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Why go now?
Hamburg is a diverse, welcoming and intriguing city whose vitality moves out to its squares, parks and lakesides as the day lengthens. Next weekend Germany's second-largest city (after Berlin) hosts Hafengeburtstag – a celebration of a maritime heritage dating from 1189, claiming to be "the world's greatest port festival" (bit.ly/HamFest; from 11 to 13 May).
The soaring architecture and quiet efficiency of Fuhlsbuttel airport, 9km north of the city centre, makes it one of Europe's finest. You can fly on easyJet (from Gatwick, Luton and Manchester), on Lufthansa (from Birmingham, Heathrow and Manchester), from Birmingham with Flybe and from Heathrow with BA.
The suburban rail link (S-Bahn line 1) runs from the airport every 10 minutes for a fare of €2.85, which covers travel to anywhere in the city. It takes 25 minutes to reach Hamburg's vast main station, the Hauptbahnhof (1). Alternatively, buy a "9am day ticket" for €5.60 which you can use on all trains, U-Bahn, buses and ferries after the morning rush hour, or its €9.90 version which is valid for up to five people.
Get your bearings
Hamburg is the EU's largest non-capital city, yet it is easy get around. The egg-shaped centre is squeezed between the main rail lines to the east, the Alster lake to the north-east, the gardens that follow the line of the old city walls to the north and west, and the broad River Elbe to the south. The southern part of the city comprises the old docks, magnificently reborn as HafenCity.
St Georg, to the east beyond the Haupt-bahnhof (1), has made the grade from seedy to bohemian; St Pauli, centred on the red-light thoroughfare Reeperbahn, has not.
The place in which to celebrate the city's status as the nation's gateway to the world is the Hotel Hafen Hamburg (2) at Seewartenstrasse 9 (00 49 40 311 130; hotel-hamburg.de). It was built in 1864 as a seafarers' hostel, but has been deftly converted into a comfortable 21st-century venue with Hanseatic flourishes – and views across the Elbe. Double rooms are available for as little as €99 excluding breakfast, though €160 is more usual; the breakfast buffet costs €18 per person.
The second maritime option is the 103-year old Kempinski Atlantic (3), overlooking the lake at An der Alster 72-79 (00 49 40 28 88 817; kempinski.atlantic.de). It was originally a staging post for US-bound passengers on the Hamburg America Line. A large, stylish double (without breakfast) costs €186 if you opt for the "early booking rate" and pay in advance.
The latest hostel in the excellent pan-European Generator (4) chain is two minutes' walk from the south-east entrance of Haupthbahnhof at Steintorplatz 3 (00 49 40 226 358 460; generatorhostels.com). The building reputedly used to house a studio where The Beatles once played. A small but comfortable double costs €75, with breakfast an extra €4.50 per person.
Take a hike
This walk takes you from east to west through the Docks. Start on the "mainland", at the Chilehaus (5), a rippling brick structure that resembles a maritime mirage. Cross the Oberbaumbrücke and turn immediately right. You will soon find yourself at Dialog im Dunkeln (6) at Alter Wandrahm 4 (00 49 40 309 634 100; dialog-im-dunkeln .de), a creation devoted to explaining the world of blindness to sighted people. Book ahead to join an enlightening tour with a blind guide.
Emerge blinking among handsome redbrick warehouses adjoining canals. A remarkable number of them are occupied by importers of oriental carpets. Go left and left again to the architectural curiosity known as the Wasserschlösschen (7), or "Water Castle", which is now a café.
Aim east, passing five bridges, then go left to the Kesselhaus InfoCenter (8), a former power station where you can find out more about the Docklands developments. Continue east; look south to see if the Elbphilharmonie (9) is anywhere near finished. When this new auditorium finally opens, it will be one of Europe's finest. Cross the Zollkanal by the Niederbaumbrücke and bear right with the water on your right until you find Deichstrasse (10).
Lunch on the run
Deichstrasse has three or four good places to eat. The most unusual is Kolonialwaren (10) at number 45 (00 49 40 37 12 53). Full of old merchandise and black-and-white photos of the docks, it is so retro you expect to pay in Deutschmarks. For Matjes (salted) or Bismarck (pickled) herring, with a tea, coffee or beer, you will pay less than €10.
Hamburg's main shopping street is Mönckebergstrasse – broad, pedestrianised and pleasingly unpredictable, with some grand architecture.
Hamburg has a huge, world-class art museum. The Kunsthalle (11) at Glockengiesserwall (00 49 40 428 131 300; hamburger-kunsthalle.de) occupies a tranche of land north-west of the main station. The collection includes medieval and modern masters, from Lucas Cranach to Picasso, Kandinsky and Klee. It opens 10am-6pm daily except Monday, Thursdays to 9pm, admission €12.
The Beatles cut their teeth in Hamburg, but following their trail is frustrating because much has changed in the St Pauli area since the Sixties. Instead, aim for an English pub called Kemps (12) at Mittelweg 27 (00 49 40 444 512; gibbos.de; open 6pm to 11.30pm daily except Sunday); bus 109 stops outside. Its walls are decorated with the photographs that created The Beatles look, including images of Stuart Sutcliffe, the original bass player who died in Hamburg in 1962. The photographer, Astrid Kirchherr, became his fiancée; she occasionally works here as a waitress.
Alternatively, wander north-east from the Kunsthalle into the St Georg area – and along its main street, Lange Reihe. This is full of interesting places to drink. The comfortably fading elegance of the gay-friendly Café Gnosa (13) at number 93 (00 49 40 243 034; gnosa.de) is a particular treat. You can also dine here on anything from pasta to steak, on a budget.
Dining with the locals
The Turnhalle (14) at Lange Reihe 107 (00 49 40 28 00 84 80; turnhalle.com) is a marvellous conversion of an 1899 gymnasium into a 21st-century restaurant, with a fine sense of space, excellent wine and dishes that range from pizza to modern German takes on seafood such as rare tuna (€24).
Sunday morning: go to church
Stepping into the Michaeliskirche (15) is like walking into a wedding cake – the galleries wrap around you. This flamboyant Protestant church is a great survivor: it fell victim to fire in 1758 and 1906, and was bombed in the Second World War. It opens 9am-8pm from May to October. You can also pay €4 to climb to the top of the tower (00 49 40 376 780; st-michaelis.de).
Out to brunch
Close to the church is one of Hamburg's few surviving medieval streets: Krayenkamp (16), an alley that began life as an 18th-century almshouse and is now full of cafés and restaurants.
For a rawer edge, aim for the nearby Fischmarkt (17) in St Pauli which comes alive from around 5am on Sundays as its brick floors fill with raucous and voracious drinkers. Until around 10 or 11am there are plenty of herring and wurst on sale to soak up the beer. This was a also a haunt of the soon-to-be-Fab Four or Five back in the Sixties.
Take a ride
A bewildering array of river and harbour cruises set sail from Landungsbrücken (18), but the cheapest and most practical option is to board a number 62 ferry (00 49 40 311 7070; hadag.de) from here, departing every 15 minutes daily. It is part of the local public transport network and covered by the Hamburg Card – if you don't have one, buy a ticket from the machine on board. It takes just 11 minutes to the pretty village of Ovelgönne, or stay on to Finkenwerder at the end of the line – for the Airbus factory.
A walk in the park
Start at the terrace of the Hotel Hafen (2), and wander north through the swathe of green that stretches three kilometres north along the western edge of the city centre. You pass an imposing statue of Bismarck (19), a cache of hippies huddled beneath a bridge, and the grand courthouse of the Justizgebäude (20) en route to the Botanical Gardens (21) – or Planten un Blomen (00 49 428 232 125; plantenunblomen.hamburg.de). While not quite the scale of Kew, it is central, free and open 7am-11pm daily.
Icing on the cake
For al fresco drinking, the shore of the Alster is dotted with venues – notably Kajüte (22) at An der Alster 10a (00 49 40 24 30 37; kajuete.de), the ideal place to appreciate the sunset before you head for the airport.