Historic Hamburg May Be Europe's Most Modern City

by Kelsy Chauvin

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday April 30, 2018

Germany's second-largest city is rapidly overtaking Berlin as the nation's can't-miss destination. Hamburg is home to rich history, diverse musical and theatrical heritage, an active LGBTQ community, and, especially lately, some of Europe's most intriguing urban renewal.

New and Noteworthy

It seems like much of the attraction centers on the striking Elbphiharmonie. Opened in early 2017, the "Elphie" is an instant landmark whose lower third is a husky red-brick, eight-story former warehouse that once served cargo ships in the busy Elbe-River harbor. It's upper half, however, rises 18 floors above that triangular brick base into a silvery glass tower with an undulating, wave-like roof.

In all its nouveau glory, Elbphiharmonie is a multi-purpose structure that houses apartments, parking, a rooftop bar, public plaza, and the Westin Hamburg. But its more significant function is as one of the world's most acoustically advanced and visually striking concert halls. Like Barcelona's Sagrada Familia Basilica, the Elphie employs the genius of nature in its structure and across every interior inch. The result is a theater experience that's as visually stunning as it is acoustically captivating -- and alone a splendid reason to visit Hamburg.

The Elphie is a gleaming emblem of Hamburg's 21st century. The city long stood apart as an independent city-state and bustling North-Sea port until it joined the German Confederation in the early 19th century. The canals of this former marsh town remain, however, and are today lined with stately old homes.

From its pier, the Elphie anchors the new HafenCity, one of the most massive urban-renewal projects anywhere in the world. The waterfront area known as Speicherstadt is the former warehouse district that earned UNESCO World Heritage status in 2015.

Speicherstadt is one of Hamburg's most picturesque neighborhoods, with restaurants, boutiques, and accommodations drawing ever more travelers downtown. You can even sip locally roasted joe or Hamburg-made Fritz-kola at adorable cafs like Public Coffee Roasters, or have a quiet bite or tea at Wasserschloss overlooking the old shipping canals.

HafenCity is the city's revitalization plan that will extend the live-work area beyond historical Speicherstadt. Nearly 400 more acres are now being developed as the city's most modern and sustainably built urban quarter, which by 2025 will be home to a new metro station, innovative flood protection, residences, commercial structures, and public space along the river's edge.

In Hamburg, modernity tends to enhance the local architecture, rather than overwhelm it. The buildings that survived the world wars, which are few, remain marvelous -- from eye-catching neo-Renaissance Rathaus (City Hall), to the 1920s "brick expressionist" Chilehaus.

The city's architectural innovations blend in while still owning their distinct stylistic appeal. The very latest addition is also Hamburg's new luxury hotel, The Fontenay. The property rises five stories on the shore of lovely Alster Lake, enclosing 131 guestrooms within a swooping faade that translates feng-shui principles to its interiors. Each piece of furniture is custom-made for The Fontenay, including comfy in-room pieces and the furnishings of its first-floor Parkview or fourth-story Lakeside restaurants, Atrium Lounge, and rooftop Fontenay Bar -- all of which serve sophisticated dishes that non-guests will find make the hotel well worth a visit.

Along with premium service, the independently owned Fontenay also houses a spa on its top floor that features a sauna, steam room, indoor-outdoor lap pool, and lounge area along a window wall that likely offers Hamburg's best vista to behold while donning a robe.


LGBTQ culture is prominent in Hamburg, making it a top destination for gay travelers -- though it helps that the "gayborhood" of St. Georg originates at the main train station. Following Lange Reihe ("Long Row"), you'll discover the city's original theater district leads to the dive-turned-gay-bar M&V, a flirty stop with dimly lit booths and cheap drinks.

Press on to Kyti Voo for another favorite cocktail lounge that's lesbian-owned, with prime outdoor seating on the main drag.

By day, grab a pastry and milchkaffee (caf au lait) at charming Caf Gnosa, where you can park in a red vinyl booth or people watch from one of its sidewalk tables. The Long Row has plenty of charming shops, like Lagerhaus, with locally made housewares, art, and a salon in back. St. Cream is another chic clothing shop that's lesbian-owned, with hot goods for all genders.

A bit further north is The George Hotel, whose boutique design attracts queer clientele for lodging, and to its Restaurant DiCaio or seasonal Campari Lounge Roof Terrace.

Gay nightlife in Hamburg occasionally makes it to the St. Pauli neighborhood, the city's famed red-light district where the Beatles launched their musical ascendance in the early 1960s. The Reeperbahn is that area's main drag, lined with neon-clad shops and gritty side streets. Eclectic Wunderbar is a familiar go-to LGBTQ spot there, just aim to visit late. For a dose of glamor with a view in St. Pauli, head up to Clouds restaurant for cocktails and food menus that live up to lofty expectations.

Grab a copy of the local LGBTQ magazine Hinnerk to see what gay and lesbian parties are coming up. If you're in town during October, join avid Hamburg cinema-goers for the Hamburg International Queer Film Festival, Germany's oldest LGBTQ cinema festival.

Midsummer brings the annual Hamburg Pride blowout, this year July 27 to August 5, to commemorate, protest, and celebrate with a full week of educational and social events. And of course, in a musical city like this, expect great performances that would make even the most dramatic of queens proud.

Kelsy Chauvin is a writer, photographer and marketing consultant based in Brooklyn, New York. She specializes in travel, feature journalism, art, theater, architecture, construction and LGBTQ interests. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @kelsycc.