Hamburg, With Extra Cheese

Hamburg, Germany
By Terry Ward
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 22, 2008

Few people are as adept as the Germans at making the most of a sunny day. And when the sky over Hamburg, often overcast, opens up and provides some elusive summer warmth, few cities shine like Germany's second largest.

For many, this means a trip to the beach. Upscale suburbs west of the city center have their share of sandy stretches along the Elbe River, but the water is lager brown and far from inviting (though some do venture into the murk). For those who don't want to brave the river, there are Hamburg's beach clubs.

Perched beside the Elbe and generally covered in sand trucked in from North Sea locales, the clubs overlook the main shipping route. It's a surreal experience to sit with your toes in the sand and the hint of freshly sliced limes in the air as tugboats guide enormous ships into port.

Hamburg's clubs -- which open as soon as temperatures allow and linger as late in the season as pos sible (usually May to September) -- are not unique. Complete with imported palm trees and sand, beach clubs abound in cities across Germany, including Berlin, Cologne and Leipzig. It's the setting -- and vibe -- of Hamburg's that makes them stand out.

The fact that there aren't any cover charges and you don't have to pay for a beach chair rental is refreshing, too. Try that in Ibiza.

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Start your beach club tour at Strand Pauli, on the edge of a seedy quarter in the St. Pauli neighborhood. It's easily accessed, within 15 minutes of the Hauptbahnhof, Hamburg's central train station, via subway and a short walk.

Each summer, piles of sand are spread across a parking lot to create a summer escape. But were it not for a beach-umbrella logo on an unassuming wooden sign, you'd nary notice the club.

The crowd at Strand Pauli, equally keen to stay under the radar, is a left-leaning, beer-drinking bunch that sinks into camouflage-print cushions atop heavy wooden and wrought-iron furniture arranged haphazardly in the sand. DJs spin laid-back lounge tunes from tiki huts, fish nets drape the fencing and vintage-style brown-and-orange-striped oversize lamps make the outdoor space seem somehow cozy. There's no water access, but port views abound.

"Strand Pauli is really local; probably 90 percent of the people hanging out here just walk over from home," said Benjamin Wadewitz, who lives a few blocks away and comes to kick back and study Spanish or grab an Alsterwasser (beer mixed with Sprite) with friends.

Packed on sunny days, Strand Pauli is also a top summertime spot for an evening opener. Bonus: The neighborhood sits on a higher elevation than any other spot in the city. Thanks to the beach's orientation, the sun sets slightly later at Strand Pauli than at other beach clubs, with daylight lingering till 10:30 in the peak summer months. That makes it a perfect place to kick off the evening before stumbling over to the Reeperbahn's late-night bar and club scene.

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