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Munich v Hamburg
Which of these famed German cities should you visit? Discuss this article
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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).
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