Hats off to Hamburg

A major transportation hub, Hamburg’s port (the third largest in Europe) has helped make it one of...

A major transportation hub, Hamburg’s port (the third largest in Europe) has helped make it one of Germany's most affluent cities in Europe. (JOE WARMINGTON/QMI Agency)

JOE WARMINGTON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:52 PM ET

HAMBURG -- This is where Germans come to party. And people from the rest of the world, too.

You will find people in Hamburg from across the globe -- on vacation, on business or to study. But primarily you'll find Germans from all sections of the country who descend on Hamburg to get away from it all.

Clean, green, diverse, unique and yet completely German, there are many compliments one could bestow on Hamburg. That its own people routinely chose to come here so often might be its highest honour.

It's a grand city, yet cozy. It's historic but modern. It's cosmopolitan but almost cottage-like, too. And as it grows into one of Europe's media capitals, it remains a place of quaintness and contrast.

The maritime hub of Germany, it has nightlife and an after-hours naughty scene -- the infamous Reeperbahn red light district -- but also attractions for families and sightseers. If you love nature, it's here. If you love arts and entertainment, you will be busy. If history is your thing, you won't be disappointed. Whether you are a sailor, a backpacker or a five-star traveller, Hamburg has something for you.

It's a place that not only attracts stars but has also helped create some. But the brightest light is Hamburg -- known as Germany's Northern Star.

I arrived with little knowledge of this magnificent city and fell completely in love.

BEATLEMANIA

If there was no Hamburg, there may have been no Beatles.

This is where the Fab Five cut their teeth and got their signature mop-top hairstyles.

They later took the world by storm as the Fab Four but before the Liverpool quartet became a world-music phenomenon they were a five-piece rock 'n' roll band.

In 1960, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best played their first of many gigs at the Indra club in St. Pauli, an area best known for its unsavoury Reeperbahn. The rest is not just history but historical.

Today Hamburg has a Beatles-Platz. The circular plaza at Reeperbahn and Grosse Freiheit streets -- paved black to resemble a vinyl record -- is dominated by statues of the band-mates -- all within steps of where the group began its first magical mystery tour.

If that isn't reason enough to visit, the legacy continues nearby, where 50 years later you can still follow in The Beatles' footsteps. Not only can you drop by Indra and other places they played such as the Kaiserkeller, The Top Ten and The Star-Club -- once hopping night-spots -- but you can also get a peak inside the group's Hamburg experience.

In the '60s, Hamburg was still rebuilding from the Second World War and the Reeperbahn was re-establishing itself as Germany's famous haven for vice and fun. An earlier bohemian scene in the area became part of the lexicon of '60s life.

"I'd have to say with hindsight that Hamburg bordered on the best of Beatles times," George Harrison said in an interview shortly before his death. "Hamburg was really like our apprenticeship."

That sentiment is reflected in the many pictures and accounts inside Beatlemania, The Exhibition, which opened in 2009 near the Beatles-Platz. While touristy, the museum is still a nice place for fans to revisit pre-Beatlemania times. It also marks the contribution of original drummer Pete Best and bass player Stuart Sutcliffe.

Best once told me he often recalled the Hamburg days with both fondness and pain. On one hand, he missed the biggest rock 'n' roll boat in history by just weeks after being replaced by Ringo Starr. On the other hand, he was part of the early journey.

At Beatlemania, they pay homage to that. Best's pictures and story are featured with the same brightness as the other Beatles. Same goes for Sutcliffe who, after leaving the band to pursue an artistic career, died in 1962 of a brain aneurysm.

Photographs by Hamburg resident Astrid Kirchnerr light the place up.

It has been 50 years since The Beatles came to Hamburg. And Hamburg has not forgotten.

ON THE WATERFRONT

Some people call Hamburg "Venice of the North."

It is a maritime city of water on water, some 100 km from the North Sea along the Elbe River. So a boat trip along the city's many canals, rivers and lakes, provides a fascinating look into the beating heart of the famous German port, which is visited by 14,000 sea-going vessels each year.

Many cities have harbour tours but Hamburg has so many waterways that there are many different types of boat tours to chose from. And the boats that ply the canals are not just for tourists. Depending on where they live, some locals can take ferries to work the way might take buses or subways.

THE 'SINFUL MILE'

It's sin city but done the right way. The sex trade along the infamous Reeperbahn is licenced and legal. It's one of Europe's most famous red light zones -- with burlesque shows, brothels and sex shops. There is a walled and regulated area for prostitution with strict rules enforced by police.

But buying and selling sex is just one component of the popular St. Pauli district. Once a spot for sailors on shore leave, today it's becoming a massive entertainment and fun zone for everyone. On weekends, it draws a cross-section of people from college-aged kids to couples out for dinner, live music and a stroll.

The Reeperbahn continues to be known for its live music scene, as it was back in the '60s when The Beatles played there. It's also an area where it's okay to walk around with a bratwurst in one hand and a beer the other.

HAMBURG HAS IT ALL

Each European city has it's own brand and attractions. But Hamburg has it all -- culture, fun, shopping, dining, history, centuries-old warehouses and ultra-modern waterfront condominiums and office towers. It's a city with memorable boat rides, great strolling and 50 top flight museums, including the famous Miniatur Wunderland home to the world's largest model train set.

It's a city that also has ties to the rest of the world, which can be explored at the Ballinstadt Emigration Museum, based in the historical buildings where thousands of people from across Europe were processed before departing on ships for North America.

joe.warmington@sunmedia.ca

IF YOU GO TO HAMBURG

MORE INFORMATION

For details on travel to Germany, contact the German National Tourist Office website at cometogermany.com. Transit Holidays has a variety of flexible and economical packages that include direct flights from Toronto to Hamburg, accommodations and tours. New this year is a fun Hamburg-Berlin City Hopping option. See transatholidays.com.


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