If I told you I was taking a short break in some old warehouses you might not be that impressed. But UNESCO admires Hamburg’s Speicherstadt so much, last year they declared it a World Heritage Site. The name means ‘city of warehouses.’
Hamburg is Germany’s biggest port, despite being 110 km from the sea. Work to build the world’s largest warehouse complex on islands in the River Elbe began in 1883. Speicherstadt has fifteen large, Gothic-style warehouse blocks stretching for a kilometre-and-a-half. They’re up to eight storeys tall, surrounded by cobbled streets and intersected by canals. And when you stand at the waterside as the sun is setting, you will enjoy a beautiful sight. The last rays of sunshine cast an incredible light on these formidable buildings. For a second, their red brick facades appear to be burning.
Speicherstadt was a freeport – almost it’s own nation-state. You had to show your ID to pass the security checkpoint. And within the area, goods could be stored and sold without incurring government duties and taxes. This special status ended in 2012 and Speicherstadt has how found a new lease of life as a home to galleries, bars, restaurant and hotels where grain, spices and coffee were once stored.
The area has some incredible architecture. The old buildings are ornate because Hamburg had money to spend. The city was at the heart of German economic expansion and has been described as Germany’s gateway to the world. They are still building. At the edge of the warehouse district the €800 million Hamburg Opera House makes a bold statement. The glass and steel framed roof rises and falls just like the ocean’s waves, a nod to the maritime activity that made the city great. It’s worth seeing.
The Kesselhaus is more of an artistic statement. The building used to be a boiler house and its stacks have been replaced by two steel lattice towers that stand high above and resemble chimneys. I found it useful as a navigation tool because many of the warehouse buildings appear disorientatingly similar. I was able to find my hotel using this landmark. Thank you Kesselhaus architects!
Some of the warehouses have been transformed into museums telling the story of the trades that brought wealth to Hamburg. Apparently one in every seven cups of coffee drunk around the world can be traced to a deal made in Hamburg. So I decided to start my trip at the Museum of Coffee.
I’m pleased to say their cafe makes a good cup. As you walk in, the coffee aroma is so delicious you just want to drink up the air. You can enjoy a coffee and maybe some cake in a comfortable chair under the chunky wooden beams of the converted warehouse, which is decorated with coffee sacks, pots and paraphernalia. In the far corner I could see staff grinding the beans using a huge revolving contraption that looked more like an agricultural implement.
Bärbel Dahms appeared out of nowhere and welcomed me in perfect English, as she led me downstairs into the museum area for the full guided tour. Hamburg’s role as a major trading centre for coffee has been longstanding. There were 32 coffeehouses in the 1830s. That’s more cafes than there are Starbucks on Oxford Street. The first opened in 1677, six years earlier than Vienna, Bärbel told me. I sensed a bit of German-Austrian rivalry!
So would a 1677 coffee taste the same as the drink we are used to now?
No, apparently. And you can try a brand called ‘Sailor’ which artificially recreates the taste of beans made wet from months of transportation on ships. I got the impression from Bärbel’s comments that it is an acquired taste.
I knew that different beans brought different tastes. I was unaware that beans felt different. Bärbel produced two bowls of them and asked me to take a handful of each. One felt much rounder, smoother and not so hard. These turned out to be the artificially-aged beans.
The museum tour takes you through the history of coffee production and offers a chance to taste various blends, made from different beans, to see which one you like the most. It’s all so scientific. Bärbel measured out ground coffee precisely using a digital scale. “The water temperature should be at 94°. It’s important not to have too much heat because if you have good coffee there are also some oily flavours inside and they can get burned. Nobody wants burned coffee because the taste isn’t as good,” she advised. I’ve never seen a barista with a thermometer in Costa, I thought.
Here’s why you can’t come for a coffee tasting on a first date. Bärbel encouraged me to slurp in the flavour of the coffee from a teaspoon, almost like wine tasting. You can definitely taste the differences between coffees. Filter paper will also take some of the flavour away, I learned.
I drink a lot of coffee and after a couple of samples I’m afraid to say my useless taste buds couldn’t really differentiate. It was all good. It wasn’t instant coffee, after all. So I ended up guessing which would taste better, in the same way that I do in the opticians when I can’t decide whether the letters are more or less blurred when she flips that glass lens over one eye. Bärbel asked me for my favourite. “That tastes more rounded,” I suggested. I’m not sure she was convinced.
“So what about these coffee capsules you can buy?” I asked. My question resulted in a hard stare. I don’t think she’s a fan. Quick, move it on Keri.
“Should you add milk and sugar?” I asked, and as the words came out of my mouth I wondered whether I’d uttered the unspeakable.
“They are good if you have really bad coffee,” Bärbel responded graciously.
Bärbel showed me the most expensive coffee in the World. I was curious to know what it was. “It’s animal treated,” she told me. After further probing she revealed that cat-like, Indonesian creatures called civets eat the coffee cherries and poo out the kernels, which are collected and made into coffee. You can buy a cup at the museum if you’re feeling…err flushed. I declined.
Don’t visit Hamburg with a stuffy cold. My next warehouse-based museum also offered an incredible smell as I walked through the door. As well as coffee, Hamburg’s Speicherstadt freeport imported tonnes of spices. Peppers proved most popular but the British colonies also sourced curry spices, which led to the city’s obsession with currywurst. Stands selling the hotdogs drizzled in curry sauce are open all night.
As you walk into Spicy`s Gewürzmuseum it’s hard to place the most powerful smell. Curry? Garlic? Thyme? Kerstin Maksen told me it was cloves, which retain their smell for weeks after harvesting. There are over 700 sacks of herbs and spices and you can touch and smell everything. I was particularly intrigued by the macabre display of items that have been found in sacks of imported spices. They are dried abroad in open places and all sorts of creatures can crawl into the sacks. Some spice-drying places are next to cemeteries and mice bring bones in, which end up being transported in the spice sacks. They’ve found gun cartridges, a plastic dinosaur, scissors and a flip-flop! They’ve even discovered Chinese school homework in the bags. Although I doubt whether ‘my homework’s in Hamburg’ would prove a better excuse than ‘the dog ate it’ for the pupils of China.
The museum explains how spices interact with the brain. “Vanilla is almost addictive, so you want more,” says Kerstin. “Saffron can be mood altering. It puts you in a good mood if the sun is not shining in the north of England or the Highlands,” she jokes. “If you eat saffron and wait half an hour you will be in a better mood.” Apparently people in Iran pop it into their coffee and add cardamom to take away the bitterness. It’s not cheap though. The red stigma from this type of crocus has to be manually removed and that means it costs around €10,000 per kilo.
Here’s another tip from Kirsten. “If you put vanilla in a sauce it will make the meat taste better. Even if it’s old meat and is as tough as elephants, it will taste good,” she says. The shop sells hotter versions of everyday foods and sweets and Kirsten gave me a pack of spicy Gummi Bears. “They are good for preventing tonsillitis,” she said. They were hideous but I’ve not had tonsillitis since eating them. Then again, I had my tonsils out when I was eleven.
If you want to get a feel for Hamburg’s seafaring past, check out the International Maritime Museum, in the adjacent HafenCity quarter. It’s founder, Peter Tamm, has amassed the world’s largest collection of model ships, plans, naval uniforms and maritime art. There are 40,000 items over nine levels. You might be in Hamburg but the displays take a global approach. It starts with the earliest sailors – Polynesians, Egyptians and Vikings – and progresses through to naval military campaigns and cruise ships. That last one has a local angle because cruises were invented in Hamburg. Albert Ballin worked for a shipping company specialising in relocating migrants heading for America. They had little summer work, so he devised trips taking rich Germans around the Med. The first service was for 53 days around the Mediterranean in 1891.
Gerrit Menzel leads tours around the museum. He showed me a Lego model of the Queen Mary 2 – my second viewing of this ship in 24 hours. I’d seen the real boat earlier on a trip around the harbour. There was so much detail in the model. Children are encouraged to spot unusual additions – such as a figurine of Mr Krabs from Spongebob serving a pizza on the aft deck. I found it, with some help.
Gerrit’s favourite room is called the Treasury and contains unusual items like historic bone models. French and Spanish prisoners of war held in England during the Napoleonic era made them. During their five-year detention they built bone models from their meal leftovers. Some of the men also built printing plates for £1 notes. A number of prisoners were sacked for that fraud. You can also learn about North Sea pirates. They did exist. Perhaps it could be a new movie role for Johnny Depp?
I was saving the most popular museum for last. Guinness has certified Miniatur Wunderland as the largest model train set in the world. Its amazing track spans over 15km. Sebastian Drechsler didn’t think making a model railway exhibition was sexy. His two older brothers came up with the idea sixteen years ago – an unusual diversion from their main business of running a record label and club music nights. Luckily he was wrong and now, each year, 200 staff deal with a million visitors to Germany’s most popular tourist attraction. That is quite ‘sexy!’
There are two floors filled with model railway layouts but it’s more than just HO gauge trains. They’ve recreated life. Next to the train tracks is an autobahn complete with road traffic accidents and little cop cars with flashing blue lights. You can hear the crowd roar from inside a model football stadium. Or you can see the re-creation of Hamburg’s docks and airport, complete with planes taxiing on the runway.
“There are 220,000 small figurines and each one is telling a story,” Sebastian tells me. “That’s what makes it so special. We always have a topic.”
I loved watching the model hot air balloon rise to the ceiling. Different parts of the exhibition are themed and are designed to represent Austria, Switzerland or the United States, complete with a mini Grand Canyon. The team is currently working on Italy.
“It is difficult trying to fit a country onto 190m²,” says Sebastian. “We develop a fantasy Italy that represents the country but is not a one-to-one model.”
They’ve even got a team of three men watching a bank of video monitors of the layouts. If you peek over their shoulders you can see what would be a driver’s eye view from tiny video cameras on the model trains as they move along the track. It’s authentic – it looks like a real railway journey.
You can see why so many people visit. At the entrances there are electronic display boards featuring world flags, showing where visitors have come from. I was impressed that five people have visited from Nauru in the South Pacific. There are only 1,800 people living there in total!
“Do you have a model train set at home?” I ask Sebastian. “No. I don’t need one,” he laughs.
Miniature Wunderland’s café is also special. It replicates a German railway carriage. The whole exhibition is clever, well thought out and I challenge you not to say ‘wow’ when you walk in.
I think Hamburg offers an interesting weekend break, even in the depths of winter, when other destinations are less desirable. The museums are mostly in the warehouse district and there’s plenty to do, with little walking between them and lots of spicy snacks or coffee to warm you up on wet and wintry days.
A flight to Hamburg from London takes around 90 minutes and you can hop from Heathrow for around £40.