“Hamburg totally wrecked us. I remember getting home to England and my dad thought I was half-dead. I looked like a skeleton, I hadn’t noticed the change, I’d been having such a ball.”
– Paul McCartney
The Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg is the second largest German city after Berlin. Before the unification of Germany in 1871, Hamburg was a fully sovereign state.
Despite being ravaged by some of the worst fires and floods in history, and then razed to the ground during World War II, Hamburg always managed to find its feet again and its people are renowned for their resilience and tenacity. After every calamity, the city always came back stronger. It is now one of Europe’s major ports and Germany’s financial hub.
In post-war times, Hamburg became famous for incubating the Beatles, who played marathon sets in the clubs of St. Pauli’s Reeperbahn district. Malcolm Gladwell describes this stint as their “10,000 hours”, which set them apart from their contemporaries and primed them to achieve such great things, as they had so much performance experience under their belt.
When I walked around Hamburg on an absolutely freezing February morning earlier this year, the first landmark I stumbled upon at the break of dawn was this sculpture of the Fab Four on Beatles Platz.
During my brief stay in Hamburg, I felt like I was visiting two cities. St. Pauli is an edgy, bohemian neighbourhood near the port, defined by the infamous Reeperbahn and world-famous football club. Uptown around the river Elbe looks and feels much more prosperous, shiny and postcard pretty.
If you enjoy watching live football, then a match at the Millerntor-Stadion is a must. It is a completely different world from the Premiership with its expensive tickets and all seated stadia. The cost price of tickets is about €12.50. You can stand and drink throughout the entire game.
It’s not easy to get tickets, as the ground only holds about 26,000 (roughly 16,000 standing) and hordes of football tourists and fans of affiliated clubs like Glasgow Celtic throng to the Millerntor for every home match. Keeping in line with the club’s socialist and inclusive principles, and zero tolerance for racism, homophobia or sexism, St. Pauli is a very welcoming club.
The Fanladen is the place to go for tickets. They’ll help you if they can and you can collect tickets directly from them either on or before match day. The Millerntor also has a terrific bar and cafe, and a shop that does a roaring trade on match days as St. Pauli boast some of the most iconic merchandise in world football.
If you want to read more about their history, St. Pauli, Pirates, Punks & Politics – FC St. Pauli: Falling in Love with a Radical Football Club by Nick Davidson is an excellent introduction to this unique club who always do things differently.
This short documentary by Copa 90 is also fantastic, but there’s no substitute for watching a match and visiting the fan-owned pub nearby, the Jolly Roger.
Eating and drinking
Hamburg is a beer drinking town and you can sup on a cheap Astra pretty much right around the clock. Just around the corner from the Millerntor an Indian restaurant called Maharaja is a great spot for a bit of soakage.
A weekend in Hamburg is not complete without a visit to the Sunday morning fischmarkt (fish market). There is a cornucopia of fish and seafood snacks available, but it is really all about the live bands that play from about 6am to entertain a hardy audience of hardcore clubbers and drinkers keeping the party going.
Hamburg has some fantastic galleries. The most famous is the Kunsthalle, which is one of the largest in Germany. It is located in the pretty Altstadt district, between the Hauptbahnhof (central station) and the Alster lakes. The collection features art from the 14th century to the present day, including Edvard Munch, Joseph Beuys, Tracey Emin, David Hockney and Jenny Holzer.
Where to hang your hat
It’s hard to get a better deal than the Generator hostel or the Holiday Inn Express. Both are ideally located near the Reeperbahn and Millerntor. Perfect if your priorities are football and beer.
Ryanair fly direct from Dublin to Hamburg from about €49 return. If you’re going in winter, make sure to pack some VERY warm clothing with plenty of layers, hats, scarves and gloves, as Hamburg is so far north its weather can be more Scandinavian than German.