Americans have long been drawn to the charms of Munich and, more recently, the energy of Berlin. But right now, arguably, the most exciting metropolis in Germany is Hamburg. One of the continent’s wealthiest cities and for centuries one of its most important ports, Hamburg nevertheless has a reputation for reserve, not excitement. Perhaps its instinct for restraint has something to do with the fact that the city is closer, both culturally and geographically, to Scandinavia than southern Germany. Its ties to the great cities of the North and Baltic seas go back at least to the Middle Ages, when Hamburg ranked among the most important members of the Hanseatic League and Bavaria was another country entirely.
Hamburg’s old port district, a quarter of canals lined with historic brick warehouses, is now home to its most impressive new landmark: the Elbphilharmonie. The exuberance of this concert hall’s architecture — a great glass exclamation point on the tip of an island, with a curvaceous roofline hearkening to the waves of the Elbe River and the sea beyond — would seem to be at odds with the usual character of the city. Indeed, many locals feel ambivalent about the Elbphilharmonie, considering its monumental budget overruns and years-long delays. But now that it’s finished at last, it looks perfectly at home, the most important piece of a revival that has placed Hamburg among the cultural centers in Europe.
Even without the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg is a compelling city. It does not rely heavily on tourism for its income, and most of the tourists who do visit come from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Thus Hamburg retains a strong sense of authenticity, a quality increasingly difficult to find. Because Hamburg was severely damaged during World War II, parts of the center are less than charming. Nevertheless, beautiful quarters remain. The most stylish neighborhood is the old port, Speicherstadt, its historic warehouses now home to restaurants, boutiques, cafés and museums. I couldn’t resist trying out one of the two hotels in the neighborhood. Ordinarily I find Westins eminently resistible, but the 244 rooms of the new Westin Hamburg occupy much of the Elbphilharmonie building, affording some of the best views in the city from within its best contemporary architecture.
The white eighth-floor lobby has a minimalist, vaguely futuristic feel, with the curves of the illuminated concave columns and swooping ceiling contrasted by blocky black armchairs. Hotel guests can access the surrounding public panoramic terrace with their keycards (others must wait in line for tickets downstairs). Fine harbor views can also be had from the café and bar behind the front desk. I was expecting even more memorable panoramas from the club lounge on the 19th floor, but it faces the top of a glassy, sculptural air shaft. I later learned that the lounge had been an afterthought, shoehorned into the hotel.
Still, it had a fine breakfast buffet, and in the late afternoon the canapés and pastries were all too tempting. Just as important, the lounge was always quiet, in contrast to The Saffron Restaurant on the seventh floor. Tables with a view are at a premium there, causing guests to crowd together at the few places overlooking the harbor.
I recommend booking a suite, all of which have access to the club lounge, and avoiding rooms entirely. In particular, Panorama Suites emphasize the architecture of the building, with a curtain of windows reaching from the floor to the double-height ceiling. Since these were fully booked, we reserved a junior suite-like Elbphilharmonie Suite, one category below. It lacked the high ceilings, but we still enjoyed views of the Speicherstadt canals and spires of the old center. I was impressed by the clever convex design of the windows, allowing space for little oval doors in the frames that could be opened for fresh air.
The simple color scheme of gray, cream and white made the panorama the focus, as it should be. I liked the comfortable king bed, and the minimalist white furnishings looked appealingly sleek, though the faux-leather upholstery didn’t feel luxurious to the touch, nor did the faux-blond wood laminate of the writing desk. I did appreciate the Bose CD player, the espresso machine and the safe with an electrical outlet inside. The white-mosaic-tile bath took full advantage of the view, with a soaking tub oriented to face the window (curtains could be drawn for privacy).
Service proved far better than I anticipated, starting with the friendly and proactive front desk. Since our suite wasn’t yet ready, we were about to leave the hotel, but the bright woman who checked us in spotted us and called us over. She gave us our key and a quick tour of our suite, and the bellman arrived with our luggage soon thereafter. After sightseeing, we returned to our room to discover a complimentary bottle of chilled sparkling Riesling, accompanied by a pretty plate of macarons.
We had a toast before heading down to the extensive spa on the sixth floor, with saunas at different temperatures, steam rooms, relaxation lounges, balconies overlooking the Elbe and a small but thoughtfully designed swimming pool. Aside from the durable, rather than plush, furnishings in our suite and the lack of views from the club lounge, The Westin Hamburg was a pleasant surprise indeed.
The magnificent views of the harbor and city; the large and well-appointed spa; the friendly staff; the convivial bar; the quiet club lounge; the complimentary wine and macarons.
The concierge did not respond quickly to emailed requests; the lack of a view from the club lounge.
Your taxi driver may not know of the driveway leading into the hotel; it’s just to the left of the hotel’s nameplate.
I wish I could say the same about the Palais Esplanade, a nine-room boutique hotel in a historic building on the northern edge of Neustadt (New Town). I had hoped that this hotel would prove to be a luxurious hideaway to contrast with my larger recommendations. It didn’t take long for those hopes to be dashed.
Alas, the Palais Esplanade does not function as an independent hotel. It is tethered to the Baseler Hof, a much larger property two buildings down the street. When we arrived there — it’s not possible to check in at the Palais — no bellman met our taxi, and I carried our bags inside myself. The lobby smelled vaguely of cigarette smoke, with half of it occupied by tired leather seating groups and half by a charmless bar. Our suite at the Palais wasn’t ready yet, and I contemplated making a run for it. My wife, feeling tired, convinced me to give the place a chance.
In fact, our suite was not unattractive. Accessed via hallways almost entirely clad in framed etchings and sketches, the C. G. Haase Suite had original wood-plank floors, brass chandeliers and antique furnishings, including a Biedermeier sofa. But the sheets on the bed had far too low a thread count, there was no air-conditioning (opening a window allowed in street noise) and the bath, tiled in brown and olive green, did not meet my standards. My search for a Hamburg hideaway continues.
The historic details and cozy décor of our suite; the feel of occupying a Hamburg apartment.
All services must be accessed through the Baseler Hof, a not-very-luxurious hotel two buildings away.
Though it comes from the Baseler Hof, room service breakfast is available.
I’ve long recommended the Park Hyatt Hamburg. This 252-room property has an ideal Altstadt (Old Town) location on Hamburg’s most popular shopping street, above the upscale Levantehaus arcade. Built in 1912, the low-rise brick building was destroyed during World War II and rebuilt in 1950, largely following the original plans. The décor of the hotel’s second-floor lobby reflects this history, incorporating a mix of styles, with midcentury-modern wood wall paneling and art deco-revival furnishings.
Here, too, I reserved a room with access to the club lounge, a junior suite-like Club Deluxe. To the right of its wide limestone-floored entry hall was an ample storage area paneled in caramel-toned wood, followed by the limestone-clad bath. A wall of glass separated the single vanity from the soaking tub and separate rainfall shower (which produced far more water than the drain could manage).
I loved sinking into the deliciously comfortable king-size bed each night, and I appreciated the spacious floor plan. But despite the warm tones of the olive-green carpeting and the accent wall paneled in more caramel-hued wood, the décor felt somehow soulless, thanks, in part, to an anonymous beige love seat, a bland modern writing desk and innocuous framed sketches. The turquoise-and-brown armchair and ottoman were a welcome contrast, but the upholstery again was designed for durability as much as anything else.
Views were lacking from both our room and the club-floor lounge, which overlooked the tops of nearby buildings and courtyards. A sweep of large mullioned windows illuminated the crescent-shaped lounge. At its center rose three pyramidal wood bookcases, with food presentations changing throughout the day. Those without club-floor access can enjoy afternoon tea or coffee and cake in the librarylike Park Lounge, just off the lobby. Even so, I recommend reserving a room on the club floor, if only to enjoy a tranquil breakfast, served by attentive staffers who remember your preferences.
Our spacious room; the helpful concierge desk; the large lap pool; the stylish fitness room; the exclusive club lounge; the central Old Town location.
The lack of views; the uninspiring décor; the boring cocktail menu at the bar.
Should weather be inclement, guests can access the excellent Austrian restaurant Tschebull and the ornate Roncalli Grand Café without going outside.
The grand 156-room Fairmont Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten doesn’t have a swimming pool or a club floor, as The Westin and the Park Hyatt do, but it ranks as my favorite Hamburg hotel. It apparently still has a fusty reputation. Our taxi driver remarked, “Ah, the Vier Jahreszeiten! They keep corpses from the time of the kaisers in the cellar.” And indeed, the lobby and the nearby Wohnhalle lounge have a regal prewar atmosphere, with marble floors in white, gray and black and elaborate wood wainscoting extending all the way up to the ornately stuccoed ceilings. But look closer and you’ll see that the area rugs are chic, modern interpretations of traditional Oriental carpets and that the jewel-toned velvet damask upholsteries of the chairs and sofas have strikingly contemporary patterns. The cellar, I should add, is far from sepulchral. It now houses NIKKEI NINE, a Peruvian-Japanese-fusion restaurant with trendy, over-the-top décor and a DJ spinning on Thursday through Saturday evenings.
I couldn’t quite bring myself to sit down to a Peruvian-Japanese dinner in Hamburg. More tempting was the hotel’s sumptuous Michelin two-star Restaurant Haerlin, and I unequivocally recommend indulging in high tea or coffee and cake in the Wohnhalle, alongside local aristocratic ladies who lunch. (The Jahreszeiten Grill, an art deco steakhouse, was under renovation during our visit.)
Also, be sure to take advantage of the stylish and airy spa on the fifth floor, full of natural light. Neither of us had a treatment, but we did enjoy the sauna and steam room in each of our respective locker rooms, as well as the coed sauna lined with salt rocks and the Nordic-inspired relaxation lounge, with plush gray linen loungers arrayed around a woodburning cylindrical fireplace. The bright fitness room also looked inviting, with a masculine décor that included black industrial-style light fixtures and a lounge area with leather sofas and a vintage refrigerator.
Our Deluxe Double Room Lakeview With Balcony was conveniently just down the hall from the spa. Fortunately, the notoriously fickle Hamburg weather allowed us to enjoy sitting in the cushioned wicker furniture on the terrace, watching the pleasure craft on the Binnenalster as we sipped flutes of Champagne or cups of espresso. Inside, the room was pretty but smaller than advertised. I have trouble believing that it measured the full 35 square meters (377 square feet), and reports of a walk-in closet were wildly exaggerated. Better to reserve a larger Deluxe Double Room Lakeview With Balcony and Podest (platform) or a Junior Suite Lakeview.
Still, our room felt like a jewel box. Just past the entry hall hung a gold-framed mirror, next to which stood small contemporary taupe armchairs with purple velvet cushions. On the bed, bounded by a lustrous padded plum headboard, were more accent pillows in velvet and raw silk. The raw-silk curtains and crystal chandelier added additional shimmer, but a walnut-hued work desk and nightstands kept things grounded. The striking black-and-white-tile bath — stocked with toiletries by Le Labo — managed to squeeze in a separate tub and shower but only one antique-style porcelain sink.
Most important, service never failed to be highly professional, warm and helpful, even in the face of minor confusion, such as how to mail the postcards I presented, and major confusion, such as the inability to find our room reservation. In both cases, the staff were thoughtful and proactive, and they quickly solved the issues without a word from me.
For now, the Fairmont ranks as Hamburg’s class act, a hotel sure to please lovers of tradition as well as contemporary style, with superlative views of the Binnenalster from an ideal Neustadt location near the city’s best shopping. The new 131-room Fontenay hotel, opening this month on the shore of the Aussenalster, may set a new standard. I’m very pleased at the prospect of returning to Hamburg sometime soon and finding out for myself.
The grandly historic public areas that also feel chic; the several fine restaurants; the airy spa and fitness center; our room’s luxuriously lustrous décor; our terrace with a captivating view of the Binnenalster; the cute children’s buffet at breakfast.
Our room’s small size; the temporary loss of our reservation.
The hotel has three environments for cocktails after dinner: the formal Condi Lounge, the nightclub-like NIKKEI NINE and the tiny and clubby Jahreszeiten Bar, where smoking is allowed.