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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.