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.