For once, the clue isn’t in the name. Yes, you can have fun in Hamburg if you like meat — hamburgers, in particular. But, look closer. It’s one of the world’s great seafaring cities. Its harbour teems with tugboats, skiffs, sailboats and cruise ships; its container terminals throng with activity. Hamburg is home to Europe’s second-largest port, and its gothic brick warehouse district, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, stores spices shipped from around the planet. In other words, if you visit Germany’s historic maritime city, it’s fish you want to be eating, really, not burgers, kebabs or currywurst.
And there’s no better place to begin than at the city’s Sunday morning fish market: a tourist attraction, maybe, but still a fun tradition. I arrived just after it opened (at 5am in summer; 7am in winter), and found dozens of traders hawking everything from fruit and vegetables to bread and pastries such as franzbrötchen, a local spin on the cinnamon roll. Meanwhile, inside Fischauktionshalle, a century-old brick building at the heart of the market, locals and tourists were downing pints of beer and dancing to a covers band playing golden oldies.
I beat a retreat and, with my stomach rumbling, sought out some breakfast. By now, trucks selling freshly made fischbrötchen (fish buns/sandwiches) had arrived. Though tempted by the fried mackerel, I chose a regional classic, pickled herring with onion and remoulade, served on a crunchy white roll, and ate it on the banks of the Elbe as a salty breeze lifted squawking seagulls above the docks.
When dawn broke, I caught sight of the city’s new concert hall, the Elbphilharmonie, which opened in January after years of delays. In a nod to Hamburg’s maritime heritage, its elegant facade resembles shimmering waves. Concerts aside, the building is bound to attract plenty of well-heeled visitors, from Germany and beyond, as nearby dining options include a clutch of acclaimed restaurants. Among them is The Table, a three Michelin-star eaterie with an eclectic tasting menu that includes homages to chef Kevin Fehling’s upbringing by the sea (such as an imaginative take on the fish sandwich). But, with only 20 covers, getting a seat at The Table is tricky. I made for a long-standing local favourite instead: Fischereihafen.
Set on the same spot since 1951, for the first three decades Fischereihafen served hearty stews for dockers; but, when Rüdiger Kowalke bought the restaurant in 1981, he took meat off the menu and focused on seafood. Since then, Fischereihafen has won praise for its perfectly prepared fish and crustaceans, sourced from the North Sea, Atlantic and Arctic. “We have paradise outside our door,” says Rüdiger’s son, Dirk, the restaurant’s current owner. His chefs buy fish fresh off the boat and change the menu accordingly: “We always ask the traders what they can offer us this week, and take their best fish.”
Fischereihafen does a roaring trade in traditional fish dishes, such as steamed turbot with mustard sauce. “People don’t like ‘drawing’ on the plate,” Kowalke says, referring to arty, modern cuisine. “Often the old-fashioned meals are the best.”
A case in point is another top-selling dish: smoked eel with scrambled eggs on roasted pumpernickel bread. Creamy, smoky and crunchy, it’s a perfectly balanced brunch plate. Kowalke says the eel comes from a local man who uses a very old-fashioned oven from the 1930s. Although aged 74, the man was persuaded by Kowalke to keep working and smokes eels exclusively for him, twice a week. “He’s a very, very good smoker,” says Kowalke, simply.
Fish takes on a more contemporary flavour over at Jellyfish, in the happening Sternschanze neighbourhood. This six-year-old restaurant has a minimalist look and a casual vibe that serves as a suitable backdrop for its acclaimed cooking. Dishes are carefully executed, with visual flair, and despite its name, you don’t get stung when the bill arrives.
Standout starters include scallops with miso, spinach and sesame; and eel with honey, celery and vinegar. Among the mains, highlights include grilled cod with lardo, Brussels sprouts, pearl barley and sea urchin foam; and grilled pike perch with smoked anchovy, leeks and pumpernickel crunch.
Chef de cuisine Laurin Kux explains that Jellyfish steers away from carbs — meaning that, unlike traditional German restaurant fare, you won’t find thick sauces or potatoes on the menu. Moreover, she only buys seasonal and sustainably sourced fresh seafood — hand- or line-caught fish — such as Norwegian Arctic cod (skrei), and pike perch from Germany. The kitchen changes the menu every couple of months, depending on what’s in season, though climate change has started to throw up some surprises. “The mackerel is usually available in the summer but we have it now, which is unusual,” Kux explains.
The following morning, I head back to the harbour with a hankering for more fischbrötchen. Acting on another local tip, I belly up to Brücke 10, a cafe located on the floating docks of Landungsbrücken. A young man starts shuttling freshly made fish-sandwiches from the kitchen. Overwhelmed by choice — herring or mackerel, pickled or fried? — I seek his advice. “Go for one of the classics: fried herring with onions,” he says. “It’s a dish that everyone in the region likes.” I soon see why. It’s sweet and salty, sour and spicy — and I instantly want to know what’s in the marinade. “Sugar, vinegar and various spices,” he grins. “But the recipe’s a secret, of course.” Of course. Brücke 10 sells 500-odd fischbrötchen a day in the high season. Forget coming to this historic city for a burger. It offers few experiences more enchanting than sitting on the dock, watching the ships sail by, and sinking one’s teeth into a freshly made fish sandwich.
Five food finds
For Hamburg’s best cup of coffee try this trendy spot in Sternschanze. The homemade pastries are excellent too.
Die Kleine Konditorei
The original branch of Hamburg’s best bakery, where locals flock for the Franzbrötchen (a cinnamon roll). kleine-
Take a tour of one of Hamburg’s new wave of microbreweries and sample its wares.
For meat-lovers: this classy wine bar and restaurant does a hugely popular schnitzel on Sundays from 5pm.
Watch hard candy being made and take some home as a souvenir.
A taste of Hamburg
With a clientele including celebrities and statesman, when you arrive at this 36-year-old, family-run restaurant, you know you’re in expert hands. The vibe is sophisticated, the decor is elegant and well-trained waiters glide across the room delivering the dishes. Don’t miss the steamed turbot.
How much: An average cost for lunch/dinner is £60 per person, excluding wine.
For modern German cuisine, head to this elegant but unstuffy spot in Altona, where head chef Andreas Steinwandt showcases local and seasonal ingredients. You’ll find fresh fish on Steinwandt’s menu, such as skrei: a seasonally caught Norwegian Arctic cod.
How much: An average dinner costs £36 per person, excluding wine.
A great place to try traditional Northern European dishes such as labskaus (a distant cousin of the Liverpudlian stew known as scouse). Other traditional options include pan-fried fish and potatoes with mustard sauce, and stewed kale. Both are excellent. A former dockers’ canteen that reopened in 2006 after renovation, Oberhafen-Kantine sits beside a railway bridge and with just 50 seats, it’s cosy.
How much: Lunch/dinner costs around £36 per person, excluding wine.
Published in the Jul/Aug 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)