Miles of canals, three rivers and a vast port, it is suffice to say that life in the city-state of Hamburg revolves around water. Ever since its days as a duty-free member in the elite Hanseatic League of the Middle Ages, Hamburg has had a long-term love affair with the seven seas. Coupled with a vibrant atmosphere and a multi-cultural flair, Germany’s second largest city entices its visitors with a maritime romance to remember.
Cruising the Waterways
Although left battered and broken after World War II, Hamburg’s Hafen, or harbor, has since regained its glory to become Germany’s largest and second only to Rotterdam in Europe. To feel the greatness of this gateway to the world, it’s best to experience it with a one-hour cruise on the Elbe River. Boats depart from historical Landungsbrücken and sail past fleets of ships and a modern skyline punctuated by old church steeples.
There are also cruises on the two inner-city lakes of Binnenalster and Aussenalster. For another Hamburg horizon to admire, tours set sail from Jungfernstieg and pass by the regal buildings that line these urban shores. From Binnenalster, one can enjoy a two-hour canal tour through the Altstadt (old city) and onward to Hamburg’s impressive Speicherstadt.
Speicherstadt and HafenCity
Further along the harbor, towering brick buildings, crowned with spires extending from green copper rooftops, make Hamburg’s Speicherstadt an amazing site to see. Bridges span canals, which flow through the very heart of the district, and connect the world’s largest complex of 19th century warehouse blocks.
As one of the nine museums in the Speicherstadt, the Miniatur Wunderland Modelleisenbahn (model train exhibition) will not disappoint children or the child inside. Sets include a mini-America, Hamburg and other European locations. Dispalys not only boast a multitude of moving choo-choos, but also vehicles, boats and, most recently, a fully functioning airport. Visitors need to purchase tickets in advance for reserved time frames and allow a minimum of two hours to appreciate this world in miniature.
While exploring this area, it won’t be difficult to miss Hamburg’s new Elbphilharmonie in HafenCity. Commissioned by Swiss architects, Herzog and de Meuron, the avant-garde glass structure, whose form resembles cresting waves and billowing sails on a ship, rests upon a massive red-brick edifice that faces the harbor. This outstanding work of architecture will be a world-class venue for top performances.
Sex, Seafood and Rock ‘n Roll
At the center of hip and happening St. Pauli is Hamburg’s most notorious address: the Reeperbahn. Its history began in the 1700s when it was the original site for rope makers (Reepschläger), who needed this street’s length to lay out their productions for ships in the nearby port. Yet, today, this bustling boulevard, lined with restaurants, bars, discos and clubs, runs through one of Europe’s most famous red-light districts.
When the sun goes down and the neon lights flicker on, visitors and locals alike congregate on this ‘sinful mile,’ which resembles a mini Las Vegas Strip with a high sex drive. Even the early 20th century police station (Davidwache) could not escape its lettering illuminated in blue.
It is also in this lively Hamburg district where the Beatles began their career singing in local bars and ultimately landed a recording deal, launching them into a world phenomenon. As John Lennon once said, “I was born in Liverpool, but I grew up in Hamburg.“ Fans of the legendary group can meet at Beatles Platz on Grosse Freiheit, where sillouettes of the ‘Fab Four’ stand poised upon black granite in the shape of a vinyl record.
After a night of weekend revelry in St. Pauli, it’s a tradition to head to the district’s renowned Fischmarkt on Sunday morning. Open from 5 am to 10 am (7 am to 10 am in winter), the active market not only sells the freshest catches of the day, but also everything from flowers to vegetables to souvenirs. Moreover, it’s an ideal spot to enjoy some breakfast while listening to the entertaining banter of boisterous market vendors.
Other Hamburger Highlights
The breathtaking, neo-Renaissance city hall is one of Hamburg’s architectural grandes dames. Guided tours are available to see some of the 647 rooms in this late 19th century example of opulence. It further sets the scene as an ideal backdrop for one of the city’s many traditional markets during the Christmas season.
After succumbing to Allied bombings in 1943, the neo-Gothic St. Nikolai Church is a shadow of its former self. Today, standing as a poignant memorial as a victim of Wold War II, Hamburg’s tallest structure, its impressive 147-meter steeple and some of the outer walls are all that remain. Photos on display also show the aftermath of aerial bombardments that had rained down on Hamburg during the war.
Whether cruising the waterways or strolling the byways, Hamburg’s cultural wealth and sea-faring appeal make this classy Hanseatic city a joy to discover.