Last Friday night, we were sharing a delicious home-cooked Korean meal with some of our new friends from Seoul. B mentioned that we had the whole weekend open, so we thought we might pop down to Flensburg, the German border town where people go to get their beer, candy, and other goodies. Our friends suggested though – why not drive an extra hour and see Hamburg?

So that’s what we did. Packed some clothes for us and the kids, and left the house around 9 on Saturday morning. Scanned through Trip Advisor and Yelp on the way down, booked a hotel from the road, and by noon we were pulling into Hamburg.

We stayed at the Scandi Emporio, a beautiful and modern hotel in downtown Hamburg. The boys enjoyed the deep-sea theme on the hotel carpets and in the elevators – the lighting was a dark and moody blue on the ground floor, but then brightened as you rose higher, as if ascending to the surface. Added a fun and unique dimension to the stay. The room was big and bright, bed was extremely comfortable, and the boys even got their own goodie bags of colored pencils and blocks from the woman at the front desk. About 170 euros for the night, which was just fine for a weekend getaway. Would stay again, though perhaps next time we’ll look for something in another part of town.

Our first stop – based on recommendations from friends, as well as the ranked Attractions list on TripAdvisor (super helpful for spontaneous road trips) – was the Miniatur Wunderland museum. It took us about 30 minutes to walk down to the harbor area from the hotel. It was cold out, but at least a little clearer than up in Denmark. We must have been in the business district of town, because it was pretty quiet. Found a bakery on the way down that was open and got some sandwiches and coffee, plus some cakey chocolate-chip muffin type things, and some big fat soft pretzels to take away. The boys did pretty well on the walk, too! They were especially curious about the canals that criss-cross Hamburg. “How deep do you think they are, Dad?”

The museum is down in the warehouse district, which is one of the most famous in the world. Row after row of gothic brick towers, more like fortress walls than commercial storage. The boys were instantly drawn to the Hamburg Dungeon, a combination wax museum/historical house of horrors located just below Miniatur Wunderland, but they need to be a bit older to brave its depths. E said “Next year!” (Try at least 5 more years for you, buddy).

For some reason, they also got it in their heads that Miniatur Wunderland was going to be some kind of indoor theme park, so they were at first dismayed to find that it is essentially a gigantic train set museum. It’s so much more than that though – take the most elaborate train set you’ve ever seen, and multiply it x100. Most of the exhibits recreate massive European vistas criss-crossed by all forms of modern transportation: cable cars suspended high above the Alps while passenger trains speed through the hillsides below; cars and trucks wending their way up into the mountains, past thick forests and fairytale Bavarian castles; or an entire airport, complete with taxiing jetliners and an adjacent section where a 747 takes off into the clouds.

The vehicles would be incredible enough on their own, but it’s the thousands of tiny people that populate these scenes that really makes these Miniatures a Wonderland. Each diorama doesn’t just have its own population – it has dozens of little individual stories, everywhere you look. Domestic scenes playing out on apartment balconies, in backyard barbecues, or out in the street. A massive rock concert sprawls across a farm field, with thousands of cheering fans holding their lighters aloft as the sun sets in the room and the lights come up across the stage. There are also dozens of tiny secrets hidden through the displays – a crystal cave in the mountains with a tiny princess and unicorn inside, a ghostly bonfire party in the ruins of a flooded town, or a bank robbery about to go horribly wrong, with crooks digging a tunnel into a vault filled with guards.

My favorite section of the museum shows the progression of one town across 8 different dioramas, from 2200 BC up through 1945. It starts as a tiny settlement hacked out of the forest, then grows to a small village, and then a medieval town with castle and stone bridge, and then on through the Renaissance as knights and peasants give way to aristocrats and soldiers. At the turn of the 20th century, the town has been replaced by a smoke-spewing factory, and then decades later, the entire scene has been taken over by the Third Reich. And then finally, in the last diorama, it’s all been reduced to ashes and rubble by an Allied bombing run.

I liked pointing out the technological changes to the boys from one diorama to the next, and they enjoyed locating each of the little dramas playing out. A group of men pulling a she-bear out of her cave in 2200 eventually gives way to another group of men mining silver out of that same cave a thousand years later. A crowd and rabble rouser on the castle steps is preceded, a few hundred years earlier, by a woman being burned at the stake. Morbid, yes, but that’s history.

In fact, one of the most entertaining activities of the entire visit was the scavenger hunt printed in the museum brochure – we managed to find most of the details listed, though the Water Corpse eluded us almost until the end (we finally found the sad little scene, close to where a UFO was descending over a small town at night). The kids were so excited! “Dad! Dad! Come here! We found the dead guy in the water!”

We found the water corpse!

We found the water corpse!

After a good 3+ hours in the museum, we took a quick stroll around the harbor, heading nowhere in particular. The weather was kind of blah, and it was too late for a ferry ride, so we headed back to the hotel to rest, regroup, and cruise through Yelp for a dinner recommendation.

We really wanted German food for dinner, and I found a hofbraü not too far from the hotel. It was a cavernous place, with the wait staff all decked out in lederhosen and blue-and-white checked blouses. The Frankfurt vs Hamburg football match was up on the big screens, but we had to focus on translating the menu. Google Translate to the rescue!

We were able to order kids’ portions of wienerschnitzel for the boys, which came right away (they were perfectly done and very tasty), and two big beers for ourselves – a hefeweizen for B and a dunkel for me, both excellent. Then after figuring out the differences between wursts and roasts and head cheese and liverbraten, we were able to order a pork roast with potato dumplings and red cabbage for B, and currywurst with fries for myself. Also excellent. We ate very well, laughed a lot (the boys were in a very good mood – helps to get them fed first!) and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Exactly what we wanted from the evening, and the full bellies helped everyone crash out hard once we got back to the hotel.

The next day it was cold and gloomy out, threatening to rain, so we knew right away that a ferry trip was still a no-go. We’d also considered driving around some of the residential neighborhoods to see the homes – or the famous St Pauli neighborhood – but we decided we’d be better off coming back some other time in the spring. Instead, after a breakfast buffet at the hotel restaurant (10 euros apiece; kids ate free), we walked back down to the harbor again to a spice museum called Spicy’s. I had randomly picked up a brochure for the place at dinner the night before, and it was a good find and a fun way to spend the morning.

It’s a small museum on the third floor of one of those huge Gothic warehouses, and is packed with spices from all over the world, as well as the old equipment used to transport, grind, and sift them. Very interesting if you’re into food, history, and cuisine (which we are), but the kids were less enthused. At least at first – then they realized that they could sample the spices in each of the huge burlap sacks lining the walls, as if it were a big interactive scratch n’ sniff storybook. And not just a pinch of this, a sprinkle of that – it was “MUST INHALE ALL OF THE THINGS.” M hit his limit when he plunged both hands into a bag of cumin and tried to hork it all up his nose. Didn’t feel so hot after that! Maybe I should lay off the cumin in my next batch of chili.

There’s a shop adjoining the museum that’s almost as big as the exhibit itself. I picked up a few things to experiment/cook with: some garam masala (an Indian spice mix), harissa (North African spice mix), and Arabian coffee spice. Pretty sure that’s what made the coffee so delicious at the tea house in Granada back in December. So far I’ve used the harissa on eggs (good w/ some toasted bread and fresh tomatoes), and am trying to find the right balance of coffee spice to coffee with the one-cup French press we’re borrowing from a friend. (We need a real coffee maker again!)

We couldn’t leave Hamburg without having a hamburger, duh, so on the way back to museum we stopped in at a place called Jim Block (I found it on Yelp). It was like a fast-casual place, similar to Smashburger. Nice inside, and the burgers were good (so big they required knife & fork), though I still prefer In & Out/Five Guys/Nation’s (an East Bay chain).


Can’t go to Hamburg without having a hamburger!

And then that was it for our quick Hamburg getaway! A fun spontaneous little trip. Next time we’re down there we’ll do the gardens, as I hear Hamburg is really pretty in the spring and summer. Any suggestions for other sights to see, let us know! Auf wiedersehn for now.


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