Seven Boroughs: One Month Hanseatic

The Hamburg City coat of arms. I have designs on a cookie cutter bearing this rather pretty coat of arms.

They say time flies. I rather think it flees – you wake up to find time has left you in its wake, finished the milk and left a feeble note apologising for not saying a proper goodbye. And dammit if it didn’t steal your wallet on the way out! 

I’ve spent the last month in something of a haze in the last month, drifting around the city between classes to try out my hesitant halb-Deutsch on unsuspecting bakerei servers and cafe waitresses. Torn between the joy of successfully navigating the purchase of specialist insect repellent on one day only to bite back tears after being brought a pot of cream (Sahne) instead of the bill (Bezahlen bitte) in a posh cafe. On the upside they were super nice about it, but honestly I nearly vomited out of fear. 

That said, living in a new city in a new country, learning a new language and looking for a new job has taught me a few crucial lessons about the city and my new adoptive country. Some of these are blindingly obvious, some maybe aren’t. If it’s not too negative, I’ve split them intermittently between the GREAT and the not so brilliant. I hope you’ll find them useful! 

The best way to see the city 

Hey, we know that tours are a great way to see a new city. But in Hamburg it can be REALLY expensive. Fortunately, the 9-hour day travel card for HVV covers a family PLUS you can it it on the city ferries! One of the nicest ways to make the most of this is to start in the old Danish part of the city, Altona, where you can grab coffee before hopping on the 111 bus which takes you through the old Fishmarket through St Pauli and then on to Hafencity. Once there, you can wander round the old Speicherstadt before catching the 72 ferry from the Elbphilarmonie to Landungsbrucken, before changing onto the 62 ferry which takes you all the way to Finkenwerde. It’s an hour-long tour of the harbour which takes in the beach up to Othmarschen and over the river to the start of a series of long bike trails and cafes on the south shore. It lacks the tinny narration over a crappy sound system and overpriced snacks you’d find on most tourist boats, but frankly if you take the time to open the Wikipedia Page for the City and the Port of Hamburg and pack a couple of beers and a few franzbrotchen you can recreate it fairly easily. 

Hi there neighbour

One national stereotype I’d had no idea of prior to arriving in Germany was how FUCKING NOSEY people are. In London we live in the blissful ignorance of knowing that unless we’re actually infringing on their own comfort, our neighbours will leave us alone. There will be no commenting on your recycling-sorting skills, no questioning you on your ability to abide by the tyranny of the Red Ampfelmeschen, and no hard stares when you take fractionally too long packing up the shopping at Lidl. 

On the upside, in Hamburg if you were ever in trouble it wouldn’t be long before a nice lady stopped to chat with you in the street, and everybody is incredibly nice and friendly. Yes, they can overstep the bounds occasionally, but the german sense of civic pride is incredibly strong and the only reason you get tutted at occasionally is that they want to help you get onbaard as well. I should also comment that I’ve never ever lived in a city with as strong a love for their shared history as Hamburg. When I say that, I mean it. I mean, I’ve worked in Manchester FFS. In Hamburg, the city insignia is everywhere and everyone cares about you acknowledging that Hamburg is the best city in the whole wide world. The question of whether there’s an inferiority complex regarding Berlin is a non-starter because as old East Germany it doesn’t even count. 

Tripping on your tongue

Y’all. German is HARD. I don’t mean that in a “oh its super tricky wow that will take time” hard, I mean OH MAN why does the word Schloss mean both “lock” and “castle”?

German isn’t just tricky, it’s hard-edged and jagged, with spike-lined traps for the unwary to fall into. You’ll happily think you’ve mastered the dark art of the Dativ case and say you’ll put the flowers on this little table here except PSYCH GERMANS CHANGE THE ENDINGS OF ALL ADJECTIVES DEPENDING ON CONTEXT AND GENDER YES THAT TABLE IS A DUDE DONT QUESTION IT. 

Having blissfully lived in the UK for all of my adult life I’ve never questioned the privilege of understanding the world around me without issue. Once you’re thrown into a new language space for an extended period you suddenly realise how connected it makes you feel to overhear snatches of conversation and appreciate the nuances of idiom and accent. I’ve improved tons since living here full time but I suspect I’ll be relying on my scripted expectations of conversations for a while before I am able to fully understand even the simplest of throwaway lines, and I’ll always struggle with a thick Bavarian accent, try as I might! 

Finding your feet 

Unscientific map of Hamburg renamed depending on which places are most like bits of London.

The best bit about Hamburg is how easy it is to walk around. Given what I’m assured is unusually warm weather, it’s been a pleasure to stroll down the Grindeallee past the University to the Hauptbanhopf for my language lessons, and I’ve idled afternoons wandering round the Botanical Gardens in Kleiner Flottbeck, the Außenalster and through the streets of Eimsbüttel. 

Walking allows you to note how Hamburg’s seven boroughs each hold a distinctive personality, with the villas and terraces of Eppendorf giving way to the genteel avenues in Eimsbüttel which then make way for the squats and graffiti of Sternschanze and St Pauli. It’s not an exact science but mapping the city against my memories of London gives me a sense of early understanding about Hamburg which makes it feel a little bit more like home. 

Tasting Hamburg

It’s way too early to start recommendations, largely as I’ve not had the opportunity to explore them myself! I’m keen to try as much as possible so that any advice I offer truly allows you to see the best of Hamburg rather than what everyone else already knows about. However, for the hungry traveller I’ve already noted a few points which should stand you in good stead:

  • It’s weird but Germans are NUTTY about ice cream. And even a city this far north and subject to long horrendously cold winters is full of them! I can’t even start to explain why, and I’ve yet to understand what happens to these places in winter. However, what I do know is that for the hugely reasonable sum of EUR1.20-1.40 you can enjoy Italian-style gelato in most parts of the city with a huge range of flavours, ranging from a beautifully deep-roasted Pistachio to the delicate flavour of Waldmeister (sweet woodruff). My personal favourite so far is the delectable “Eisbüttel” which teams a strong pun game with exotic and delicious combinations like raspberry and beetroot and wild honey, walnut and goat’s milk.
  • German kebabs are the best kebabs. I don’t know why but I know it’s true. While Berlin is king of the Veggie kebab (Oh Mustafa, we need you in London!), in Hamburg the emphasis is on falafel with a huge number of purveyors in busy Sternschanze. I’m currently conducting a very serious and important “scientific study” to find the best which is in no way about me eating too much fried chickpeas. Ahem. What I can tell you is that you can get a delicious freshly-made-big-as-your-head wrap with bouncy-from-the-fryer falafels, crunchy pickles and spicy home-made sauce for under a fiver and that, my friend, is big news. My studies continue and I will report back shortly.
  • In Hamburg there is a vibrant alternative street food scene busily going mainstream, with a vegan pop up now a permanent fixture in one of the central Malls. Vincent Vegan does satisfying seitan burgers, I-don’t-know-how-they-do-it vegan curry mayo and killer sweet potato fries to die for. It’s not quite the real deal but it’s fun, delicious and unpretentious. I can’t wait to discover more like them!

It’s early days yet but there’s more to come. I’m hoping for further adventures along the way! 

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