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How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Hamburg

This is part two of a two-part series on Germany. Click here to read about Berlin.

Hamburg by Day

The city where The Beatles hit the big time, and the fabled home of the hamburger.

That, in a nutshell, is what comes to the minds of a depressing number of Americans when they're confronted with the name of Germany's second-largest city and one of the world's most historically significant ports.

(One theory has it that the predecessor of the modern hamburger originated with the Mongols before Russians traders took it to Hamburg, which gave it its name and introduced it to the rest of the Western world.)

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But though Deutschland's Second City lacks the densely packed museum and historical areas that Berlin boasts, a visit here will likely leave visitors with a better insight into modern Germany — and an addiction to currywurst.

If you had any doubt about it, inland Hamburg is all about the sea. The port takes up about 12 percent of the area of the city, and at the boardwalk on the Elbe River, you'll see German tourists waiting to take one of the many hour-long ferry tours of Hamburghafen.

Cruises run about 8 to 10 euros (about $10-$13), and if you go on a Sunday, you can catch a boat after watching the early morning fish market. Hamburgers consider the Sunday Fischmarkt to be a scene everyone who comes to the city has to see at least once in his or her lifetime.

You'll get a similar, but bird's-eye view from the top of baroque Michaeliskirche (St. Michael's Cathedral), which looks down upon the quaint port neighborhood from atop a hill, on Englische Planke.

Shopaholics will prefer stately Altstadt (Old City), with large squares, pedestrian boulevards of both affordable chains and Old-World boutiques (look in particular for the store Maps & Ducks at Neuer Wall 15, which sells, for some reason, only antique maps and wooden ducks), all crisscrossed by the city's ubiquitous canals — Hamburg has more of them than Venice does.

The city Rathaus (town hall) and Germany's oldest stock exchange are all in this district. Taking the street called Boersenbruecke will take you to the Trostbruecke, an ancient bridge linking the old and new cities.

Just around the bend from the bridge is St. Nikolai church, entirely gutted during World War II and now remade into a monument against wars.

Sit down on the dais where the priest would have presided and look up at the steeple. See that man in the glass cube halfway up the steeple? He's actually playing the church bells via an organ-like contraption — musical performances are regular and haunting.

Going north from Altstadt, you'll walk on the shore of Lake Binnenalster, rimmed with picturesque boat restaurants and families of ducks, geese and swans.

In the middle of the lower half of the Binnenalster is a gigantic, geyser-like fountain that on windy days can be more of a participatory experience than the designers probably intended. Walk on the far side of the street away from the water, or you'll be drenched.

Hamburgers wanting a small-town feel in the midst of the big city go to the once separate, once Danish city of Altona, now a neighborhood not too far from the city center.

It's got a more Bohemian feel to it than other portions of the commerce-driven city, and it's worth taking an entire afternoon to explore its nooks and crannies and uncovering a converted propeller factory, the alternative film house and countless cafes, bars and shops.

There's one Hamburg peculiarity to keep in mind when walking around the city. Though it's the odd Hamburg pedestrian who will unhesitatingly cross the street on a red light, Hamburg drivers have a disconcerting habit of plowing over curbs and sidewalks to overcome inconvenient dead-ends and traffic layouts. Keep an eye out.

Hamburg by Night

Even for locals, Hamburg's nightlife begins and ends in St. Pauli, Germany's most famous red-light district.

It's around the nearly kilometer-long strip called the Reeperbahn that a gawky Liverpudlian foursome shot to fame and arguably invented the genre of pop music.

The Reeperbahn may also be the most unfortunately named artery for a red-light district anywhere in the world (the double 'e' is pronounced like the long 'a' in 'say'), though any German speakers will note that the it's a mere coincidence.

The Reeperbahn is also known as The Sinful Mile. There's the usual conglomeration of sleazy sex shops, strip clubs, prostitutes, pimps, brothels and bars, alongside legitimate, if low-brow theaters ("Mamma Mia" is playing here), cabarets, clubs and plenty of places to see live popular music, if mainly to keep the tradition of the Beatles alive.

They're all overlooked by a central, impossibly proper-looking police station at the corner of Davidstrasse, whose officers are numerous and meticulous about keeping the barkeeps honest, protecting both tourists and prostitutes and keeping the pimps within the bounds of propriety (keep in mind that prostitution is legal).

And the cops do a great job, making St. Pauli an extraordinarily safe place that Hamburgers consider the center of city entertainment. It's not unusual to see entire families walking here, carrying their groceries back from the market on a Sunday morning.

A nightlife excursion for a local might include a game of Kickern (foosball) at a bar where a German singer is belting out an approximation of an American rock song, along with plenty of good German beer and a currywurst before heading back home.

Currywurst, of course, is worth its own mention. Punch-drunk Americans fresh off the plane will find some amusement in the fact that the most popular fast-food item in Hamburg isn't its namesake ground-beef sandwich, but the currywurst — a greasy grilled sausage doused with sweet and tangy ketchup, sprinkled with curry powder and served with a roll.

Germans don't find the Hamburger-hamburger thing amusing. In fact, you won't even find hamburgers on most menus — the closest thing will usually be something called a boulette, kind of a plump lovechild between an American-style burger and a Jimmy Dean breakfast sausage.

Berlin may be considered the best place to get currywurst in Germany, by a slight and controversial margin, but in Hamburg, the beloved fast-food stand Lucullus, just by the Reeperbahn police station, is the currywurst king. A currywurst without french fries will run you 2.70 euros (about $3.50), and you'll have to eat at one of a few circular counter/garbage cans, but it's worth more than one visit.

The Beatles' most famous early venue, the Star Club, burned down long ago, but taking a look at the kind of live music St. Pauli still books, it's clear that Hamburg hasn't quite gotten past the idea of being the place where John, Paul, George and Ringo got their start.

If you're sick of bumping elbows with potential johns from Frankfurt and listening to the wailing of John Mellencamp wannabes, head to La Paloma (Friedrichstrasse 11), a postage-stamp-sized bar packed to the rafters on weekend nights with locals bouncing up and down and singing to German folk tunes.

You can walk a block down the street to Harry's Hamburger Hafenbasar (Bernard-Nocht-Strasse 89-91), where obsessive tchochke collecting takes on a whole new meaning.

The eponymous Harry crammed this house full of bizarre trinkets that seamen brought him from all over the globe, and after viewing the first few thousand oddities (mermaid figureheads, stuffed birds, shaman masks, Zulu shields, etc.), you begin to imagine there might actually be an actual method to the way all the contained chaos is organized.

The 2 euro (about $2.50) admission gives you access to the first floor and the basement, and is refunded if you buy 5 or more euros worth of souvenirs. Try not to bring anything that might catch on a jutting tiki statue and cause you to be crushed under an avalanche of knickknacks.

Of course, there's more to life than good beer and bad rock 'n' roll, and sometimes locals will forgo the Reeperbahn for a quiet barbecue or picnic on the shores of Lake Alster.

There are areas dedicated to these more bucolic pursuits west of thoroughfare An der Alster in the St. George neighborhood, a yuppie-ish, sporadically seedy area north of the main train station.

If your picnic is rained out, you can instead opt for Anleger ("The Dock"), a onetime ammunition dump-turned-restaurant/bar right on a canal (Hartwicusstrasse 7). It has an outdoor patio, but the candlelit restaurant itself is under the bridge, a warm cellar with friendly service.

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