Hamburgers were not invented here. If you ask, be prepared for theatrical eye-rolls and swift segues to more serious conversations.
"In 1943 our city was destroyed," explained Sibylle von Kummer, our Hamburg Gästeführerin (tour guide). "They called it Operation Gomorrah, and Hamburg was leveled by bombs and napalm." She continued reluctantly, looking downward to avoid any Nazi questions and/or the inevitable judgment that recent Americans abroad have come to know all too well during the Iraq war. "Destroyed by whom?" I asked. "By you," she said with a sharp German chuckle, slightly nervous about the topic at hand but still beaming with a reticent pride for the resilience of her home. A former Hanseatic League city and a central hub of Nazi power, Germany's phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes city of Hamburg is now better known as the glamorous, gay-friendly address of Europe's highest concentration of millionaires—and paradoxically host to one of its largest homeless populations.
With a population of nearly two million, Germany's second-largest city is a modern metropolis teeming with life. The largest concentration of media in the nation can be found in Hamburg, making it Germany's version of Tinseltown. It also boasts one of Europe's biggest ports, a thriving gay scene, and a well-run legalized prostitution system along the infamous Reeperbahn (the red-light district). By turns insider city and outsider refuge, Hamburg's unlikely harmony is not just palatable to Germany's countercultural and Burberry sets alike; it's fast becoming a must-see urban destination for the next generation of Eurorail-riding tourists, who are defining European destinations not by the cities that World War II spared (as American travelers have for the last 50 years), but rather by cities forced to reconstruct, cities that reflect a postmodern appeal not found in the cobblestones and buttresses from the picturesque Europe of yore.
"During Operation Gomorrah, the British invaded by day and the Americans by night; 40,000 people died. But we try not to focus on that." explained Sybille. Like many modern forward-thinking Germans, she is reluctant to harp on the country's past. Present dilemmas in the quest for social democracy demand Germany's full attention. The recent election in September 2005 revealed Germany's worsening economy and the restlessness of its voters. Once considered one of the world's wealthiest nations, Germany fell to the 17th position in a recent international ranking. Its political future faced yet another massive overhaul, staged by Christian Democrat Union member Angela Merkel and Social Democrat incumbent Gerhard Schröder, who were in the throes of an election-day face-off, both vying for the position of chancellor in a tight race. Hamburg's unpredictable vote was largely at the center of it all. After weeks of ballot counting and no outcome yet determined, both candidates asserted their victory. Ultimately, Merkel became Germany's first female chancellor but had to form a new governing coalition in Germany's Bundestag between her party, the Christian Democratic Union, and its primary opposing party in the election, the Social Democrats.
Political compromises are something of a tradition in the blustery port-centric city that first flourished during the early days of the Hanseatic League, an alliance dating back to the 13th century of Baltic Sea trading towns,. Today, the city, often called the "Venice of Germany," maintains a strong nautical feel, as evidenced by the water-lapped neighborhoods of gay-favored St. Georg and St. Pauli, bucolic and vista-perched Oevelgönne and Blankenese, stroller-lined but chic Eppendorf, and canal-veined HafenCity. The latter, HafenCity, is currently undergoing a massive redevelopment plan that will test the patience of Hamburg's citizens over the course of the next two decades. The redevelopment is one of the city's most ambitious architectural endeavors yet. When it opens, new cultural centers, parks, residential units, restaurants, and office spaces will coexist organically with both ancient and new waterways and reconnect the city center with its once-marginalized industrial ports.
But don't ask any of the dubious locals in café-peppered Sternschanze about the city's incessant growth. Long home to Hamburg's thriving anarchic and alternative counterculture, Sternschanze lies in the shadow of the city's giant Jetsonian TV Tower (a.k.a. the Heinrich-Hertz-Turm) and remains the East Village of Hamburg. Just a few stops from the city center on the Hochbahn/U-Bahn, Sternschanze is rich with hidden corridors and passages leading to secret cafés and quiet residential communes tagged with graffiti and posters of upcoming performances, protests, and art exhibits. Clotheshorses pop in and out of clothing shops along tatterdemalion Schulterblatt and trendy Marktstrasse, while free-spirited 20-somethings and 30-somethings lug bags full of organic produce home from the area's plentitude of health food shops.
A few meters away, just across the sterile Heiligengeistfeld, (home of the anti-allied aircraft artillery built during the war), lies another infamous neighborhood, the seedy Reeperbahn and its intricate and fascinating network of grubby side streets, whýre legalized prostitution runs amok. The mysterious, gated, and men-only Herbertstrasse block offers a Whitman's Sampler of tarted-up female prostitutes dressed respectively as dominatrices, princesses, and maids--all donning their best come-hither looks behind big picture windows. Safe but by no means sterile, Reeperbahn's libido really springs to life at night when the city's finest prostitutes, some remarkably aggressive, take to the street while riffraff, port trade, and gawking locals and tourists linger outside the surfeit of sex shops and kinos. Not to be outdone by the heteros, the Talstrasse block, just off Reeperbahn, is home to its own surplus of gay sex shops, kinos, and saunas ensuring the claim that gays have equal rights in all parts of German society. There's even an allotted niche for transsexuals.
It's no wonder that the genesis of gay rights originated in Germany back in 1897, when openly gay sex researcher Magnus Hirschfeld founded the Wissenschaftlich-Humanitäre Komitee (the Scientific Humanitarian Committee). The committee, composed of gay and straight professionals, sought to fight a set of Prussian laws imposed on the newly united Germany that forbade sex between men. The committee's endeavors were also supported by Richard von Krafft-Ebing, a pioneer in the study of human sexuality who campaigned against the belief that homosexuality (or sexual inversion, as it was often called then) was a disorder. Also noteworthy is Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, a predecessor to both Hirschfeld and Krafft-Ebing considered by many to be the first gay rights activist. Ulrichs was fired from his job for being gay and in the 1860s came up with the word Urning or Uranian, a forerunner to the term homosexual.
Their hard work shows, even though Adolf Hitler undermined years of social progression during the rise of the Nazi Movement—the scourge of modern Germany and a deep scar that seems to never heal. But it does. Today, Germany recognizes same-sex marriages and a litany of other gay rights laws, making it one of the safest places for gay and lesbians in the world. The movement for adoption rights for gay people is still making progress despite recent setbacks from conservative policy makers in Bavaria. Munich, Cologne, Frankfurt, and Stuttgart all have thriving gay communities. Berlin's mayor is gay. Hamburg's is purported to be too, though he's apparently much less vocal about it—which is to say that Hamburg tolerates the closet as much as it does homosexuality. And that's just fine. Whether you're conservatively traditional or shockingly unconventional, the dichotomy of Hamburg offers a place for both and a culture that deserves to be experienced firsthand.
The personality-rich Hotel Atlantic Kempinski (An der Alster 72-79, 49-40-28880) is the kind of grand old European hotel that leaves guests with a lifetime of memories after just a few nights stay. Very close to the gay neighborhoods, the hotel's lit globe acts as a beacon overlooking Lake Alster and gives off the distinct vibe of yesterday's aristocracy. Its wide, rambling halls are the current home of some of Hamburg's most renowned artists, who can been seen socializing in the bustling lobby, utilizing the roof's extravagant indoor pool and spa, partaking in legendary breakfast (Don't miss the vanilla-bean infused honey!), or winding down at the in-house cinema, the PrivateMax. Rooms are modern, spacious, and lush. East (Simon-von-Utrecht-Strasse 31, 49-40-309930) is the current hangout of Hamburg's hipsters and jet-setters. It has about 100 rooms, each with modern touches; prices range from 145 to 370 euros. Hotel Königshof (Pulverteich 18; 49-40-2840740) is a gay townhouse with modern interiors located in the heart of St. Georg with rooms ranging from 89 to 109 euros. Newlyweds might want to check into the gay bridal suite. Lesbians may opt for the Hotel Hanseatin (Dragonerstall 11, 49-40-341345), Hamburg's only exclusive-for-women property. At the other end of the spectrum, gay-owned Mr. Chaps Apartment (Greifswalder Strasse 23; 49-40-2459790) is located in the heart of downtown St. Georg and equipped for up to four persons with a bathroom, an outfitted kitchen, cable TV, and a computer with Internet access.
CAFES, BARS, AND CLUBS
Café culture in Hamburg is prevalent throughout the city, and many establishments act as meeting places for gay men and lesbians. Café Gnosa (Lange Reihe 93, 49-40-243034) is the gay gathering spot. Its giant cylindrical lamps and modern design décor seem to go hand in hand with the tasty coffee and sandwiches it doles out. Another gay crowd-pleaser is Kyti Voo (Lange Reihe 82, 49-40-28055565) in St. Georg, where gay and lesbian patrons sit outside Paris-style, under heaters drinking coffee or beer. If you you're less into people-watching and more into getting some serious flâneur café time, Sternschanze's cafés are hard to beat. Dual Bar Café is an excellent option with tasty coffee, baked goods, and a relaxed atmosphere bordering on hippie chic. For a sweet change, head up to quiet sun-drenched Eppendorf where a micro chocolate shop called Schokovida (Hegestrasse 33, 49-40-87870808) and its two outdoor seats await you. Nearby, Café Casero (Eppendorfer Weg 281, 49-40-48096996) seems to attract questioning soccer moms and leisurely attractive family types who sit on the patio enjoying the sunshine.
But when the sun sets, cafés transform into makeshift bars, and parts of the city take on a burlesque patina reminiscent of Weimar-era Germany. Wunderbar (Talstrasse 14, 49-40-3174444) near the Reeperbahn is a quickie kind of homo haunt with crowds peaking on the weekends around midnight. S.L.U.T. Hamburg (Rostocker Strasse 20, 49-40-24870673) makes good on its name. A dress code is strictly enforced, however. Not sultry enough for you? How about Male (Pulverteich 17, 49-40-2803056) a bar that gets seedier as the night progresses. Pulverfass Cabaret (Reeperbahn 147, 49-40-2802121) offers dinner and drag shows. Just when you think the fun is ending, the after-parties start. EDK (Gerhardstrasse 3) gets going around after 4 a.m. on the weekends, while Astoria Frühclub (Kleine Freiheit 42, 49-40-89064789) opens at 5 a.m.
Tsao Yang (An der Alster 72-79; 49-40-28004188) inside the Hotel Atlantic Kempinski has superb Chinese food in a stylish red-lacquered dining room that somehow seems to fit into the hotel as organically as the more traditional restaurants it houses. Chili Club (49-40-35703580) on the Magellen Terrace offers loads of outdoors seating in the summer and a cozy modern interior with reasonable sandwiches, soups, and entrées emphasizing heat and spice. Fischereihafen (Grosse Elbstrasse 143, 49-40-381816) has been long regarded as Hamburg's finest eatery. Two levels in a homey but elegant atmosphere help make this an unforgettable experience. The fish dishes attract visitors from all over the world. Abendmahl (Hein-Köllisch-Platz 6, 49-40-312758) serves international cuisine and has a regular gay and lesbian clientele.
There are several sights worth visiting, but a few highlights include the Hamburg State Opera (Grosse Theaterstrasse 25, 49-40-356868), one of Europe's leading opera houses and a stunning example of modern German architecture. Performances of the Hamburg Ballet are a must-see. The names of AIDS victims are engraved in the bricks of the courtyard at the Baroque St. George Church, which acts as an unofficial AIDS memorial, while St. George itself can be both charming and cruisy. The delightful half-timber houses of Krameramtswohnungen (Krayenkamp 10-11) feature twisted chimneys built for the widows of the shopkeeper's guild in 1620. A boat ride along lovely Lake Alster boasts magnificent views of the city's prosperous homes and consulate offices. The Erotic Museum] (Norbistor 10a; 49-40-31784126) offers a steamy but intellectual look at the world of sex while St. Pauli delivers the real thing and offers up endless hours of people watching and gawking. Creative folk should visit the Sternschanze district, while romance seekers and urban escapists may want to head for a stroll through Oevelgönne's residential splendor, which makes for a nice way to cap off your day--and plan your night!
Continental Airlines [www.continental.com] offers daily nonstop service from Newark to Hamburg. Once you're there, get around using Rail Europe (877-257-2887).