A cosmopolitan hub, home to the largest port in Germany, and with the second largest population after Berlin, Hamburg is sprawling, reaching from its famous shipping centre on the Elbe river, to the Alster lake which much of the city centre wraps around, to numerous suburbs, all with something different to offer.
The city is full of canals, most of which can be navigated by boat, and neighbourhoods range from the lively and colourful St. Georg, to the bar and restaurant-filled Schanzenviertel, to the Altona, famous for its boutiques and shopping malls, but when in doubt in continental Europe, start in the old town - the Altstadt. We didn't have time to do the city justice (it would take months), but here's where we loved when we visited.
Mit Hertz & Zucker
Translating as "with heart and sugar", this super cute café (now with two locations) is famous for their homemade croissants. We were told to get there early as they only make a limited amount per day and when they're gone they're gone, and they were worth the alarm clock. A simpler affair than some of the monster creations we're used to here, they really show off the café's commitment to local dairy and grain sourcing, with the crispiest, butteriest pastry. Coffee is from Hamburg roastery Playground, and some of the homemade products from their menu are available to buy on your way out.
The breakfast menu features dishes like pancakes with apple-cinnamon compote, vanilla quark, almonds, speculoos crunch and fruit; and scrambled eggs with tomato pesto, spring onions, honey-mustard sauce and bacon, as well as pastries and cakes piled high on the counter. They don't take reservations and there are often queues, so prepare to wait.
Marshall Street Coffee
The aesthetically-pleasing Marshall Street Coffee is another brunch hot spot, and somewhere else you might run into a queue. The owner grew up in Sydney, and has brought some of the Australian coffee and brunch culture to Hamburg's old town. Coffee is impeccable, and the menu is thoughtful and full of unique touches. We loved the salmon on sourdough with lemon and dill cream cheese, red onions and beetroot horseradish, and the 'Eggs Benny' with buttermilk waffles, spinach, smoked ham and sauce hollandaise, but everything looked tops.
Coffee & Cake
Down near the port, in a neighbourhood famous for Portugese food (the Portugese quarter), Milch (meaing milk) is too cool for school, with its long, bare room, save for some beautiful blue tiling and some disco balls hanging from the ceiling. They take milk-based drinks very seriously in here, and we had the best pumpkin spice latté in recent memory - everything homemade of course.
In one of the city's most bustling areas, the Schanzenviertel, you'll find one of their most famous cake shops - Herr Max. The bohemian café is filled with homemade cakes and pastries, and the sound of people catching up over cups of coffee. A great place to put your shopping bags down for an hour, or escape from minus temperatures in winter.
Somewhere else that should be on your hit list if you have a sweet tooth (and like the colour pink) is Zuckermonarchie in St Pauli - 'sugar monarchy'. There are three individually-themed rooms to choose from, a vast array of cakes and confections, and Afternoon Tea if you want to go all out.
Fischbrötchen (fish sandwiches) are a Hamburg specialty, and are served across the city, and all along the Elbe river down at the port. We were told Brücke 10 (bridge 10) had some of the best. We loved the simple white bread rolls stuffed with lightly smoked salmon, shrimps and pickled herring, and it makes for a great value lunch. When the sun shines it's a beautiful place to sit outside, but if it's too cold inside is toasty. Especially with a Glühwein in your other hand.
When in Germany, you need to get yourself some weiner schnitzel, curry wurst and a big slab of pork knuckle. That's when you head for Hofbräu Munchen. This massive beer hall (and brewery) is the stereotypical German experience, replete with steins of beer, German wine, and even a play area for kids.
It's the perfect place for groups, when you don't have a booking, and when you want laid back, typically German food with no fuss. The one at the Esplanade (where we went) has slightly better reviews than the other.
Altstädter Stube Willig
For a more rustic German experience, head for Altstädter Stube Willig, tucked away on a quiet square in the old town. It's tiny and you will need to book, but if you're organised you may be able to settle into a velvet and dark wood booth for some duck legs, potato dumplings and schnitzel, at bargain basement prices.
Restaurant Im Sprinkenhof
Around the corner, Restaurant Im Sprinkenhof is another busy spot that you should book in advance. A traditional Hamburg restaurant, with an almost Medieval feel, they serve dishes like herring with fried potatoes, hamburgers, and whole plaice with North Sea shrimp, with plenty of German beer options to wash it all down.
From the same owners as Sprinkenhoff and just down the road, Laufauf is a Hamburg institution famous for Labskaus - a traditional Hamburg dish of salted beef and potatoes, served with fried eggs, rollmops, pickles and beetroot salad. It might not look great, but it tastes it. Big portions, rustic food, and a cosy wood-panelled room.
Hamburg's Kurdish/Turkish kitchen Bona'me is a bit like a large food hall, where you settle in, then head for one of their ordering screens, select what you'd like from a large menu of manti (dumplings), pide (like Turkish pizza), beyti (wraps) and loads more, then take a buzzer and come back to the long open kitchen to collect your order once it's ready. There's a huge amount of choice, it's fast, and you shouldn't have a problem getting a table, so it's a good one to know about when you're in need of food fast.
Tipsy Baker Bar
For an important city in a country famed for its beer, searches for craft beer bars near Hamburg's old town will disappointingly bring up one Irish pub after another. That's when knowing about Tipsy Baker Bar comes in handy. The long, dark bar specialises in craft beer paired with spirits, like fruit beer with a side of vermouth, or New England IPA with pineapple rum. The helpful staff will be happy to make recommendations, and if you don't like beer they're known for their cocktails too.
The Christmas Markets
If you go to Germany in December, you're probably going for the Christmas markets, and you could easily spend a weekend just eating your way around them - although temperatures drop fast in the evening, so you might prefer to stay indoors once the sun goes down. In Hamburg the main market is in front of the Rathaus (town hall), but there are other offshoots (many of which are quieter) around the city - see more details here.
When it comes to must-eats, you've got to stick to the German specialities, and these are our favourites:
Roasted bratwurst in bread rolls with ketchup and mustard
Kartoffelpuffer - the most deliciously crispy, deep-fried potato pancakes. You can get them with a wide range of sauces but apple is the classic pairing
Flammkuchen - An Alsatian speciality (now part of France) of the thinnest, crispiest pizza-like base topped with crème fraîche, bacon lardons and onion
Raclette - needs no introduction. Pick your base (potatoes or a baguette) and your favourite meat and pickle toppings
Handbrot - Soft, doughy, warm rolls stuffed with cheese, mushrooms and ham, topped with sour cream and chives
Apple strudel - get it warm and gooey
Gingerbread hearts - if you haven't walked around Germany with a gingerbread heart around your neck have you even been?
Glühwein - red wine, white wine, with extra spirits, without, kirsch hot chocolate, La Mumba (hot chocolate with rum), the hot drinks are endless, and endlessly delicious. You'll need to leave a 'fand' (deposit) for the cup, but you'll get it back on return, but we recommend taking one home as a souvenir
For more information on Hamburg visit www.hamburg.com.