Hamburg: Northern Lights and Late Nights

Imagine a progressive place full of fresh blasts of blustery marine air, all manner of mercantile and creative folk, lush parks, lovely promenades, and water, water, everywhere.

Joggers cross a bridge at the Alster river in Hamburg on January 10, 2012. Enlarge image Joggers cross a bridge at the Alster river in Hamburg on January 10, 2012. (© picture-alliance/dpa)

There is such an urban paradise in Germany, and its name is Hamburg. Like Amsterdam, it boasts canals and meandering waterways, as well as a lake in the heart of the city.

One of Germany's most glittering urban jewels, Hamburg seduces visitors and residents alike with its ample charms.

In Hamburg, you can party (safely) until 5 am near the raucous Reeperbahn entertainment district, where the Beatles used to perform before they were famous, and then have breakfast at a fish market as the sun rises along the Elbe River and the city's port, Germany's largest.

It was from Hamburg that millions of Germans once set out to sea on huge ships to forge new lives for themselves in the Americas. Hamburg, in turn, has attracted expatriate communities from all over the world. People from places as far-flung as Brazil, Iran, and Japan have come to call Hamburg home, often based on centuries of trading in products such as coffee, carpets and - more recently - electronic goods.

Hamburg is the scene of gritty urban dramas directed by acclaimed German-Turkish cinematic wunderkind Fatih Akin, a native son of the city, which is home to a significant segment of Germany's more than 3 million residents of Turkish origin.

And it is a favorite stomping ground of German high society, boasting beautiful villas that house historic Hanseatic trading families, not to mention the highest single concentration of German millionaires.

Hamburg's historic "Rathaus" (City Hall), as seen from across the Alster lake located in the heart of the city. Enlarge image Hamburg's historic "Rathaus" (City Hall), as seen from across the Alster lake located in the heart of the city. (© picture-alliance/Hinrich Bäsemann)

Hamburg is also a media hub and a hotbed of culture, from hip-hop to opera. And it is the northern epicenter of a certain kind of "Hanseatic" style, one that differs from the Italian-influenced flair of Munich's vibrant fashionistas. The classic "Hanseatic look" is tailored and boasts maritime influences (think hues of blue, green, khaki, and black), nordic (think tall Claudia Schiffer types in leather boots), classic (think Burberry, think English country, think plaid), and functional (think scarves, think wraps - think outerwear!).

Like all major German cities, Hamburg's public transit system is excellent - it is clean, it is safe, and it gets you pretty much everywhere (including "night buses" for young nocturnal revelers). Its city parks offer joggers, picnickers and lovers lots of wide open spaces and leafy nooks and crannies, with endless walls of pink, purple and white Rhododendron bushes in bloom come springtime, to while away lazy Sunday afternoons.

Even the city's often overcast, mercurial weather - it can go from rain to shine and back again several times in a single day - makes up part of its special charm. When the weather becomes damp and slick, the white lights adorning classical downtown structures take on a dreamlike quality, like blurred signposts of muted human hopes and desires smudged into the fading silvery light of early winter evenings.

St. Michael's church (a.k.a. "Der Michel") - illuminated Hamburg skyline Enlarge image St. Michael's church (a.k.a. "Der Michel") - illuminated Hamburg skyline (© picture alliance/chromorange)

And this northern light offers plenty of opportunity for Hamburg to show off her most hospitable side, for it is on such evenings that gatherings around candlelit tables in bars, restaurants and cozy kitchens with friends and family get extra "gemütlich." (The German expression "Gemütlichkeit" literally means "coziness" or "comfort," but essentially has a wider connotation extending to "a comfortable ambience" or "a sociable atmosphere of comfort, peace and acceptance.")

But don't take my word for it - as a former resident of this magnificent metropolis, I may be more than a tad biased.

Just check out what The New York Times, that venerable Old Grey Lady, reported on January 19, 2012 in its travel section about Hamburg, Germany's second-largest city and one of its most beautiful to boot, but one that is still all too often overlooked by tourists.

By Karen Carstens for Germany.info

HAMBURG FAST FACTS

Population: 1.7 million (3.5 million in the greater region)

Federal State: Hamburg (The Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg, one of Germany's 16 federal states, making it both a city as well as a state.)

Area: (city limits) 755 square kilometers (291 square miles)

Economy: Hamburg is Germany's biggest port city, with a long history of shipping and commerce. As a major center of trade, Hamburg has always been outward-looking, and that has in turn shaped the mentality of the city's inhabitants.

Culture: Hamburg boasts 31 theatres, 6 music halls, 10 cabarets and 50 state and private museums. Of the 4,000 restaurants in Hamburg, 2,400 offer foreign cuisine. From the opera to art museums to international spectacles to the racous Reeperbahn, Hamburg literally has it all and offers something for everyone.

Cool Facts: With 30 square meters of living space per person, Hamburg has the biggest average living space of all major cities in the world. As much as 14 percent of the city area is made up of green spaces and recreational areas. Hamburg has 2,302 bridges - more than Venice and Amsterdam combined. With over 90 consulates, Hamburg is second only to New York City.

Source (facts and figures): Hamburg.de

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