If there is such a thing as the perfect time to visit Hamburg (also see my Solo Travel Guide to Hamburg), I probably hit the jackpot with getting to go during Reeperbahn Festival time. What an amazing weekend! I arrived on Wednesday afternoon and, after dropping off my stuff at the hotel, headed straight over to the Festival Village at Heiligengeistfeld (U3 stop St. Pauli) to pick up my press pass. Ready to go for a weekend of live music, culture and fun!
What Is the Festival Like?
The great thing about Reeperbahn Festival (20-23 September 2017), which is in its 12th year this year, is that it takes place in many of the city’s best venues, bars, theatres and clubs of all sizes, most of which can be reached on foot and a few by a short ride on the U3 underground. And hurrah, a public transport pass is included in your festival pass. Besides all the indoor clubs, there are also two large outdoor spaces with smaller stages. One is the Festival Village at Heiligengeistfeld (where you pick up your festival pass), which has access for passholders only and Spielbudenplatz with lots of food trucks, which is freely accessible even for non-passholders (apart from some areas). In addition, Reeperbahn Festival has been hosting a two-day music industry conference since 2009 as well as the NEXT conference for digital creatives and also includes a lot of art projects and a very cool gig poster fair, Flatstock 64, at Spielbudenplatz.
It’s all a bit overwhelming – I hear you!
That’s exactly what I thought when I first arrived, especially as I didn’t know a lot of the bands. Luckily, the printed programme (you could pick a free daily one up in all the venues) had an indication what kind of genres the bands were (indie, pop, rock, folk, singer-songwriter, electronic, hip hop, soul, jazz, classical etc.) and I highly recommend downloading the festival App as it worked like a charm. It also updated you on entrance stops for particularly busy shows and any changes or cancellations, so I used it every single day. Another strategy is to focus on particular countries. The first evening I decided to head to a showcase by Project ATX6 from Austin (live music capital of the world!), Texas, and it didn’t disappoint. All six acts, incl. Little Marzarn and Mobley, were unique and excellent. It took place in a cool venue called Molotow, which had four stages (3 indoors, 1 in the courtyard) and is just off the main Reeperbahn.
What Kind of Music Can I Expect?
The festival is a multi-genre event with an eclectic line-up of both headliners and up and coming bands from all around the world. This year’s star-studded list included Portugal. The Man, Liam Gallagher and Beth Ditto (whose show was my favourite of the whole weekend, so much positive energy), but also bands like London-based 47Soul, Omar Suleyman from Syria, Amadou & Mariam from Mali and Sólstafir from Iceland. I also attended the Anchor Award 2017 for new music, which was won by UK singer-songwriter Jade Bird. This year’s festival partner country was Canada and I would have loved to see more of the bands lined up for this, but due to lack of time I only managed to catch one of my favourite Canadian musicians, Sarah McDougall, who is always amazing live. Keychange was created by the festival to highlight the fact that women are still underrepresented both on and behind the stage in today’s music industry was another interesting project. Last but not least, the amazing Elbphilarmonie concert hall (U3 stop Baumwall), which only opened in January 2017 and was lovingly nicknamed ‘Elphi’ by the locals, was definitely one of the highlights at this year’s festival. I got to do a tour with a guide during the day, but don’t worry, you can visit for free, sign up online (small fee but guaranteed entry) for a slot or just turn up and ask for a visitor’s pass, which allows you access to some of the building, the cafes and restaurant plus the viewing platforms overlooking the harbour. I also went to a midnight gig on the last day of the festival, the main hall with its 360 degree stage and many balconies is really super impressive!
Is the Festival just for Hipsters in their Twenties?
Nope, most definitely not. I met people of all ages, locals, Germans from other parts of the country and lots of international folks, too. That’s what’s so nice about RBF, you get to mingle with music fans, journalists, bloggers, music industry insiders and people of all ages, from excited teenagers to retired architects. There is a fun and friendly vibe everywhere and it’s super easy to get talking about the best shows while you’re queueing for a gig or hanging out in the open air area in between concerts.
What other events should I catch in between the gigs?
Did you know that the Beatles started their career in Hamburg, spending about two years in the German port city, honing their skills in the local clubs and pubs before making it big internationally? Hamburg musician Stefanie Hempel does very insightful and entertaining Beatles Tours, which start on Beatles Square right on the Reeperbahn. I was also lucky to go on a tour of Hamburg’s best recordshops with DJ Sebastian Reier, including Hanseplatte, Zardoz Records (who also have lots of second hand books), Smallville Records, Groove City and a visit to the nightclub Übel und Gefährlich on the fourth floor of a former WWII bunker (the rooftop view is fantastic including the St. Pauli football stadium). You can also do a musical harbour boat cruise with Frau Hedis Tanzkaffee, which runs year round and takes you around the harbour of Hamburg for two hours with an onboard bar and varying musical entertainment or DJing.
Where Can I Grab Some Food and Drink?
This will be your smallest problem during the festival as there are lots of street food vendors plus the regular Reeperbahn chips, pizza and falafel places (and some proper restaurants) to choose from. Some of the street food was excellent, I tried for instance a yummy vegan hot dog with caramelised onions and goats cheese in a speciality bread roll. The Festival Village, too, had some interesting options like fries with peanut sauce or handmade sandwiches from Handbrotzeit. The Arcotel Onyx near the St. Pauli stop is the official festival hotel where you can take a breather in between gigs or meet music industry folks for a chat over a coffee.
How to Get into Popular Venues & Avoid Long Queues
You’ll be pleased to hear that the bouncers at the festival venues don’t prioritise anyone, everyone needs to queue. There is a special queue for delegates (meaning conference delegates, press and staff), but it doesn’t guarantee you entry. I even had to act as an interpreter for a band from the US who had been told to come to their venue to pick up their passes, but then were sent away by security staff as they had no badge to prove their status. I managed to get them in anyway after explaining their situation in German. Phew. So basically just turn up early if you’d like to see a particular band. For Liam Gallagher’s special appearance at Docks on Saturday night, I arrived two hours earlier and it was no problem. The other alternative is to be really patient and very friendly to the bouncers, as often people leave after each band and they play it by ear how many are still allowed in. It was defo worth it for Beth Ditto at Große Freiheit 36 (see pic below).
Make a Game Plan – or Just go with the Flow
I’m a bit of a festival nerd, so I love festival schedules! I really enjoy working out how to see my favourite bands and events, but I also often change my mind after getting recommendations from other festival goers, promoters and band managers. What lots of people love about Reeperbahn Festival is that it’s a club festival and you don’t have to book individual concerts. You can simply walk into any of the participating venues with your wristband and sample exciting bands from all over the world. As I didn’t know a lot of the bands, my strategy was basically seeing as many different venues as possible, especially the smaller ones and to catch bands from places or countries I like, e.g. a Swedish showcase at Headcrash including Smith & Thell from Stockholm as well as Maybe Canada (a solo project by Magnus Hansson from Gothenburg). I also enjoyed being in the audience of a live radio show for NDR Blue at Alte Liebe, which included some shorter sets by three musicians as well as live band interviews. If you have a fairly broad musical taste, this is the perfect festival for you, but even for those of you, like me, who are into more acoustic music, there were plenty of gigs to choose from.
Other Tips Before You Go
There is a bag size restriction for all venues, which is roughly A4 size and yes, they will turn you away if your backpack looks a little bigger than this, so either leave larger bags in your hotel or at the nearby (6 stops) main train station (Hauptbahnhof) where you can rent a small locker for only €4 euros for 24 hours. The underground runs all night at the weekend (from Thursday onwards), so you can rest assured you’re going to get home without any problems. Also, talking of personal safety, please be aware that most of the concerts take place right in the actual red light district, but while it certainly is very crowded there in the evenings, I walked around late at night without any problems just like the thousands of other festival goers. I highly recommend booking accommodation along the U3 route (I stayed at Superbude St. Georg, a short walk from Berliner Tor), in fact I used this line for most of my sightseeing, too, it’s just perfect to get to most of the venues and also the hip Schanzenviertel for a brunch or a stroll through the many great shops. Finally, Hamburg’s airport is within the AB zone, which means you only pay about 3 euros for a single ticket and it only takes 25 minutes on the S1 to get to the Hauptbahnhof. Perfect!
A Taste of the Reeperbahn Festival and Hamburg in London – Hamburg on Tour 20-21 October 2017
I know, unfortunately it’s another 12 months until the next Reeperbahn Festival, but don’t despair, Hamburg on Tour is coming to London in October and best of all: it’s free! Yep, free music with bands from Hamburg’s most awesome festivals, such as RBF, MS Dockville, Elbjazz, Hurricane, Hanse Song and Wacken, free films courtesy of Internationales Kurzfilmfestival, a free Beatles ‘tour’ with Hamburg musician Stefanie Hempel, free coffee workshops with Speicherstadt Kaffee and a free 360 degree experience of the brand new Elbphilarmonie concert hall. Plus you get to taste some German beer and find out all about Germany’s second largest city. See you there!
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 with the exception of the last photo, courtesy of Hamburg on Tour.