Sydney is not the only world city boasting a harbour-front opera house with aquatic riffs. Since 2017, a whimsical structure with a wave- or sail-like roofline atop a four-square red-brick base has adorned the revamped harbour district of the great trading city of Hamburg, on Germany’s western coast. The Elbphilharmonie, named after the Elbe River foreshore on which it stands, thrusts Hamburg to the fore of European music capitals.
Does Hamburg boast a symphony to rival the Berlin Philharmonic? Probably not. But then a night at the Elbphilharmonie, with its harbour views and on-trend organic performance space, is light, lyrical and fun in a most un-Germanic manner.
The city that Australian conductor Simone Young called home for the decade to 2015, when she led the Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra, has deep musical roots. The spires of the churches of saints James, Peter, Catherine and Mary and archangel Michael bear witness to its musical pedigree in the days when the church organ was king.
A new composers’ quarter in sleepy Peterstrasse – its heritage facades salvaged from wartime bombing raids that laid waste to most of the city – celebrates the city’s rich classical music heritage. Separate museums pay homage to Brahms, who was born in Hamburg, as well as composers Georg Philipp Telemann, CPE Bach and Mahler, all of whom worked in the city. Telemann once described Hamburg as a city where “music seems, as it were, to have its homeland”.
While these small house museums will doubtless attract classical music buffs, they all bathe in the reflected glow of the Herzog & de Meuron-designed Elbphilharmonie: a destination in its own right.
I spent a lingering summer night at Elphi, as she is known to locals, enjoying a pre-show meal and a beer at the Stortebeker bar, its windows open to a sun-warmed deck and the bustling, bristling harbour beyond.
“In Hamburg, we believe in our hearts that we are not so much German as Nordic,” a local acquaintance offered earlier that day. “We look north to Denmark, Sweden, Norway.” The program – Carl Nielsen’s Helios Overture, a chamber piece by Shostakovich, followed by Sibelius’s glowing fifth symphony – seemed to confirm his view of Hamburg as a German city with a Scandi soul.
So too did the Nordic-influenced bar menu. But the spirit of localism compelled me to order, instead, the city’s most famous dish: a fast-food staple that can also be zhuzhed up into haute cuisine.
“Ich bin ein Hamburger,” I told myself as I took my seat in the grand concert hall. The hall (pictured) is roughly circular, the seats splayed about asymmetrically like terraces in a vineyard, and the walls have something of the colour and texture of bleached coral. If you lose the musical thread – and who doesn’t from time to time – there’s a most diverting interior to admire.
That night, I joined the opera crowd on the harbour promenade as the sun arced gracefully to the west, splashing Elphi’s jolly steel-blue roof with a touch of white gold. The Helios Overture – a hymn to the sun – had been an apt choice.
From the sublime of a night at Elphi, I took myself, the next day, to the somewhat ridiculous Reeperbahn. The Beatles played here in the early ’60s before they became the mania-inducing Beatles, and a few of their haunts, such as the Indra Club, are still serving drinks, charging covers and hosting bands.
Out on the main street I bought a beer, eased back into a deckchair, and listened as a guy who looked and sounded a little like Owen Wilson sang a song about the day the music died. But not in Hamburg it didn’t. Long ago, this city beside the Elbe was recognised as a homeland for music – and it still is.
DINNER ON THE HARBOUR
For a bite to eat, pre- or post-concert drinks, Carls Brasserie is superbly placed opposite Elphi. The cooking is predominantly French in style, but the view is all Hamburg. carls-brasserie.de/en
…OR ON THE RIVER
The same company runs the five-star Hotel Louise C. Jacob, in a quiet nook of the Elbe surrounded by terraced gardens. The hotel is as dedicated to gastronomy as its harbourside sibling, but the style is more refined. The result: two Michelin stars. hotel-jacob.de/en
OYSTER BAR FOR THE AGES
Mutterland Cölln’s, established in 1760, seemingly owes little to gastronomic entrepreneurship and everything to tradition. It spruiks itself as Germany’s oldest oyster bar. After an entrée of oysters, try the labskaus – a traditional Hamburg dish of meat, pickled herrings and mashed potato often served in the sea ports of Germany’s north. coellns.de
It’s hard to find a more central location than the Hotel Reichshof. Recently renovated, with luxe art deco touches, it’s a few hundred metres from the main station and backs onto the hip St Georg district, considered to be Hamburg’s gay and lesbian neighbourhood. reichshof-hotel-hamburg.de
ESCAPING TO SEA
Closer to Elphi – in fact, flush on the harbour – is 25 Hours Hafencity Hamburg (pictured), a characterful modern hotel with a maritime vibe: rooms that feel like ships’ cabins, with rope ladders, logbooks and sea chests, and portraits of weathered sailors on the walls. 25hours-hotels.com/en/ hotels/hamburg/hafencity
WHEN BUNNINGS WON’T DO
A haven for design lovers, this Hamburg branch of the cult German design chain Manufactum stocks clothes, kitchenware, furniture and stationery – and everything in between – blending the artisanal and the industrial with the retro and the green. manufactum.de/manufactumhamburg