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Why go now?
The capital of Lower Saxony becomes easier to reach from this week, with Hanover returning to the British Airways network – placing a fascinating yet neglected city on the short-break map. The Christmas market season begins later this month (26 November to 22 December), adding frivolity at half a dozen locations around the city centre.
BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies three times daily from Heathrow to Hanover airport, 10km north of the centre. S-Bahn trains run every half-hour to the central station, the Hauptbahnhof (1). You need a two-zone ticket (€3) for the 20-minute journey. A taxi to the centre takes about 15 minutes and costs €20.
Get your bearings
A combination of regal indulgence and 80 Allied bombing raids have combined to make Hanover's layout unlike that of most cities. The Hanoverians' home town has been blessed with swathes of green, most notably a German riposte to Versailles: the Herrenhausen Gardens.
The heart of the city, largely destroyed during the Second World War, has been painstakingly restored in parts and replaced by ungainly modern blocks elsewhere. At the north of the Mitte area is the Hauptbahnhof (1). The tourist office (2) is opposite the main entrance, at Ernst-August-Platz 8 (00 49 511 12345 111; hannover.de). It opens 9am-6pm from Monday to Friday, 10am-3pm on Saturdays, closed on Sundays in winter.
A short way south is the historic crossroads at the city centre known as Kröpcke (3); the grand boulevard of Georgstrasse runs south-east from here. To the south, the Neues Rathaus (4), "new city hall", is another imperial flourish, at the northern end of the lake known as Maschsee.
Public transport is excellent, with trams disappearing below ground in the city centre and hence the network is described as the U-Bahn; it is augmented by the S‑Bahn and buses. A single ride costs €2.30; an all-day ticket is worth buying even if you plan just two trips. It costs €4.50, with a joint version for up to five people at €8.70.
Hanover is a great weekend city: a proliferation of trade fairs and corporate HQs attract business visitors during the week, leaving thousands of empty hotel rooms on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Rates can be very attractive, and include a bumper breakfast.
The Loccumer Hof (5) at Kurt Schumacher Strasse 14 (00 49 511 12 640; loccumerhof.com) offers the optimum combination of location, comfort and chic. This post-war block close to the main station has just reopened as a boutique hotel, with a fabulous lobby and individually styled rooms from Japanese to four-poster. Doubles start at €80, with breakfast.
Slightly less accessible – take tram 3, 7 or 9 to Pelikanstrasse – is the old Pelikan pen factory. The front portion of this handsome redbrick property is now the Sheraton Hannover Pelikan Hotel (6) at Pelikanplatz 31 (00 49 511 9093 555; bit.ly/PenSleep). Doubles start at €99, including breakfast.
In the same complex, but further from the tram stop at Pelikanstrasse 11, you could sign in to the industrial-styled Gasteresidenz Pelikanviertel (6) (00 49 511 3999 444; bit.ly/PenFriend). Doubles start at €69, B&B.
Take a hike
The "Red Thread" is a 4.2km track marked on the pavement around the city ( roterfaden-hannover.de). The first part provides an excellent introduction to the present and past city. It starts at the tourist office (2), where you can buy a €3 English-language guide. The trail embarks along one of the most upmarket shopping streets, Luisenstrasse, which takes you to the Opera House (7).
Beyond the banks that line Georgstrasse, bear right along Georgswall and right again on Breiterstrasse to the ruins of the Aegidienkirche (8). This 14th-century church has been left as it was after the Second World War as a memorial to victims of violence. Startling modern panels hang in place of shattered stained-glass windows.
Lunch on the run
Abandon the Red Thread and walk a block west to the charmless 1950s exterior of the Markthalle (9). Never mind the architecture: it is full of delicious lunch options, from hearty north German fare to dainty Asian. Find space at a counter to refuel for about €5.
Take a view
The bulky, echoing Rathaus (4), completed in 1913, offers three distinct experiences (11am-4pm daily; 00 49 511 168 45333). At ground level, view four phases in Hanover's development: 1689, 1939, 1945 (when 90 per cent of the centre was flattened) and today. If the lift is running, pay €3 at the counter to ride at an average of 17 degrees to the vertical. Then climb to the cupola to survey the scarred but impressive city, the Maschsee to the south and the north German plain.
Three more views in the vicinity are worth checking. Just west past the Kestner Museum (10) look for the portico over the entrance to the Public Works Department, decorated by the familiar British coat of arms, complete with lion and unicorn. Three centuries ago, the House of Hanover was invited to take the British throne.
Further along Friedrichswall, admire the mansions on the north of the street, notably the Wangenheim Palace (11) where the blind King George V of Hanover (aka the Duke of Cumberland) lived for 10 years.
Each Saturday (9am-3pm), one of Europe's oldest flea markets takes place on Leibnizufer (12), on the left bank of the river Leine. Sprouting amid the stalls are three buxom figures, the "Nana" sculptures, part of a controversial programme of street art.
In a city with a noble tradition of brewing, the oldest pub is the Broyhan Haus (13) at Krammerstrasse 24 (00 49 511 32 39 19; broyhanhaus.de). For a better selection of beer aim for Brauhaus Ernst August (14) – a modern microbrewery at Schmiedestrasse 13 (00 49 511 365 950; brauhaus.net). A two-litre flagon of home brew costs €16.90.
Dining with the locals
Brauhaus Ernst August (14) also offers excellent food at good prices, such as meatloaf for €7.50.
Sunday morning: go to church
Marktkirche (15) is an ancient church celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. The 14th-century original was destroyed in the war and faithfully rebuilt in 1952, complete with its amusingly diminutive spire. The church marks one corner of the old town, the Altstadt. Among the restored buildings are the old city hall, the Altes Rathaus (16), and the half-timbered terraces along Burgstrasse. The austere Kreuzkirche (17) is close to the loveliest location in central Hanover: the leafy Ballhofplatz (18).
Out to brunch
Loretta's (19) at Culemannstrasse 14 (00 49 511 590 5780) offers a brunch feast at weekends, 10am-3pm. Loretta's Auszeit, price €19.50 for two, starts with a glass of Sekt and continues with smoked salmon, ham and mozzarella.
Take a ride
Sit on the right for the best view on tram 4 or 5 north-east from the centre. The mansions along Nienburger Strasse, and the elegant heart of the university, reveal why Hanover was once said to be "schönste Stadt der Welt" – the most beautiful city in the world.
A walk in the park
Alight from the tram at the Herrenhäuser Gärten (20) stop. As it was 300 years ago, Herrenhäusen (00 49 511 168 47576; herrenhaeuser-gaerten.de; €3.50) is one of the finest gardens in Europe .
On the south side of the road, the finishing touches are being made to the reconstructed Herrenhäusen palace. It is being rebuilt as a conference centre, but its exterior will reveal what Electress Sophie had in mind when she began work on the project in 1691 – in conjunction with the mathematician Leibniz. The geometric perfection of the Great Garden (Grosser Garten) softens into the more English landscapes of the adjacent George Garden (Georgengarten), where a monument to Leibniz (21) is dedicated.
Hanover has some excellent museums, starting in the George Garden with the Deutsches Museum für Karikatur und Zeichenkunst (22) (00 49 511 16 99 99 11; karikatur-museum.de; €4.50). It is dedicated to Wilhelm Busch, creator of the cartoon strip.
Back in the city centre – accessible by any tram to Aegidientorplatz (23) – the Landes museum (24) is a provincial gallery with some creditable Impressionist works (00 49 511 9807 686; landesmuseum-hannover.de; €8). A few metres south, the Sprengelmuseum (25) is a jumble of galleries with some acclaimed modern art (00 49 511 168 43875; sprengel-museum.de; €7).