On paper it had seemed a great idea: compare Germany’s two largest cities after Berlin: one, its most northerly, chilly and post-industrial; the other, its most southerly, Bavarian and gregarious – practically Alpine, if the weirdly comped-in snowy peaks on their tourist-office photos were anything to go by. But it didn’t quite work out: Hamburg was green and pleasant, arty and inspiring, while Munich was full of hip bars and communal activity – both are winners in their own right.


If you’re staying at Hamburg’s Hotel Atlantic and ask them nicely, they will escort you up through a fantastical lumber-filled attic of things they haven’t been able to bring themselves to throw away, and out on to a triangular roof space under the famous globe that sits on the building’s cornice.

The Atlantic was built for travellers taking liners from Hamburg to America: its architecture reflects this, and the view from its roof tells you a lot about this city. Immediately beneath you is the southern end of the Außenalster, a huge artificial lake created from one of the tributaries of the Elbe, around which Hamburg’s magnates and merchants built their fancy villas. Beyond it are the spires of the city’s churches and outpourings of municipal image-making, from gothic exuberance to the severe dark brick vernacular of the Hanseatic Baltic region. Behind these are the towering warehouses and the cranes of Hamburg’s giant port. The whole city was once geared to serving this restless engine of its wealth and power, yet it does so with surprising grace and beauty. This is Hamburg’s first revelation.

Art, ships and Beatlemania
The second is that neither the Reeperbahn nor The Beatles loom very large here. Although the newly opened Beatlemania is actually on that boulevard of iniquity (which is now by no means what it once was on the sleaze index), it feels like a token nod to a former era. The ’80s, possibly. The new Hamburg is all about the industrial past providing the foundations for a cultural future.

Not that there isn’t a wealth of culture here already – the Art Museum, with its superb collection of expressionist painting, is particularly worth a visit, though my favourite artwork in Hamburg wasn’t intended as one. On the dimly lit top floor of the Maritime Museum, in one of the harbour area’s most impressive buildings, is a display naffly called ‘The Big World of Little Ships’, which consists of thousands of tiny models in glass cases. Many of these flotillas are displayed prow-on, making them impossible to read, and the whole thing has the air of a peculiar, earnest joke.

Rising tides of development
The HafenCity – as the harbour area is known – is the current focus of Hamburg’s redevelopment, although, as a boat ride revealed, the port is still very much a going concern that needs a lot of work, and it’s staggeringly huge. A maze of wharfs and waterways in various states of dilapidation seemed to proliferate endlessly.

At Argentinienbrücke, a gold bull stands on a concrete plinth in the water, amid a tangle of girders and weeds. The new home of the Elbe Philharmonic is being constructed on a dockside near the austere beauty of the Speicherstadt, rows of multistory, late nineteenth-century warehouses linked by walkways above canals. Many are still occupied by dealers in Middle Eastern carpets and textiles, and this art/business conjunction is clearly something the city is keen to preserve, though judging by its media colonisation, it seems unlikely this area can possibly hold out against a tide of Bang & Olufsen stereos.

Hipsters in Hamburg

Away from the Elbe, the city’s former working-class areas have been the subject of ‘hipsterisation’ for some time. I walked across Planten und Blomen (the botanical garden) and past the city’s huge modern commercial trade fair site to the former meatpacking district and neighbouring Schanzen, full of self-conscious bars and the skull-and-crossbones flags of Sankt Pauli (the district and the football team).

More interesting is nearby Karolinenviertel, with narrow courts of workers’ tenements packed around tiny squares, and seemingly stuck in some kind of 1970s squatters’ limbo. West, towards Altona, are some rough-and-tumble venues, such as the Astra-Stube nightclub (Max-Brauer-Allee 200) and nearby bar/artspace Kulturhaus 73 (Schulterblatt 73).

At the mention of Bavaria, you probably think of hops, dirndls and lederhosen. What is curious about Munich as a city is that while all those things are much in evidence, it manages to avoid feeling arch or quaint. It probably helps that it’s big: conceived on a grand scale by successive rulers, nobles and proud burghers, it architecturally runs the gamut from fiddly medievalism via Italianate palazzi to spacious neoclassicism. Then it starts all over again, with the Middle Ages pastiche of the Neues Rathaus (new town hall) going up at the end of the nineteenth century, and later re-embracing the classical during the Third Reich.

A city of joiners-in
Communal experiences and spaces are central to life here. The Viktualienmarkt (produce market) on the edge of the old city is a focus and a mirror of the seasons: pallid asparagus was piled everywhere during my visit. The hops culture is deep-rooted: groups of friends have scheduled get-togethers in their favourite hall or garden. In the famous Hofbräuhaus, with its racks of personal steins like shells stacked in an arsenal, enamel plaques denote the tables of particular drinking clubs.

I queued up in the Augustiner-Keller garden (Arnulfstrasse 52) with businessmen, students and pensioners to receive my meat and drink. It’s medieval at heart, but fundamental to the city’s contented self-image, as if they survived the Middle Ages with all its good bits intact, then started making BMWs. Even the city’s more metrosexual areas, such as the quarter around Reichenbachplatz, not far from the old centre, have the same feeling of jollity – not enforced.

Munich’s a city of joiners-in. It’s also a city that likes a big project. From the startling extravagance of the baroque Nymphenburg Palace to the 1972 Olympic Park (it’s lovely and hugely popular, with gigs and events year-round), Munich seems to provide for both its rulers and citizens lavishly.

Art galleries and peace gardens
One of the world’s oldest public art galleries, the Alte Pinakothek, is now the centre of a series of superb museums taking you from high medievalism to Joseph Beuys’s felt suits. Green spaces are on a huge scale: the English Garden to the east of the city is several miles in length. You get the sense the city is holding back from committing to the whole ‘urban-sophisticate’ thing, as that’s just not ‘in the spirit’ of such simple Bavarian folk: you can’t quite tell at what point it becomes ironic. This, after all, is a city that boasts a chain of shops, ReSales, selling regional costume along with secondhand army jackets and disco-collared ’70s awfulness.

There are hip bars and clubs – Atomic Café and Milch + Bar – a decent gig venue (Muffathalle, Zellstrasse 4) and some green shoots of artiness (Wiede-Fabrik, Rambaldistrasse 27), but they’re not where you’ll find the spirit of Munich as a city. Near the Olympic Stadium is a tiny wooden house and a church built amid ruins by a displaced Ukrainian priest, Father Timofei, in the years immediately after the war. For a long time he lived in his ‘Peace Garden’. Then the authorities discovered it while surveying the Olympic site, but they decided to leave him to it. It’s not much frequented, but it has an outsider charm you don’t see much of in Munich, and its preservation suggests that beneath the city’s slightly bumptious personality it has a good heart.

Need to know
Getting there
Fly from Dubai to Munich via Doha with Qatar Airways for Dhs2,500 return, www.qatarairways.com. Fly from Dubai to Hamburg via London with British Airways for Dhs2,500 return, www.britishairways.com

Where to stay
The Hotel Atlantic Kempinski is a venerable Hamburg institution. Cary Grant and Gustav Klimt stayed here, and it’s host to highlights of the local social season. Doubles from Dhs1,324.

Munich Carat Hotel is a modest joint, but excellently situated for the old town. Doubles from Dhs579.

Where to eat
Bullerei is the Hamburg-based Schanzen restaurant of TV chef Tim Mälzer. The menu at this former slaughterhouse is appropriately meaty. A meal for two is around Dhs478.

Augustiner-Keller is the place to go in Munich. You can enjoy a knuckle of meat and a maß of weißbier under a chestnut tree. Meal for two with hops is about Dhs159.