Sir Nikolai: a most festive host


Sir Nikolai: a most festive host

Hamburg > humbug. Broadcaster Emma Barnett savours some seasonal escapism on the banks of the Elbe

Emma Barnett

BY Emma Barnett17 December 2021

Arriving in freezing Hamburg of a December evening, one wants two things: alcohol and twinkly lights. Sir Nikolai doesn’t disappoint. Walking into this quirky design-led boutique hotel, a warming fizzy wine is immediately deposited into our grateful hands by a practical but warm, smiling German receptionist. And despite the black low-lit bookshelves and gold and marble occasional tables galore, there is a pleasingly oversized chintzy Christmas tree dominating proceedings in the kitsch lobby area. I immediately like a place that combines moody Bowie photos with the full glitz of Christmas.

Before we get too settled into our olive and navy crushed-velvet chairs with our tipples, basking in the comforting glow of fairy lights, our room is ready and off we trundle via the Peruvian-Japanese restaurant which has a wonderful circular fireplace breathing heat like a perfect o-shaped mouth.

But I must take a moment to pass comment on the corridor which leads to the restaurant and lifts. Its black walls are stunningly illuminated by gold frames with inbuilt lights. It’s so effective I make a mental note to replicate the effect in a future home – electricity bill permitting.

Our room, a Sir Supreme on the second floor comes off a romantically dark carpeted corridor and, inside, a mini art gallery-cum-boudoir awaits. The first sight is pleasing: an art deco gold drinks trolley stocked with high quality spirits, crystal glassware, a marble chopping board, a bowl of limes and a serious knife. Next, a black wooden desk comes into vision – which, upon opening, reveals a selection of well-chosen novels in German and English. It’s the little things.

Then comes the art. Everywhere. Framed butterflies, bugs, budgies, Hamburg river scenes, and Japanese Hokusai moutainscapes adorn every wall, including the toilet cubicle – an often overlooked canvas. But it’s all so carefully hung and evenly spaced – the overall impact is one of cosy homeliness rather than junk-shop happy.

However, the main two features are the king-sized bed and large free-standing egg-shaped bath – both situated in the heart of room – perpendicular to one another. I’m not normally a fan of a bath dominating a bedroom; it creates too much pressure to immediately derobe and get romantic. But somehow in a freezing city – one punctuated by bustling Christmas markets – it feels totally natural and fitting. And with two more crushed-velvet armchairs and another couple of marble and gold coffee tables to boot (which we immediately commandeer for our essential holiday gin rummy card games over some tea – yes, we rock on holiday), who could resist?

The bathroom still has a lot going on – despite the bath having made a run for it. Two marble sinks; two large framed mirrors; a separate toilet cubicle (with an automatic light that seems cool at first but if you stay too still on the can, switches off until you wave frantically) and a powerful free-standing shower – also big enough for two. Special mention must be made of the gorgeously scented ‘Dead Clean’ shower and bath products – full of Dead Sea essence and argan oil. They even provide four extra small bottles of the set, sub-100ml, in their own clear toiletry bag. It’s as if they want you to steal the swag for your carry-on luggage. Naturally, I oblige at the end of our stay, to Mr Smith’s usual horror.

Sir Nikolai’s designers are big on lighting but unlike over-complicated digital settings in other rooms we’ve stayed in of late – where you need a PHD in electrical engineering to turn on a reading lamp – there are only three settings: bright, sexy and off. But sexy is real sexy – right down to the uplighting on the bottom of the bed, showing off a large, sumptuous red Oriental rug.

A Marshall bluetooth speaker allows my latest Spotify playlist to boom out with minimum effort, making our room feel like a home-from-home in minutes. The only small snag was the lack of hanging space – especially with the bulky clothes required for Hamburg’s biting climate. But who needs cupboard space when you can live in a giant bed or bath?

Those many layers were soon on our backs as we made our way to the main Christmas market outside the city’s magnificent gothic town hall – only a brisk seven-minute walk away.

Gluhweined and bratwursted up to the hilt, we returned two hours later, merry but oh-so-ready for our double bath. Bubbles, of the alcoholic and the soapy kind, ensured a decent night’s sleep between sheets boasting the highest of thread counts.

Our breakfast didn’t disappoint – combining excellent a la carte options (think fried sourdough, avo and expertly poached eggs) and a fresh buffet with cold cuts and juices aplenty.

And then it was back out to the neighbouring Unesco-listed warehouse district – once the hub of Hamburg’s thriving coffee and spice trade. This hotel is also exquisitely located for the new jewel of the city: the Elbe Philharmonic Concert Hall (but please be more organised than us and book tickets many years in advance) and also, crucially in our opinion, the mad, needs-to-be-seen-to-be-believed Miniature Wonderland. No description warranted. Trust us, just go.

After an afternoon wandering and feasting through further afield Christmas markets, including the so-called naughty one at St Pauli (about as tame as Blackpool as it turns out), we headed back to our room for a spot of gin rummy, tea (a European hotel with decent English teabags – praise be) and another delicious bath soak.

Dinner in Izakaya beckoned, offering a chance to sample what happens when Peru meets Japan in Germany. The answer? Delicious robata grilled goodies with chimichurri-esque fiery sauces and tasty, delicately constructed sushi. The only let-down was, ironically, our most expensive choice: a slightly dry and flavourless €35 short rib. Brexit pinching the pound; it smarted all the more. But, on balance, a glamorous tasty night is promised in Sir Nikolai’s only restaurant.

Oh, and there’s a spa literally among the pipes in the basement – yet another reason for shivery Hamburg visitors to scurry back from the glorious technicolour Christmas markets.

And before we knew it, our stay ended as it had begun: one last glass of fizz in hand, beneath the twinkle of traditional festive baubles, winking at us, almost daring us to stay one more night.

This review was first published early in 2020 so some hotel details may have changed

Emma Barnett is an award-winning broadcaster and journalist who currently hosts Woman’s Hour on Radio 4 and Newsnight on BBC2. She is also, in her own words, a keen traveller and terrible amateur artist.