Highlights of Hamburg, Germany

October 4, 2010 by


“Once you are tired of container shipping terminals, you are tired of life.” I think it’s fair to say that no one has ever said this before. But if more people came to Hamburg, the phrase would perhaps enter the everyday parlance.

Hamburg Town Hall
Hamburg Town Hall

Hamburg Harbour Cruise

On a cruise around Hamburg’s extraordinary harbour, it becomes obvious how the most unlikely sights can become tourist attractions. Hamburg has the busiest port in Germany and the second busiest in Europe after Rotterdam, and the scale of it just makes you gawp in wonder.

The container shipping terminal that the cruise boat leisurely circles, for example, is bigger than Monaco. Across the grimly industrialised island, giant 100m-plus tall cranes (or ‘bridges’) clunk away, lifting another standardised shipping container on to another massive ship every two minutes. Thousands of the containers remain in big piles by the side, waiting for their turn. It’s not the Taj Mahal, it’s not the Grand Canyon, but in many ways it’s equally spectacular.

The cruise takes in a number of other unexpectedly fascinating sights. Enormous floating and dry docks, as well as Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich’s 850m euro super-yacht, are just the tip of the iceberg.

From the water, it is also possible to see Hamburg’s latest star taking shape. The Elbphilharmonie – an architecturally bold philharmonic hall – is due to be completed by 2012. It’s a striking symbol of the old meeting the new, with an old red-brick warehouse building having a wave-like glass structure put on top. It will stand out like a beacon once it’s finished, and is the flagship of the HafenCity project.

Elbphilharmonie under construction
Elbphilharmonie under construction

HafenCity and Speciherstadt

HafenCity is the largest inner city development project in the world. It won’t be finished for another 15 years or so, but an awful lot is already done. Glimmering glass structures line the water’s edge as if a shrine to the future. Eventually, the district created from wasteland will house over 40,000 people, schools and a university.

Next to all this sparkle is arguably the most fascinating part of the city. The Speicherstadt (Warehouse City) was built in the late 19th century when Hamburg finally became a full part of Germany. As part of agreeing to come under German customs control, the city was allowed to build a free port which operated outside the customs zone. This led to the world’s largest warehouse complex being created on islands outside the city centre.

Warehouses of Speicherstadt
Warehouses of Speicherstadt

Visually, Speicherstadt is extraordinary. The virtually identical warehouses line the canals, often with no path between them and the water. They’re all constructed from red brick and have a hulking presence.

Over the years, however, the port activity has moved away from Speicherstadt. Some of the buildings are still used as warehouses – notably the ones displaying amazing carpets from all over the Middle and Far East. The other blocks have been converted. Some of them are offices, some of them are food halls, some of them are cafés. But there are also some excellent museums and attractions built into these behemoths.

The most obvious of these is the Hamburg Dungeon, part of the rapidly expanding chain that includes the London Dungeon and York Dungeon. But some of the less immediately promising attractions prove to be utterly fascinating.

Miniatur Wunderland is a case in point. It is home to the world’s largest model railway. That might sound horribly geeky, but wait until you see it – the mock up of Switzerland stretches over two floors and includes churches, stations, landmarks and cable cars in microscopic detail. Along, of course, with mountains in not-so-microscopic detail.

Then there’s the Deutches Zollmuseum – the German Customs Museum. To many of us, customs is about sitting behind a desk at an airport, stamping passports with a dead-eyed glare. There is, mercifully, a bit more to it than that. The top floor offers a none-too-fascinating romp through the history of customs work in Germany, but the ground floor concentrates on what is done. And that means the extraordinary animals that people have tried to smuggle into the country – both live and stuffed – and the lengths people will go to in order to avoid paying import taxes. On show are cigarette packets hidden in spare tires, guns in glove boxes, drugs in golf balls and diamonds in matchboxes.

St Pauli Fishmarket
St Pauli Fishmarket

Around the Alster

Having such a major port makes Hamburg a pretty wealthy city, and this is obvious when you take a trip around the Alster Lake. There are some rather swanky houses in this part of town, as well as a surprising number of overseas consulates.

The city might be relatively rich, but it doesn’t have the reserve often associated with big money. It’s a place where you have to look a little too hard for light and shade at times; the centre is usually dead at night, while the main nightlife district probably isn’t aware of the direct translation of the word ‘subtle’.

Grand Buildings Alongside the Alster
Grand Buildings Alongside the Alster

The Reeperbahn and the Beatles

But the notorious Reeperbahn and its often red-lit side streets are as much a part of Hamburg as the lakeside mansions and giant shipping cranes. It originally got its reputation as the place where sailors went wild after days (and often weeks) at sea. Now the sailors are joined by tourists, and the many German-speakers that come to see musicals – Hamburg is Germany’s undisputed capital of big musical theatre productions – for a no-holds-barred, all-hours binge.

Beatlesplatz on the Reeperbahn
Beatlesplatz on the Reeperbahn

This part of town also has a musical heritage of a different kind – in the early 1960s, this was where The Beatles played punishing four hour-plus gigs on a daily basis. In a way, it was where Beatlemania was born – and the Beatlemania Museum offers an entertaining interpretation of the Fab Four’s days in Hamburg. The conclusion? Practice makes perfect.

Hamburg is by no means a classic beauty, but for a city break with a difference it has a lot to offer. It is unique in many ways – and intriguing where you least expect it to be.

David Whitley

Planning a trip? Browse Viator’s Hamburg tours & things to do, Hamburg Attractions, and Hamburg Travel Recommendations. David explored Hamburg using Viator’s Essential Hamburg Combo and stayed at the grand old Fairmont Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten – a thoroughly impressive lakeside hotel that successfully manages to balance historic décor with surprisingly modern facilities.

One Response to “Highlights of Hamburg, Germany”

  1. Uyghur Says:

    Germany is development, but to retain the past, classical architecture.