Café society on Hamburg's waterfront

This cosmopolitan city attracts everyone from millionaires to students. Nerys Lloyd-Pierce finds out why

Hamburg has a freewheeling, up-beat atmosphere. Although it's a very affluent city (more millionaires live there than in any other city in Germany), it is also very liberal, with a large student population and a thriving gay and lesbian scene. Its status as a free port has made it cosmopolitan, and that is reflected in the cuisine on offer. Hamburgers know how to enjoy themselves and the city is particularly well-endowed with bars, cafés, restaurants and clubs. It is also an exceptionally green city, dissected by three rivers and a grid of canals, and centred around the attractive Alster lake.

Hamburg has a freewheeling, up-beat atmosphere. Although it's a very affluent city (more millionaires live there than in any other city in Germany), it is also very liberal, with a large student population and a thriving gay and lesbian scene. Its status as a free port has made it cosmopolitan, and that is reflected in the cuisine on offer. Hamburgers know how to enjoy themselves and the city is particularly well-endowed with bars, cafés, restaurants and clubs. It is also an exceptionally green city, dissected by three rivers and a grid of canals, and centred around the attractive Alster lake.

As you can take refuge in Hamburg's countless congenial café-bars in poor weather, the timing of your visit isn't crucial. Other bad-weather options include some great art galleries and museums, and some chic shopping arcades. The Hamburg Dome Festival is the largest funfair extravaganza in Europe and runs until 27 August. Less sophisticated than most Hamburg attractions, it features a vast beer tent and oompah bands.

Getting thereLufthansa (tel: 0345 737 747) has four daily flights from Heathrow, from £121 return, and three daily flights (two on Sunday) from Stansted. A current special offer makes the Stansted trek worthwhile - from £52 return until the end of August. You can also fly direct from Manchester, at a price - £171 return. Alternatively, Buzz (tel: 0870 240 7070; www.buzzaway.com) has returns to Hamburg from Stansted from £75.

For those with time to spare, there's the Harwich-Hamburg car ferry run by Scandinavian Seaways (tel: 01255 241234) which takes 20 hours. An economy cabin (no en-suite facilities) costs £138 per person, and a cabin with en-suite bathroom costs £198 per person. It costs £108 to take the car.

Where to stayHotels in Hamburg tend to be pretty expensive. For understated luxury, there's the five-star Louis C Jacob (tel: 0049 40 82255540) overlooking the river Elba. The Impressionist Max Liebermann painted the hotel's lovely lime-tree terrace during his stay there, and the picture now hangs in Hamburg's Kunsthalle. The food at the hotel restaurant is sublime. A double with a river view costs £200 per night, a standard double £130-£150.

The central Hotel Kronprinz (tel: 0049 40 243258) is a good middle price-bracket option. A double in this attractive hotel costs about £90 including a breakfast buffet.

Good value for money can be found at the Schanzenstern (tel: 0049 40 4398441), a privately run youth hotel located in a building that was once the Mont Blanc pen factory. As well as singles (£20) and doubles (£40) there is dormitory accommodation (£12) and a five-bed option (£58). Breakfast in the adjoining café is extra.

What to see and doBoating in the summer or ice-skating in the winter, the Alster lakes are where Hamburg's outdoor social life is centred. Take to the waters of either Binnenalster, or the larger Aussenalster, in the height of summer and you will be vying for rowing space with some 9,000 other craft. Not surprisingly there are plenty of places that rent out sailing and rowing boats by the hour. The local tourist office has extensive listings and price guides. Nearest to the centre of the city, try the two hire facilities outside the Hotel Atlantic, on the south side of the lake, at An der Alster.

Hamburg is compact and easily explored on foot. However, for £3 (£6 for a group) you can buy a Hamburg Card which gives unlimited travel on public transport and offers free or discounted admission to many attractions.

The Kunsthalle houses an excellent art collection, ranging from the Old Masters through to Impressionism, Surrealism and 20th-century minimalism. The contemporary art is situated in a controversial new section. Compared to the graceful profile of the original gallery, the modern addition does look rather utilitarian, but boldly modern nonetheless.

A ride on a double-decker tourist bus provides a fine opportunity for ogling the grand houses around the lake as well as providing a useful overview of the city. The bus can be picked up at Hamburg's main railway station.

Michaeliskirche is a magnificent baroque affair, designed with such exuberance that it looks more like a concert hall than a church. A few minutes' walk away are the Krameramtswohnungen, tiny half-timbered houses with strange twisted chimneys that are the last 17th-century buildings in Hamburg (the city suffered huge damage during the Great Fire of 1842, and the bombs dropped during the Second World War didn't help either).

The port of Hamburg is still one of the largest in Europe, visited by some 12,000 ships annually. A harbour tour takes you close to the awesome container ships which off-load their wares here. An English-language tour leaves from Pier 1 at 11.15am daily from March to November.

The idiosyncratic fischmarkt sells much more than just seafood, and all to the accompaniment of live music. It has been said that the fischmarkt defines the life and spirit of the city. Because it starts at 5am, many people head straight there from nightclubs and bars. The chronically insomniac can then round off the night with a cocktail at nearby Christiansen's.

Food and drinkThe food in Hamburg is excellent. A vast range of good places to eat can be found at both ends of the financial spectrum. Restaurant Nil on Neuer Pferdemarkt (tel: 0049 40 433371) is a stylish little place with a good atmosphere. Meals are imaginative and beautifully presented. A three-course dinner with a decent bottle of wine, pre-dinner drinks and coffee costs around £30 per head.

At the Lilienthal on Kaiser Wilhelm Strasse (tel: 0049 40 352993), the menu was charmingly translated by the waiter, who informed us that we could have "small cows" (veal) followed by "long apples" (pears). The veal was delicious - thin fillets rolled around Parma ham and apricots. It was excellent value at £25 for three courses, wine and coffee.

For exquisite food, the Michelin-rated Louis C Jacob (see Where To Stay) on Elbechaussee (tel: 0049 40 82255540) is a must. It's worth flying out to Hamburg for their truffle soup alone. It isn't cheap: a three-course meal starts at around £30 per head without drinks, but it's well worth it.

Hearty, old-fashioned Hamburg cuisine is served at The Old Commercial Room (tel: 0049 40 366319) opposite St Michael's Church. Just don't expect too much from the ambience or the service. Their speciality is Labskaus, a pulverised meat concoction topped with a fried egg, which has been sampled by the likes of Jon Bon Jovi and Nana Mouskouri. A four-course set meal with a couple of glasses of wine comes to £20 per head.

NightlifeHamburg is a 24-hour city and the only problem is having sufficient stamina to make the most of it without wiping out the following day. The most famous entertainment area is St Pauli of which the notorious Reeperbahn forms the main artery. It was here that The Beatles launched their international career.

At the weekend, the area heaves with fun-seekers checking out the bars, discos, nightclubs, and live sex shows. Hot spots include Angie's, a club owned by a larger-than-life transsexual, and Grosse Freiheit 36, a hip place for live music. The JazzSoul Club at Café Fees (tel: 317 47 66) inside the Hamburg History Museum, is a café-bar and restaurant with good live music in a huge glass-domed space adjacent to it.

Out of townTravelling on one of the new high- speed trains, Expo 2000-host Hanover is just 90 minutes away. There are also numerous beach resorts on the Baltic Sea, between Lübeck and Travemünde, which are about an hour from Hamburg.

Deals and packagesThe German Travel Bureau (tel: 020- 7290 1111) offers two-night breaks to Hamburg from £199 per person including hotel with breakfast and return flights. Buzz (tel: 0870 240 7070; www.buzzaway.com) offers a 10 per cent reduction on certain hotels when you book a flight.

Further informationIn Hamburg, contact the Tourist Office (tel: 0049 40 30051111; e-mail: info@hamburg-tourism.de; net: www.hamburg-tourism.de).

The German National Tourist Office, 65 Curzon Street, London W1 (tel: 020-7317 0908; e-mail gntolon@d-z-t.com) is very helpful.

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