Hamburg, Germany's greenest city?
by Anna Shepard
Before setting off for a weekend in Hamburg, I told my German neighbours where I was headed. “There are lots of parks and expensive cafes, but it's not as fun as Berlin," they told me. "Why don’t you go there?” Everyone knows you can have a good time in the country's eclectic capital, but I wanted something different. And my interest was piqued by Hamburg's reputation as Germany’s greenest city, with fantastic public transport, bike-loving citizens and fairtrade boutiques.
I also had my reservations. As well as its thriving industrial port, my guidebook named the red-light district as one of the city's main attraction. Was there really nothing more on offer in Germany’s second largest city than industry and tacky sex shows?
Putting doubts to one side, my boyfriend and I focused on the journey - we had three different trains to catch. In Brussels, our first stop, we were seduced by Belgian beer and frites, only narrowly making it back to our connecting train. At our next stop, Cologne, its gothic cathedral loomed over the station. After a whistlestop tour, we returned for the final leg of our journey.
Upon arrival in Hamburg, any worries about whether we’d have fun melted away. It turned out there was another side to Hamburg that no one had mentioned. Like Berlin, it is a creative hub, bubbling with nightlife, bars, live music venues and a thriving student scene – there are 11 universities in town, hence lots of young people to entertain. It is also Germany’s media centre - over half of the nation’s newspapers and magazines are based in the city. Our hotel (see below) was hosting the German Press Awards the night we arrived, a glitzy affair which filled the bar with puffy ballgowns and photographers.
“Hope you’ve brought your tux,” joked the porter, who turned out to be a devoted Anglophile. He was longing to talk Wimbledon and Buckingham Palace, and only reluctantly steered us towards German shops and restaurants. He preferred to reel off places to buy British produce in Hamburg - from Burberry sweaters to Scottish shortbread.
Come August, he would be one of the thousands that gather at Hamburg’s Polo Club to celebrate British Day, feasting on fish and chips, followed by scones and afternoon tea. A love of all things British is one of Hamburg's most peculiar trait, but combined with friendliness and tolerance of poorly spoken German, it made us feel welcome.
My partner, a true Anglo-Saxon, declared it just his kind of place – delicious cakes, decent coffee, no danger of sunburn and lots of opportunities to drink beer. And with its clearly marked underground system, love of organic food and adherence to recycling systems (even the parks and trains have divided bins), Hamburg often feels like London’s greener cousin.
Unlike in the UK, you notice here that eco policies are followed as much by business as by people in their own homes. In museums, cinemas, cafes and even the trendiest restaurants, energy-saving lights are everywhere, rubbish is recycled (or composted) and notices politely request people to save water by turning taps off.
In the suburbs, there’s a green hotel built exclusively from natural materials, complete with PV solar cells and rainwater flushing the loos. Guests are reassured they won’t have to sacrifice comfort; the spacious suites at the Okotel have balconies, mini-bars, cable TV and wireless. The only drawback is that the hotel is a bus ride away from the centre of town – something that put us off since we were only in the city for a couple of days.
But even traditional hotels, such as the Atlantic - where we stayed - are onboard with the basics of eco-friendly tourism. For example, it uses regional food suppliers, eco cleaning products and financially rewards staff who come to work by public transport.
Not content to be Germany’s greenest city, Hamburg is aiming to be the green capital of Europe by 2012. Its claim will be helped by the city’s very literal greenness. Every way you turn, you hit either a park or some water. With its network of canals and proximity to the River Elbe, Hamburg is said to have more bridges than Amsterdam and Venice combined (2300 if you’re counting).
If it had been warmer, we might have braved the town bikes – there’s a scheme, called Stadtrad, that enables you to pick them up for free at bike parks around the city. Instead we strolled across a corner of the vast Stadtpark, Hamburg’s central park, which contains a planetarium, stopping now and again for a hot chocolate. Later we explored multicultural districts - such as St Pauli and Schanzenviertal - where it’s easier to find falafel than brockwurst. In the evening, we joined glamorous media-types at East, a trendy hotel and bar serving sushi and caiprihinias.
On our last night, we followed a gang of students to a club in one of the suburbs where live bands took it in turns to play funk and ska until the early hours. Leaving the city the following day, we banished our hangovers by enjoying a final beer in the train's smart restaurant car. As we rattled out of Germany, we toasted Hamburg as the new Berlin before diligently slotting our empty beer cans into the correct bin.
Where to stay For old-fashioned charm, stay at the Hotel Atlantic Kempinski – you might recognize it from the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies (1997). Take afternoon tea in front of the fire in the elegant lobby and you’ll feel like you’ve wandered onto an Agatha Christie set. Its rooms are a little dated, but the breakfast makes up for it – champagne, smoked salmon and every imaginable cheese and salami (www.kempinski.atlantic.de; doubles from £140). For a younger, trendier vibe, try East Hotel with its clash of oriental design, boutique-style rooms and superb cocktails (www.east-hamburg.de; doubles from £135).
Where to eat No visit to Hamburg is complete without eating fish in one of the smart restaurants overlooking the River Elbe. Warsteiner
Elbspeicher is a classic, reasonably priced affair - when we visited the set menu included catfish and cabbage as well as delicious German wines, all for less than £30 a head (www.warsteiner-elbspeicher.de). Even more classy is the nearby Fischereifhafen-Restaurant, a celeb-haunt serving the city’s finest oysters and seafood, but except to pay no less than £50 a head (www.fischereihafenrestaurant.de). For the best organic coffee and cake, visit Cafe LilliSu in the Ottensen district (www.lillisu.de).
Where to shop Our favourite place was a deli specialising in German produce called Mutterland. With slow-food principles, friendly staff and a stylish coffee shop, it represented the best of Hamburg’s cafe culture with a modern twist (www.mutterland.de). Eco worriers will love fair-trade boutiques such as Marlow Nature, Hamburg’s green fashion hub, which sells fair-trade shoes, eco-cosmetics and merino wool scarves made in South Germany (www.marlowe-nature.de). Try also accessories store Fein that sells fairly-traded produce (www.fein-store.de) and Eden Living for Ikea-style homeware (www.edenliving.de).
TOP TIP Take to the water. Tour Hamburg’s centrally located Alster lake, either during the day, or book a romantic twilight trip. To see the prosperous warehouse district as well as the partially-built Elbphilharmonie concert hall, soon to be Hamburg’s pride and joy, book a harbour cruise (www.alstertouristik.de)
GETTING THERE Anna Shepard travelled with Eurostar from London to Hamburg (fares from London to Hamburg start at £263 standard class return. For more information and to book train tickets see our rail journey planner: Train from London to Hamburg.
See the website of the city's tourist office: www.hamburg-tourism.de/en