HAMBURG AND BERLIN- Like stunning siblings — one a sophisticated, petite brunette and the other an outgoing, out-there blonde — these German sisters have their own distinctive personalities. Each is special,each is different. And both are worth getting to know.
When in Germany’s second city (1.8 million) you’re never far from water. Situated near the River Elbe, two Alster lakes and countless canals, Hamburg is defined by its aquatic location. And though it’s one of the country’s largest cities, it has a compact, refined feel.
“You don’t see many old buildings,” I’m told as I initially observe my surroundings. “Most were destroyed in the war.”
Fast-forward to 2011. More millionaires call Hamburg’s 105 districts home than any German city. And with the development of Hafencity, a glossy new 21st century harbour-side district, an even brighter future is forecast.
Hafencity, one of the top three tourist sights (alongside Miniature Wonderland and St. Michaels Church), is Hamburg’s most prestigious urban development enterprise. Its flagship project, the Elbphilharmonie, will house one of the world’s premier concert halls; 90-minute tours of the wave shaped landmark-in-the-making are offered Sundays.
Above: Berlin's Brandenburg Gate is one of Germany's best-known landmarks.
In this land of culturati, there are three state theatres, 40 private theatres and 50 museums — from the Museum of Horrors and Prototyp Automuseum (showcases Germany’s world of racing) to the Warehouse, Maritime and Coffee museums. But if railways are your thing, visit the miniature museum. Tours are similarly exclusive. While Alster and Port of Hamburg boat tours give on-the-water perspectives, the Beatles Tour reveals the city’s wild side. Guiding participants throughout St. Pauli (former “questionable” area, now Hamburg’s hottest party strip), is Beatles’ specialist Stefanie Hempel. Armed with her ukulele and musical talent, she sings Beatle tunes, follows the Fab Four’s early tracks and tells insider tales. Paul McCartney’s quote of Hamburg: “We came as kids and left as big kids.”
Hamburg is the perfect remedy for the anti-mall crowd. Home to more than 1,300 shops and an impressive number of homegrown international designers, including Jil Sander, it overflows with aisle action. Neuer Wall is Hamburg’s most luxurious boulevard of boutiques (among Europe’s Top 10). Mönckebergstrasse (“Mö”) serves up an additional one kilometre of shoulder-to-shoulder shops. And the graffiti-adorned Karolinen quarter is where you’ll find new-to-the-scene designers.
Above: Berlin and Hamburg offer visitors lots of fun activities.
Not to be one-upped by shopping, Hamburg’s dining is equally superlative. With 11 Michelin-star restaurants, outstanding meals are the norm. But venture further. Visit TV Chef Tim Mälzer’s see-and-be-seen restaurant Bullerei and order the Surprise Menu. “If you trust us, we’ll get you what we think you want,” says Mälzer.
BEAT OF BERLIN
Though less than two hours away from Hamburg by train, Berlin is a full-blown change of pace. It’s busy, it’s buzzing, it’s a happening. With 3.4 million residents, 175 museums, three opera houses, seven symphony orchestras,150 stages and 440 galleries, it’s little wonder Berlin has overtaken Rome as Europe’s third most visited city.
It was my first time in the reunited capital and I wanted to see it all. But due to limited time and unlimited curiosity, most of my visit was confined to East Berlin, a rejuvenated region given the historically unique opportunity to start from scratch.
Remember those faded photos of Berlin. Forget them. These days it’s the epicenter of luxurious lodging, bustling boulevards and creativity in overdrive.
Where to begin? Brandenburg Gate, of course. When the Wall fell in 1989, the majestic Gate became a symbol of freedom. Today it’s a lively gathering spot — adorned with entertaining guitarists, busy brat carts and amateur photographers.
Above: Hamburg is one of the world's great seaports.
Legendary Hotel Adlon sits nearby and one block north stands the Reichstag, Germany’s Parliament. Topped by a glass cupola, advance reservations allow you to visit the dome and overlook the happenings of Parliament.
Stroll along Unter den Linden, one of Europe’s grandest pre-War avenues. You’ll pass Bebelplatz, sight of the infamous Nazi book burning; Hotel de Rome, one of the city’s finest in one of East Berlin’s few original buildings, and Museum Island, home to several important museums, including the Pergamon (star attraction — the Pergamon Altar).
Reminders of World War II and its divided city:
• Holocaust Memorial. This somber outdoor tribute to Jewish victims consists of 2,711 coffin-shaped concrete-blocks, symbolizing a cemetery.
• Checkpoint Charlie. It’s the best-known border crossing in the world. Its nearby museum features an original watchtower between East and West.
• Berlin Wall. When the 3-metre wall toppled, Germans wanted no reminder of what it represented, so little remains intact. East Side Gallery is the longest standing section (half a kilometre).
But 21st century Berlin is known for much more than its past. It sets trends — shopping to dining to lodging — rule.
Kaufhaus des Westens (KaDeWe to Berliners) is Europe’s largest department store, so visit. Its original slogan: “In our shop a customer is a king and the King is a customer.”
Off-the-beaten path but not off-the-fashion mark is Mulackstrasse, a tiny street known for local designers and luscious boutiques. Stop into hà duong for her flirty dresses or Lalaberlin for knitwear creations (Heidi Klum does).
Foodie Fabulous:Sporting 13 Michelin stars in 12 restaurants, Berlin is the continent’s MVP. But my top pick was a resuscitated soap factory turned restaurant, Kater Holzig. A don’t ask, don’t tell kind of place (seriously, they forbid photos), it provides a glimpse of the city you won’t see from a tour bus. For a real insider experience, go with lifestyle/gastro guide Henrik Tidefjärd on a Gastro Riverside Tour through the Turkish area of Kreuzberg.
To Sleep or not to Sleep:The converse of old-world Hotel de Rome and Hotel Adlon is now Europe’s first music hotel. Appealing to a guest’s inner rock star, free room service offers Gibson guitars and Casio keyboards.
My Take:Whereas Hamburg is like a present you don’t want to ruin by opening, Berlin is a package wrapped in butcher paper that surprises.