall, Mönckebergstraße, Hamburg’s most famous shopping street, runs westward to the Rathaus. Just south of the Rathaus, Saint Pauli bears long waterside walkways and a beautiful copper-roofed port along the towering cranes of the Elbe’s industrial district. Horizontally bisecting St. Pauli is the infamously icky Reeperbahn (disingenuously pronounced “RAPER-bawn”), which is packed with strip joints, erotic shops, and a tourist mecca of clubs on the pedestrian offshoot Große Freiheit.
To the north of St. Pauli, the Schanzenviertel is a radically liberal community on the cusp of gentrification. Here, rows of graffiti-covered restaurants and a busy, late-night cafe and bar scene show little edge but attract fleets of bargain-hunting students. In late summer, the Schanzenfest illegal street market consistently breaks out into a full-fledged war of Molotov cocktails and tear gas between cops and civil discontents. On the westernmost side of Hamburg, Altona celebrates with a mini-Schanzenviertel nightlife and restaurant scene; the area was an independent city ruled by Denmark in the 17th century before Hamburg absorbed it. Altona’s shop-lined pedestrian zone, the Ottenser Hauptstrasse, runs west from the Altona train station.
What do Germans eat? In a word, meat. And more meat. And some more meat. Currywurst, slices of sausage served in a curry sauce, is an extremely common option in the city; in Berlin it’s sold on street corners and in restaurants alike. Bratwurst, another common street food, resembles an American hotdog. Traditionally it is made from pork, but today, it’s frequently made from a combination of meats. Kassler is a cured and smoked slice of pork. Simple but yummy. If meat isn’t your thing, fret not—vegetarian options are becoming increasingly popular in major cities.
Germans prefer their coffee thin, dark, and bitter. If you’re unable to wrap your American head around the idea of a black coffee, you can order a Milchkaffee (that’s right—coffee with milk). Berliners also take pride in their pastries, particularly the jelly-filled doughnut (one of JFK’s favorites). Outside of Berlin, it’s called a Berliner, but in the city, they’re usually referred to as Pfannkuchen. And of course there’s beer. Germans take their beer seriously. In fact, all beer is brewed in accordance with Reinheitsgebot or “beer purity law,” which regulates the ingredients.
Traditionally, German restaurants allow self-seating if no host is present. Water with your meal is on request and you must specify if you want tap water. Otherwise, the restaurant will rack up your bill by bringing you expensive bottled water. Note that restaurants may charge you for bread or rolls.
If you are invited to a German home, it is best to bring chocolates or flowers as a gift. Since many flowers carry particular stigmas, it is safest to bring yellow roses or tea roses. After all, you don’t want to give funeral flowers to your kind host.
When entering a room, shake hands with everyone in the room individually, including children. Until you’re told otherwise, address a person with her official title and surname. When entering a store, always greet with a “Guten Tag.” Upon leaving the store, even if you did not buy anything, it is polite to say “auf Wiedersehen” (goodbye).