A Week-End City Break in Hamburg

A Week-End City Break in Hamburg

The second largest city in Germany after Berlin and the third busiest port in Europe after Rotterdam and Antwerp, Hamburg sits 100 kilometers (62 miles) inland from the North Sea. Here, at the head of the long funnel-shaped estuary of the Elbe River, the city has prospered through the ages to rise along 65 kilometers (40 miles) of canals straddled by 2500 bridges – more than Venice, Amsterdam and London put together. Yet little remains of this rich past in its fascinating contemporary urban texture.

A Unique Maritime Phoenix


Deichstraße is all that remains of the traditional Hanseatic architecture of Hamburg.


These two medieval half-timbered buildings were home to shopkeepers widows.

Throughout its millennium-long history as a powerhouse of international trade, Hamburg experienced a number of catastrophic fires, starting in 1030 when it was torched by King Mieszko II Lambert of Poland. However, the two most recent blazes, in 1842 and 1943, are what shaped its image of a city teaming with diverse architectural gems. Both times, Hamburg was reborn from its ashes and reinvented itself to emerge stronger and more vibrant in the wake of the devastation.

The Great Fire of Hamburg broke out on May 5, 1842 on Deichstraße (Dike Street). Over the next three days, driven northeastwards by the wind, it destroyed about one third of the Altstadt (Old Town), sparing only the southern end of Deichstraße. Today, this short stretch of street is the only intact exemple of Hamburg’s traditional Hanseatic architecture of tall, narrow houses reminiscent of those in Amsterdam. Another survivor of 17th century construction is the nearby Krameramtswohnungen – two half-timbered brick buildings on either side of a narrow courtyard, built by the Guild of Shopkeepers to house the widows of its members.

Brick Expressionism

Hamburg-Warehouse District.

The Warehouse District offers an exceptional example of Hamburg Brick Expressionism.

Hamburg-Warehouse Jugenstill.

Some of the Warehouse and Office area buildings have been restored for residential purposes.

What rose from the 1842 disaster are the twin neighborhoods of Kontorhausviertel (Office Neighborhood) and Speicherstadt (City of Warehouses) that face each other along the Zollkanal (Customs Canal). Built from 1883 to 1927, these storage and office facilities are the largest brick warehouse district in the world. Resting on timber-pile foundations, the buildings represent the finest example of Hamburg’s distinctive early 20th century tall red brick construction with ornate façades in a Gothic Revival style known as Brick Expressionism.

Now protected as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Spreicherstadt and Kontorhausviertel are a unique place to wander within red brick canyons connected by bridges, and take in the decoration details of their gabled facades. Some buildings have recently been repurposed into apartments and tourist attractions (such as the Miniatur Wunderland), but many still serve their original purpose as offices and storage facilities for spices, coffee, tea, carpets and now also electronics.

World War II Firestorm

Hamburg-Rathaus tower.

The Rathaus is topped by a soaring copper-clad tower.

Hamburg-Rathaus Hygiea.

The Rathaus fountain is topped with a statue of Hygieia.

As a major industrial center, home to shipyards, U-boat pens and oil refineries, Hamburg was the target of a sustained campaign of strategic bombings by the Allied throughout World War II. A decisive attack occurred in late July 1943 when over several nights, the bombings created a firestorm that virtually destroyed the city. Mercifully, the Kontorhausviertel and Speicherstadt area escaped the bombings. Other major landmarks, while damaged, were fully restored after the war.

The Hamburg Rathaus (City Hall) is an impressive Neo-Renaissance confection completed in 1897 to replace the original one destroyed in the 1842 fire. Under an elaborately gabled roof, its richly decorated 111 meter (364 foot) long façade displays the statues of the 20 emperors of the Holly Roman Empire. Its grand portico, topped by a soaring 112 meter (367 foot) tower, lead to a vast main entrance hall supported by 16 sandstone pillars. From there, the central courtyard, also open to the public, showcases a circular fountain topped with a statue of the goddess Hygieia.

Hamburg-Saint Micheal nave.

Saint Michael is considered of the finest Hanseatic Protestant Baroque churches anywhere.

St. Michael’s Church is the most famous church in the city, and with its 2500 seats, also the largest. One of the finest Hanseatic Protestant Baroque churches anywhere, it was completed in 1786. Destroyed by fire in 1906, it was rebuilt only to be devastated again during World War II, and restored yet again after the war.Designed according to the Latin cross plan, the 52 meter (170 foot) long, 44 meter (145 foot) wide church features a elegant marble pulpit sculpted to look like a rounded chalice, with its roof crowned by the Angel of Annunciation. Its 132-meter (433 foot) high, steeple dominates the skyline and long served as an orientation landmark for ships sailing on the Elbe.

Looking to the Future


The western tip of HafenCity is anchored by the newly unveiled Elbphilharmonie concert complex.


The Great Hall of the Elbsphilarmonie is said tod be one of the most acoustically advanced venues ever built.

While the historical warehouse district has long been a dominant feature of Hamburg, the focus is now shifting to the harbor, where HafenCity (Harbor City), one of the largest urban regeneration project in Europe, is establishing itself as the core of the new inner city. Covering an area of 157 hectares, HafenCity is a vibrant mix of cutting edge office and residential buildings, retail outlets, leisure facilities, restaurants, cafés and culture. At its western tip, the stunning Elbphilharmonie concert complex unveiled in 2017 is the new iconic reference of the city.

Designed by leading Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, the Elbphilharmonie rises from a 1960’s brick warehouse as a shimmering glass structure soaring over 100 meters (320 feet) into the pale Nordic sky. The façade is clad with over a thousand curved windows and culminates in a crown of crystal peaks. The lower part of the building houses a parking garage, restaurants and various conference and music studio space, and a six-story high, curved escalator that transports visitors to the upper plaza. The upper part houses the Great Hall, a steeply tiered hall holding 2150 seats over six floors, with a central orchestra stage at its base. There’re  also a smaller hall that can accommodate up to 550 guests, a 250-room luxury hotel and 45 private apartments.

A walkway around the plaza offers a striking circular view of the port, the Elbe and the city. It is the perfect place to appreciate the remarkable range of architecturally significant buildings of various times and styles that shape this dynamic city at once steeped in tradition and at the forefront of modernity.

Hamburg-Container Port.

The container port is the largest in Northern Europe.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – By plane: The airport is located 9 kilometers (5.6 miles) northwest of the city, with connections to most major European destinations. An efficient subway service links the airport to the Hauptbahnhof (central train station) in the center of town (Line S1). By train: From the central station,there are multiple ICE (Inter City Express) high speed trains connections throughout the day with all major Germany cities as well as Basel and Zurich (Switzerland).There are also direct connections with Copenhagen and Aarhus, (Denmark), Budapest (Hungary), Prague(Czech Republic), Vienna (Austria), and Bratislava (Slovakia).
  • Getting around –The city center is best explored on foot. However, Hamburg also has a well-developed public transport system. Buses run around the clock. The S-Bahn and U-Bahn metro services (underground and overground) run from approximately 5:00 am until 1:00 am in the central city.
  • Visiting –Ferry: Hamburg is Northern Europe’s biggest container port, and home to the largest floating dock in the world. To get a close up look at these awesome facilities as well as the best views of HafenCity, a harbor cruise is a must. Ignore the various cruise ships that tout their services along Landungsbrücken quay and catch the public ferry number 62 instead. Departing from platform 3 every 30 minutes, it takes you on a leisurely round trip cruise of all the points of interest for the price of a metro ticket. And you are free to hop off or on at any stop along the route.
  • The Plaza of the Elbphilharmonie, Platz der Deutschen Einheit, 20457 Hamburg, is open daily to everyone from 9:00 am to midnight. Access is free but capacity is regulated by the issue of Plaza tickets. Go early to avoid the crowds. While on the Plaza you may want to take a break at the Störtebeker Café.The menu is reasonably priced and comes with a gorgeous view of the port.

Location, location, location!


Carnival – Cologne’s Fifth Season

Carnival – Cologne’s Fifth Season

Köln to the Germanic world, Cologne to the rest of us, the ancient city on the Rhine and contemporary Germany’s fourth largest traces back its origins to the first century A.D. as the Roman Colonia. Carnival in Cologne is almost as old as the history of the city itself.

Germany - Cologne Gürzenich

Originally built in the fifteenth century, the Gürzenich remains to this day a prestige location for Carnival events.

The ancient Germanic tribes celebrated the winter solstice as homage to the Gods and to ward off evil winter spirits. The Christians later adopted this heathen custom and by the Middle Ages it had evolved into rowdy masked street celebrations. The first written records of the Cologne carnival date back from the year 1341. By the eighteenth century the patrician class introduced elegant masked and fancy-dressed balls in the Venetian style. The organized carnival celebrated today only dates back to 1823.

Making Fun of the Prussians

Germany - Cologne Rosenmontag Band

The tradition of dressing up in mock Prussian uniforms dates back to the early nineteenth century.

In 1815, after the fall of Napoleon, Cologne, which had been under French rule for two decades, was allocated to Prussia along with all of the Rhineland. During Carnival, people of the region began dressing up in satirical Prussian uniforms as a protest of against their occupier. Thus began the tradition of Carnival societies with their own “regiment”, complete with marching bands, military banners and powered wigs that we still see today.


Germany - Cologne Rote Funken

The Rote Funken  became the first Carnival society in 1823.

Then in 1823, the Festordnende Komitee (Committee of Guidelines) was founded. The former city militia, the Rote Funken (Red Sparks) reinvented itself as a Carnival society. The first Rosenmontag parade, which by the way has nothing to do with roses but rather is a distortion of the original name Rasen Montag (rush, or anything-goes Monday) was held to enthrone the “Carnival Hero”, today’s Prince Carnival, along with his entourage, the Peasant (der Bauer) and the Virgin (die Jungfrau), traditional medieval characters. This was a nod to the days when Cologne was a Free Imperial City-state within the Holly Roman Empire. Then as now, the Virgin was a man attired as a woman.

Carnival Societies

Germany - Cologne Blaue Funken

The Blaue Funken trace back to 1870.

After the creation of the Committee of Guidelines, there was no stopping the people of Cologne. The Carnival societies multiplied. The Ehrengarde (Honor Guard) was added in 1902 to complement the Virgin and the Peasant. Then in 1906 the Prince was given his personal Prinzengarde (Prince’s Guard). Today, there are over 150 Carnival societies and neighborhood groups in Cologne. All take an active part the celebrations, which have grown into a hometown festival with that encompasses close to 500 Sitzungen (shows), balls and parades.

Germany - Cologne Prinz Karneval

Always accompanied by the Virgin and the Peasant, Prince Carnival visits his faithful subjects.

After the creation of the Committee of Guidelines, there was no stopping the people of Cologne. The Carnival societies multiplied. The Ehrengarde (Honor Guard) was added in 1902 to complement the Virgin and the Peasant. Then in 1906 the Prince was given his personal Prinzengarde (Prince’s Guard). Today, there are over 150 Carnival societies and neighborhood groups in Cologne. All take an active part the celebrations, which have grown into a hometown festival with that encompasses close to 500 Sitzungen (shows), balls and parades.

Crazy Days

Germany - Cologne Weiberfastnacht.

On Thursday before Carnival, women in costumes rule the city.

Women may have been excluded from official carnival celebrations in the nineteenth century, and the Carnival Jungfrau still be a man in drags, but they get even on Weiberfastnacht (Women’s Carnival). Starting early morning, women take over the city in their most colorful costumes and face paint. Everywhere they happen to be as they go about their daily business, they can cut off the tie of any man who crosses their path or pucker up and give him a Butzie (Carnival kiss), or both. The day also marks the beginning of the five Crazy Days of street Carnival, with dozens of parades and parties in the surrounding suburbs. On Sunday, school groups and neighborhood associations from all around the city gather in the center of town for the colorful Kinderzug (Children Parade).

Rosenmontag Revelries

Germany - Cologne Funkemariechen

The dance groups of the various Carnival societies are a most popular part of the parade.

It’s finally Rosenmontag! Starting early morning on Monday, well over one million people in outlandish costumes of all kinds converge onto the 6.5 kilometer (4 mile) long parade route that meanders through the center of Cologne. The parade begins at 11:00 A.M. With over 10,000 participants, including 117 bands, 125 floats and 500 horses, it stretches over 6 kilometers (3.70 miles).



Germany - Cologne Prinzengarde.

The Prince’s guard heralds the arrival of Prince Carnival, who closes the parade.

It has a pass-by time of three hours, during which 140 metric tons (310,000 pounds) of sweets and 300,000 bunches of flowers will be thrown at the cheering, singing crowd. After the mammoth float of Prince Carnival closes the festivities, everyone repairs the nearest pub for a final evening of partying.


I have it on good authority that the Fifth Season doesn’t officially end until Tuesday night when the “Nubbel”, a symbolic straw figure, is set ablaze and the sins committed during Carnival go up in smoke. But by Tuesday, I have never had enough energy to check it out!

Good to Know

  • Greeting – Throughout the Fifth Season, the official greeting at all Carnival events is ALAAF!, usually shouted at the top of your lungs while vigorously waving your right arm. It is short for “Cöllen al aff”, which in the ancient Kölsch language means “Cologne above all.”
  • Drinking – Cologne hold the record for the highest number of pubs per capita in Germany. Predictably, its Carnival is fueled by the local Kölsch beer, served in Stangen (small, 0.2 liter or 7 ounce glasses). Waiters are quick to bring you a fresh one before the previous is even finished. They keep track by marking your coaster with pencil marks. To stop the beer from coming, just put your coaster on top of your empty glass.
  • Viewing – There are many places along the parade route that can provide good viewing spots. However, most of the sidewalk space through the center of town is closed to bystanders by rows of reviewing stands with reserved access, put up by the Festkomitee Kölnerer Karneval (Festival Committee) as well as the major hotels along the route. These tribunes offer various level of comfort such as sheltered or non-sheltered seating and self or full catering, and they are priced accordingly. Seats must be secured well in advance from the individual providers. Order via e-mail from the ticket service of  the Festkomitee kartenservice@koelnerkarneval.de. My local friend’s and my favorite perch is the tribune of the Hotel Pullman, Helenenstrasse 14, 50667 Köln, pullmanhotels.com/de/hotel-5366-pullman-cologne, for its excellent central location, high open bleachers that offer an excellent perspective of the approaching parade as well as an eyelevel view of the passing floats and refreshments. It also includes entrance to the hotel for warm-up breaks, and a hearty after-Parade dinner, which allows time for the streets to clear up before we start on our way home. Tel: (+49)221/2752200. e-mail: h5366@accor.com.
  • Dressing – For men planning to be in Cologne on Thursday during the Women’s Carnival, I recommend wearing one of the giant, garish Carnival ties available for a couple of Euros from any costume shop. To play the game to the fullest, get a couple of spares. For the Rosenmontag Parade, dress warmly and use your imagination. Hint, the official colors of the city of Cologne are red and white. Can’t go wrong with those.
  • Getting there – Cologne Bonn Airport handles non-stop flights to most European capitals. It is located 15 minutes away by S-Bahn (local train) from the centre of the city. There are  several Thalys highs speed trains daily from Paris (3:15 h), Brussels (2:00 h) and Amsterdam (2:30 h) to Köln Hauptbahnhof (Cologne central train station). Additionally there is a direct ICE Train connection with Frankfurt airport (1:00 h).
  • Getting around – There is a good bus and hybrid subway/tram network to get around the city, with vending machines or ticket-offices at all main stations. Beware that on Rosenmontag, the entire center of town as well as the parade route area are closed to all traffic from the wee-hours until early evening. Public transports take you to the edge of the designated area. It’s on foot from there on.
  • Where to stay – If you chose to stay at the center of the action, there is a large variety of housing options ranging from budget to multi-starred hotels throughout the city. However, all tend to fill to capacity months ahead of the Crazy Days. Advance planning is key.

Location, location, location!