Not only does Hamburg have world-class shopping, restaurants and galleries, but Germany's second-largest city has also been crowned Europe's greenest metropolis with about 1,400 parks and gardens, a massive harbour, two lakes smack dab in the city centre and more canals than Venice. The only catch? Even in August, the warmest month, the average temperature is 22 C. And, of course, things didn't get this green here without rain. Lots of rain. But don't let that stop you.
The city is brimming with unexpected and delightful finds. We start by hopping on the U-Bahn (subway) to get to the architectural hotbed of Hamburg–HafenCity. It's a fascinating concept: An entirely new district is being constructed along the Elbe River, expanding the size of the city centre by a whopping 40 per cent.
We discover an impressive mix of architectural styles here, all with a cohesive modern aesthetic. There's the Behnisch Architekten-designed Unilever building, which looks like a glass cruise ship, and its spiralling uber-modern neighbour, the Marco Polo Tower, with its overhanging terraces. The real showstopper, however, is the Elbphilharmonie Concert Hall designed by Herzog & de Meuron, which looks like a giant crystal wave. Once complete, it will serve as a concert space, luxury residence and five-star hotel.
The area can be packed with tourists as monster cruise ships like the Queen Mary 2 stop here. Most of the chaos is concentrated around the numerous outdoor cafés so we opt for a stroll along Ubersee Boulevard to check out a couple of innovative boutiques. Stoffsuchtig features up-and-coming German designers like Kilian Kerner and Hannibal.
The owners change the store's interior every six months, keeping with the evolutionary nature of the 'hood. My favourite find, however, is Marc & Daniel. Owned by two brothers, the store carries men's and women's casual wear and a great selection of sneakers. ( And if you're looking for somewhere stylish to stay, the nautical-themed design hotel 25 Hours is just around the corner.)
We take advantage of the nice weather and head to StrandPauli beach club. It's about a 30-minute walk along the Elbe just south of Hamburg's infamous red-light district, the Reeperbahn (the Beatles started their career in the area's clubs ). With its man-made sandy terrain, colourful beach chairs and elevated DJ booth, the bar has a gritty, effortlessly cool vibe (kind of like really good bedhead) and fantastic views of the river. We order a local Astra beer, find the closest seat we can grab by the water and settle in to admire the ships sailing in Europe's second-largest harbour.
For a fascinating cross-section of Hamburg society, we take part in a more than 300-year-old tradition by visiting the Fish Market – it's the place to be in the wee hours of Sunday morning. Tour books advise showing up when it opens at 5 a.m., but we don't arrive until 8 and the shenanigans are still in full swing – live music blares, partygoers swig their beer, and families go about their errands purchasing fresh fish, fruit and flowers. The vendors are the main attraction; they're totally over the top, putting on a show to sell their wares. My husband and I feel like we're watching an auctioneer crossed with an infomercial host as a burly salesman fills bags to the brim with pasta and tells his customer, and the posse of onlookers, what a steal they're getting.
Thursdays on Schulterblatt Street, there's a local organic market in the arty enclave of Schanzenviertel. It's a great spot to grab crab cakes and traditional German potato salad. The patios along this strip are packed in the summer. We end up at Katze's for caipirinhas during happy hour. The cool-looking twentysomethings sitting next to us recommend swinging by Bullerei for dinner: "Their steak is the best."
Housed in an old slaughterhouse, the restaurant is owned by local celebrity chef Tim Malzer. With our young son in tow, we decide to add it to our to-do list and head to Herr Max's instead, a quirky café with Alice in Wonderland and Beatles-inspired cakes in the window. Two apple strudels to go, please.
Over the weekend, we explore Hamburg's polished side – this is, after all, the birthplace of Karl Lagerfeld. We play the ultimate tourists and take a cruise along the Alster Lake in the downtown core. Our guide doesn't speak English so we miss the history lesson, but we get great views of the area's most extravagant homes and parks. Next time, we'll do as the locals and rent a canoe so that we can paddle up to one of several dockside bars.
Once docked, we wander into various upscale boutiques in the area (you name it, it's here). Feldenkirchen has a great selection of Marc by Marc Jacobs, Diane von Furstenberg and 3.1 Phillip Lim. The owner suggests checking out gourmet fast-food joint Vapiano. "It's like McDonald's only much better," she says. The "much better" part is an understatement. It's a sleek Italian market-style restaurant that is packed with chic locals (and their pooches).
We cap off our second weekend with a bit of kitsch at the DOM, Hamburg's massive triannual fair with roller coasters, go-carts and too many beer stands to count. After a couple of rides, a German Jever beer, a fried-fish sandwich and plenty of nineties pop tunes, we're on the U-bahn heading home. Within minutes, we're back on our tree-lined street. The sun is still shining and we're just a stone's throw away from the neighbourhood park with its huge weeping willows and duck-filled pond. It's truly an urban oasis.
Based in Hamburg, Kathy Chau is an uber-stylish Canadian-born Chinese hair and makeup artist. She describes a perfect day in the city to Alexandra Breen.
"My ideal day in Hamburg would start with a trip to Mutterland, home to one of the city's best espressos and a broad range of German culinary delights. With a coffee to go and picnic goods in hand, I would make my way through the city centre to the Neuer Wall/Grosse Bleichen district to check out some of my favourite shops – Schacht & Westerich for journals, Petra Teufel for what's hot off the runways, Secondella for choice vintage finds, Budapester Schuhe to feed my shoe fetish and Oschatzchen to nurture my obsession with fine food and cooking.
Next, I would head to Planten un Blomen to enjoy a leisurely picnic in one of the city's most beautiful parks (the nightly light shows in the water park are a must). My next stop would be Michelle Records, a gem of an indie music shop. From there, I'd make my way to the Alster, the lake that lies in the middle of the city, and rent a canoe for an early evening paddle.
I'd dock at a.mora Bar and sit with a sundowner or two. I'd have dinner at either Mei Moon for the best Chinese cuisine and dim dum in Hamburg, or Café Paris for their steak tartare and pommes frites. I'd then catch my fiancé's band, Guilty Guitars, at the Gangeviertel, an artsy co-op with lots of heart."