The Beatles may be Liverpool’s most famous band, but as any true fan knows, it was the city of Hamburg that shaped them the most.
Hamburg is Germany’s second largest city. Twice as big as London and with more canals and bridges than Venice, it’s a maritime city built around its port, which was once the largest and busiest in Europe (it’s now number three). In the middle of the century it was full of sailors, shipbuilders, and dockworkers and the St. Pauli neighborhood, not far from the port, was where they all went to party. The seedy streets were lined with clubs that needed live acts that could entertain patrons for hours, and with a shortage of musical talent in Hamburg, club owners looked elsewhere in Germany and across the pond to England and, as bands from Liverpool were cheaper than those from London, recruited bands like the Beatles to come and play the clubs.
The Beatles, who at that time were John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Pete Best, and Stuart Sutcliffe, arrived in Hamburg in the summer of 1960 when they were 17 to 20 years old. They lived in a squalid apartment above a theater and played music for five to six hours per night at clubs around the neighborhood. It was in Hamburg that they came together as musicians, where they first played with Ringo Starr (who would join the band two years later), where they made their first recording, and where they developed their signature style, including their famous moptop haircuts, which came courtesy of Stuart Sutcliffe’s girlfriend.
Hamburg had such an impact on the band, both personally and professionally, that John Lennon once said, "I might have been born in Liverpool, but I grew up in Hamburg.” Though several of the clubs and landmarks associated with the band’s time in the city have since closed or burned down, there are still a few places for fans to walk in the band’s early footsteps. Here's how to take your own tour of the Beatles' old stomping grounds.
The Indra Musikclub is where the Beatles first played in Hamburg -- though at the time it doubled as a strip joint. Today it’s a less risqué club with live bands performing most nights. The bright red building has a similarly crimson interior, with some token Beatles memorabilia, a foosball table, and a full bar.
The Kaiserkeller is a multi-venue building that includes a club, bar, and concert hall where international stars still perform. The Beatles played a few shows here in 1960. A plaque at the entrance commemorates their time there, and an old poster advertises a performance by Rory Storm & the Hurricanes (including Ringo Starr on drums) with the Beatles as the opening act.
Sadly the Star Club burned down in 1987, but a plaque remains to commemorate the building and the many legends who played there over the years (Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry, and Ray Charles, to name a few). The Beatles played there for seven weeks in 1962, including their final show in Hamburg.
Tucked in a residential courtyard behind unlocked gates, the Jager-Passage is known as the backdrop for the photo for John Lennon’s 1975 album, Rock ‘n’ Roll. In the photo, which was taken more than a decade before it was used for the album, Lennon leans in the doorway of one of the buildings, effortlessly cool, as the other band members blur in the foreground. Fans still come to the courtyard to recreate the photo in Lennon’s honor.
When the Beatles first arrived in Hamburg, they lived in a cramped, dirty apartment -- actually two storage rooms -- above the sleazy Bambi cinema. They had no showers and shared a bathroom with the theatergoers; Lennon later described it as a “pigsty.” The original theater has since burned down, but a painted deer on the garage of the current building, as well as a small plaque by the door, marks the spot.
A small plaza at the intersection of the Reeperbahn and Grosse Freiheit honors the Beatles’ influence on Hamburg, and vice versa. Built in 2008, the plaza, with is shaped like a vinyl record with a diameter of 29 meters (95 feet) contains five stainless-steel silhouettes playing instruments. Four are grouped together, while one figure stands off to the side; this one represents Stuart Sutcliffe, who left the band for his girlfriend.
Opened in 2009, this five-story Beatles museum covers nearly 1,300 acres and 10 themed spaces that trace the history of the band from their time in Hamburg and beyond. The interactive, multimedia exhibits include short interviews with friends and acquaintances of the band, costumes from their Lonely Heart’s Club Band days, and recordings of Beatles songs.
For a guided tour -- complete with ukulele renditions of some of the band’s best songs -- join Beatles enthusiast Stefanie Hempel for a Beatles tour of St. Pauli. On the tour, Hempel guides fans to sites like the Kaiserkeller, the Indra Club, and the Star Club, sharing anecdotes about the band along the way.