Germany's northern capital may not be as bejewelled as Munich or bristling with skyscrapers like Frankfurt, but it boasts Germany's highest concentration of millionaires, is elegantly laid out around lakes and rivers, and understands the concept of quality in everything it does. And with the completion in sight of a stunning new landmark building, the Elbphilharmonie, a spectacular waterfront arts centre in league with the Sydney Opera House, it is putting the finishing touches to a dockland revitalisation that matches London, Barcelona or Melbourne.
The good thing about Hamburg is it is like nowhere else, having always done its own thing, thanks to its Hanseatic history of independent trade. Its architecture is based on elaborate brickwork, not slabs of concrete and glass. Its location on the Elbe means it has Germany's largest port right at its heart; yet it also manages to have a river beach and a city-centre lakeland entirely given over to leisure. At first sight it might seem a trifle staid, but in reality it is understated, innovative and quietly fashionable.
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A comfortable bed
The grand waterfront hotel with history is the Hotel Atlantic Kempinskian enormous palace on the outer Alster lake and within walking distance of the main station. Part of the Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies was filmed here, and all manner of notables from Henry Kissinger to Andre Agassi have stayed. The hotel has had a facelift in recent years but it carefully maintains its traditional feel. Double rooms cost from €269 (Dh1,415) per night (www.kempinski.com; 00 49 40 28 880).
Hamburg is meant to be the most British of German cities, so it's not surprising to find a boutique hotel that emulates traditional British design. The George is located in the recreational St Georg district, not far from the Atlantic. It manages to infuse a new building with echoes of colonialism in its library and smoker's lounge, with the addition of a sophisticated rooftop spa. Double rooms cost from €139; (Dh731) per night (www.thegeorge-hotel.de; 00 49 40 28003).
Find your feet
Jungfernsteig, on the shores of the inner Alster lake, is effectively the centre of town. The Rathaus, or town hall, is just across the square to the south; the square often has some kind of fair or musical performance. The Jungfernsteig jetty is the starting point of very popular cruises around the Alster lakes and deeper into the canal system. Meanwhile, Hamburg's smartest shopping is found in the streets that run inland from the Jungfernsteig, along with elegant cafe life, particularly in the stylish Art Deco Café Paris in Rathausstrasse.
Downtown Hamburg is very walkable, and you could easily set off southwards down Neuer Wall all the way to the Elbe, but it is equally easy to jump on one of the most scenic U-bahn rides in Germany, the U3, which stops at the Rathaus on its way to a balcony-ride along the Elbe, with spectacular views of ships old and new. It's worth breaking the journey at Baumwall and striding across into the old warehouse district, the Speicherstadt, at the beginning of the new docklands area. However, the end destination for most users of the U3 is Landungsbrücken, the starting point for a wide choice of port tours. Expect your leg to be gently pulled by the boat commentary, especially when it comes to how they put the bends in the bananas.
Meet the locals
It hardly seems credible that there's a beach in Hamburg, but there it is, along the Elbchaussee at Övelgönne, downstream of the port just beyond the Museumshafen. The sand is imported, of course, but it is much appreciated by families at weekends and by an atypical beach crowd in the evenings, who gather here after work. The view is not exactly traditional, with the evening sun blocked by the occasional giant container ship, but there's a very local vibe, with families gathering on the terraces of small local fish restaurants such as Hoppe (www.fischrestaurant-hoppe.de).
Book a table
The trendy place to eat is East on Simon-von-Utrecht-Strasse (www.east-hamburg.de; 00 49 40 30 9930), the cellar of a former iron foundry in the St Pauli district that has been transformed with true designer exuberance (upstairs is a hotel). The menu mixes classical favourites with Asian specialities, particularly sushi and sashimi, and with the arrival of a DJ late at night the restaurant turns into a nightclub. Expect to pay around €25 (Dh130) for a main course.
Hamburg is the home of the fashion designer Jil Sander, and her Hamburg outlet on Neuer Wall is her flagship store. Over in Winterhude (Gertigstrasse 12), there's a brand new innovative "organic and ethical" men's fashion store, Baker & Collins. Many of the specialist stores downtown are hidden away in a clutch of shopping arcades, such as the Galleria and the Gänsemarkt. Both are just off the Jungfernstieg, so shopping remains unhindered by winter weather. And, while in the area, there's also the Europa Passage, a big new mall that makes a particular speciality out of European brands.
What to avoid
The Reeperbahn is Hamburg's celebrated nightlife street, and while it plays a significant role in city life - this is where the Beatles established themselves, and there's still good music and theatre - it can also be very sleazy. Some of the nightspots are just waiting to rip off unwary tourists - best avoided if it's late, and particularly if you're on your own.
If you don't mind getting up early on a Sunday, the Fischmarkt in and around the elegant former fish auction hall, just downriver of Landungsbrücken, is a very unique occasion. From 5am, traders start to sell everything and anything, from smoked eel to tropical plants and fruit to budgerigars. Inside the auction hall, there are live rock bands and extensive seafood brunches along the galleries on either side of the building. The whole thing is done and dusted by 9.30am, and you will find yourself wondering if it was all a dream.