At first, Hamburg natives can seem modest, even a little apologetic, about their city’s gay nightlife.
While Germany’s second largest city might not boast the international fame of Amsterdam, Copenhagen or Berlin, it’s still the country’s most popular destination for domestic tourists. For most Germans, traveling to Hamburg means taking a cultural holiday, enjoying theatre, festivals and other artistic events. Visitors can count on a wide variety of musicals playing in the city at any given time, alongside many of the country’s most influential theatre and arts companies.
Unfortunately, some non-German speakers may wonder what all the fuss is about. Though the city is easy to navigate and language is rarely a barrier at popular tourist sites, many of Hamburg’s cultural offerings are pitched squarely at locals. Even most of the imported Broadway hits are performed in German, though a German-language cast album of your favourite show can be a great memento of your trip. With that in mind, Hamburg is perhaps best enjoyed as a place to experience today’s “real Germany.” Leaving the beer hall clichés to Munich and the pumping superclubs (mostly) to Berlin, Hamburg focuses on its strengths: the port, a dynamic cultural scene and a centuries old tradition of opening its arms to strangers.
Hamburg’s infamous Reeperbahn has not strayed far from its “hello sailor” past, though visitors these days tend to be weekend warriors rather than randy seamen. It should say plenty that Germany’s busiest ATM, and its busiest police station, sit opposite each other on the Reeperbahn. But if you’re ready to take the seediness in stride, this is also home to the more lively side of Hamburg’s LGBT nightlife. If your goal is to catch some first-class Hamburg drag, or mingle with the young and beautiful partygoers — either sipping cocktails, or bleary eyed, downing a 6am fish sandwich at the nearby Fischmarkt — the Reeperbahn is where you need to be.
Despite its inescapable red light chic, the surrounding neighbourhood of St Pauli is one of Hamburg’s most interesting districts. Many come seeking the spiritual remnants of the pre-fame Beatles, and while it’s happy to trade on this past, today’s St Pauli bears little resemblance to the one in which the Fab Four cut their teeth on in the early ’60s. A walking tour of the district is highly recommended for finding venues with authentic Beatles history, and will also feature points of interest such as the former Danish border, which cuts unceremoniously through the neighbourhood. Check with local venues for occasional LGBT-themed tours that run through the district as well.
On the eastern side of the city, St Georg is a more residential gay-focused district, where the queer folk live, dine, shop and play. You’ll find queer retailers, such as German institution Bruno’s, alongside a broad range of dining options. These include the famous Frau Möller pub, which serves up traditional Hamburg style home cooking to packed tables every night. Expect a wait on weekends, and get in early if you plan on sampling the well-priced specials.
Elsewhere in St Georg, follow Lange Reihe for a collection of stylish but relaxed boutique bars such as Generation, Cube and Bellini. If your tastes swing toward the less self consciously hip end of the scale, visit one of the local options around Hansaplatz. These small, old-school bars trade under such unambiguous names as Pick Up and Gaybar Extratour, and generally make up in hospitality what they lack in flash. If you’d prefer a livelier space, hit the dance floor at Daniel’s Company, a short walk away on Kreuzweg.
This is also the central neighbourhood for the city’s kink scene, with a smattering of cruise clubs and leather venues that rotate theme nights of various dress codes. Tom’s Saloon on Pulverteich is the city’s traditional leather cruise bar, but it competes with the popular S.L.U.T. (there’s little chance you’ll miss the names of many queer venues in Hamburg) and Contact, which focuses less on gear-oriented events.
As with an increasing number of cities with sizeable gay scenes, a lot of the action has shifted to weekly or monthly parties at venues around the city, so don’t be afraid to ask for local advice. Hamburg prides itself on being a haven for outsiders, and most bartenders and servers are happy to point you in the right direction if you can’t quite find what you’re after.
Often eclipsed by its flashier neighbours, Hamburg is still a worthy stop during a northern European trip, one that showcases the acceptance, hospitality and cultural appetites that define modern Germany.