Reunification opened major prospects for Hamburg and the Hanseatic city has used them to its advantage
No doubt about it: Hamburg’s location is one of the most beautiful in Germany. It’s right on the banks of a major river. For centuries, the second largest city in Germany after Berlin has had ties to the Elbe River and its tributaries.
The homes of people in higher income brackets still ring Outer Alster Lake today. After finishing their business in the city’s center, their owners can return home via steamboat – to houses similar to those in upscale residential areas near the City of London.
Hamburg residents – “Hamburgers” – are delighted to hear this comparison. It is the most British place in Germany – nowhere else will you see men wearing blazers with gray trousers and women wearing plaid skirts and scarves with such devotion. Although the Social Democrats won the elections of the City Hall at the beginning of the year for the first time in a long time, along the Elbe, people are generally conservative.
Hamburg came out on top after German reunification. After being on the border to East Germany for 40 years, the city-state regained its hinterland in 1990. Since then, Hamburg has not just been the port city of northern West Germany, but of Dresden, Prague, and many other Central European cities as well.
Today, Hamburg is one of the 10 largest ports in the world. In Europe, it is second only to Rotterdam in the Netherlands. The shipping industry has left the lull it experienced after the 2008 financial crisis almost entirely behind it. The city’s docks are currently experiencing a huge construction boom.
As in Barcelona 20 years ago and in Bilbao a bit later, a kilometer-long, gray industrial district of Hamburg is now being catapulted into the 21st century. Within walking distance of major media centers, banks and trading companies, developers are turning old warehouses into loft apartments in the waterside “HafenCity” complex – city living with a sailboat at the door.
At the tip of the district on the river, seasoned by the diesel odor of passing ships and the view of the gantries at the docks, the new Elbphilharmonie concert hall juts above the skyline. The costs of the 110-meter-high glass building, which is scheduled for completion in 2013, have already exceeded all estimates.
The Elbphilharmonie is already Hamburg’s new landmark. After it is finished, the hall will have to sell 2,150 seats night after night – not an easy task in a city in which people prefer to be among their peers. The cultural scene in Hamburg has traditionally been modest, even though it is a major city.
Hamburg has always been dominated by merchants who knew how to count their pennies. The city’s rulers never gave generous subsidies to theaters, libraries or other public institutions. Hamburg didn’t even have a university 100 years ago – it wasn’t established until 1919.
The historic city center is small. The best place to start seeing the sights is the central train station. From there, go along the museum mall toward Inner Alster Lake and stroll along Ballindamm boulevard until you get to City Hall and Jungfernsteig Street, which has been the place to promenade in Hamburg for centuries. If you’re interested in culture, you’ll see the city’s major attractions along the way.
At this distance, you can already grasp how Hamburg is put together. Powerful church towers define the city’s silhouette. And temples of commerce, the roofed shopping galleries built during the past 20 years, provide an opportunity to stop. There, you can plan how to spend the evening – with a visit to the German Playhouse, Thalia Theater, a concert hall, popular club or a fish restaurant.
If you would like to experience a romantic seafarer atmosphere, you’ll have to look hard to find it. Hamburg’s port is fast-paced; they unload container ships quickly, and the author is loath to recommend a visit to the Reeperbahn red light district. This is why you should spend your second day in the city along the water. Visit “HafenCity,” which is easy to reach by subway or on foot from Hamburg’s center.
From there, you can take a walk to the St. Pauli piers and continue on to the Fish Market. Plan to eat lunch in one of the pubs or restaurants there – you’ll find something in every price class.
Walk through Altona, the district that used to be part of Denmark, and then take the rapid transit “S-Bahn” train to Blankenese. This charming suburb is full of small, picturesque houses, once the homes of ship’s captains and harbor pilots. From the 75-meter-high Süllberg Hill, you will have a magnificent view of the mighty river and the ships traveling on it.
The absolute highlight of every year is the harbor birthday celebration in May, with over one million people in attendance. It is the largest festival of its kind in the world, and on that weekend visitors can experience the reserved, almost taciturn Hamburgers as cheerful folk whose high spirits are not dampened by the bad weather or rain typical of the season.
Thousands of Hamburgers also gather when a large ship is expected to call at the port or to sail after being renovated at one of the large shipyards in the port area. They stand and face the river on the upper bank of the Elbe and wave to the ocean-going giants as they pass by.
Hamburg comes to an end at the town of Wedel, and the Schulau Ferry House restaurant there maintains a PA system for welcoming ships. Every ship entering the Port of Hamburg from the North Sea is treated to a musical greeting.
They have around 150 national anthems and addresses in approximately 50 different languages saved on the computer. This is the place to dust off your concertina and sing some romantic songs about sailors and the sea.