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Travel Guide: Hamburg: More than red light and rock n roll

3rd Nov 2011 12:22pm | By Editor

Hamburg’s reputation is built on the Red Light District and rock n’ roll. But the German port city has a more sophisticated side, too.

As the sun disappears behind the trees, sailboats silently criss-cross the Alster Lake as the chic clientele at the Amora jetty bar raise a glass of wine to the sunset. It’s hard to believe that on the other side of town, visiting football fans on a post-match spree are tearing up the infamous Reeperbahn – Hamburg’s Red Light District. But then this port city offers more than its reputation for ‘legal brothels’ might suggest.

The Reeperhahn does have to be seen: day-trippers fill the cobbled streets, wandering between girlie bars and the notorious ladies in windows. Gangs of men and women drink like there’s no tomorrow; ever since a bishop legalised prostitution to protect the local female folk from visiting sailors, it’s attracted the thirsty, the frisky and the curious from across the globe.

It was on the ‘sinful strip’ in the St Pauli district in the early Sixties that The Beatles honed their groundbreaking sound. Described by their German sound engineer as “loud, loud, loud!”, these were the days before Ringo – Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best completed the line-up – and was so early on in The Beatles’ story that George Harrison was eventually deported for being underage. Playing every night for months on end, for just a few hundred (pre-Euro) Deutschmarks, the band cut their teeth in famous but long-gone clubs such as the Kaiserkeller.

At the interactive Beatlemania museum, just off the Reeperbahn on Nobistor, the band’s less than glamorous beginnings are brought to life: they slept in an unheated store room in a cinema in an area known for gangsters, and shared their bathroom with customers.

Hamburg bar

Live music still drifts out of the bars on Grosse Freiheit street, where I pick up a beer for €0.99 (87p) and watch teenagers dancing around a sound system at the ‘Fab Four’ memorial Beatles-Platz, a public square shaped like a vinyl record. But it’s the other side of Hamburg I want to see, so I head to the little bars that litter Lange Reihe Street in the St Georg district. Once a dodgy part of town, it is now undergoing gentrification, a perfect example of this once sketchy city cleaning up its act.

“You must be hungry!” shouts the owner of the Habibi Grill as I pass. “Why not come in?” he says with a smile,
a bow and a flourish.

With a sizeable Turkish population in Germany, a kebab is going native, so how can I decline a pitch like that? Couples stroll past, greeting friends at intimate tables outside restaurants – lit here by candles, not neon. St Georg has the feel of a village, not a suburb in a major city.

“This is absolutely not the Reeperbahn,” a friend of the owner tells me. “They do their thing – we do ours. Hamburg is a big city – and that’s just one street you’re talking about.”

Have pass will travel, so a subway trip later I find myself back in St Pauli – but not the Reeperbahn.

The Jolly Roger is the St Pauli FC supporters bar where loud anti-fascist punk plays as black-clad locals lounge in hoodies bearing the football club’s skull and crossbones logo. The political message here is one of tolerance – as long as you’re not a neo-Nazi. At €2 (£1.75) a bottle of beer, I can just about tolerate a nightcap.

The second biggest port in Europe, Hamburg is all about the water; so the next day I take a ferry tour of the vast harbour. Included in the cost of a Hamburg Card (€8.90/£8), thrifty tourists have caught on and the boat is packed. (If you fancy a little more privacy when taking to the water, hire sailing and rowing boats at various outlets around the Alster Lake.)

Heading west, we pass the prosperous residents of pretty Blankenese strolling on a shingle beach. In autumnal sunshine, container ships process down the River Elbe towards the sprawling dock complex that brought the men who paid for the Reeperbahn.

Back at the Landungsbruecken ferry terminal, joining the long queue for popular seafood chain Nordsee, seagulls swoop over the water while boats busily to and fro. Fish and chips never tasted so good; and not a stripper to be seen.

Words: Simon Cole

EasyJet flies direct to Hamburg from London Gatwick, starting at £25.99 one-way, or from London Luton, starting at £20.99 one-way.

Where to Eat:
Fish and chips by the water at the Landungsbruecken ferry terminal is a bargain €3 (£2.60) from popular German chain Nordsee.

Lamb Kofta from the friendly fellows at the Habibi Grill in St Georg costs €8.50 (£7.50).

Surf ‘n’ Turf at posy place Amora Bar, located on a jetty by the Alster Lake, is €28 (£25). It may be a bit chilly in winter.

Where to Drink:
Grab a loud and lairy Reeperbahn cheapie in the 99 Cent Bar on Grosse Freiheit. It’s naff, but undeniably good value.

A pint is €3.60 (£3) in the more sedate Frau Moeller on the Lange Reihe strip in St Georg.

A champagne cocktail will lighten your wallet by €8.50 (£7.50), or a pint by €4 (£3.50), in the upmarket Turnhalle, also in St Georg.

Where to Sleep:
Instant Sleep has dorms from €16.50 (£14.50) and is perfectly placed in the hip Schanzenviertel. Think Shoreditch, Deutsch-style.

Twins at the clean budget hostel-hotel Meininger City Hotel in Altona start at €34.50pppn (£30).

Stay with the maritime flavour and rent the Captain’s Cabin aboard the 160m-long floating harbourside museum, MS Cap San Diego. €125 (£110) will get you and your shipmate squared away in style.

More on the Beatlemania museum at
For info on the Hamburg Card see