Hamburg with the lot

A weekend in the party city is a riot for Julie Miller, with ageing pop stars, steins of beer and cocktails on the sand.

In Hamburg, there's no such thing as a Sunday morning sleep-in. You have two options: stay up all night, or set the alarm. Because as the sun rises over the city's harbour, there's one place you simply must be: the fish market.

An institution since 1703, Hamburg's waterfront Fischmarkt takes place every Sunday from 5am to 9.30am, ostensibly to offload the catch of the day, but in essence as a place for locals and tourists to gather, shop for fresh produce, to eat breakfast alfresco, and to continue partying from the night before.

In many ways, this weekly event encapsulates the spirit of Hamburg: fun-loving, spontaneous and just a little edgy. The second-largest city in Germany, this northern industrial town is often overlooked by tourists in favour of Berlin, Europe's dazzling it-girl. But those who do stop by soon discover that Hamburg is every bit as cool and culturally intriguing as its big, bold sibling in the east.

The Beatles certainly thought so in the '60s when the Reeperbahn, Hamburg's legendary red-light and nightclub district, was in its heyday. "Hamburg totally wrecked us," Beatle Paul McCartney said. "I remember getting home to England and my dad thought I was half-dead. I looked like a skeleton. I hadn't noticed the change, I'd been having such a ball!"

Today, Hamburgers have the reputation of partying hard. Hence the all-night drinking possibilities at the fish market. The evening doesn't end until the sun comes up.

We arrive on a Friday and, as we drive through the gritty, graffiti-scrawled inner-city enclave of Sternschanze, the streets are being closed in preparation for the weekend's Schanzenfest, an annual street fair, flea market and riot.

Riot? Well, apparently, at the tail-end of this very charming, congenial and friendly event that attracts more than 10,000 people, riot police turn up with water cannon, inciting left-wing radicals who in turn burn, loot and plunder. According to our driver, it's as regular as clockwork and quite an attraction in itself. "You must come tomorrow," he says casually. "It's a great night for tourists."

While we do attend the extremely peaceful flea market the following morning, we decide to leave the streets to the agitators that night. Instead, we head for drinks at the uber-trendy East Hotel in St Pauli before hitting the Reeperbahn to see what inspired the Beatles. Unfortunately, the "sinful mile" is a little tragic these days: tawdry, cheap and hardly the bastion of popular culture it was in the '60s.

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Early to bed, early to rise; though, as a tardy morning person, I arrive at the Fischmarkt a little late, about 8am. I am, however, just in time to hear legendary German singer Nena belt out her hit from the '80s, 99 Luftballons. Yes, even this ageing superstar is here, or at least someone who looks and sounds just like her. She and her band (my friend is convinced it's really her, though I'm not so sure) are performing in a cavernous warehouse to beer-swilling revellers who have stayed up all night, kicking on after the Reeperbahn's sleaze dens have closed their doors.

Competing with "faux" Nena and wandering oom-pah-pah musicians are market vendors, who are entertainers in their own right as they tout their wares, screaming and waving their arms as they try to undercut their competition. Huge crowds gather to watch the chaotic show, picking up genuine bargains in fruit, flowers and food items before retiring to one of the many food stalls selling coffee, fresh fish rolls, pastries and, of course, steins of beer.

With fish breath and feeling a little tipsy, we wander back along the waterfront promenade, past myriad stalls selling clothing, crafts and souvenirs, to the main ferry terminal of Landungsbruecken (landing bridges) overlooking the working harbour. Even on a Sunday, Germany's largest port is abuzz, with container ships, cranes and barges jostling for space. For a close-up view of the industrial lifeblood of Hamburg, you can jump on a tourist boat complete with commentary; however, we choose the cheaper option of a ferry, stopping on the way to explore tranquil riverfront suburbs.

With most shops closed on Sundays, locals and tourists seem to have one agenda: soaking up the autumn sunshine. After an unseasonably wet and cold summer (as they say in Germany, they have four seasons: autumn, winter, spring and shite), sun worshippers are out in force, riding bicycles, walking dogs, jogging, even swimming at popular harbourside beaches. A long lunch in a beer garden is also common on such a perfect day - and who are we to argue with local custom?

After returning to Landungsbruecken, we trek towards the city centre via the quaint Portuguese quarter, its cobbled streets lined with restaurants and bars. Beyond parkland surrounding the baroque St Michael's Church, our trail links to a series of canals, spanned by about 2300 bridges, which is more than any other city in the world, including Venice. Alongside these watery arteries are some of the city's oldest structures, half-timbered lofts and warehouses that not only survived the Great Fire of 1842, but also extensive bombing during World War II. Other buildings stand, stripped and stark, as reminders of wartime horrors. The Gothic-revival St Nicholas's is a sobering place of contemplation, a memorial to victims of air raids and the tyranny of the Nazi era. An information centre in the ruin's crypt presents a pictorial history of war devastation, and visitors can take the glass elevator to a viewing platform 76 metres up, with extensive views across the reconstructed city.

Dominating the city centre is another impressive piece of architecture - the rathaus, built in 1886 after fire destroyed the original town hall. Surrounded by a massive courtyard and shopping arcades, this is the hub of Hamburg, where families traditionally came for a Sunday stroll to show off their eligible daughters (hence the name of the main thoroughfare, Jungfernstieg, meaning maidens' walk).

During this particular weekend, however, it's more of a scramble than a stroll, with the streets closed to traffic and jam-packed with spectators for a charity bike race. Dodging Lycra speed-demons, we push our way through the mob to the edge of The Alster, drinking in views of the lake shimmering in the afternoon sun. A tributary of the River Elbe, The Alster consists of two artificial lakes, originally dammed to power a watermill, but these days used purely for recreational purposes. Paddle boats and kayaks keep children and dating teenagers occupied, while sailing boats bob on the blue expanse, fringed by emerald parkland. It's just another reminder that, despite its industrial roots, this is a city where the great outdoors is king.

We retire to toast our weekend in style at another Hamburg institution - a beach club. With sand underfoot, tiki torches, beach umbrellas and Pina Coladas, we could, for all intents and purposes, be in Hawaii. The only difference? The club is on the roof of a car park. So very Hamburg.

FAST FACTS

Getting there: Emirates has a fare to Hamburg from Sydney and Melbourne for about $2085 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Dubai (about 14hr) and then to Hamburg (6hr 55min); see www.emirates.com.

Staying there: The Hanse Clipper Haus is an apartment hotel located in the convenient and pleasant Portuguese district near the port. Rooms from €127 ($163). See http://clipper-hotels.de.

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