John Lennon once described Liverpool as his home, but the German city of Hamburg as the place where he and the Beatles grew up. The Fab Four - who actually numbered five at the time - travelled to Hamburg in 1960 and practised their trade playing in some of the city's louchest nightspots in the Reeperbahn red-light district. Last month a new museum, Beatlemania, opened and, almost 50 years later, Hamburg retains a buzzing party scene. With its lush parks, a network of criss-crossing waterways and a wealth of beautiful architecture and history, the city is also earning a reputation as a cultural hot spot. In the heart of Hamburg are the twin Inner and Outer Alster lakes. Their grassy shores are dotted with cherry trees and are a popular spot for locals and tourists to gather, unwind and watch the world go by. The city is at the confluence of the Elbe, Alster and Bille rivers and boat trips are available. With a population of about 1.7 million, it is Germany's second largest. Immigrants make up more than 15 per cent of its residents, giving it a cosmopolitan feel. Allied bombing in the Second World War destroyed swathes of Hamburg's residential and industrial buildings and evidence of this destruction remains. One of the most spectacular is the St Nikolai church, the third largest in Germany. Only the towering outer walls survive of this once magnificent building, which has been turned into a memorial with photos showing the destruction wrought on the city. Hamburg earned its reputation and wealth as a maritime trading hub and, as with many port cities across the world, it has a sordid side, the Reeperbahn, which is home to such bars as the Grosse Freiheit 36, where the Beatles once played, as well as some of the city's most vibrant and trendy nightspots.
Visitors can get their bearings on one of the scores of sightseeing bus tours. Commentaries are in English and German and visitors can hop on and off at sites such as the historic town hall and the baroque St Michaeliskirche, which was built in the mid-18th century. An 82m-high viewing platform there offers spectacular views stretching from downtown to the port district. You can explore the city's seafaring past at the International Maritime Museum near Messberg underground station in the port district. The 11-storey building is home to an array of exhibits covering all things nautical, from the origins of sea navigation to the latest techniques of boat building and even naval art. For a comprehensive insight into the city's artistic past, there is the Kunsthalle art gallery, boasting more than 7,000 paintings 300 sculptures and 150,000 drawings. In 1678, Hamburg became the first city in Germany to open a public opera house. More than 300 years later, that musical tradition continues at the Staatsoper, which offers a variety of orchestral and operatic performances throughout the year. The city's musical credentials will be bolstered with the Philharmonic Hall, which will include three concert halls, a hotel and conference facilities. Designers hope the towering complex, will become an architectural landmark in Hamburg when it is completed in 2011. Hamburg is the country's largest port and the picturesque sweep of seven-storey, red brick warehouses along the Speicherstadt archipelago is one of the city's most recognisable images. Nestled among these warehouses is the Miniatur Wunderland, the world's largest network of model railways and roads. The huge display is a snapshot of modern life, with features such as a tiny rock concert complete with 10,000 screaming fans, a football stadium, alpine retreat and even a miniature Las Vegas. Its astonishing detail has drawn more than a million visitors a year since it opened in 2001.
Budget Less than five minutes walk from Hamburg's central train station in the heart of the city, the Hotel Annenhof is an excellent base from which to explore the city. Rooms are basic but comfortable and some offer views of the city's bustling shopping district. Not all rooms have ensuite, but there is a bathroom on each floor. Staff are happy to provide restaurant recommendations for travellers of all budgets. Prices start from US$98 (Dh360) for a basic double room and $56 (Dh205) for a single. The Hotel Annenhof, Lange Reihe 23 (www.hotelannenhof.de; 0049 40 243426). Mid-range The recently remodelled Grand Elysee hotel offers well furnished, comfortable rooms only a few minutes taxi ride from the city centre. Within sight of the Dammtor metro station, the hotel has 520 rooms and suites, three restaurants and wonderful spa and health facilities. Standard room rates start at $200 (Dh735) per night and represent excellent value for money. Grand Elysee, Rothenbaumchausee 10 (www.elysee.de; 0049 40 41412). Luxury On the banks of the Inner Alster lake, the Fairmont Vier Jahreszeiten is one of Hamburg's oldest and most luxurious hotels. With its classic styling, oak-panelled walls and tapestries, it has proved a popular choice with Gulf royalty. The late actor and director Peter Ustinov stayed so often that a suite is named after him. The hotel boasts a comprehensive wine cellar and three restaurants, including a superb Far-Eastern menu at the Doc Cheng eatery. There are 156 guest rooms and suites, some offering beautiful views over the Alster. Rates start from $320 (Dh1,180) per night for a double room. The Fairmont Vier Jahreszeiten, Neuer Jungfernsteig 9-14 (www.fairmont.com/hamburg; 0049 40 34940).
Breakfast What better way to start the day than with a croissant and a cup of coffee looking over the Inner Alster lake? There are a host of cafes dotted around this picturesque waterway but the Cafe Wien stands out because it is actually built on a boat. Here you can enjoy a bite to eat and watch the swans swim by. Lunch Those with a sense of culinary adventure can try some of Hamburg's traditional dishes including aalsuppe - eel soup mixed with a spices, dried fruit, ham and vegetables. For the truly fearless gourmand there is also labskaus, a combination of ground boiled beef and mashed potatoes, served with herring and topped off with a fried egg. Dinner The gourmet Calla offers exquisite contemporary cuisine carefully prepared by the celebrated chef Michael Winkle. The restaurant, in the Steigenberger Hotel near the town hall has a stylish minimalist decor. Food is pricey but delicious and the cream of pea and mint soup with scallops and Tobikko caviar for $17 (Dh62) is not to be missed.
A return flight with Emirates (www.emirates.com) which flies daily from Dubai direct to Hamburg costs from $790 (Dh2,900) including taxes.
If you really want to get into the spirit of Beatlemania, Jurgen Vollmer's book, The Beatles in Hamburg, has a fascinating series of photographs taken of the band while performing in the city in 1961.