In Germany’s second largest city Hamburg, we discover the pleasures of river-side walks and historic architecture

Just take a train and drop yourself off at the Hamburg Hauptbahnhof (main station) and you’ll know what I mean when I say that the city sometimes leaves you in a time warp. One minute, you are in a speedy train with automatic doors and the next, you are facing a 106-year-old neo-renaissance building that makes you feel you’ve stepped out of a time machine.

The city state of Hamburg lies on the banks of two rivers, the Elbe and the Alster. The streets show a wide range of influences like Jewish quarters, Portuguese influenced buildings, a thriving red-light district plus cafes and bars. There are also the city’s historic churches and town hall, whose spires are often referred to as the ‘crown’ of Hamburg’s skyline.

There is a lot to see, depending on where you want to start. I begin at the entrance of the main station, and take a train to HafenCity, near the harbour. From here, Miniature Wonderland, the world’s largest model railway exhibition, is just a few blocks away. You can spend hours looking at miniature models of European and American cities like Vienna and Las Vegas. Every detail works like a live city, with interactive buttons that make the parts move. The Knuffingen Airport model, where you can see flights take off and land, is very popular.

In Neustadt is St. Michaelis Church, the biggest and most prominent, dedicated to the archangel. A dramatic statue of the angel winning over the devil tops the entrance. Its Baroque copper spire can be climbed or reached by an elevator and offers panoramic views of Hamburg. But bear in mind, it’s rather cold up there!

I pass by the Binnenalster (or Inner Alster) lake and walk by the Hamburg Rathaus (city hall). The neo-renaissance building has been the seat of government since 1897 and its charming outer façade lends such an old-world charm to the entire street, matched by the cobblestone pathways, that you almost feel you are turning a page in a history novel.

City in a day

Jungfernstieg is primarily a shopping area, housing Hamburg’s largest shopping centre Europa Passage and other popular chains. I walk in and out of shops, try some Berliners (German doughnuts), douse Pommes (French fries) in ketchup and end up at the promenade of the Alster. The Alster Touristik runs hop-on hop-off tours across the river, going around the entire city covering important landmarks. The tour I take lasts an hour, and the boat takes you past Hamburg’s richest areas and oldest bridges, offering snapshots of its beautiful landscape.

Altona, a few stops away, is a nice place to shop or sit down with a beer. Smaller food joints sell the local speciality, doner. A couple more stops and you get to Sternschanze or Schanze, as the Hamburgers call it, where you go for coffee, beach bars and a nice evening out.

Down in Feldstrasse is the largest funfair in Germany, the Hamburger DOM, which happens three times a year. I’m lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the rollercoaster, giant wheel and other rides, just as the sun is setting and the lights come on with frenzy and fireworks light up the sky in dizzying patterns.

From here, Reeperbahn is barely a 15 minute walk away. The popular red-light district also boasts the Beatles Platz (with four metallic silhouettes of them performing), where the Beatles first became popular. Across the road, the salon where the Fab Four got their characteristic hairstyles is still open. Reeperbahn is more alive at midnight than at any other point of time.

Blankenese is a quiet residential neighbourhood with traditional Hamburg homes and tall woods. If you’d like an evening at the beach, stroll right down to River Elbe, whose warm, lapping waters end in a serene, sandy beach.

But if you don’t want any of this, just sit back on the Alster promenade or walk across the length of it with a cup of coffee and watch the old bridge, the town hall and the buildings that surround it wake up to the night. The waters, in turn, spread their light.