Category Archives: Germany

Solo Travel Guide to Hamburg

In September I spent a long weekend in Hamburg visiting Reeperbahn Festival (see full review and festival tips) and exploring Germany’s second largest city. While I was part of a small group during the festival, I also planned in two days to explore the city on my own, which I love doing as I tend to get more done and can decide the pace and path myself. Here are some of my top tips for a first visit to Hamburg, so you get a great mix of sightseeing, culture, coffee and food spots plus some awesome views to impress your friends back home.

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Discover the City’s Many Facets on a Walking Tour

I always make a point to join at least one walking tour during any city trip. As a solo traveller, this gives you a chance to mingle with other visitors and you get to ask a knowledgeable local about up to date tips for the best spots to eat and hang out.

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Hamburg has a lot of history and quite a few neighbourhoods to discover, so you can do a general tour to give you an overview when you’ve just arrived (or are short of time) or pick a particular area, such as the Speicherstadt (see pic above), Hamburg’s docklands area, or go with a theme, like musician Stefanie Hempel’s Beatles Tour (it passes through the main streets of the St. Pauli red light district, so you basically get two in one). There are also many other historic or quirky tours on offer. If you have more time, Hamburg surrounded by the most beautiful countryside and there are fantastic walks and idyllic lunch spots along its waterways and smaller rural communities.

Great Neighbourhoods to Explore

Hamburg has many distinct neighbourhoods, so it’s a good idea to take your pick and discover a few of them on foot. If you’re after traditional sights, beautiful old buildings and sea views, the old town and harbour area are for you. If you manage to stay up very late or get up very early (neither of which I managed on my trip) on Sunday morning, the Fischmarkt and its boisterous market criers are an unmissable experience (5.30am to 9.30am, but until midday on Sundays with live jazz music).

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If you’re more into alternative culture or after music, fashion or bookshops, the Schanzenviertel and Karolinenviertel are for you. Get off at Sternschanze and your first speciality coffee stop, Elbgold, is only a 5 minute walk away. Walk down Susannestrasse with its many small cafes and boutiques, turn  left into Schulterblatt (ahead on the right you can see the Rote Flora, which has been squatted since 1989 and has had a pretty turbulent history ever since), which has Zardoz Records (and books) on the left hand side and Herr Max (great cakes and ice cream) a bit further down. Keep walking and aim for Marktstrasse with more small design and music shops along the way, such as Hanseplatte (see pic above). If you get tired, Hatari on Schanzenstraße is a great place to have a burger (veggie options available) or other yummy lunch options. For those on a budget, Turkish restaurant Pamukkale (Susannenstraße) does an all you can eat brunch including filter coffee for €7.90 on weekdays. In order to get a different view of the old town, you can do a walk along the banks of the Außenalster.

Best Instaworthy Views from Above

The brand new Elbphilarmonie concert hall, nicknamed ‘Elphi’ by the locals, is a must do and you can just turn up and get a visitor’s ticket for free (or book a slot online in advance for a small fee). This allows you entry to the viewing platforms with fabulous views of the harbour which you can enjoy with a glass of bubbly from the café or restaurant.

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My favourite viewing point, however, was the Michel (see pic of view from top below), the 132m high tower of the St. Michaelis church between the Rödingsmarkt stop and St. Pauli stop. It’s €5 (or €4 with the Hamburg Card) and the elevator zips you up to the top in just a few seconds. The views are fantastic, especially on a good day. From there, make your way along Ditmar Koel Straße with lots of Portugese and Italian restaurants down to the Landungsbrücken where all the ferries and harbour tours leave from.

Hamburg view from Michel.jpg

Quirky Things to Do If You’ve Already Seen the Main Sights

The subterranean Alter Elbtunnel, constructed in 1911 nearly 24m underground the Elbe river, acts as a transport link for people, bikes and vehicles. I was surprised to learn it was modelled on the Clyde Tunnel in Glasgow (another one of my fav cities).

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While you’re there (on the Landungsbrücken side), have lunch or dinner outdoors at Dock3 Beachclub. Watch the ships go by from your deck chair on this artificial beach with real sand and enjoy some seriously delicious food. Something that’s a bit more nerdy than quirky, but also a big attraction is the Miniatur Wunderland, the world’s largest miniature railway and kids with a maximum height of 1m go free.

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As I love coffee and animals, every time I visit a city that has a cat café, of course that’s where I’ll go. Hamburg’s Cafe Katzentempel (2 min from U3 stop Schlump) is the home of 6 rescue kitties, 5 from Ireland and 1 from Greece, offers vegan food and great coffee and is also a good place to meet other animal lovers if you’re travelling solo. If you still have energy at the end of the day, why not party in a real WWII bunker? The Übel und Gefährlich nightclub is housed in the Flakturm IV (U3 stop Feldstraße, I told you, this line is all you need!) and hosts diverse music events.

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Festival City All Your Round 

Hamburg truly is a city of festivals all year round from music of all genres (Reeperbahn Festival, MS Dockville, Elbjazz, Hurricane, Hanse Song, A Summer’s Tale), to literature (Harbour Front Literaturfestival), theatre (Hamburger Theater Festival) and other cultural events (Comicfestival, Cruise Days, Altonale etc.). Plus there are lots of lovely seasonal events, for instance at Christmas time. So whenever you’re visiting, you’re probably arriving smack-bang in the middle of some sort of celebration you can join in on.

Hamburg RBF Festival Village .jpg

A Cosy Night’s Sleep Right in the City

Hamburg has a well-organised public transport system and the U3 is the line you’re probably going to use most, but any place near a U-Bahn stop will be a good location, so you can get out and home again quickly. I stayed at Superbude St. Georg (see pic below), a quirky hotel and hostel near the Berliner Tor stop (2 stops from Hauptbahnhof) with a very yummy breakfast buffet (including make your own waffles) and communal tables, so it’s easy to get to know other travellers. Other options include the Generator Hostel right beside the Hauptbahnhof, a huge, well-run hostel with comfy beds, which is also a great base in case you’re arriving late or leaving early.

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Getting Around Hamburg

Hamburg’s Fuhlsbüttel airport has a lot of nice shops and cafes and is only a 25 minute ride from the city (€3.20 one way) on the S1 from the main train station (Hauptbahnhof, so relaxing compared to London. While in Germany shops are generally closed on Sundays, the many shops and cafes at the train station are open all weekend, great for last minute souvenirs. You can rent a locker for your luggage for just €4 (fits a small trolley plus backpack) or €6 (large suitcase) for 24 hours. A daily public transport pass is €7.60 (or €6.20 after 9am) and the Hamburg Card (which in additionncludes discounts on museums, harbour tours and other attractions) is €9 per day. Like in most large European cities, you can also rent a city bike, the Hamburg version is called StadtRAD.

Hamburg on Tour in London 20-21 October 2017

Don’t forget: Hamburg on Tour is bringing the Northern charm of Hamburg to London’s Boiler House (Shoreditch) this October with a fantastic free programme of events for everyone to enjoy. And you can quiz the folks from Hamburg Tourism about visiting Europe’s second largest port city.

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival visited Hamburg, the Reeperbahn Festival and stayed at Superbude St. Georg as a guest of the nice folks at Hamburg Marketing. Prices are as of September 2017, please confirm them online before you go. Opinions expressed are those of the author. All photography used in this blog post was taken by Life is a Festival.

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Not Just The German Carnival Capital: Your Weekend Guide to Cologne

I admit, I was guilty of it myself: I’ve travelled to quite a few other German cities and towns before, but never really considered going to Cologne, the largest city of the German Bundesland of North Rhine-Westphalia, until I was heading from Berlin to Bavaria this spring and happened to pass through during carnival time. I totally loved my stay! Cologne might not be as well-known as Berlin, Hamburg or Munich, but its friendly, talkative locals will have you forget about being a stranger in no time. Just like in my other favourite cities of Dublin and Glasgow, you can have a brilliant time in Cologne if you immerse yourself in its lively festival, culture, café and pub scene.

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Festival City All Year Round

Kölner, as the locals in Cologne are known, are always up for a party and the city offers an enviable number of festivals throughout the year. From the famous Kölner Karneval in February and a smaller, but equally busy summer version at the end of August, there are always some great events on. Apart from a few of them, you don’t need to be able to speak German to join in and they often even have a website or programme in English. The most popular include Lit Cologne (March), Cologne Pride (the city is very LGBT friendly) and the Film Festival Cologne. While I was visiting during the first weekend of September, there was an urban arts festival on, City Leaks, and I also found a small world music festival, Festival der Kulturen in Troisdorf, which was only 30 minutes away on the train.

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It’s all about ‘Veedel’ Culture – Meet the Neighbours

Cologne has a number of distinct neighbourhoods and its locals strongly identify with where they live. Ehrenfeld has an East London or alternative Berlin feel to it, the Südstadt is quieter (but not at carnival time!), Nippes and Agnesviertel has lots of cafes and parks and the Belgisches Viertel is the place to head for boutique clothes and designer shopping. Just like London has its cabmen’s shelters, Cologne has its ‘Büdchen’, little stalls/snack bars where you can purchase a coffee and a bite to eat or some sweets. The Büdchen am Nikolausplatz (tram stop 18 nearby, see pic below) in Köln Sülz (near the University) is especially lively, it’s run by a group of six people who take turns with the shifts and also sometimes organise outdoor live music and little literature events around their stall. The Weisshaus Kino is only 5 minutes down the road on Weisshauptstrasse. If you don’t speak German, don’t worry, some of the cinemas show movies or documentaries in the original version (marked with OV behind the title and Monday is usually the cheap cinema day, expect to pay around €5 or €6 for a ticket).

While I was visiting I joined a local walking tour, which was part of the City Leaks Urban Arts Festival and it took us around the streets and alleys of the Eigelstein quarter, where prostitution has been thriving for hundreds of years up to this day. But you’ll still find hotels, kindergardens and playgrounds nearby. While you might want to stay clear of Ebertplatz at night, the Eigelstein-Torburg square right beside it has some lovely restaurants (burgers, a gelateria, Thai food, coffee) for a sunny afternoon on the terrace or a cosy dinner in wintertime.

Cologne Büdchen am Nikolausplatz.jpg

Café Culture and Brunch Spots

The city has a huge number of cafés and bakeries with a lot of veggie and vegan options. You can basically start wherever you are and pick any nice-looking place. Zeit für Brot in Ehrenfeld is great for people watching (or pet dogs that are passing by) while you munch on one of their super yummy cinnamon, walnut/maple syrup or plum buns (see pic below). Nearby is Café Goldmund, a book café with walls lined with endless number of second hand books. I also love the BadenBaden in the basement of the Neptunbad (spa) in Ehrenfeld (mixed menu including Flammkuchen). But beware, only the ones marked with a green sticker on the back are for sale. Another lovely coffee place is As If Records in the Belgisches Viertel, a record store, vintage store and café rolled into one with very friendly staff.

On Sunday we went for breakfast at the local ‘cat café’ Café Schnurrke, in Ritterstrasse, less than 10 minutes on foot from the Hauptbahnhof. The two black and white resident rescue kitties, Millie and Merlin, might join you on the sofa while you enjoy your breakfast (both veggie and vegan options available) or a cake and a smoothie. Going for breakfast or brunch (usually a buffet or choice of sweet and/or savoury combos) is very popular in Germany, especially at the weekends, and many cafes have special breakfast menus available.

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Cathedral, Street Art & Unusual Museums

I always like getting an overview of a new city by joining one of the free walking tours (usually in English and often also in Spanish; the only city that didn’t have one was Vienna – for legal reasons – where I simply went to one of the hostels and joined theirs). The Dom (Cathedral), the fourth-tallest in the world, is a no brainer and I suggest you get there first thing in the morning or in any case plan for at least an hour as you’ll have to climb the steps all the way up for the best views. Cologne also has a number of excellent art museums, as well as a few more unusual ones, such as the German Olympic Museum and the Chocolate Museum (which sounds tempting, but I suggest you spend the €11.50 on actual chocolate). There is also lots of fabulous street art to discover, for instance in Ehrenfeld, Eigelstein and other neighbourhoods.

Cologne Street Art Ehrenfeld

Live Music any Day of the Week

Earlier this year, I made a friend on Instagram, who lives in Cologne and enjoys the same kind of music I like. So she gave me lots of great tips and we met up one night for a gig at Kulturcafe Lichtung. In fact, I ended up going there two nights in a row. The musician on Friday night, Ofer Golany from Israel, also told me about a great little (and free) world music festival in Troisdorf, a 40 minute S-Bahn ride away, the Festival der Kulturen. I went there on Saturday and had fantastic homecooked Ethiopian food, listened to various musicians from around the world and met many cute dogs (see Cuddle a Dog a Day). As it was the weekend of the summer carnival, there were also lots of local live bands singing in various pubs in their local dialect, Kölsch (which is pretty much unintelligible by other Germans too, but it’s always a good idea to learn a few phrases before you go). In fact, at the Weißer Holunder pub you can join a Kölsch singalong every Sunday night from 6pm, beginners welcome. Other live music venues to try include Studio 672 (venue &  nightclub), Kulturkirche (a Protestant church but also a concert venue), the Gloria Theater (both plays and gigs), Die Wohngemeinschaft (hip hostel and gig venue), Blue Shell (club, live gigs & poetry slams) and many more.

Where Should I stay?

I found a very cosy Airbnb for my first stay and returned there again as it was the perfect base for me. It is across the river in a quiet neighbourhood and was easy to reach by tram, even after midnight. Any of the Veedel (neighbourhoods) are a great place to stay, just pick it based on whether you’d prefer a quiet night’s sleep or prefer staying in a busier area with the nightlife options right outside your door. Either way, there are many choices, so you can’t really go wrong.

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Public Transport, More Local Tips & Saving Money

Cologne is fairly walkable and I love discovering it on foot. To get from your accommodation or to a venue quickly though, you can use the local public transport. A single ticket costs €2.80 (buy it with coins or a credit card at a machine at a tram stop or inside the tram, make sure you have one as ticket inspectors patrol the trams and it can cost you €60 if you get caught!), so a public transport day pass (currently €8.60) is usually a good idea. You can use it in the whole city and East of the Rhine river, too. The Cologne Card is only slightly more, for €9 a day it also gives you 20-50% off some museums. As I was there for four days, I bought a weekly ticket for €25.10 (cheaper than 3 day passes). There are trams, buses and S-Bahn (commuter) trains and, in my experience, they were safe to use even at night and also run every few minutes after midnight, so you can book cheaper accommodation a little further out and still won’t have to worry about getting home. The tourist office is very close to the Cathedral and the main train station (where you can leave luggage in lockers or in a left luggage place for ca. €6 a day). There you can pick up a very clear map of the city centre and slightly beyond for about 50 cents and find out about current events. There are quite a few guide books in English, but I was glad I found a few specifically local guides, Green City Guide Köln, Basic Köln and the yearly updated Köln 2 Go (all three in German), which were more aimed at locals and had a lot of great tips for veggie places and more alternative sightseeing options.

Whatever you do, make sure you visit Cologne sooner rather than later, it’s one of the easiest cities to enjoy whether you’re a seasoned traveller or a travel newbie of any age.

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Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author. Prices listed are as of August 2017, please confirm them before you go. All photography by Life is a Festival.