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HAMBURG suffers from image schizophrenia. To many of its tourists, Germany's second metropolis is simply sin city – a place of prostitutes and strip shows – while in its homeland it is revered as a cosmopolitan, stylish city-state. Either way the cause is the same: through one of the greatest ports in Europe it has sucked in wealth – and probably vice – ever since a canny piece of diplomatic manoeuvring in 1189 led Emperor Friederich I (also known as Emperor Barbarossa) to grant tax-free imports down the Elbe. The good times began to roll in the early Middle Ages and Hamburg was declared a Free Imperial City by Emperor Maximilian I in 1510.

Today a restless boom-town, forever reinventing itself, Hamburg still flaunts its "Freie und Hansestadt" (Free and Hanseatic Town) title. And that umbilical link to maritime trade continues in a sprawling container port that grounds the city, adding a workaday robustness to the sophistication that comes with its postwar role as Germany's media capital. Though the port makes Hamburg fairly grimy in places, seedy even, it adds an earthy flavour to the rich cosmopolitan stew. It brings dive bars to a city renowned for its arts and theatre; nurtures a strong counter-culture movement alongside hip media types; and helps support a nightlife that is as depraved as it is refined. Even the drizzle that blankets the city for days at a time can't dampen the spirit of Germany's most life-affirming city.

The surprise, then, is that Hamburg is so manageable. Despite a population that nudges towards 1.8 million, Hamburg has the lowest population density of any European city. Canals provide breathing space among the offices as they thread from the Elbe's banks to the Alster lakes. The city's 2302 bridges are more than Venice, Amsterdam and London combined.

Most of the main sights are located in the city centre, a seamless semicircular spread of architecture north of the Elbe, but for local character look to outlying residential districts: St Georg east of the Hauptbahnhof; or exclusive quarters that fringe the Aussenalster lake. West of the centre are St Pauli, the former port district of Reeperbahn fame, and to its north, the scruffy but rapidly gentrifying Schanzenviertel. Together, these three form the heartland of Hamburg nightlife. Things become progressively quieter (and more expensive) as you shift downriver through the western riverside suburbs from Altona and Övelgönne to Blankenese, where city tycoons occupy some of the most expensive real-estate in Germany.