If your travels to Germany have never taken you out of Bavaria and the Rhine, take the next exit off the Romantic Road and venture farther north.
By Nikki Goth Itoi & Lydia Itoi
Stretching across the banks of the Elbe River on the cusp of the North Sea, the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg is a proud, industrious, and surprisingly elegant port town whose considerable charms remain something of a secret from North American leisure travelers.
That means that during the summer months, when sailboats are drifting across the lake and people are strolling under the trees to their favorite outdoor cafés, Hamburg is refreshingly free of the tourist hordes overrunning most of the rest of Europe's great cities.
For centuries, Hamburg has served as a commercial gateway to northern Germany, and it is a fitting place to begin our exploration of Northern Germany and the cities of the Hanseatic League. In the next few issues, we will continue on to Bremen, Lübeck, and Schleswig-Holstein.
Hamburg is a merchant town, and its practical-minded people haven't seen much need to call attention to themselves by constructing splashy palaces or photogenic towers and monuments to put on their tourist brochures. Hamburg's greatest landmarks are its storied harbor and the Baroque church, affectionately known as the "Michel," honoring the city's patron saint. The city was, of course, totally rebuilt after being heavily damaged in World War II and its busy port and the rows of white mansions rising up along the riverbanks bear witness that the city continues to uphold its strong mercantile traditions.
Despite the hustle and bustle that comes with being a major piston in the German economic engine, downtown Hamburg is pleasant to explore on foot or by boat. A clean and efficient public transport system puts everything within easy reach. At the heart of the city nestles the Alster, a glittering lake set amid stately homes, elegant hotels, art galleries, parks, shops, and foreign consulates. Canals and arcaded waterways thread their way through the business district and Altstadt.
Definitely set aside some time to indulge in some of Europe's finest shopping in the exclusive boutiques along Jungfernstiegstrasse, Neuer Wall, and Münckebergstrasse. Alsterhaus is the city's most famous department store. The more modest shopping districts offer better value as well as those essential maritime souvenirs like brass barometers and ships-in-a-bottle.
Culture abounds in the city's theaters, museums, and concert halls. Hamburg boasts one of the finest ballet companies in Europe, and midsummer visitors should not miss the Ballet Festival in July. In February, we caught the final performance of Jenufa by Leos Janacek in Hamburg's austere and somewhat acoustically-challenged opera house. Tickets to cultural events are available through ticket offices located throughout the city or at the St. Pauli Landungsbrücken Tourist Office, tel: +49/040/3005-1203.
For something a little different, consider a visit to the Reeperbahn in the St. Pauli district. Hamburg's notorious red light district offers a variety of less highbrow entertainment, including a multistory Erotic Art Museum. These days you won't see many drunken seamen swaggering through the streets, but the district is still a lively nightlife scene. Beetles fans will doubtless recall that the Mod Squad got their first break here.
Architecture buffs will enjoy the restored 14th-century homes in Deichstrasse, the Krameramtswohnungen or Shopkeepers Guild Houses, the ornate, neo-Renaissance Rathaus propped up on 4,000 piles to keep it from sinking into the marshy ground, and, of course, the brick and Baroque "Michel" (St. Michaeliskirche). Also interesting is the massive and sculptural Hauptbahnhof.
Every Hamburg visit should include a boat tour of its Free Port and perhaps the most quintessentially Hamburg experience, the dockside, Sunday-morning Altona Fischmarkt. The selection of every kind of sea creature imaginable is second only to Tokyo's Tsukiji market. The market also features non-seafood-related wares like antiques and animals, live music and flea market junk. On Sunday and Tuesday mornings, farmers markets offering the best local produce are held in Blankenese as well as under the tracks of the U-3 at the Eppendorferbaum Station.
One final attraction may be of interest to American visitors of German origin. Traditionally, Hamburg was the point of departure for thousands of Europeans headed for a new life in the United States, and records of all those who departed from 1850 to 1914 can be found on microfilm at the Historic Emigration Office, P.O. Box 10 22 49, 20015 Hamburg, attn: Elizabeth Sroka. Cost is $75 whether or not the search is successful.
While hotel rooms are fairly easy to come by in Hamburg-there are some 26,000 guest beds in the city to accommodate roughly 2.4 million guests annually-inexpensive ones, unfortunately, are scarce.
This stately white house on the Alster was built in 1912 and maintains an intimate, romantic atmosphere in a central location near the main train station.
The Prem's lobby, done in marble floors with deep red walls, leads into a comfortable lounge that faces the lake. At the back of the building, the house restaurant, decorated in slate blue and peach tones and flooded with morning sunlight, stretches into a lush garden. The adjoining Swiss Chalet restaurant, with its pine walls and benches, copper pots, and upholstered chairs, offers fondues and other traditional Swiss dishes.
Don't be deceived by the Prem's stark white hallways, colored only by the occasional Chagall print. All 53 rooms are individually decorated in one of two distinct styles: antique or modern. Room Number 106 is lavishly adorned with deep-colored floral linens and white walls with Baroque era gold accents. An elegant veil floats over the queen bed. The bath is decorated in black marble and features both tub and shower.
By contrast, room Number 203, with teal carpet and king-sized bed, offers simpler, but still antique decor. A balcony presents a view of the lake; the bath is relatively small with a shower stall and brass fixtures.
For a more contemporary feel, request Number 204. This double is large enough to be billed as a junior suite, and with its garden view, is quieter than lakeside rooms.
Daily Rates: Doubles €207.
Contact: An der Alster 8-10, D-20099 Hamburg, tel. +49/040/2417 28-8, fax 280 38 15. Toll-free reservations: 800-457-4000.
Rating: Quality 18/20, Value 15/20
More reasonably-priced accommodations on the outer Alster can be found at the Bellevue. Its 93 rooms are divided between two adjacent buildings.
Room Number 14 in the original building is a spacious room with a high ceiling and features a spectacular view of the lake. Furnishings are a blend of Scandinavian and Asian designs.
In the neighboring, newer building, Room Number 341 features arched windows and a quieter atmosphere than the older building.
Daily Rates: Singles €90, doubles €129. Parking available.
Contact: An der Alster 14, D-20099 Hamburg, tel. +49/040/284-44-0, fax 284-44-222
Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 16/20
Hotel St. Raphael
Despite its affiliation with the American Best Western chain, the Raphael has managed to create a distinctive atmosphere. Among its 128 rooms are more than 25 "designer" rooms, which have been individually decorated by contemporary German artists.
Another 20 "Raphael Royal" rooms are junior suites that come with extras like wine and sandwiches in the evening, the morning paper, and a shoe shining service. Nonsmoking rooms are available. The top floor fitness center and proximity to the train station are two additional perks.
Daily Rates: Singles €91, doubles €107. Breakfast parking, and fitness center cost extra
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 17/20
In an effort to add a distinctive feature to an otherwise ordinary hotel, Hamburg's largest private hotel recently added a seven-story leisure center that features of all things a 150-meter water slide, not to mention an indoor swimming pool, Jacuzzi, sun terrace, squash courts, massages, and even a golf simulator. If you go, note the separate elevators for barefoot and shod guests.
Fitness aside, this establishment is unremarkable. Its large, plain lobby was filled with smoke when we arrived. Guestrooms are modern, but lacking in charm. Twenty nonsmoking rooms are available.
Daily Rates: Singles €109-159, doubles €139-189
Contact: Kirchenallee 45, D-20099 Hamburg, tel. +49/040/248-248, fax 248-24 799, www.europaeischer-hof.de
Rating: Quality 8/20, Value 11/20
Hotel Louis C. Jacob
When it comes to Hamburgs top hotels, the Jacob is one to splurge on. It sits about five miles outside of the city center along the Elbchausee an eight kilometer, riverside avenue that connects the suburbs of Altona, Ottensen, Othmarschen, Nienstedten, and Blankenese.
In a most successful remodeling effort, the Jacob family has created a luxurious environment that reflects the hotels 200-year tradition while fully embracing modern design concepts and amenities. Once a destination for the painter, Max Liebermann, the hotel now houses one of the largest private art galleries in northern Germany.
The Jacob was built in 1791 as a guesthouse and stayed in operation for five generations. It was first known as a restaurant with a few sleeping rooms. After major renovations, the hotel reopened in 1996 with 86 rooms, 26 of which face the river. Furnishings are mostly in modern Danish styles.
Our room, Number 206, is one of the best: a corner room facing the Elbe and the industrial Airbus plant across the way. We especially appreciated the polished hardwood floor, peaked ceiling, modern lighting, and fax/modem connections. The luxurious bath featured heated marble floors, a double sink, both shower stall and bathtub, and the all-essential towel warmer. Airtight, hardwood doors insured us a silent nights sleep.
A serious rival for first choice is Room Number 100, the Liebermann room, whose furnishings include several Liebermann originals.
The various culinary options at the hotel match its contemporary atmosphere. Breakfast is a notch above the usual fare, with eggs and other warm entrées accompanied by a wide variety of fresh fruits and breads. In the summertime, guests can take their morning meal outside on the Linden Terrace. From the elegant dining room, six sets of double French doors open to a patio directly above the Elbe. A famous Liebermann painting of the Lindenterrase is on display at the Kunsthalle.
The main restaurant employs the number one sommelier in Germany and recently earned a Michelin star (review page 7). A trendy alternative is the Kleines Jacob, a wine bistro with local specialties from 9 to 29 DM ($5-$16). Wines from several countries are offered. The food menu is adapted to the wine selections, which range from 6 to 420 DM ($4-$235). Caricature paintings of the former owners decorate the walls. Reservations are recommended.
The staff at this hotel was consistently friendly and helpful with everything from valet parking to navigating the city.
Daily Rates: Singles €175, doubles €225.
Contact: Elbchausee 401-403, D-22609 Hamburg, tel. +49/040/811 550, fax 822-55-444.
Rating: Quality 17/20, Value 14/20
Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten Hamburg
For decades, glossy travel magazine polls consistently placed the Four Seasons located on the western shore of the inner Alster, in the heart of Hamburgs prime retail and commercial district at or near the top of the worlds finest hotels. But in 1989, after 90 years of family management, during which the hotel survived the economic turmoil of two world wars, the founding Haerlin family was finally forced to sell. Under new, foreign ownership, however, the hotel slipped badly.
Now it has been sold again, this time to the Raffles International chain and a return to past glory seems possible. Over the past six months, management has installed new lighting, air-conditioning, sound systems, and renovated all 158 rooms. The result is a historic hotel that offers a remarkably efficient use of space in even the smallest rooms; walk-in closets are a standard feature, as are Internet access via speedy ISDN lines, pay TV, and in-room fax capabilities. The baths have all been remodeled, and for extra charm, each room has its own bath tub thermometer for finely adjusting the water temperature.
Many luxury hotels spend fortunes to create the sense of history and elegance that are authentic at this establishment. Three generations of antique furnishings have been collected and displayed together over the years. A collection of 16th and 17th century Flemish-Gobelin tapestries adorn the walls of the main foyer, and Baroque wardrobes and Renaissance chests furnish the public areas.
Most importantly, the first-rate, personalized service is back. House-made truffles and homegrown flowers welcome guests when they arrive. And the 100-year-old guest card file remains. Personal preferences and aversions are duly noted for each guest. Every comment, criticism, and special request from bedtime literature to shapes of pillows is recorded and honored on every repeat visit.
If an overnight stay at the new Four Seasons wont fit in the budget, you might consider a lunch or dinner at its main restaurant, The Haerlin, to take in the view of the Alster and the fine cuisine prepared by its new chef (see review, below).
Daily Rates: Doubles €250
Rating: Quality 18/20, Value 15/20
Kempinski Hotel Atlantic
Though the 90-year-old Atlantic is said to be among Hamburgs best, after two nights we concluded it doesn't compare in finesse to its rivals. It has the scale and superficial grandeur of a fine luxury hotel, but cannot match the sense of history that permeates the Vier Jahreszeiten or the delicate, contemporary air that defines the Jacob.
Our standard double was adequate but small for a grand hotel. Service was fine, but unremarkable; the fitness center was modest, and the swanky night lounge failed to excite.
Daily Rates: Singles €165-185 doubles €205-225. Breakfast not included.
Rating: Quality 12/20, Value 5/20
Moderately-priced hotels in Hamburgs Zentrum can be more than a little rough around the edges. This one, however, is not only genteel but a decent value.
Located on an elevated site directly above the Landungsbrücken, west of the Altstadt, the 239-room Hafen Hamburg has gracious Art Nouveau style public rooms and many guestrooms with fine views of the port and river.
Walk through the park to catch the elevated S-Bahn for the 10-minute ride downtown.
Daily Rates: Singles and doubles €100-200
Contact: Seewartenstrasse 9, D-20459, Hamburg, tel. +49/040 /31113-0, fax 311 13755, www.hotel-hafen-hamburg.de
Rating: Quality 11/20, Value 15/20
Hamburg is fish heaven. The seafood is so fresh it practically leaps off the plate. In addition to the local catch, prime Breton lobster and Nordic salmon show up regularly on Hamburg menus. Regional cuisine is typified by dishes like Aalsuppe (a complex, savory, and somewhat sweet eel soup with vegetables, dumplings, and dried fruit), Kieler Sprotten (smoked Kiel sprats, a coastal fish that resembles herring), and Bohnen, Birnen, und Speck (green beans, pears, and bacon-flavored with savory). The food-loving ex-Chancellor Helmut Kohl does not consider a trip to Hamburg complete without Labskaus, a sailors hash of corned beef fortified with pickled beets, a rolled-up herring, and a fried egg.
The small taverns crowding the harbor offer standard renditions of these dishes and the catch of the day, but for those who want to do the town in style and try the very best in traditional fare, we've checked out some of Hamburgs most venerable institutions for good cooking and good value.
If we could have only one meal to savor the "real" Hamburg, we would leave the fashionable hotels behind and head for Fischereihafen in Altona. Widely regarded as the best seafood place in town, it turns out impeccably fresh regional specialties in a quiet, secluded corner of the port overlooking the Elbe.
Fischereihafen is Hamburg in miniature: conservative yet comfortable; understated elegance with a nautical flair. On our final evening in the city, we exchanged greetings with the lonely-looking doorman and swept up the stairs past tanks of lobsters and crabs. At the top, we were met by an enormous, terribly handsome dog who fixed us with a gravely polite stare but was too dignified to come any closer.
The small, paneled dining rooms hung with gleaming brass fixtures and pictures of old sailing ships balance traditional gentility with a light modern touch. Likewise, the service is old-fashioned without being stuffy. (To obtain a table by the window and a view of the harbor, you must call early and request one.) As we were seated, we spotted the lead tenor from the previous nights opera performance sitting nearby with a companion.
The menu is practically a textbook of orthodox Hamburg cuisine, with a section of sushi and dim sum thrown in for good measure. Appetizers include smoked trout, oysters on the half shell, lobster, and caviar (16-35 DM/$8-$20, 56 DM/$31 for the caviar), as well as that famous eel soup (13.50 DM/$8). Main courses feature fish prepared every possible way, starting from 28 DM ($16) on up to "Market Price." We take it as a good sign that the menu changes to reflect the best of the days catch. The wine list, which features mostly German and French whites, and a good deal of champagne, is adequate but not particularly brilliant.
For a mere 65 DM ($36) we ordered the "Regional-Menu" and got a four-course tour of Hamburg. Every dish represented a landmark in the local culinary landscape. It began with salty bites of house-marinated chopped herring served on rounds of dense, fragrant black bread, followed by the celebrated Labskaus. The main course was a double feature pairing Hamburger Pfannfisch (haddock, Hamburg style) with the most exquisite piece of salmon we have ever encountered, draped in a delicate mustard-butter sauce. Wisely, the kitchen ignores the temptation to do too much to fish, letting its freshness and quality speak eloquently for itself. Dishes are formally presented, yet maintain a down-home quality.
Dessert was Rote Grütze, a velvety red berry compote with homemade vanilla bean ice cream and topped with custard cream. By now, our waiter Klaus was so enchanted by our having paid his hometown the compliment of polishing off every bite that he shook our hands and reminisced about sailing to America on a yacht 40 years ago. We nodded to the opera singer, lifted our glasses in a good-bye toast to the ships sailing out of the harbor below.
Dinner for two without drinks: 120 DM ($67).
Contact: Fischereihafen Restaurant Hamburg, Gr. Elbstrasse 143, D-22767 Hamburg. tel. +49/040/38 18 16, fax 389-3021.
Rating: Quality 15/20 Value 14/20
Landhaus Scherrer is the acknowledged grande dame of Hamburg restaurants. Well-heeled locals head to this prestigious address among the mansions in Hamburgs wealthiest suburb to celebrate special occasions and entertain important guests. The question is, should food-loving travelers do the same?
Why, certainly...as long they have the time and inclination to take the five-mile taxi ride from the city center and cost is no object. The bad news is that Landhaus Scherrer is not conveniently located except to those lucky enough to be staying at the Jacob Hotel or heading back from a day in Blankenese. Also, a meal from the regular menu runs from 90-170 DM ($50-$95) per person, not counting wine. A sumptuous prix fixe menu is available for 198 DM ($111).
These serious drawbacks aside, Landhaus Scherrer does have a highly imaginative and talented chef and a well-stocked wine cellar to complement his innovative interpretations of traditional regional cuisine.
A snowstorm blasted us through the front door, but we were immediately thawed out by the warm welcome and gracious surroundings. We sipped a Kir Royale and took in the muted peaches-and-cream tones of the spacious, contemporary dining room with its Art Nouveau touches, particularly noting the barely clad female figures prancing across the plates.
The first course was the work of a culinary artist at play: a potato-skin "nest" cradling a potato-encrusted scallop "egg" in a curried lentil sauce, topped with fanciful curls of crisply fried salsify. This sophisticated dish announced its peasant roots by arriving on a rustic bed of straw, surrounded by a ring of newly-dug potatoes.
After such an opening, the mixed salad with lobster seemed downright ordinary. The dressing even tasted a little like a thinned-down Thousand Island.
Next came an impossibly tender morsel of grain-fed poussin (young chicken) married to a thick slice of fresh black truffle, a single baked spinach-cheese raviolo, and a few tablespoons of truffled barley risotto. This intricate medley was followed by a moist and flavorful Steinbuttfilet (turbot) dressed in a deceptively simple beurre blanc.
We opted for dessert rather than the suggested cheese platter surely this was no time to hold back. Exotic tropical fruits came scattered like jewels around a strudel pouch of stewed plums and a scoop of red wine-mascarpone sorbet.
Throughout dinner, we enjoyed service that managed to hit that delicate balance of being attentive but unobtrusive. There is a quiet camaraderie among the staff that gives Landhaus Scherrer the air of a family establishment for all its elegance.
Feast for two that would have fed four, not counting wine: 396 DM ($221).
A less expensive, and not so elaborate, Landhaus Scherrer option is its bistro which serves fish and pasta dishes for 32-38 DM ($18-$21) as well as a three-course "business lunch" for 65 DM ($36) in a casual, wood-paneled room.
Contact: Landhaus Scherrer, Elbchausse 130, D-22763 Hamburg, tel. +49/040/8 80 13 25, fax 880 6260.
Rating: Quality 17/20 Value 12/20
Restaurant Louis C. Jacob
As if its exceptional amenities and lovely setting weren't enough, the Jacob Hotel is home to an up-and-coming restaurant offering a fresh, modern take on regional cuisine. The nouvelle French influence is also much in evidence in Chef Thomas Martins luxurious cuisine. This should come as no surprise, considering the building has housed a French-style restaurant since its opening in 1791. Chef Martins efforts are complemented by sommelier, Thomas Hendrick and their collaboration recently resulted in a coveted Michelin star. Last September, the restaurant was designated "Best of Award of Excellence" by Wine Spectator.
For the time being, however, the Jacob Hotel's restaurant remains a well-kept secret among visitors in the know. At present, dinners range from 65 to 100 DM ($36-$56), an absolute bargain by pricey Hamburg standards. Be warned, however, that recognition by the folks at Michelin is often accompanied by price increases.
We enjoyed lunch overlooking the famous Lindenterrasse that so inspired realist painter Max Liebermann (1847-1935). Dishes are neither wildly creative nor totally traditional in their conception, but the quality of the ingredients is impeccable and execution is solid. The truffled scallops with their endive jackets and butter sauce went beautifully with relaxed conversation; salmon gently poached in Pernod and then a delicate filet of veal with sautéed spinach and gnocchi followed suit. We decided our diet was already long blown, so we said yes to the chocolate mousse cake and mocha ice cream.
As a final touch of finesse, tea came in individual teapots set over votive warmers, accompanied by a tiny hourglass to ensure proper steeping. And just in case we hadn't had enough dessert, silver tray of house-made petit fours appeared. Lovely dinner for two: 170 DM ($95).
Contact: Hotel Louis C. Jacob, Elbchausse 401, D-22609 Hamburg, tel. +49/040/82 25 50, fax 822 55 444.
Rating: Quality 17/20 Value 16/20
There are four different restaurants under Hotel Vier Jahreszeitens elegant roof, but Haerlin has been given the main burden of upholding the hotels reputation for unparalleled excellence. For the most part, it succeeds admirably. The dining room is probably the most beautiful in the city, enveloping diners in the utmost luxury while treating them to a spectacular view of the Alster.
The wine list, which is thicker than the local phone book, is considered one of the top three in Germany. Its architect is a shy young Iranian, Rakhshn Zhouleh, who left his country to pursue his forbidden passion for wine. Mr. Zhouleh's list represents many rare, unusual and even improbable finds, including an Arizona wine. He started us off with champagne, 1990 Dom Perignon, which both the restaurant and the bar pour by the glass. He then proceeded to create a marvelous experience for us, and his sensitive suggestions demonstrated a thorough understanding of chef Michael Hoffman's cuisine.
The food itself was very good, leaving nothing to be desired except that little extra something which elevates the very good to the transcendent. We feasted on a tiny schnitzel of tender lamb filet, salmon prepared five different ways, a lobster-filled potato croquette with a white bean sauce, and a perfect filet of broiled sea bass. Mercifully, dessert was a sparkling terrine of fresh oranges and prune ice cream. Dinner without wine is 100-150 DM ($84), and there is a vegetarian menu for 95 DM ($53) as well as an "Avantgarde" one for 175 DM ($98). The three-course lunch set menu is a particularly good value at 62 DM ($35).
Best of all, the service is beautiful, perfect in every way. We felt very much at home even in such unaccustomed luxury.
High style dinner for two: 298 DM ($166).
Contact: Restaurant Haerlin, Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten, Neuer Jungfernsteig 9, D-20354 Hamburg, tel. +49/040/3 49 46 41, fax 349 4602.
Rating: Quality 16/20 Value 12/20
Information current as of March 1999; hotel prices updated May 2007