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I’ve now lived in Hamburg for 2.5 years and I fall more in love with the city every day. Even though it’s Germany’s second-largest city behind Berlin (yes, even larger than Munich), it’s still an under-the-radar destination for many people outside of Germany. I’m always singing the praises of Hamburg to everyone I meet. I really do think Hamburg has it all – yummy food, excellent beer, great coffee, lots of water, family-oriented neighborhoods, historical locations, efficient public transportation, and a work-life balance. The Prince and I are really lucky to call this city home, and I’m excited to highlight Hamburg’s musical past, present, and future.
Before making it big worldwide, the Beatles made their debut in Hamburg. Even today, their legacy continues to exist through a dedicated Beatles-Platz (Beatles Square) as well as the quotes and stories from the Beatles themselves and those that knew them while in Hamburg. However, the Beatles aren’t the first or last band to make it big in Hamburg – the Reeperbahn Festival, founded in 2006, has been producing well-known artists since its inception. Artists that performed at the Reeperbahn Festival before their big breakthrough include three of my favorites – Ed Sheeran, Bon Iver, and Milky Chance.
Table of Contents
- Overview of Hamburg
- Hamburg by Water
- Music Legacies
- The Beatles in Hamburg
- Klaus Voormann
- Reeperbahn Festival
- How to Get to Hamburg
- How to Get Around Hamburg
- Where to Stay in Hamburg
- What to Eat in Hamburg
- Final Thoughts on Hamburg
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Overview of Hamburg
Officially named the “Freie und Hansestadt Hamburg” (“Free and Hanseatic League City Hamburg”) as an ode to its past as a free city and part of the famous Hanseatic League, Hamburg is now a modern, urbanized city with almost 2 million citizens. In comparing Hamburg to Berlin, Berlin is the city for the starving artist while Hamburg is the city for the artist that’s made it (Hamburg is an incredibly rich city and wealth is literally dripping from everywhere!).
Located on the Elbe, a river stretching from the Czech Republic to the North Sea, this is one of the most important waterways in all of Europe. The first mention of Hamburg comes in the early 800s AD when Charlemagne built a castle to defend against the Slavic forces. It was named “Hammaburg” (with “burg” meaning “castle” in German and the meaning of “Hamma” unknown). Hamburg had quite an exciting start its first couple of centuries with occupation and destruction by the Vikings, Danish, and Polish. The Black Plague of 1350 killed 60% of Hamburg’s population.
Starting in the 1100s, Barbarossa declared Hamburg a Free Imperial City and tax free. Hamburg became part of the Hanseatic League, a commercial and defensive confederation of port cities that dominated Baltic trading routes until the 1450s. The initial trading alliance between Lübeck and Hamburg formed this strong trading partnership with cities all around northern Europe. Most of the cities included in the Hanseatic League were either Free Imperial Cities or became Free Imperial Cities. Important cities in the Hanseatic League included Lübeck, Hamburg, Lüneburg, Gdansk, Rostock, Greifswald, Bremen, Krakow, Tallinn, and Riga (along with several others).
There’s been a massive revival in the Hanseatic League as well as honoring this past league. As noted above, Hamburg refers to “Hansestadt” in its official city name and the license plates have the city code “HH” for “Hansestadt Hamburg.” Additionally, one of the most famous airlines in the world, Lufthansa, references this famous league through its name (translated) “Air Hansa.”
1800s – 1900s
With the end of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, Hamburg became a sovereign state. It ended up joining the German Empire in 1871 but maintained self-ruling status under the Weimar Republic.
In 1842, Hamburg experienced a catastrophic fire that destroyed one-fourth of the inner city and left 20,000+ people homeless. Additionally, many important public buildings were completely burned to the ground. Besides not being able to contain the fire for 4 days, widespread looting occurred and the militia was called in to quell the looters. The fire brought about many changes in the city, including an emphasis on infrastructure when rebuilding. The fire was heavily covered in worldwide news and potentially the first ever news photographs (and the first photographs ever of Hamburg) were taken while documenting the fire. It took until the end of the 1800s for Hamburg to fully recover from the fire.
The end of the 19th century brought Hamburg worldwide fame through its port, an important part of Hamburg even today. The Hamburg-American Line became the world’s largest transatlantic shipping company and Hamburg became an important starting destination for those emigrating to the United States. Shipping still plays a vital role in Hamburg’s economy and the port continues to be one of the largest in Europe.
World War II
As a major port and industrial area of Germany, Hamburg was heavily bombed and destroyed by Allied forces during WWII. An estimated 50,000 civilians died during the bombings and another 1 million civilians were evacuated from the city. Prior to the Third Reich, Hamburg had the highest concentration of Jews. Now, there is a very small, but active, Jewish population in Hamburg that is centered around the Grindel neighborhood, the former Jewish quarter now near Universität Hamburg (University of Hamburg).
After the post-war period, Hamburg quickly revitalized its position as one of the major port cities in Europe. Additionally, the city has undergone a major transformation – making it one of the wealthiest and most gorgeous cities in all of Germany. The HafenCity (picture below), Europe’s largest inner-city development project, is building and gentrifying thousands of apartments, businesses, educational centers, restaurants, and bars. It’s one of the coolest and hippest new areas in Hamburg.
Hamburg by Water
There’s no better to way to explore Hamburg than by water – it’s a water city through-and-through, and the city is quite proud of its port roots.
Fun Fact: Hamburg has the most bridges in the world – more bridges than Venice and Amsterdam, combined!
There are several options to explore the waterfront, both by foot and by boat. The easiest way to cover the most ground is to partake in a boat tour. Even though I’ve lived in Hamburg for 2.5 years, this was my first boat tour and I regret not taking it sooner! There are a few options for a boat tour – either a boat tour in the open water to the port area of Hamburg or a boat tour through the Speicherstadt, the UNESCO World Heritage site that’s the historic warehouse district (and still in use today)! Depending on the day and weather, some boat tours will do both the open water and port area as well as the Speicherstadt.
Looking for boat tours, check these out:
- Elbphilharmonie + Speicherstadt + Hafen City Tour: Compare dates here (in German)
- Hamburg Harbor – Light Tour: Compare dates here (in German)
- 2-Hour Port Tour: Compare dates here (in German)
- 2-Hour Speicherstadt + HafenCity Tour: Compare dates here (in German & English)
- 1-Hour Harbor Tour: Compare dates here (in German & English)
Music has been an integral part of Hamburg for several hundred years. In recent times, Hamburg is best known for being the starting point of the Beatles. However, the musical legacy of the city extends far earlier than the Beatles. Classical musicians and composers such as Telemann, Hasse, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, and Brahms all called Hamburg home and were very influential in the musical development of the city.
Hamburg now has a dedicated “Komponistenquartier,” a composers’ corner in the center of the city that reflects upon the lives of these famous composers. George Philipp Telemann, one of the most prolific German composers of all-time, was the musical director of the five major churches in Hamburg. Born in Hamburg, Johann Adolph Hasse was both a composer and a singer. His career started as a young adult in the Hamburg Opera. While he ended up leaving Germany for Italy, his legacy lives on in Hamburg. As the son of Johann Sebastian Bach (and godchild of Telemann), Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was an accomplished composer himself and served as Hamburg’s Director of Music for over 20 years, taking the role over from Telemann. Lastly, Johannes Brahms began his career in Hamburg as a young boy. After not receiving the conductorship of the Hamburg Philharmonic, he ended up spending most of his adult life in Vienna. However, his legacy lives on in Hamburg.
Cover of the Beatles “Revolver” album done by Hamburg-native Klaus Voormann
The legacy of music doesn’t end with these composers. Felix Mendelssohn was another world-renowned composer from Hamburg, and the city itself is quite renown for its musical past. The Hamburg Opera was the first public opera in present-day Germany and dates back 350 years. However, Hamburg would find international musical fame in the 1960s when an unknown group named “The Beatles” decided to start their career here.
The Beatles in Hamburg
Arguably the most famous band in the entire world, the Beatles began their musical career in Hamburg. They lived in Hamburg from August 1960 to December 1962. At that point, Ringo Starr was not a member of the band and Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe still were members. It was in Hamburg that the Beatles adopted their signature haircut, taking inspiration from Klaus Voormann (see below!) and his then-girlfriend Astrid Kirchherr. She would eventually leave Voormann for Sutcliffe and were together until his sudden death in late 1962.
The Beatles were playing around St. Pauli and along the Reeperbahn, the infamous street in Hamburg known (even today) for its prostitution and drug scene as well as being the epicenter of the Hamburg party scene (fun fact: I have yet to even go to a bar there!). The Beatles spent their time playing at the Indra Club, Kaiserkeller, the Top Ten Club, and the Star-Club while sleeping in the storeroom of the Bambi Kino (movie theater).
- Indra Club: Große Freiheit 64, 22767 Hamburg
- Kaiserkeller: Große Freiheit 36, St. Pauli, 22767 Hamburg
- Top Ten Club: Reeperbahn 136, 20359 Hamburg
- Star-Club: Closed
The Beatles time in Hamburg was a wild time – it involved multiple deportations (1. Harrison was underage and 2. McCartney and Best attempted to light a building on fire with a condom), lots of sex with prostitutes, and the beginning of their drug phase. At this point in their career, the Beatles were mainly playing covers of other famous songs.
As John Lennon famously stated about Hamburg,
“I might have been born in Liverpool – but I grew up in Hamburg.”
While the Beatles stayed in Hamburg for 2.5 years, the city played a formative role in their future success. They established not only their infamous haircuts, but the final members of the Beatles were solidified with the meeting/adding of Ringo Starr to the group after ousting Pete Best and having Stuart Sutcliffe leave the group.
At the Reeperbahn Festival, I had the pleasure of meeting Klaus Voormann – one of the biggest names behind the Beatles and one of the first individuals who realized how successful they would become in the future!
Klaus Voormann in the flesh – he gave a wonderful presentation about his graphic design work through the years as well as his time with the Beatles
After moving from Berlin to Hamburg to study art, Voornmann accidentally came across the Beatles playing one evening while walking down the Reeperbahn and stated he was left “speechless” after never hearing music like that before. Lennon initially blew off Voormann and it was Sutcliffe that took a real interest in Voormann, Kirchherr, and their friend Jürgen Vollmer.
Voormann ended up moving back to London with the Beatles after they left Hamburg and lived with George Harrison and Ringo Starr in their apartment. He designed the cover of the Revolver album, winning a Grammy for Best Cover Art, Graphic Arts.
Famous quote by Klaus Voormann when talking about his experiences in Berlin versus Hamburg
During and after the Beatles tenure, he worked both with the group and individually with the members – creating an album cover for Ringo Starr and George Harrison. A musician himself, Voormann played with several well-known artists and was a member of the Plastic Ono Band with Lennon, Yoko Ono, Alan White, and Eric Clapton as well as playing individually on Lennon’s Imagine album, Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and Living in the Material World albums, and Starr’s Ringo and Goodnight Vienna albums. There were rumors that the Beatles were going to re-group in the 1970s as the Ladders, with Voormann replacing McCartney on bass.
Meeting Klaus Voormann was quite a surreal experience for me. Having grown up a Beatles fan all my life (thanks to my Dad!), it’s incredible to think that this man had daily interactions and even lived with some of them! He was inspiring and gave such great anecdotes about his time together with the Beatles.
The majestic Elbphilharomie. Although one of the newest additions to the Hamburg skyline, I couldn’t imagine this city without the Elphi (as us locals have nicknamed it!). As one of the largest and most acoustically advanced concerts halls in the world, the Elphi is the perfect combination of old versus new and gives ode to Hamburg’s shipping industry. The glass structure, meant to resemble a hoisted sail or waves, sits on top of an old warehouse building.
In un-German-like fashion, the Elphi was extremely over-budget and over-schedule. With an initial cost estimate of 240 million Euros, it ended up costing over 800 million Euros and was 6 years behind schedule. However, the beauty and majestic presence of this concert hall has made most people forget the struggles during construction.
- Check out who’s playing at the Elphi and buy tickets: https://www.elbphilharmonie.de/en
I had the honor of hearing Ben Folds perform at the Elphi Main Hall in May 2018. The acoustics were out-of-this-world amazing. I could literally hear him tapping his foot to the beat of the music. It was a stunning experience. As a tourist, it is free to go to the observation deck of the Elphi – the perfect location for an amazing view of the entire city and Elbe.
The Reeperbahn Festival, founded in 2006, is Europe’s largest club festival. It takes place the second-to-last Wednesday to Sunday in September (September 19-22, 2o18 and September 18-21, 2019). In 2018, the festival had over 900 events, including 600 concerts as well as 300 events in the fields of fine arts, film, literature, and education. There are lectures, tours, media productions, speakers, etc. – it truly is a well-rounded arts festival.
I’ve looked at going to the festival since 2016 and jumped on the opportunity to fully partake in 2018 (and hopefully again in 2019!). This past year, over 90 concert venues hosted a total of 40,000 visitors in just 4 days. The coolest part about the festival is that the entire city turns in a huge musical venue – the parks are littered with up-and-coming musicians and there are even old school buses that become nightclubs! It truly is a one-of-a-kind event.
A school bus turned into a venue/nightclub – how cool is this!?
Tickets can either be bought as a day pass (for a specific day) as well as a 2-day, 3-day, or 4-day pass. These tickets include access to all concerts and venues on the selected day(s) as well as entrance to all art, film, and educational programs/lectures.
- You can purchase your tickets for Reeperbahn Festival 2019 here.
Yoke Lore – he was absolutely incredible. Thanks to my sister for recommending him to me!
Although your pass allows you entrance to all concerts for the day(s), it’s on a first-come, first-serve basis so make sure to get to the venue early (or come to the show before and then never leave the venue!). Most venues are really small and once they reach maximum capacity, it is a 1-person-out, 1-person-in situation – no exceptions! Every concert I attended had a line so prepare ahead of time – figure out a few “must see” concerts and prioritize arriving to the venue early for them.
Hard to get into Charlotte Lawrence’s venue but totally worth it – she was fantastic and the venue was stunning!
My two “must see” concerts were Yoke Lore and Charlotte Lawrence – both were absolutely fantastic and gave great shows. One of the nice things about the Reeperbahn Festival is that all the sets are less than an hour long – the most popular songs are played, no time is wasted, and it allows you to see lots of different acts.
- Hint: Make sure to download the Reeperbahn Festival app. I found the website to not be intuitive at all. However, I thought the app was fantastic for organizing my schedule, finding the venues, and listening to snippets of the artists.
How to Get to Hamburg
I have a love / hate relationship with the transportation to / from Hamburg. Maybe I’m bitter right now because EasyJet almost entirely pulled out of the Hamburg Airport and United ended the only non-stop flight to the USA (for good!). I also think I was extremely spoiled having Frankfurt as my main airport when I lived in Heidelberg. That being said, there are lots of options for getting to Hamburg, especially when located in Europe!
Hamburg is the intersection for several major highways both within Germany and around the continent. That being said, once you arrive in Hamburg by car, you should park your car and not use it for the duration of your visit. Public transportation is excellent here and should be utilized (see below!). There is a huge lack of parking in the city and it can get quite chaotic driving. If possible, try to find a hotel that has a parking garage to avoid the hassle of having to find parking on your own.
I love train travel in Germany. I know that everyone hates on Deutsche Bahn (the national rail company of Germany) due to its prices and delays but I honestly think it is fantastic – the trains are clean, spacious, and have great offers (if booking ahead of time!). Plus, most delays are out of the control of Deutsche Bahn. Seriously, I highly recommend traveling via Deutsche Bahn when in Germany.
- Find tickets via the Deutsche Bahn website (there’s a great English version of the website as well!)
The Hamburg Hauptbahnhof (main train station) is the largest in Germany and the third-largest in Europe. It handles close to 500,000 passengers…every single day! There are almost 2,000 trains daily serving all regional cities in northern Germany as well as international destinations in Denmark, Austria, Switzerland, Hungary, Czech Republic, and Slovakia. I love traveling by train because there is no security, it is less hassle, lots of amenities are still for free, and wifi is available through the high-speed (ICE) Deutsche Bahn trains.
Like I mentioned above, I definitely have a love / hate relationship with the Hamburg Airport. In terms of organization, it is a fantastic airport. I’ve never stood in security for more than 15 minutes and they are so efficient with lots of amenities. The Hamburg Airport was actually voted the #1 airport in Europe for 10-25 million passengers (and has won this award several times). However, with Hamburg as the 2nd-largest city in Germany, the airport is only the 5th largest in Germany. After the loss of EasyJet and AirBerlin, I’ve found routes limited and prices higher. If Hamburg wants to continue pushing itself as an international tourist destination, it definitely needs to work on expanding its routes and services both within Europe and beyond.
Once again, going by bus is the cheapest, yet slowest way, to reach Hamburg. However, there are hundreds of routes from Hamburg to other German destinations as well as all across Europe. The main bus company is FlixBus and while it is still a bus, the service is not bad at all! If you have unlimited time, FlixBus is a great option for saving money.
- Check out the routes and prices for FlixBus.
How to Get Around Hamburg
As I mentioned above, Hamburg has absolutely fantastic public transportation (it is run by the HVV). The buses, u-bahns (underground trains aka metro), and s-bahns (overground trains) run every 5-10 minutes (mainly every 5 minutes) and connect to every part of the city (and beyond!). About a year ago, some of the lines even started running 24/7, making it super convenient to get around the city safely. The public transportation is always clean and quite cheap.
- Click here to check out the schedule for the HVV and to find the best ticket option for you.
The Prince and I have a car in Hamburg but actually never use it because we can’t justify the price of gas and parking when we get such great public transportation options. The Prince gets a free transportation pass through his university and I get a free transportation pass through my work. On the weekends, I can use the full range of the Hamburg public transportation lines and can even bring someone for free with me!
- City Hint: Part of the public transportation system includes ferries. Instead of splurging money on a tour of the harbor, hop on one of the public ferries for less than 3 Euros to see the same exact views!
Where to Stay in Hamburg
As a Hamburg local, I haven’t had the opportunity to fully explore the hotel scene in Hamburg. However, these are some of my favorites and the most recommended hotels.
Budget (Under 100 Euros / night)
Superbude Hotel Hostel St. Pauli or St. Georg – A hotel/hostel combination, Superbude has both shared and private rooms at afforable rates. Each room has a private bathroom and the lounge area serves drinks. The St. Pauli location is close to the Reeperbahn Festival venues while the St. Georg location is close to the main train station.
Generator Hostel – I’ve previously used Generator hostels in all different European cities because they’re clean, affordable, consistent, and on the high-end of hostels. The Generator Hostel in Hamburg is right next to the main train station, making it easy to both explore Hamburg and surrounding cities!
Check availability for Generator Hostel
Pyjama Park Schanzenviertel or St. Pauli – These are some of the coolest hostels I’ve ever seen. With a combination of both shared and private rooms, Pyjama Park hotels are chic and hip – it feels like you’re walking into an urban oasis with all the clean lines and greenery. The Schanzenviertel hostel is located in the hipster area of Hamburg while the St. Pauli located is close to all the Reeperbahn Festival venues.
Mid-Range (100 Euros – 300 Euros / night)
25hours Hotel Altes Hafenamt or HafenCity – As part of AccorHotels, 25hours hotels appeal to a younger, more contemporary audience. The rooms have a boutique feel and the chain specializes in fun, pleasure, and relaxation – making it a point to create an experience and entertainment for the hotel guest.
Motel One Hamburg am Michel or Alster – Motel One hotels are some of my favorite mid-range hotels in Europe. They’re cool, hip, and always at an affordable rate (you can find rooms for as cheap as 69 Euros / night). As an American, I have such a negative perception of the word “motel” but trust me, they may be called Motel One but they’re definitely a boutique hotel! Both of these locations in Hamburg are centrally located.
Luxury (300+ Euros / night)
Hotel Grand Elysee – Located right around the corner from Planten un Blumen (a huge park in the middle of Hamburg) and the Alster lake (which, fun fact, is actually a river!), Hotel Grand Elysee is in my favorite neighborhood of Rothenbaum! Superior quality and service is of the utmost importance at the 5-star hotel. If you’re living in Hamburg, you can actually send your kids to kindergarten here!
Check availability for Hotel Grand Elysee
Fairmont Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten – I walk by this hotel quite often and am always in awe of how beautiful it is! Located right on the Alster, this is the premier 5-star hotel in Hamburg (and constantly ranked one of the best hotels in the world) – it’s where all the foreign dignitaries stay when visiting Hamburg (including former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry when he attended an OSCE meeting). Their afternoon tea is a bucket list item for me – I still can’t justify spending close to 80 Euros on just an afternoon tea!
Check availability for Fairmont Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten
The Westin – Located inside the Elphi, the Westin is one of the newer high-end hotels in Hamburg. The views are absolutely stunning with panoramas of the city and harbor area. If you’re seeing a show at the Elphi, why not combine it with a stay at the Westin?
Check availability for the Westin
Hotel Atlantic Kempinski – Another 5-star hotel located directly on the Alster, Hotel Atlantic Kempinski first opened its doors in 1909. Part of the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies was filmed in the hotel and it has previously been named Germany’s best hotel. Famous guests include Charles de Gaulle, Aristotle Onassis, Willy Brandt, Neil Armstrong, Henry Kissinger, Giorgio Armani, Morgan Freeman, Michael Jackson, Helmut Schmidt, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Check availability for Hotel Atlantic Kempinski
What to Eat in Hamburg
Ahhhh German food. Probably my favorite food group ever – there’s really nothing better than all the meat and potatoes! However, most people don’t realize that Germany has incorporated a lot of other food traditions based on immigrants and regional flavors. Here’s just some of my favorite German foods that you should try while visiting Hamburg!
There’s much debate as to the origin of currywurst – some say it was invented in Hamburg and others say it was invented in Berlin. The consensus now agrees upon Berlin although Hamburg refuses to acknowledge it! Regardless, currywurst is probably my favorite German (fast) food. It’s a sausage cut into slices and covered with curry ketchup as well as curry powder. It’s not really spicy at all (at least not by American standards) and it’s oh so yummy. I prefer mine being served with a bread roll although a lot of people also get it with fries! There are many places to eat it in Hamburg. Here’s some of the best places:
- Lucullus: Reeperbahn 75, 20359 Hamburg
- Kiezcurry: Querstraße 2, 20359 Hamburg
Fischbrötchen is a Hamburg specialty and loved by the residents. Unfortunately, because I do not eat seafood, I can not comment on the taste of it. However, it’s a must-eat item when visiting Hamburg! It is a fish sandwich usually topped with onions, pickles, horseradish, ketchup, or cocktail sauce. A wide variety of fish can be used for a Fischbrötchen but the most common types are herring, salmon, or European sprat.
Junipalooza Gin Festival being held in the Fischauktionshalle – the above photo is of Gin Sul, a local Hamburg gin!
It’s a Hamburg traditional to visit the Fischmarkt (Fish Market) early Sunday morning after a long night of partying and drinking on the Reeperbahn. There’s usually live music, coffee, and lots of Fischbrötchen available! It’s located in the more than 100-year-old Fischauktionshalle (Fish Auction Hall), a gorgeous old building located directly on the Elbe.
- Fischauktionshalle: Große Elbstraße 9, 22767 Hamburg – open 6:00 am to noon on Sundays
The Fischauktionshalle also hosts other events and festivals, including the Junipalooza Gin Festival that was taking place when I visited. If possible, make sure to see the inside of this building for its stunningly colorful windows!
- Other places to find Fischbrötchen: anywhere along the Große Elbstraße
How gorgeous is the Fischauktionshalle!? And this is only half of it!
It is jokingly said that döner is the national food of Germany. Brought over to Germany by the Turks in the 1950s, döners are seriously the most delicious food to eat after a long night out! They can be found all over the city in Hamburg (and almost every other town and city in Germany). A döner is a type of kebab made with (lamb) meat roasted on a vertical stick. The lamb is then shaved away in thin slices and put into the kebab (filled with spices and various sauces). While lamb is the most common type of döner, you can also get it with chicken and other types of meats.
Final Thoughts on Hamburg
I can’t begin to express my love of Hamburg – whether it’s the rich history, diverse culture, delicious food, gorgeous scenery, or musical background, the city seriously has something for everyone. I had a great time playing tourist in Hamburg and can’t thank Hamburg Marketing enough for creating such a wonderful experience for me!
I can’t begin to thank Hamburg Marketing and Hamburg Tourism for putting together such a wonderful trip, itinerary, and experiences. As always, all opinions are my own – it’s been great to share part of my city with all of you!