Discover St Pauli, Hamburg’s quirkiest neighbourhood with a walking tour, uncovering its history and secrets.
Now if you’ve lost your inheritance
And all you’ve left is common sense
And you’re not too picky about the crowd you keep
Or the mattress where you sleep…
One of Tom Waits’s songs is titled Reeperbahn, after the main street in Hamburg’s St Pauli district. A place where he found ‘a broken down movie star, hustling and Easterner’, and ‘little Hans was always strange, wearing women’s underthings’.
St Pauli is not a place to look at. At first glance, it appears to be nothing more than a string of girlie bars and sex shops. It’s not pretty, and there are no impressive sights. However, it is, and it always has been, the place where things happened first in Hamburg. Wandering around St Pauli by yourself, it is unlikely that you’ll be able to appreciate the cultural and historical wealth of the area. We decided to take a walking tour, to find out what makes the area so special.
St Pauli Tourist Office was opened when Henning, a long-time St Pauli resident, started renting out rooms to tourists. The rough-and-ready side of the area appealed to visitors, and he decided to organize walking tours. Now, the office offers several types of walking tours, from the classic one – the one we did – to music, crime and food themed tours. He employs 20 guides, all St Pauli residents. Our guide Marcus has been living in the area for fourteen years.
Walking past tattoo shops and street art, he introduced us to the neighbourhood. The history of St Pauli is strongly related to Hamburg’s identity as a harbour city. It was the first area where immigrants lived; in the 1920’s Chinese sailors settled in St Pauli, opening shops and restaurants that catered to the maritime world. During World War II, the Chinese population was persecuted and imprisoned in concentration camps. The Chinese quarter was erased from the map. Nowadays, all that is left is a stolperstein (stumbling stone), in memory of Woo Lie Kien’s death, a restaurateur who died in the hands of the nazis, and the Hong Kong Bar, opened by the only Chinese camp survivor.
Marcus told us that the rise and fall of St Pauli mirrored the rise and fall of the city harbour. Due to its close proximity to the docks, it was where sailors had fun during their short leave in the city. From rowdy pubs to prostitutes, it was the ultimate sailor hangout.
It was at the time of St Pauli’s heyday that the district’s most famous inhabitants moved there. The Beatles lived in St Pauli for two years in the early Sixties, playing in a strip bar between an act and the other. Stuart Sutcliffe, the band’s fifth member, died in Hamburg at the age of twenty. The time in Hamburg was crucial for the band’s artistic and personal development. As John Lennon put it, ‘I was born in Liverpool but became a man in Hamburg’.
The second half of the Sixties made St Pauli the centre of the rock-scene in Hamburg. Bill Haley was the first rockstar to play in the city in 1958; the gig was such a success that the crowd smashed the venue up. The city council forbade rock music, but the damage was done. The Star Club, Hamburg’s first and most famous rock club, opened a few years later. From the Beatles to Jimi Hendrix, dozens of rock stars played there until it closed in 1969 because it was too small. The rock bands had become incredibly famous and wanted more money and bigger venues.
In the Seventies, the diffusion of container ships led to a massive decrease in sailor workforce, and St Pauli’s decline began. The area was overrun by gangsters and junkies. Many sailor bars had to close down. In the mid-Eighties, St Pauli’s rise came once again, thanks to the techno scene. Rock-bottom rent prices in former brothels made St Pauli the ideal place to open nightclubs, and it slowly became the centre of the city’s nightlife.
Now, St Pauli is stuck between two worlds. On one hand, it is a working-class neighbourhood; but due to its proximity to the centre and ‘cool’ appeal, the rich are moving in. And with gentrification, the area’s soul is gradually being sold off. Rents are rising, dingy nightclubs are becoming corporation-owned flashy affairs, luxury condos are popping up all around. One of the area’s landmarks and meeting points, the Esso petrol station, was recently closed and the area is fenced off for redevelopment.
Nobody knows what the future will bring, said Marcus as we walked around. Many St Pauli long-time residents are being pushed out of the area due to higher rents, as it is happening in many other places around the world, from Harlem to Hackney.
Walking back at the end of the tour, we passed a group of kids sharing a spliff, next to four punks in St Pauli hoodies drinking wine from a carton. On the far end of Reeperbahn, the glass and steel frame of a skyscraper looms on the district’s future.
Tom Waits was right. At least, let’s hope he was.
The apple has gone but there’s always the core
And the seeds will sprout up right through the floor
Practical Info: St Pauli Tourist Office organises walking tours of the district with local guides. Visit their site for info on the types of tours on offer. We did the St Pauli Kiez tour, which runs daily at 7pm. From November to April there are additional tours on Friday and Saturday at 4pm and 10pm. All tours are in German unless otherwise specified on the website; tours in English can be arranged on demand.
Our tour was sponsored by St Pauli Tourist Office. All opinions expressed in this article are our own. We thoroughly enjoyed the tour and recommend it highly.
54 thoughts on “A Walking Tour of St Pauli”
What an interesting tour! Lots of history. I’ve never done a guided walking tour before but it seems like a great way to get to know a city better.
It was great Samantha. I had never done one before either, and I really appreciated the insight given by the walking tour. Thanks for your comment!
What a great post on finding out the real insides of a city! I knew nothing about this but reading it reminded me of Beale Street in Memphis, TN – home of Rock and Roll! On a slightly different note, I think both guided and self-guided walking tours of cities are a great idea and such a great way to find out more about a location.
I am writing a post at the moment on a self-guided walking tour that we did in downtown Chicago last weekend so this gives me a little more inspiration to go ahead and finish that.
Thanks Chris. It was our first guided walking tour, we loved it so much, it won’t be the last one. Thanks for your comment!
What a cool neighborhood! I love developing neighborhoods that are still somewhat gritty and rough, but at the same time allow people to feel safe walking around.
It was a great place indeed Krista! Thanks for your comment!
I keep hearing about more and more guided walking tours in cities and beyond… I think it’s a great way to really explore an area, thanks for sharing!
It’s a really good way to explore cities, we will try it more often! Thanks for your comment!
I enjoy doing walking tours, especially away from the main tourist areas.
So true Brianna! Thanks for your comment!
Seems to be quite interesting especially with all the stories and facts your guide Marcus gave you. That´s the good thing about GOOD guides. They know facts and can show you great places you wouldn´t see when you explore the city on your own.
Hey Christina! Marcus was great, he shared so many great stories with us!
I´ve never done a walking tour but have heard quite good reviews from friends who have done it. It looks like a great way to learn about the history of the place and get to know city without spending time on internet reading about it!
It’s a really good way to try and understand a city better, and if done properly, it’s not a touristy experience at all. Thanks for your comment!
It’s refreshing to see posts that aren’t all the same post card pictures and same sites. Refreshing. Keeping it real…:-) Interesting history interwoven in the post. Nicely done.
It’s so refreshing to see a place like St Pauli featured – the places that at first glance appear to have to not much going on always end up being my favorite!
Hey Rebekah! That’s exactly how we felt about St Pauli! Thanks for your comment!
I remember my sister and I going on a night out down the Reeperbahn and seeing the Beatles connection clearly visible. There is little doubt this area is very proud of that element of history.
Interesting to hear of this walking tour. It sounds like something which would interest me when I next return to this amazing city.
If you like the Beatles connection, you would love the tour. So many stories, about music, history, culture and so much more!
This looks like a great place to live in for a short while. I wouldn’t mind staying and breathe in the culture of its past, then moving on. I had no idea the Beatles lived there for two years, but a place with such a turbulent past definitely appeals to me. At least for an extended visit.
Hey Rashad. I agree with you, it would be great to live there. I’m sure I barely scratched the surface with the walking tour.
Haha, that ‘condomerie’ really made me laugh! Great photos, I love discovering interesting, unusual places within a city!
hahaha Emily, so true!
I love guided tours. I love hearing stores of the comeuppance of a place or city and how its changed over the years with migrants coming into the area.
Thanks Bianca. I am sure you would love St Pauli!
I love a walking tour and it is a great way to immerse yourself in the ‘feel’ of a place and see beautiful and interesting details, as your pictures and writing of St Paul in Hamburg so ably demonstrate. I love the ebb and flow of fortunes – richer to poorer and back again.
Thanks Teresa, I’m happy you liked the post. Thanks for your comment!
I visited St Pauli over Christmas a few years ago and it was just great! Lovely atmosphere and just a good vibe.
Enjoy your Sunday!
(Found you through #SundayTraveler)
Thanks Esther! We loved Hamburg! Thanks for your comment!
Hamburg’s always been on my places to visit list for the Beatles connection. Though, it’s a shame all that’s left to remind people of an immigrant population that tried to make an honest living there is a tiny little metal plate on the ground that’s probably hardly looked at unless someone pointed it out. All due respect, I think the good folks of St. Pauli could do a bit better than that.
Point taken Ming. You’re totally right. There must be more to stolpersteiner, I must look into that.
How interesting! I really wish I’d known about this tour when I visited Hamburg a few years ago. I really liked the football ground in the neighbourhood as well – it has such a personality.
I think you should go back then! This tour was amazing, our Hamburg highlight.
I LOVE walking tours! They are such a good way to soak up a new neighborhood or place. Looks like this one was a great one- will definitely keep it in mind! We’ll actually be blogging about a food walking tour through Paris later this week, which was the highlight of our entire trip in Paris!
I agree with you Casey! I used to think walking tours were boring and touristy before this one!
Loved this post. I haven’t been to Hamburg for a couple of years, but there’s something I really liked about it, it has an edge to it, a grittiness that you just don’t find down here… 🙂
So true Emma! Glad you liked it (both Hamburg and the post)
I’ve done plenty of walking tours and truly appreciate the value of them. You usually learn so much more than any guidebook in the world can ever teach you, a good guide can usually make you feel the emotion of a certain area as well. Great post!
It’s really true Anto! We loved the tour, and it was because of Marcus, he was fantastic at bringing tales to life.
I like guided walking tours – especially when the guide is a local who knows the area from the inside, it can be so interesting! Would love this St-Pauli walking tour, definitely will consider it when going to Hamburg.
It was an amazing experience, Nina! Loved the tour.
Wow, really dig this article. Reminds me of a lot of articles I see featuring Russia or Eastern Europe that are kind of stuck in this perpetual loop of old decay fighting against the rise of the modern world in terms of architecture. Really love the street art and the contrast you show!
Thanks Ryan! You should visit St Pauli, it’s a really unique place.
Not an area I know well (or one that especially appeals if I’m honest) but I found this a good read nonetheless… I found the it about the stolperstein interesting.
hey Paul! There’s a lot of history besides the seedy side… Glad you liked the article!
This looks like it was a fantastic walking tour! I personally have never taken a walking tour since I was always the one giving them and didn’t want to go on group tours on my vacation but they can really help you learn a lot about an area! Alex and I will definitely have to stop by Hamburg next year when we return to Europe!
Hey guys! You should really visit hamburg and check out St Pauli, get a local to show you around! Totally get why you don’t fancy group tours!
I’ve never actually visited Hamburg, although I passed by many times. St Pauli neighborhood really looks like a place with a character and a soul. Amazing history of one neighborhood. It’s sad, though, that some of St Pauli’s landmarks are disappearing and making a space for new developments.
It is such an amazing place, Frank, definitely our favourite in the whole city. It had a remarkable soul. Thanks for your comment!
What an interesting look into a neighbourhood where most wouldn’t go looking for history. Goes to show that there is a story everywhere as long as you’re willing to look.
You’re so right Adelina. There’s so much more than meets the eye in St Pauli!
We stayed in the St.Pauli area of Hamburg during our four day visit in November last year and you can really feel that up-and-coming vibe everywhere you term, but the old spirit of the community certainly hasn’t been affected as we saw from walking around and around the neighbourhood, and it’s a nicer and better place the further away you go from those seedy bars and shops.
Hey guys! Glad to hear back from someone who stayed in the neighbourhood with a local perspective. We love St Pauli, there’s so much more than seedy bars and shops!
Hey Jennifer! You’re so right, it’s a real concern. Sometimes, cultural heritage is lost for good as a result. Thanks for your comment!
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