When you think of Germany, maybe it's the new Berlin—with its cosmopolitan flair and growing arts scene—that comes to mind? (If it's Lederhosen and dirndls, you need to book a ticket now and update your idea of the place.)
For whatever reason, U.S. travelers tend to skip my home-away-from-home, Hamburg. I lived here in the north of Germany off and on for several years in the '90s and make a visit to the Hanseatic city at least once a year. The town has a pedigree of chic (natives include Karl Lagerfeld and Jil Sander), more canals than Venice, and parks galore, but there are many more reasons to go, as I found out on a visit last month:
*The flashy new district being carved out of the harbor called "Hafen City": old warehouses are being transformed into apartments, shops, restaurants, and even a new concert hall, the Elbphilharmonie—designed by Herzog & de Meuron—set to open May 2012. Try Carls an der Elbphilharmonie (69 Am Kaiserkai; 49-40/300-322-400; dinner for two $120) for oysters from the German island of Sylt and the best views of all the neighborhood's goings on.
*The newly-cleaned 112-year old Rathaus: Hamburg's city hall and home to the senate—Hamburg is a city-state, like Berlin. Canals criss-cross the Old City and are full of the Alster swans, which are released from their winter pens to great fanfare each spring.
*The newly restored landmark of Hamburg, St. Michael's Church, which sits high above the Elbe River. Sailors coming into the harbor can spot it miles away.
*Blankenese: the former sea captains quarter, overlooking the harbor, is filled with thatched houses and is traversed on foot only—no cars allowed. Be sure and wear your walking shoes; the steps are steep. Stop for lunch (fried flounder, potato salad, beer) at Restaurant Ahrberg (right; 33 Strandweg; 49-40/860-438; lunch for two $40).
Clark Mitchell is an associate editor at Travel + Leisure.