Germany’s second largest city and the tenth largest port in the world, Hamburg, is surprisingly beautiful. The character the city is heavily influenced by its position at the confluence of two rivers, the Elbe and the Alster. With more bridges than any other city in the world and more canals than Venice and Amsterdam combined, life in Hamburg centres around the water. The Alster has been dammed and separated into lakes – the outer and inner. The Outer Alster provide a great spot for sports for locals with rowers, kayakers and sailors crossing its waters and runners and cyclists circling its edges. The Inner Alster with its central fountains provides the setting for the backdrop of the inner city. Combine the river action with a mix of architectural styles from the late 19th century Rathaus to the 1920s Chilehaus and the modernist Elbephilarmonie and Dancing Towers and there is plenty for the tourist to see and do in Hamburg.
Getting there. Hamburg is a major transport hub and can be accessed by train, plane and boat. We arrived by train from Copenhagen, which had the added benefit of the novelty of being in a train inside a ferry. As we approached the Baltic Sea the train slowed down and entered the lower deck of the ferry along tracks. Once inside the ferry all passengers disembarked and went onto the upper decks of the ferry. Forty five minutes later we reversed the process – hopped back onto the train which rolled back out of the ferry and onto the mainland tracks.
Getting around. As always the best way to see a city is on foot and Hamburg is eminently walkable. However to get a full flavour of what Hamburg is all about you should also get on the water. A group public transport ticket for 2 to 5 people, which provides entry on all trains, buses and public ferries in zones 1 and 2 at the time of our trip (2015) cost 11.20 Euro.
Top sites/things to do. We were very fortunate in our trip to Hamburg as we were able to catch up with two friends we had met in New Zealand and Hamburg locals, Marco and Mona. Marco picked us up at 10.30 am in the morning with Mona joining us later that afternoon and we didn’t get back to the hotel until later that night with the two of them showing us the best that Hamburg has to offer.
Our day with Marco started with a walk along the Outer Alster Lake (Außenalster) and Inner Alster (Binnenalster), past the upmarket shops of the Jungfernsteig (named after the young unmarried maidens or ‘virgins’ who used to be promenaded along the boulevard by their wealthy families) and Alster Arkaden to the Rathaus. A courtyard with fountain (dedicated to the Greek goddess of health) and the main entrance is at the rear of the Rathaus, which was built in 1897 and houses the Senate (State government) and City parliament. Entry was free but you have to book and pay for tours (we didn’t bother with a tour). Construction of the Rathaus took 11 years and, impressively, the foundation was supported by 4000 wooden poles driven into the Alster Lake.
From the Rathaus we headed along the other major shopping strip of Monckebergstrasse and across to the Chilehaus in the Kontorhausviertel (Office District). Built mainly in the 1920s and 1930’s the Kontorhausviertel was one of the first purely commercial districts on the European continent. The mainly clinker brick buildings in the district were a variation of the 1920s “New Construction Style” and built to maximise all available land and height. The most famous example of the architectural style in the district is the Chilehaus built by Fritz Höger in 1922-24 and said to be a masterpiece of German clinker expressionism. I don’t know much about architectural styles but I do know that I loved the look of this building.
From the Kontorhausviertel we crossed to the adjacent Speicherstadt (or Warehouse City) built in the period between 1883 and 1927 by demolishing the existing buildings and requiring the relocation of 20,000 people. The 17 warehouses are each 7 or 8 stories high with one side facing a canal (or fleet as it is called in Hamburg) and the other a street. Goods were hauled up from boats on the canals by the merchants (known colloquially as pfeffersaches, which translates to pepper sacks in English) by a rope and pulley mechanism, the copper tops of which remain on the buildings today. Both the Kontorhausviertal and Speicherstadt have been nominated for World Heritage status and acceptance is anticipated to occur later this year.
Next on our walking tour was the Hafen City (Harbour City) a modern example of urban regeneration. In pride of place in Hafencity is the yet to be completed Elbephilharmonie (Concert House). Like its Australian equivalent, the Sydney Opera House, construction of the Elbe Philharmonie has been dogged by controversy. Costs have blown out to more than 750 million Euro and delays have meant that it will take about 10 years to complete construction (effectively meaning that the construction time will be only marginally quicker than the Rathaus, which was built more than 110 years ago). Locals question the amount spent on the building which is likely to be visited (and, indeed, lived in given that part of it the building also comprises a hotel and apartments) mainly by tourists and the wealthy. Also of interest in Hafen City was the statue of Klaus Störtebeker. According to Marco, Störtebeker was a pirate captured and sentenced to death in Hamburg. Legend has it that when he begged for the life of his crew he was promised that as many of the crew as he could walk past after his head was cut off would be spared from execution. His head was duly cut off and, notwithstanding this apparent disadvantage, his body managed to walk past 12 crew before collapsing.
After Hafen City it was time to get off our feet and jump onto a public transport ferry at Landangsbrücken for a return journey to Teufelsbrücke to provide a different view of the port city. We weren’t the only ones with the idea and you need to get on the ferry early to secure a spot on the rails for the best view. Of course when the skies opened up to add rain to the stiff breeze the decks were soon vacated so we eventually had plenty of room (albeit we got a bit cold).
Back at Landangsbrücken we were joined by Mona (who had been at a workshop all day) before we headed off to St Michaelis Kirche, fondly called the “Michel” by locals. An impressive church in the Baroque style, its most famous feature is the observation platform which, as it sits close to the top of the 106m tower, provides 360 degree views of the city. The platform can be accessed either by lift or a climb up the stairs but we chose to take the lift up and the stairs back down which meant that we could take advantage of the view without the oxygen deprivation and still see the inner workings of the tower, including the clock and bells. For those more culturally inclined the church is also where classical music concerts regularly take place.
Our last attraction on our walking tour before our dinner break was the Alter Elbtunnel (Old Elbe Tunnel). Built between 1907 and 1911 the tunnel stretches 426.5m at a depth of 23.5m. It is accessed by both cars and pedestrians alike by lifts – you drive into the lift and exit it 23m below. On the weekend it is closed to car traffic, providing a safe and fume free walk for pedestrians.
After dinner our last visit of the day was to the Reeperbahn. No port town would be complete without a red light district and in that respect Hamburg is no different. In theory an “entertainment district”, bars, restaurants and nightclubs are mixed in with sex shops, strip clubs and prostitutes. The most famous street in the area is Große Freiheit (Great Freedom) where the Beetles started their career. Whilst it was worth visiting (even if it is just so you can say you’ve been there), the bright lights, noise and number of people (a lot of whom were drunk) were not really our thing. One street we didn’t walk down was Herbertstraße, where prostitutes sit in windows displaying their wares to potential customers. Women and tourists are aggressively discouraged from walking this street – it is only for those interested in purchasing the various services on offer.
That brought to an end a busy day on the ‘Tours with Marco and Mona’. Thanks once again guys.
Other attractions. There was still a lot of other things to do in Hamburg such as the Fischmarkt (every Sunday 5am to 9.30am), the Hamburger Kunsthalle and the Planten un Blomen (Botanical Garden), but I confess that without Marco and Mona to urge us on we spent our days just aimlessly wandering the streets and people watching.
Food. Always in search of cake for morning or afternoon tea we stopped in at Engel, a restaurant on a pontoon on the Elbe at Teufelsbrücke – great location and good cake. Following our request for typical Northern German cuisine, Marco and Mona took us to Anno 1905. The food was both excellent and great value and the staff were very friendly.
Accommodation. We stayed at the Hotel Barceló, a modern hotel in a good location close to both the Hauptbahnhof and Binnenalster. It was reasonable value for money, albeit outside of our usual budgetary constraints.