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.