Grüße aus Hansaland – how Hamburg expresses its Baltic Zeitgeist

Jonathan Meades pontificating on Expressionist Architecture’s debt to the Gothic. Classic Meades. Against a backdrop exemplifying his polemic – Hamburg’s Chilehaus. Ten storey 1920s office block built on wealth from a South American saltpetre venture; ornate, curved showcase for 4.8 million dark bricks, UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

As Meades proclaims to camera in his 2008 travelogue, Magnetic North: “Expressionism was a variety of Modernism, which didn’t prevail against the rectilinear idiom of the International Style. No, Expressionism didn’t try to break with the past, it embraced it, reworked the practice.”

The two part Magnetic North took the maverick architecture/food critic from the Flanders flatlands to the old weird Baltic states via the independent North German cities that made up the Hanseatic League, mercantile confederation at its peak from the 13th to the 15th centuries. Meades’ verdict: “God’s first attempt at the EU.”

That Hamburg, the Bundesrepublik’s second city and biggest port, is still in thrall to its Hansa past is symbolised by its car number plates – HH (Hansestadt Hamburg) – and by a mindset that finds more in common with Antwerp or Copenhagen than, say, Munich.

Hence the Meades telly odyssey (or is that too Greek a word?). Reacting against the cultural seduction of the Mediterranean South with its sun, wine and olives, he went in search of the North, land of greyness, grain-based drinks and herring, territory pervaded by a dark, scatological, Grimm-like imagination. I am still with the great man on that journey.

So does Hamburg live up to the Baltic billing? Definitely. We are in Deichstrasse after dark. Across the Zollkanal waterway the great brick cliff faces of the Speicherstadt warehouse district are lit up a treat. The spice and carpet trades no longer rule in one of Europe’s most spectacular townscapes, but it still radiates mercantile imperatives. Rather like uncompromising Hamburg itself. Which makes it so refreshing for a weekend break. Real. Out there in the current docks, the giant container ships and cruise liners slide in up the River Elbe.

Deichstrasse was here before all this. This modest little street dates back to the 14th century and some of its lopsided properties are restored 17th century. We are torn between two Hanseatic culinary options. The Kartoffekeller (Potato Cellar) is a restaurant devoted entirely to the spud. From soups and souffles to pancakes and a shot of digestif spirit, all offerings are based on that tuber. Even the staff are clad in potato sacks. Its rival across the road is the Alt Hamburger Aalspeicher (Old Hamburg Eel House), offering eel soup, eel in green sauce, smoked eel… you get the message. Or, if you can wriggle out of eel, it serves that other Baltic favourite, the herring. (Note the latter eating house is ‘temporarily closed, as I write).

We said Nein to both places and resumed our evening Bummel – a lovely German word for sauntering aimlessly. Nothing to do with what goes on down along the Reeperbahn. We’d encountered Hamburg’s red light district in passing mid-afternoon. Perhaps window-framed hookers were flaunting it in broad daylight along notorious Herbertstrasse, closed off by a wall to women and minors. In solidarity with them I chose not to slip in even for a gawp.

Instead, we went for Art, drawn by the great Romantic works of Caspar David Friedrich and Philipp Otto Runge at the Hamburger Kunsthalle but found the gallery glum and difficult to navigate. The main station, the Hauptbahnof, next door was more exciting. Cultural compensation came the same evening with a delightful production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Hamburg Staatsoper – at affordable (subsidised) prices compared with at home. 

Both institutions are in an upmarket quarter close to the two city centre lakes, the Binnenalster and the much larger Aussenalster. Here also is the Ratshaus (city hall), the Venetian-style Alster Arcades and the city’s luxury shopping district. It’s best to look beyond for a cutting edge place to dine. We fell for Vlet (above), with its Slow Food nod to North German culinary traditions and atmospheric warehouse location in Speicherstadt. Vlet is Old High German for “Fleet”, meaning a canal in a coastal city. Our two course set lunch featured dishes such as “beef brisket, oat sauce with a gratin of blue potatoes” or “lamb’s lettuce, marinated bread, liver of Heidschnucke (species of sheep), turnips”.

Still, no visit to Germany is complete without a huge plate of traditional Schweinebraten (roast pork) and cabbage. So when it featured on the menu as a lunchtime special at the Altes Madchen, there was only ever going to be one accompaniment to my pint of IPA. Even if it meant missing out on sandwiches, made with sourdough from this Braugasthaus’s in-house bakery.

For Braugasthaus, read brewery tap. Ratshernn, Hamburg’s own take on craft brewing, is based here and there’s a brilliant global beer boutique alongside the contemporary-styled beer hall, which is a far oompah from the old Hofbrauhaus variety (there is a dull offshoot of the Munich original on the Esplanade in Hamburg City centre).

It’s a trek by underground up to the Altes Madchen, but worth it. Nearby is Hamburg’s own “Northern Quarter”, the Sternschanze, full of interesting, offbeat shopping and bars. Continue south to St Pauli, Hamburg’s graffiti-daubed, libertarian heartland. From here cross the Reeperbahn and you are down on the river.

Early each Sunday morning the dockside Fischmarkt (Fish Market) hosts a huge party – really a continuation of all-night revels. We were there midweek, so missed the action. Still the walk along the riverfront, quite sober, is intoxicating enough, past the 10 floating pontoons of the Landungsbrucken (landing stages) to the three-masted sailing ship, the Rickmer Rickmers, now moored as a nautical museum. 

From here across the river in Speicherstadt the futuristic prow of the Elbephilharmonie concert hall rears up, its crystalline carapace resting on top of an old brick warehouse. The building of this landmark project was fraught with problems. Way behind schedule, Elphi, as the locals call it, finally opened early in 2017.

Stray inland from the Landungsbrucken and you are in the Neustadt (New Town) which, like the Old Town, looks neither particularly new or old. Traditional street corner bar decked out almost like an old wooden ship, the Thamers Stube is the best haunt for a restorative tipple after all that Bummeling. Try a Jever, a raspingly dry local beer speciality.

St Michaelis, five minutes away, is Hamburg’s iconic church, its 433ft high tower dominating the city skyline. You can climb it, but I’d recommend the altogether cheaper ascent at St Petri, the oldest (11th century) and most characterful of the city’s parish churches. It’s on Kreuslerstrasse. The spire is actually the 3ft higher than St Michaelis and the views of the city are awe-inspiring. We puffed our way to the eyrie inside the tip of the spire, feeling pleased with our efforts, to find it occupied by a group of kindergarten toddlers enjoying their packed lunches and not out of breath, like us.

There’s no escaping the sea in this city.  Another must-see that makes you reconsider your whole attitude to the humble brick is the city’s International Maritime Museum, the world’s largest seafaring homage with over 100,000 exhibits – hi-tech stuff as well as model ships – over 10 storeys.

We stayed at the 25 Hours Hafen City hotel, 200 metres away down the Osakaalle, on the edge of the giant building site transforming the “Harbour City” wasteland. Our lodging is part of an acclaimed German boutique chain. This one boasts a seafaring theme – held together with sailors’ yarns: 25 seafarers from around the world tell real-life stories of dangerous voyages, romantic encounters, violent storms and painful farewells. Anecdotal accessories and objects refer to these adventures, which are told in full in each cabin’s logbook.

One wall of the foyer is the side of a container, other nautical materials feature and the corridors are lined with images of unemployed fishermen (disconcertingly these were all English, we were told). It was cool to hang out in 25 Hours’ buzzing bar/kitchen, Heimat, but even cooler to batten down the hatches in our Captain’s Cabin suite.

Water is never far away. On our final morning, we trekked (this is a great walking city) to the larger of the city’s two artificial lakes, the Aussenalster, separated from the Binnenalster by road bridges. There is pedestrian access all round the 1.6 sq km lake, but the western side, mostly parkland paths, is the one to go for. In summer there are boat trips, too. Add the wealth of walking and river cruising along the Elbe and you have a city that breathes a sense of freedom. Perfect for a modern city break… with a large cargo of ‘Hansaland’ history in tow.

Neil Sowerby flew from Manchester to Hamburg with easyJet. He stayed at the 170 ’cabin’ 25 Hours Hafen City, Überseeallee 5, 20457 Hamburg, Germany. Hamburg Tourism information.