Inevitably, I always feel a bit “blah” as the year comes to an end. My waning energy is partially due to the winter weather—which is far kinder here in southern Germany than in eastern Canada—but also a mental fatigue sets in as the events of the previous year culminate and play in a “year in review” montage in my head (kind of like what Facebook does for you, but with all the dirty details).
As such, my default state is a hibernation mode characterized by cozy nights alone indoors with homemade soup and binge-watching Netflix, lounging around in a bum-like uniform and going to bed even earlier than usual. Effectively, I turn into the definition of sexy: an 80-year-old woman (minus the knitting and cats). This is how I conserve my energy for the new year ahead.
Putting the X through Xmas
In another fashion, I have developed an increasing apathy towards Christmas as I get older. Although I’ve always succumbed to at least some aspects of celebrating it, I’ve wanted to boycott the tradition for a while now. Yes, my family is dispersed in different faraway locations, making a visit home at this time of year expensive, but the main reason for my lackluster Christmas spirit is the souped-up consumerism and overindulgence synonymous with the occasion, which gives me a metaphorical migraine.
I appreciate the underlying sentiment of the holiday and realize the good intentions of gift giving, but the harsh reality is that the fate of most gifts will be the same: they will be admired for a week and then swiftly proceed to gather dust in a dark corner of a closet and eventually end up in a landfill after a spring cleaning purge x years later.
I also have zero tolerance for dodging hoards of rabid consumers foaming at the mouth at the mall, and ditto for sipping eggnog with “Last Christmas” by Wham! playing in the background, pretending to like the neighbours’ fruitcake, and other holiday rituals meant to bring out the festive spirit. I realize this all sounds very “bah humbug,” but don’t we all get a little more cynical as we age?
So “this year, to save me from tears…”
I took a damn trip… to Hamburg!
I know by now that taking a solo trip to a new place is a foolproof way to wake up my senses, and with the added bonus of shunning Christmas (to an extent), it was a no-brainer. A short trip would have to do because of vacation time constraints (otherwise I’d be trekking through a jungle somewhere right now).
Visiting Hamburg had been on my mind for a while at the recommendation of my close friend Melanie, who lived in the city for a year or so and loved every inch of it.
Hamburg has a lot to offer, tourism-wise, whether you’re into museums, architecture, music, theatre, food, nightlife, or simply a stroll along the water. I couldn’t do it all in my four full days there, but I got a good feeling of the city’s vibe and enjoyed what I managed to see and do, not all of which is included here (but much of it).
Riding in Cars with Strangers
Lately I’ve been using BlaBlaCar—a carpooling program operating in Germany and throughout Europe—to get around outside Mannheim. Essentially, members post on the platform when they have free space in their car. You’re riding with strangers who share your destination (or one along the way), but each driver and passenger has an online profile, rating, and reviews, providing some insight into your car-mates prior to booking a ride. Meeting times and locations are arranged in advance with the driver, and payment is either made online through the BlaBlaCar platform or with cash in person.
Not only are you saving money (I’ve consistently found it to be a cheaper option than bus and train) and reducing your carbon footprint (by not driving solo), you’re meeting new people, which I’m always a fan of—in fact, I had a fun conversation about outer space, ethics, science, and Rastafarians on the way to Hamburg (it was a long ride).
The Hub of Northern Germany
As Germany’s second-largest city (after Berlin), Hamburg lies in the north and is connected to the North Sea via the Elbe River. Historically a member of the Hanseatic League (“Die Hanse”), an alliance of trading cities in the North Sea and Baltic Sea, it’s also home to the country’s largest harbor, providing a gateway to international trade and a scenic backdrop to the city.
More than a few landmarks can be found along the waterfront, most notably the concert hall Elbphilharmonie in HafenCity, Hamburg’s pride and joy in terms of modern architecture.
Also in HafenCity is Speicherstadt, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2015. The stately red brick buildings lining the canals make up the largest warehouse district in the world.
As the main departure point for boat tours and featuring tourist shops and kiosks selling Fischbrötchen (plus Hard Rock Café), Landungsbrücken (the floating dock) is tourist central (although I’m sure the action I witnessed was pretty tame compared to what it would be like during the summer).
I walked through the Old Elbe Tunnel, connecting Landungsbücken with Steinwerder on the other side of the river and used mainly as an underground passage for pedestrians and cyclists (cars can also enter).
Karolinenviertel and Schanzenviertel
With shops called “Sophie the Cat” and “Mister Cannabis” (and others drawing on puns, like “Druck Dealer”), colourful graffiti and murals, and what I would call “hip but low-key” bars and restaurants, Schanzenviertel (the Schanze) and Karolinenviertel (Karoviertel) are clearly home to Hamburg’s alternative and indie scene.
Luckily (or luckily for my wallet), the fun-looking, eco-friendly boutiques selling clothes and accessories from local designers were closed for Christmas. I was just as happy to wander around the neighbourhood discovering the surprising, beautiful, and sometimes cheeky street art plastered everywhere—literally no space is left blank.
Out and About in Schanzenviertel and Karoviertel
Happenpappen, a cute little vegan restaurant in Karovietel, turned out to be my favourite place to eat, hands down. Portions are large and the food checks off all my criteria for a satisfying meal: fresh, healthy, colourful, and flavorful. The closest I came to eating a hamburger in Hamburg was here—the “Karate Kid” burger bowl (wasabi mayo!). Unfortunately, Happenpappen was closed for most of my visit; otherwise, I’d have gone there everyday!
Melanie had recommended a few of her favourite haunts in the Schanze (her old neighbourhood), including Südhang, a wine bar and restaurant perched above a wine/shoe shop.
The place is warm, cozy, pleasantly busy, and downright romantic. I sat at a long table with a glass of white wine, just enjoying the atmosphere—okay, I was half hoping a handsome stranger would walk in, make smoldering eye contact, and join me for a stimulating intellectual conversation, but no such luck.
On the way back to the apartment, I stuck my head into Uebel & Gefährlich (“Evil and Dangerous”), a nightclub located in a former Nazi bunker in St. Pauli. It was only 10 pm and completely crammed to the entrance with a dense crowd waving green glow sticks. Having been mellowed by the wine at this point (and thus having a time limit on my tolerance for green glow sticks), I stayed for only a few songs and called it a night.
Other places I checked out were GoldFischGlas, a cool bar that plays disco/dance/funk tunes, and Café Panter, a hippie-ish joint selling mostly breakfast/lunch fare like smoothies, salads, and omelettes (and yummy brownies).
Bullerei, a restaurant founded by a German celebrity chef, is well known in the Schanze. I enjoyed the atmosphere and my glass of wine, but not my lackluster veggie main—be aware that the main dishes are served in small portions (and overpriced in my mind).
Unfortunately, I didn’t make it to the famous St. Pauli Fischmarkt, a cultural icon of Hamburg. If you know me, you know that I’m always awake ridiculously early, so it’s surprising that I managed to miss the market, open from 5:30–9:30 am on Sundays, simply by forgetting about it. Instead, I had to settle for a rather sad photo of the building when it was closed.
However, I did make it to Isemarkt on Christmas Eve, a twice-weekly farmer’s market that sets up underneath a railroad bridge in Eppendorf. I didn’t spend much time exploring the streets (it was damn cold that morning), but I got the picture that this was the posh side of town.
The market is very long—apparently over 200 vendors set up shop here. Otherwise, it’s a pretty standard farmer’s market, with cheese, fish, meat, and baked goods as the focal point. I talked with a few merchants selling other types of goods—one handmade wooden ornaments and the other used vintage jewelry from around the world (my favourite stall).
I also stumbled upon Rindermarkthalle, a permanent indoor market in St. Pauli with several (organic) grocery stores, artisan bakeries, a fancy chocolate shop, a food court selling different ethnic cuisine, and a few tourist/souvenir shops that didn’t sell the typical junk. I only did a quick tour, but it appeared that much of the merchandise was locally made and of very good quality.
Although there are more than a few museums in Hamburg to choose from, I settled on two and can easily recommend both: Hamburger Kunsthalle (if art is your thing) and Miniatur Wunderland (a must-see for any visitor).
No matter where I go, I almost always seek out an art museum (or several when the city calls for it, like in Vienna). I visited the Kunsthalle on Sunday morning, literally as soon as the doors were unlocked. Getting lost in the maze of eerily quiet rooms (thanks to very few visitors) shrouded in timeless paintings preserved through the ages, I experienced that dreamy “Alice in Wonderland” feeling this kind of atmosphere evokes in me.
I also never get sick of the multitude of hilarious Baby Jesus (or other biblical or mythological) representations, which seem to be an (unintentional, I assume) theme of Renaissance and medieval art.
Other paintings were just plain creepy as hell or hostile:
Clearly, museums should hire me to caption their paintings.
Tucked into one of the warehouses in Speicherstadt, Miniatur Wunderland is the world’s largest model railway. The concept seems a bit nerdy and traditional when you initially bring it to mind (at least in my mind), but holy crap, instead this place blew my mind.
I visited the #1 tourist attraction in Hamburg at 9 am sharp on Christmas Day, thinking this was a clever move to beat the crowds. Although I’m sure the tourist traffic was not at its full scale, I was mostly wrong in this assumption. Open every single day of the year, this place is never spared from tourists.
The giant exhibit, covering two floors, is separated into models depicting much of Hamburg as well as different cities and countries in Europe, and even Las Vegas, Florida, and the Wild West—and of course, lots and lots of trains. Some parts are stationary and others are continuously moving (like the trains). Other parts are interactive, bringing scenes to life at the push of a button.
Once again feeling like Alice in Wonderland, I made my way through the vast landscape of models, all the while in awe of the exquisite construction and noticing quirky little features embedded in the scenery.
Representations range from large-scale landmarks like the Hamburg Airport (complete with ascending and descending planes) and Elbphilharmonie, events like Mardi Gras and a DJ Bobo concert (no idea who DJ Bobo was before I saw him “live” on stage), a riot scene outside a soccer stadium and a SWAT team invading a warehouse, all the way down to the minutiae—a couple reunited at a train station or a lone hiker about to be attacked by a bear. You would need days or even weeks to properly scrutinize every fine detail.
A few of my favourites:
The lights are also dimmed periodically so that you have a “nighttime” view of the models. Needless to say, I felt a little hyperstimulated in this place.
But the trip did exactly what it was supposed to—I returned to Mannheim bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, primed for my next adventure.
Happy New Year!