At the end of last summer, after two years of working hard to raise the money, I finally got to Germany, the country I was determined to return to after spending the best five months of my life as an Erasmus student in Erfurt, Central Germany. I had never been to Germany before Erfurt and my expectations weren't high, so you can imagine my pleasant surprise when I arrived and discovered just how awesome a country it is!
This time round, I was lucky enough to get a placement as an English language assistant at a school in Hamburg, a new part of Germany I had never visited before. I don't drive, so a city is perfect for me. It turns out I wasn't quite prepared for such a big city!
Although thrilled to be back in Germany, my impression of Hamburg was quite neutral at first. I'll be honest, I think I was just overwhelmed. The cities I was used to had a population of around 200k. I was also living with a host family for the first time, which took some getting used to. I can safely say that my hosts have looked after me very well, and there is no way my German would have improved as well as it has done without them! As for work, I got a placement at a Stadtteilschüle (a general secondary school) in Finkenwerder, which is a district in the south of Hamburg. Travel to school included a trip across the Elbe by ferry, and while I often grumbled about the 6am wake up call, I couldn't stay grumpy for long. A boat trip at dawn accompanied by such beautiful scenery is food for the soul.
So yes, I was overwhelmed at first, and a little indifferent to the city, but that indifference soon turned to wonder when I joined one of the free walking tours which start daily at 11am outside the Starbucks on Rathausmarkt (the Town Hall Square). This three-hour-long trip covered everything from the beginnings of Hamburg to the aftermath of WWII, and it wasn't just history I learned that day. In those three hours, I got to know Hamburg the way you get to know a person. In other words, I discovered its identity.
Thanks to the walking tour and plenty of pavement stomping by myself (which often resulted in me getting lost), I stumbled upon quite a few haunts and favourite spots which mapped a wonderful time in Hamburg for me. Here they are, more or less in order of discovery...
Rathausmarkt, Jungfernstieg and Alster
Any visitors to Hamburg will most likely start off their trip with a look at the stunning Rathaus (town hall). You're not likely to get a good picture of the building from the square itself, but if you stand on the bridge near Jungfernstieg U-bahn station you should get a better view. Surrounding the Rathaus is a feast of architecture, shops and cafés, and just across is the Binnen-Alster, the artificial lake where the Alster river ends. Both the lake and the river itself are inspiring, especially on a sunny day, and I fully recommend a stroll around the lake, then across the Kennedy Bridge to the scenic banks of the Alster river. Be prepared for house envy and a strong desire to paint the clear colours of the Alster. Perhaps you could even stop for ice cream or a coffee.
Planten un Blomen
As mentioned, I got lost a lot, but at least I found plenty of parks, among them the most beautiful park I have ever been to. Planten un Blomen (accessible via U-bahn station St Pauli or Stephansplatz) has a lot to offer, from quiet little nooks amongst beautiful flora to rose gardens, a Japanese tea house, play areas and a huge botanical garden. For me, Planten un Blomen had something I simply cannot find in the UK. A lot of time and money has clearly been spent on it, but not only that. The park seems to be well respected, with minimal littering, vandalising and antisocial behaviour, making it a pleasure for all ages. If only every town had a park that was just a fraction as pretty and peaceful as this place!
This great river flows from Hamburg to Dresden and beyond, making Hamburg the important harbour city that it is. Although a walk along this riverside may not offer the best views, you will come to love the cranes of the floating docks and the coming and going of ferries, cruise liners and container ships. Many of my walks along the Elbe began at Landungsbrucken, which is also where I caught the number 62 ferry to Finkenwerder every day. Landungsbrucken is a charming set of buildings, which also neighbours the entrance to the old Elbe tunnel (which you can walk through to the other side of the river). From Landungsbrucken you can walk East towards the Portuguese Quarter for a bite to eat or a few drinks, or further on to the Elbphilarmonie and Hafen City. To the west you will find Fischmarkt, and further along either on foot or by the number 62 ferry, you will come to Neumuhlen, a quaint little corner of Hamburg with its very own beach, bars and scenic walkways with a peak into riverside gardens. The perfect destination for a sunny picnic or a get together with friends on a summer evening.
Schanzenviertel and Karolinenviertel
If you're a fan of the alternative, Sternschanze is your U-bahn stop. This was my go-to place for hippie and vintage shops, funky bars and the odd curry or falafel, and the people you'll find here are as colourful as the place itself. Don't be surprised to see punks "fishing" for money for "grass", but I can assure you they're pretty harmless. Schanze has a fun, artsy and multicultural vibe, and it's great for a spot of retail therapy.
The Christmas Markets
What's Germany without Christmas markets? Hamburg provided my first real taste of a German Christmas market, and although I knew it would be pretty special, I didn't expect it to be magical. The Rathausmarkt was converted into a winter wonderland, complete with Santa in a flying reindeer-led sleigh. The food-smells, the lights, the unique items on sale, the decorations and the displays on top of the market huts... I felt like I was five years old again. You haven't experienced German Christmas until you've had a cup of Gluhwein and a nibble of Lebkuchen at a Christmas Market.
The Reeperbahn and Fischmarkt
Of course, no review of Hamburg is complete without mention of the infamous red light district. But I'll be honest, I kept my distance throughout most of my time here. It wasn't the strip clubs and sex shops that bothered me, but the hoards of (mostly drunk, British and male) tourists everywhere you move. Otherwise, it was like any other strip of nightclubs and bars, which I've lost my taste for since discovering that nothing can live up to the nightlife in Spain. But it's not all tourists and naked women. The Reeperbahn actually has a lot of cool bars to offer, as well as theatres and decent restaurants. When I finally did decide to have a night out on the Reeperbahn, it was with a good group of friends who knew where the best bars were, and the evening ended at the legendary Hamburger Fischmarkt. I'll be honest, I didn't know what I was expecting, but it was certainly worth it. While outside a general market was to be found, inside the fish auction hall a full on party was taking place. A local band had the place rocking, there were people having breakfast, a fischbrötchen or a cup of beer, and all were having a damn good time. This was probably one of the best experiences of my time in Hamburg, and although Fischmarkt is only open on Sunday mornings between 4am and 9:30am, it is well worth going to, even if it's just the once.
Aside from the above, I made plenty of other discoveries in Hamburg, such as Stadtpark, shopping in Altona, wandering around Eppendorf where I lived, and visiting art galleries with my hosts. There were plenty of museums and things to see, and it's a great idea to see what discounts are available for each place. But most importantly of all, my time in Hamburg was simply perfect. I found great friends, did the things I set out to do (top of the list - learn German!), learnt plenty of new things and had no problems and no stress. Perhaps someday I'll live in Germany again, but for now I remain forever grateful to Hamburg for looking after me and for the people who made it great.
It's been a fantastic year.