Hamburg is a city without sights. Or should I write, “sights,” for there’s a lot to see in Germany’s bustling second-biggest city. There just aren’t a lot of landmarks for the tourist. Which makes it simultaneously challenging and rewarding: while there’s a lot to do in this fun and liberal city, from great museums and fabulous dining to strolls along the many bodies of water that run through town, there isn’t a conveniently charming old town, a castle from which to anchor your ramblings, or a series of world-heritage monuments for your “must do” list.
Instead, you get this sort of crescent with the two gayest areas, St. Georg and St. Pauli, at either tip, and a lot of amazement in-between. Just start walking: there are about a million fascinating streets to stroll down, lined with the galleries and boutiques by young designers, fabulous restaurants, and, most importantly, a sense of life, an open-mindedness and welcoming air that comes from being a great shipping city and always open to the world. A member of the Hanseatic League of merchants, Hamburg was always in a position to thrive. It’s a wealthy city, and this is reflected in its lifestyle, devoted to enjoyment. It’s also one of Europe’s greenest cities, and the River Elbe and Alster Lake add to its livability. It’s the same size as Singapore but has one-third the population. It has the same number of people as Vienna, but twice the area. You get the point.
If you’re centered in St. Georg, the traditional gayborhood, check into The George Hotel, with its laid-back, sorta-British sorta-German, designer feel. Large red globes line the front patio. There’s a clubby little library off the lobby with leather furniture. The rooms are large and design-conscious, simple and comfortable, with a hint of color coming from the hues of the wallpaper and the throw across the bed. The George also benefits from a nearly perfect location, just a block from Lange Reihe, the gayest street in town. It’s a ten-minute walk from the central train station, but you’d never know how close to everything you are from the utter silence inside your room.
For other hotels, you might try East in St. Pauli, which is more obviously a design spot with its curving, almost futuristic forms and its see-and-be-seen crowd packing the cavernous restaurant and lounge. Another great choice is the Park Hyatt, perfectly located in the Levantehouse complex, that also contains a variety of upscale stores. My friend Angela first brought me here, and I return every time I’m in Hamburg. You can get anything from caviar to crystal, chocolate to clothing, and the Park Hyatt’s proximity makes it even more alluring.
True design splendor awaits at SIDE, where the gleaming modern architecture features an atrium light show by illumination-god Robert Wilson, amazing view lounge, and clean-lined, neutrally toned rooms. Surprised at all this design splendor? Don’t be. Hamburg is not only a city of understated wealth but is booming as a tourist destination. According to tour guide Tomas Kaiser, it’s now the tenth most visited city in Europe (which puts it, in fact, one ahead of Amsterdam).
This is very obvious in St. Georg. It’s now a tourist destination as well as the gayborhood, and GLBT life is pretty well integrated into the mainstream here. Visit on the weekends and you’ll likely find gay couples walking around Lake Alster; It’s actually a broad river, but Hamburgers call it a “lake,” so what the hell. St. Georg, in short, has gentrified, without losing its GLBT appeal.
Istart my explorations in Café Gnosa with coffee, some of the best pastries in creation, and a friendly unpretentious staff. This is where gay couples gather after their Sunday stroll along the Alster, and it’s a great spot to relax with its red leather banquettes and chairs filled with gay couples and single women. I stop in Männerschwarm, the gay bookstore, to pick up a copy of Hinnerk, a German-language magazine with good nightlife listings. I pass several bars and stop in Kaufhaus Hamburg, a nice little shop featuring products made in Hamburg, from food to accessories, and with nary a Hamburg T-shirt among the mix.
East, Simon-von-Utrecht-Strasse 31. Tel: 309-930 or US toll-free 800-337-4685. Doubles $205-$404. Chic design melds with relaxation at this see-and-be-seen spot just blocks from the Reeperbahn. www.east-hamburg.de
The George, Barcastrasse 3. Tel: 280-0300 or US toll-free 800-337-4685. Doubles $199-$263. Mere steps from Lange Reihe, with a German/English flair and blessedly quiet, comfortable rooms. www.thegeorge-hotel.de
Park Hyatt, Bugenhagenstrasse 8-10. Tel: 333-21234 or US toll-free 800-233-1234. Doubles $308-$526. All the amenities and service you’d expect from the Hyatt, in the fascinating Levantehaus building at the heart of town. www.hamburg.park.hyatt.com
SIDE, Drehbahn 49. Tel: 309-990 or US toll-free 800-337-4685. Doubles $185-$294. Design with a capital “D,” located halfway between St. Pauli and St. Georg and near the “inner” branch of the Alster. www.side-hamburg.de
Bullerei, Lagerstrasse 34b (Schanze). Tel: 334-42110. Located in a former cattle warehouse, both dramatic main dining room and cozier “deli” offer great food. www.bullerei.com
Carl’s, Greifswalder 69 (HafenCity). Tel: 300-322-400. A casual spot, the best in HafenCity: sweet brasserie and informal bistro. www.carls-brasserie.de
Cox, Lange Reihe 68 (St. Georg). Stare 43 Tel: 249-422. A dining highlight in the gayborhood, with creative cuisine—always packed. www.restaurant-cox.de
Das Dorf, Lange Reihe 39 (St. Georg). Tel: 245-614. Traditional German food in this downstairs spot at the heart of the ‘hood. www.restaurant-dorf.de
Küchenwerkstatt, Hans-Henny-Jahnn-Weg 1 (Uhlenhorst). Tel: 229-27588. Perfect service and perfect food make dining at this Michelin-starred gem a pleasure. www.kuechenwerkstatt-hamburg.de
Jacob’s Restaurant, Elbchaussee 40 14 03 (Nienstedten). Tel: 822-550. In an elegant small hotel on the outskirts, this two-star Michelin restaurant is unbeatable. www.hotel-jacob.de/culinarium/jacobs-restaurant
Nil, Neuer Pferdemarkt 5 (St. Pauli). Tel: 439-7823. The stylish bi-level interior is matched by the wonderful food and great service. www.restaurant-nil.de
Piment, Lehmweg 29 (Ohlendorf). Tel: 429-37788. French cuisine given spicy flair by its Moroccan chef in this Michelin-starred spot north of the center. www.restaurant-piment.de
Turnhalle, Lange Reihe 107 (St. Georg). Tel: 280-08480. A popular gathering place in a former girls’ school on Lange Reihe, with the best-priced lunch buffet in town. www.turnhalle.com
Vlet, Am Sandtorkai 23 (Speicherstadt). Tel: 334-753-750. Primo Speicherstadt views, accommodating staff, and gorgeous food: don’t miss it. www.vlet.de
Café Gnosa, Lange Reihe 93 (St. Georg). Tel: 243-034. A longtime favorite among the St. Georg GLBT crowd for coffee/pastries. www.gnosa.de
Herr Max, Schulterblatt 12 (Schanze. Tel: 692-19951. A pretty coffeehouse in the Schanze area, with great cakes. www.herrmax.de
Lohascoffee, Lange Reihe 25 (St. Georg). Tel: 280-06779. Organic/fair trade coffee in a laid-back setting right on Lange Reihe. www.lohascoffee.de
Messmer Momentum, Am Kaiserkai 10 (HafenCity). Tel: 736-79000. Cafe, tea shop, and museum, so you can find out about the brew, sample it with some fancy cakes, and then buy some to take home. www.messmer.de/das-messmer-momentum
Speicherstadt Kaffeerösterei, Kehrwieder 5 (Speicherstadt). Tel: 318-16161. Coffee roaster and café for the true caffeine lover (most Hamburgers find it the best coffee in town). www.speicherstadt-kaffee.de
Unter den Linden, Juliusstrasse 16 (Schanze). Tel: 438-140. A charming little coffeehouse in the Schanze, with good food and a loyal gay following. www.cafe-unter-den-linden.net
136 Degrees, Reeperbahn 136. A weekend late-night club drawing a young and party-hearty crowd. www.136grad.com
Bellini, Danziger Strasse 63. Tel: 280-03689. A pleasant St. Georg Bar with a mainly 30- and 40-something crowd. www.bellini-bar-hamburg.de
Cube, Lange Reihe 88. Tel: 248-70707. A stylish little cocktail bar right on Lange Reihe. www.cube-hamburg.de
Daniel’s Company, 5 Kreuzweg. Tel: 249-610. Nice bar with a front deck and dance floor, good for night owls who love its “open-end hours.”
Generation Bar, Lange Reihe 81. Tel: 280-04690. Where the young, hip homo crowd hangs out in St. Georg. www.generation-bar.de
M & V Bar, Lange Reihe 22. Tel: 280-06973. Friendly and welcoming, it’s the place many Hamburgers start a long night of bargoing. www.mvbar.de
Mis-shapes, a “polysexual” Friday night party, check their website for the latest location. www.mis-shapes.de
Neid Club, Reeperbahn 25. Tel: 239-36400. Late-night club on weekends, offering parties with such names as “Barbie Breakout” and “Bitch, Please.” www.neidklub.de
Olivia Jones Bar, Grosse Freiheit 35. Tel: 202 (instead of 40) 241-38950. The all-welcoming club just off the Reeperbahn run by Hamburg’s legendary drag queen (Olivia also owns the Show Club nearby at Freiheit 27). www.oliviajones.de
WunderBar, Talstrasse 14. Tel: 317-4444. A mainly young crowd, but so much fun everyone feels right at home. www.wunderbar-hamburg.de
Tom’s Saloon, Pulverteich 17. Tel: 380-3056. Cruisy action and a Tom of Finland gallery have kept this St. Georg institution popular since 1974. www.toms-hamburg.de
Arts and Crafts Museum (Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe), Steintorplatz. Tel: 428-134-880. Collections ranging from glass and pottery to furniture and musical instruments at this stunning museum. www.mkg-hamburg.de
Art Museum (Kunsthalle), Glockengiesserwall. Tel: 428-131-200. Hamburg’s art museum offers an overview from the classical greats to modern giants. www.hamburger-kunsthalle.de
Dialogue in the Dark, Alter Wandrahm 4. Tel: 309-6340. A unique experience of the world of the blind in this Speicherstadt attraction. www.dialog-im-dunkeln.com
Deichtorhallen, Deichtorstrasse 1-2. Tel: 321-030. Former market halls now hold changing exhibitions of modern art and photography. www.deichtorhallen.de
Glore, Glashüttenstraße 5. Tel: 235-51307. Get your globally responsible clothes at this concept store for green fashion where everything they offer is organic, fair-trade, and fabulous. www.glore-hamburg.de
International Maritime Museum, Koreastrasse 1. Tel: 040-300-9230-0. Nine floors of fascinating displays on all aspects of ships and shipping. www.internationales-martimes-museum.de
Miniatur Wonderland, Kehrwieder 2-4. Tel: 300-6800. Fabulous miniature railway that’s a thousand times more fun than you’d expect. www.miniatur-wunderland.com
For general Hamburg information, visit www.hamburg-travel.com
For listings of GLBT spots, try www.hinnerk.de (all in German, but you’ll manage).