After spending a wonderful week in Hamburg in February, I returned earlier this month to attend the Reeperbahn Festival, at the invitation of the Hamburg Tourism Board. I was so happy to be back because of how such an amazing time I had in the city during my previous visit. Back in winter I didn’t really explored the red-light district of Hamburg, so this was the perfect occasion to discover the Reeperbahn not only by night but by day as well. I have not only spent four fantastic days in Hamburg, mostly in St Pauli district, but I have also learned so much about the music culture in the city, from the days when the Beatles were just arriving into town, to the present, when the Reeperbahn is pretty much alive until the early hours of the morning.
Where to stay in Hamburg during the Reeperbahn Festival
The best place to stay in Hamburg during the Reeperbahn Festival is the St Pauli district, where most of the clubs where concerts take place are located. I stayed at the quirky Superbude St Pauli Hotel & Hostel, in a private room featuring unique decorations such as anchors as towel racks, plungers as hangers and a flip flop attache++d to the wall to hold the newspaper in the bathroom. I loved all the attention to details at this hotel, especially the emergency kit from under the sink with sanitary products and even a condom. The breakfast was as different as the hotel, with a buffet including beef tartar, hummus, sweet chilli dips and make your own waffles.
What is the Reeperbahn Festival?
The Reeperbahn Festival is Europe’s largest club festival, with over 900 events out of which over 600 concerts taking place in different locations around the city. The 90 venues participating in the festival have received over 40,000 visitors during the four days of music celebration in Hamburg. The festival combines music with social imitative through the 240 conference programmes attended by 390 speakers from 25 different countries. The acts taking part in the festival couldn’t be more different, from newcomer musicians to art exhibitions, from all the music genres you can imagine to female empowerment and gender balance workshops.
There are so many venues that open up for the Reeperbahn Festivals which are not just clubs: churches, open air stages, boats, tents, the Elbphilharmonie, the planetarium, even a double decker bus! Experts from the music industry gather together for workshops, screenings, readings and talks.
Led by the Reeperbahn Festival, the Keychange 2.0 initiative promotes gender equality in music and empowers women in the musical industry. This year during the festival there were three panels in which different subjects such as feminism sells, sexualised violence in show biz and women in the mix were discussed. The screening of the movie “St. Pauli’s Strong Women” together with Peaches exhibition “Whose Jizz is This” were also part of the initiative.
Watch the video I’ve made about the Reeperbahn Festival 2019:
Reeperbahn Festival Tickets
You can already buy Reeperbahn Festival Tickets for the 2020 edition, in the early bird sale. For next year, the first 9,500 ticket holders who buy any of the tickets which include Friday or Saturday will have the opportunity to reserve a seat for one of the five concerts held at the Elbphilharmonie during the Reeperbahn Festival. By buying your Reeperbahn Festival ticket already you are not only saving money on the early bird but also get a chance to see a fantastic show at probably the most majestic philharmonic hall in the world. You can buy tickets for the Reeperbahn Festival on their official website, by clicking here.
Food at Reeperbahn Festival
There are so many places where you can eat around Reeperbahn during the festival, from supermarkets to sit down restaurants, from kebab shops to street food vendors. Spielbudenplatz is a great place to stop by for a grilled bratwurst topped with mustard and ketchup, for a fresh herring sandwich or a giant Nutella crepe. Along the Reeperbahn there are many kebab shops which sell the local favourite: currywurst, which is a pork sausage boiled and then fried, cut into small pieces, covered with a curry ketchup and sprinkled with garam masala.
You can buy drinks pretty much everywhere and you are allowed to take them away and drink on the streets but be aware that glass bottles are not permitted on the Reeperbahn. If you buy a drink, make sure it is in a cup.
Clubs and bands during Reeperbahn Festival 2019
It is impossible to see all the performances taking place during Reeperbahn Festival but with a plan in mind, you can see as much as 5 or 6 shows each night. During the day you can attend many of the art installations and exhibitions around the mile of sin, as Reeperbahn is sometimes called.
Peaches Exhibition – Whose Jizz is This
The Reeperbahn Festival is not all about music but also about art exhibitions and installations. Peaches, which you probably know from her electronic music career debuted her first exhibition at the Kunstverein in Hamburg. Inspired by a video she has seen online, “Whose Jizz is This” is a protest against the objectification of the female body. The main element of this “deconstructed musical in 14 acts” is the “Flashie”, a sex toy designed for men.
The first installation which you see as you open the door and step into the exhibition space is a re-creation of the video that disgusted the artist so much, in which a man is reviewing this sex toy. Using words that pretty much reduce the female body to holes, this video is a bold statement about what the artist has presented next.
The idea of the exhibition is a utopic raise of the “Fleshies” who want to break away from humans and find sexual equality between themselves. The installation includes visual elements, digital projections, interactive sculptures, and musical interventions. There is even a video showing an alleged AA meeting among the “Fleshies”, where they tell their frustrations of how they are being used by humans.
When Joe mentioned that Hatari represented Iceland at this year’s Eurovision, I couldn’t remember their performance, which meant that it didn’t really impress me. In fact, searching through my Facebook page for the commentary I did during the show (I’m a big Eurovision fan), I noticed that I marked them as “I didn’t like them, their shouting scared my cat”.
Seeing them performing in Hamburg at the Kaiser Keller Club, one of the best clubs on the Reeperbahn, however, changed my perspective about them. The show was absolutely mad, and whilst I am still not a fan of their music, I was absorbed into their performance and enjoyed every second of it.
Hatari is an Icelandic band formed by cousins Klemens Hannigan and Matthias Haraldsson at vocals and Einar Stefánsson at drums. Their music is bizarre, a combination of techno, industrial and punk rock, with a very seductive stage appearance. Their public imagine is even weirder, with attires inspired by BDSM and anti-capitalism elements. It is definitely worth attending their shows, they know how to please the crowds and put on a very interactive (and colourful) performance.
I did not know what to expect from A-WA, as I didn’t hear about them before actually seeing their performance at the Mojo Club, during the Reeperbahn Festival.
From the first couple of lyrics at the start of their show I was intrigued. Who were these girls singing in Arabic and taking the stage by the storm?
A-WA are three Israeli sisters with Yemeni roots, which influences most of their music. Growing up in the South of Israel, in a community of around 30 families living in a desert area, the sisters spent a lot of time with their grandparents who thought them about the Yemeni traditions and music.
A-WA’s music is a mix between traditional Yemenite folk music with electronic tunes, reggae, hip hop and psychedelic rock, sang in a Yemenite Judeo-Arabic dialect. They sing about social problems such as leaving their homeland, gender stereotypes and feminism.
Anna Ternheim vs. the Kaiser Quartett
This performance was one of the highlights of the Reeperbahn Festival for me. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy all the other acts as much, because I did, but Anna Ternheim’s concert was held in no other than the Elbphilharmonie, where I wanted to see a show ever since I visited Hamburg for the first time, back in February.
I don’t even know where to start telling you about this fantastic performance. Firstly, you should know that the Elbphilharmonie is unique, probably the most sound engineered building in the world. Built on top of an old warehouse inside the harbour, the Elbphilharmonie has been designed to absorb all the outside noises, including the tremor given by the passing of the large ships, and produce the clearest sound you can ever imagine.
This year, for the Reeperbahn Festival, the first 5700 people who purchased tickets for 1, 2, 3- or 4-days including Friday and Saturday by the 9th of January could apply for the opportunity to attend one of the three concerts held at the Elbphilharmonie.
For the concert I have attended on Friday evening, Anna Ternheim had collaborated for the first time with the Kaiser Quartett, a contemporary string quartet from Hamburg. The concert was magical, with Anna’s candid voice and the Kaiser Quartertt’s perfect sounds giving me goosebumps. The public liked the performance so much that they didn’t stop applauding at the end until Anna returned on the stage and sang another two songs.
Another band that I stumbled upon which surprised me was Chef’s Special. It was Saturday night and I still didn’t manage to make it to Indra to see a concert, the club where the Beatles started their career in Hamburg. During the Reeperbahn Festival, just by walking down the street with a club in your mind that you want to go to, you will see other performances that will attract you into different ones. And this is what happened to me. Just next door to Indra there is the Gruenspan Club, from where I could hear interesting sounds coming out. So, I went in, and good I did!
The band playing on stage was Chef’s Special and from the first tunes I imagined it to be the perfect Bob Marley meets electronic rock music blend.
Originary from Haarlem, the Netherlands, Chef’s Special is a Dutch Indie pop band with reggae, funk and hip-hop influences. On stage they are incredibly energic and can put on a very electric performance.
Tips for attending the Reeperbahn Festival:
Study the schedule for the day
The best way to approach the Reeperbahn Festival is with a plan. Find out which bands are playing that day and where and mark down which ones you really want to see. Take in consideration the distance between the venues and the time it would take to reach them. Try to choose bands that play in nearby venues and don’t go for all the known ones. I enjoyed a lot discovering bands that I didn’t hear about before and let myself be surprised by their music.
On Friday and Saturday, the Reeperbahn itself gets really crowded with party goers as well, besides the festival attendees, so it will take longer to go from one place to another.
Use the Festival App
The Festival App is really useful to have on your phone as through it you can favourite the bands you want to see and check the schedule in real time, in case there are any last-minute changes. Inside the App you can also see all the acts taking part in the festival with a description and a sample of their music. You can also use the app if you are offline, which is great when you are in an underground club and your phone doesn’t have signal or data.
If you want to see a particular band, get there early
The concert venues do get full quite quickly, so if you really want to see a band you like, get there at least half an hour early, when the concert before is about the finish. The queues at the door are huge and a lot of people want to get in, especially when a very popular band is playing. As I was taking part in the festival as press, I had fast track access but even so, some of the venues were simply too full so even if I managed to get in, I was unable to see anything.
Wear comfortable shoes
This is a very important point, as you will be walking or standing for a long time during the Reeperbahn Festival. Good support and comfort are very important for your feet. Even if I wore running trainers, which are very comfortable, I still found myself needing to sit down towards the end of the night (when usually there are no seats available anywhere).
Other things to do in Hamburg during the Reeperbahn Festival:
Take an interactive Beatles tour
Beatles have started their career in Hamburg but when they arrived here, in August 1960, they were barely a band, having acquired their drummer the day before leaving Liverpool. Hamburg was where Beatles formed as a band, it’s the city where they found Ringo Starr and the place that started their career. Months after leaving Hamburg, in 1962, they launched their first worldwide hit, “Love Me Do”.
The Beatles Tour is run by the talented Steffi Hempel an artist herself and a big fan of the Beatles. She is actually working as the creative director for the first ever Beatles celebration in Hambug, called “The Hamburg Beatles Experience”, which will take place at the end of March 2020.
Her Beatles Tour is not only informative but also very interactive because at each location Steffi takes her ukulele out and engages with the participants in a Beatles sing along. You can book her tour by clicking here.
Go on a boat tour along the canals
Did you know that Hamburg has more bridges than any other city in the world? In fact, combining all the bridges in London, Amsterdam and Venice would be less than the amount of bridges Hamburg has, which is 2,496! Incredible, right?
You can see some of these bridges by taking a cruise on the canals around the old industrial part of the city, all the way to the main harbour, where you can let yourself be amazed on how big the ships coming in here actually are. Thinking that each container that is loaded on a ship is practically the size of a truck, seeing thousands of them on the same ship, scales the size of these giants that sail slowly over the oceans.
Discover the record shops of the city
Waking up early-ish during the festival has its advantages: you can go and explore the record stores of Hamburg, around St Pauli and Schanze areas. There are so many of them, some with a well-defined theme, some which focus on second hand albums and some that are a mix of everything, such as Freiheit & Roosen where you can find anything you can imagine.
The bigger record stores will have vinyl players where you can test the record you are about to buy. I spent quite a bit of time at Smallville Records where I did find quite a few records from my favourite band. I did contemplate quite a bit if I should buy one or not, and I decided against in the end because I don’t have a vinyl player and it would only be another thing gathering dust on my bookshelf. When you rent a house, every little thing matters.
My advice would be to go explore the record shops at around lunch time. Most of them are owned by DJs who work by night, so they don’t open very early. I have explored the most popular record shops in Hamburg with DJ Booty Carrell, aka Sebastian, who himself works in one and knows all about the music scene in the city.
Enjoy a tour of the majestic Elbphilharmonie
Even if you don’t have tickets for a concert at the Elbphilharmonie, you can still visit this impressive building in a guided tour. The access to the plaza and terrace surrounding the building, from where you can see beautiful panoramas of Hamburg (especially at sunset), is free. For a more in depth tour in which you can find out how the building has been built, all the tiny details that make it special but also see the main concert hall, a guide is recommended. The Elbphilharmonie runs one tour of the concert hall for the English-speaking tourists, priced at 15 euros. For a private tour focused on music and architecture for up to 30 people, check out this page.
I highly recommend the guided tour if you want to learn more about this majestic building and access behind the scenes areas. I was lucky to be in a private tour and see the “insides of the machine”, as the guide told us, but also the private club with the stunning roof top terrace. I couldn’t believe when I’ve seen myself on top of the Elbphilharmonie!
How about you? Have you attended the Reeperbahn Festival before? Are you planning on going next year? Let me know in the comments below!
Disclaimer: Please note that I attended the Reeperbahn Festival as a guest of the Hamburg Tourism Board. However, all the opinions in this article are my own and I would not recommend anything that I wouldn’t have enjoyed myself doing or think it was a great place to visit.
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