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The city where Brits will finally change their minds about Germany

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 19/01/2022 William Cook
Hamburg, holidays in Germany - Getty © Getty Hamburg, holidays in Germany - Getty

Sitting in my supremely comfy seat at the spectacular Elbphilharmonie concert hall, listening to the Hamburg Philharmonic gliding through Beethoven’s 8th Symphony, I think of all the times I’ve been to Hamburg since my first visit, nearly 30 years ago – and I end up wondering why no-one I know ever seems to think of coming here. Indeed, not only is the city underrated, but Germany as a whole deserves more attention from British holidaymakers.

This blind spot doesn’t bother me. In fact, I’m rather glad my favourite city hasn’t become a tacky tourist trap. Yet I can’t help thinking my friends back in Blighty might be missing out. Because if you’re British and you’ve never been to Germany, I reckon Hamburg is the best place to start.

OK, so I’m a bit biased. My German grandma grew up here and my father spent his first five years here – he was born in 1942, a few months after my German grandfather, Werner von Biel, was conscripted into Hitler’s Wehrmacht. By 1945 the British Army was in Hamburg, and Werner was in a British prisoner of war camp. He didn’t make it home until 1947.

Meanwhile, back in Hamburg, my grandma met a British soldier called Gerry Cook (a journalist back in civvy street) and fell in love with him. Gerry brought her back to Britain with my father and raised him as his own. My father was anglicised, but my grandma couldn’t hide her guilty secret. Even though she spoke faultless English, her accent gave the game away.

William Cook and his parents, circa 1970 © Provided by The Telegraph William Cook and his parents, circa 1970

As a child, I loved visiting my grandma, and her husband Gerry. They lived in a smart townhouse in Chelsea – journalists made more money back then. Their house was full of beautiful things, and the most beautiful thing of all was a painting above the fireplace, a picture of a place I’d never visited: a huge grey lake, surrounded by grand old houses. That huge lake was the Alster, in the heart of Hamburg, and one of those grand old houses was the house where my grandma used to live.

I first came to Hamburg in 1992, on an overnight ferry from Harwich. This time I came by plane. Last time I came here, the Elbphilharmonie was still a construction site. Now it’s a gleaming citadel in the centre of Hamburg’s rejuvenated dockland district. It’s a stunning structure, inside and out, an iconic focal point for this rugged, gutsy metropolis. It’s done much the same thing for Hamburg that Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim did for Bilbao – repositioning a rustbelt city as a shiny new cultural capital. Swiss ‘starchitects’ Herzog & De Meuron have done a superb job. The building has become a catalyst, reinvigorating the post-industrial area around it, just like they did with Tate Modern and London’s South Bank.

Germany, Hamburg, view to Zollkanal and Old Warehouse District with Elbe Philharmonic Hall in the background - Getty © Provided by The Telegraph Germany, Hamburg, view to Zollkanal and Old Warehouse District with Elbe Philharmonic Hall in the background - Getty

The Elbphilharmonie has put Hamburg on the map for classical music, but it’s always been a bastion of fine art. Hamburg’s Kunsthalle boasts one of the world’s best collections of German painting, most notably the great Romantic artist Casper David Friedrich and Expressionist master Max Beckmann. There are more childlike pleasures too. Hidden away in an old warehouse in the Speicherstadt, Miniatur Wunderland (the name needs no translation) is Germany’s biggest model railway, Hamburg’s most popular attraction. I’d never been inside before, but this time I went to take a look and I was utterly enchanted. The scale and detail is staggering. Seeing all those children in there, completely mesmerised, made me feel like a kid again.

“When it rains in London, Hamburgers put up their umbrellas,” my German grandma used to say, but Hamburg’s British connections run a lot deeper than its wet and windy weather. Like Liverpool, Hamburg is a merchant city, built on transatlantic trade. Its grandest grand hotel, The Atlantic, was built for first class passengers transferring to ocean liners. Its key players have always been hard-nosed businessmen, not chinless aristocrats.


Video: Paved road stolen in Germany (Sky News)

Mention Liverpool to any Hamburger and the conversation turns to The Beatles, whose seedy sabbatical here was encapsulated in a pithy aphorism by John Lennon. “What was it like growing up in Liverpool?” a reporter asked him. “I didn’t grow up in Liverpool,” he replied. “I grew up in Hamburg.” Playing night after night, all night long, in Hamburg’s infamous red-light district, the Reeperbahn, was a useful apprenticeship, but it’s a good job they got out when they did. The surrounding quarter, St Pauli, has a certain grungy charm, yet the Reeperbahn itself feels tired and tawdry. You can do a Beatles walking tour around the area, but it doesn’t really lift your spirits.

The Beatles in Hamburg in 1962 © Provided by The Telegraph The Beatles in Hamburg in 1962

The Beatles arrived in Hamburg barely 20 years after Operation Gomorrah, the RAF bombing raid in 1943 which killed 40,000 people here. For Britain it was payback for Coventry, but it’s still traumatic to think of all those who died, in a terrifying firestorm which engulfed the city centre. The tarmac melted in the streets. Even the oily water in the canals caught fire.

Hamburg still bears the scars of the Second World War, but given the scale of its destruction, what’s remarkable is how much has survived rather than how much has vanished. No-one would call it beautiful, but it’s a handsome, imposing place, and its no-nonsense, unsentimental character is reflected in its robust architecture, old and new.

Despite its rough veneer, it’s a wealthy city, with lots of posh shops and stylish restaurants. As befits an international, outward-looking port, the cuisine is cosmopolitan – no need to stick to sausages and sauerkraut, unless you really want to. If you’re here on Sunday morning head for the Fischmarkt, the ornate fish market where The Beatles used to eat breakfast after a hard day’s night. The local speciality is Bismarck herring, served in a crusty roll with raw onion, washed down with a cold beer.

On my last morning I walked to the Landungsbrücken, where the ferries dock, and took a boat trip around the harbour. Container ships loomed over us, as tall as tower blocks. In the afternoon I took the train out to Blankenese – formerly a fishing village, now an affluent suburb. Nowadays, you need a lot of money to buy one of the fishermen’s houses on the hillside above the River Elbe. I walked along the windswept waterfront and watched the big ships sailing by. You can see why folk call Hamburg Germany’s gateway to the world.

The light was fading. I headed back into town for my final appointment, a visit to the Fontenay, Hamburg’s suave new five-star hotel. From the rooftop bar you can look right across the Alster, Hamburg’s vast city centre lake, and I realised, with a start, that I was staring at the vista in my grandma’s painting. I’d guessed her old house was nearby. I didn’t realise it was just around the corner.

View of the aussenalster lake in Hamburg, Germany - Getty © Provided by The Telegraph View of the aussenalster lake in Hamburg, Germany - Getty

I’d been there several times before, but this time felt different. The house still looked just the same. It was my perspective that had changed. Before, I’d been impressed by how smart it was, and I’d marvelled that my grandma had ever lived there. I’d wondered if I’d ever live somewhere quite so smart. Now I knew I never would, but I didn’t really mind. It was a beautiful house, but it was only bricks and mortar. It had belonged to her and then it belonged to someone else. In the end, we’re all just passing through.

I walked back to the lakeside and looked out across the still dark water. I brought my wife here when we got married. I brought my children here when they were small. Of course my family connections make this place unique for me, but if you come here I bet you’ll discover something else that thrills you – something just as special. And I think you’ll find that the British and the Germans are a lot more similar than they first appear.

The former family home in Hamburg - William Cook © Provided by The Telegraph The former family home in Hamburg - William Cook

For more information about Hamburg go to www.germany.travel or www.hamburg-tourismus.de. For events at the Elbphilharmonie, visit www.elbphilharmonie.de. For more travel inspiration, read Telegraph Travel's guide to the best hotels in Hamburg

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