Free and Hanseatic city of Hamburg,
the largest port in Northern Europe.
In the decade of the 1990s, after the Berlin Wall had come tumbling down and Germany was reunited, travelers began making plans to see the great old German cities long sequestered behind the Iron Curtain. Berlin especially was viewed as a sleeping giant ready to awaken into a new day of western prosperity.
Indeed Berlin quickly has regained its status as a world capital. But another German city—Hamburg—also has been a primary beneficiary of the New Order in Europe.
The lyrical beauty of
Hamburg's blue waterways.
A "Harbor Panorama" of
Hamburg's bustling waterfront.
Of course, Hamburg was never behind an Iron Curtain, yet no city has profited more from the Curtain's fall. This largest port of northern Europe has now regained much of its hinterland, previously in East Germany, as well as its major trading partners along the Baltic, from Estonia to Poland and Russia.
What this means for leisure travelers to Hamburg is the opportunity to experience a great new "city on the make", to quote novelist Nelson Algren's characterization of his native city, Chicago. In fact, the parallel to Chicago is quite instructive.
Hamburg sprawls over its bustling waterfront much as Chicago does along Lake Michigan. Like Chicago, Hamburg is a town that loves to wheel and deal: soaring modern architecture; massive urban development projects; a jumble of cranes and bulldozers and incessant hammerings tearing up the place left and right.
Hamburg's rail station offers great
access thoughout Germany and Europe.
Hamburg's verdant parkland
surrounds the History Museum.
Chicago stills snarls at the pretensions of New York and Los Angeles. Hamburg does the same with Berlin and Munich as the city tries to elbow its way onto the main stage. Vigor is its byword, vigor and cheek.
A visitor once likened Chicago to the open backside of a pocket watch: one can see all the whirring mechanisms — the railway yards, the stockyards, the harbor traffic- — that makes the city work.
The same image can be applied to Hamburg. The visual impact of the city is both powerful and chaotic — the railways, highways, and waterways are laid bare and appear to swarm with human activity. Huge office and shopping complexes seem to explode out of the ground.
Yet there is also lyrical beauty in Hamburg's verdant parklands and blue waterways. Its cultural life — opera, music, theatre, art — is both dynamic and refined. Perhaps more than any other German city Hamburg always has looked beyond its German-ness to claim identity as an international port-of-call.
A Stadt Rundfahrt, a double
decker tour bus, stops at
The first thing to do in Hamburg is take a Stadt Rundfahrt — one of those double-decker tour buses that let you ride all day, getting off and on at leisure. Combine this with boat tours around the harbor, canals, and lakes. (Don't even think of driving around town — the streets are labyrinthine and often clogged by construction. The subway is efficient but hardly the best way to get a look at the textures of a city.)
With its official name "Free and HanseaticCity" Hamburg proudly displays its tradition as a great port. Its deepwater harbor and proximity to both the North and BalticSeas made it one of the powerful trading cities of the Hanseatic League as early as the thirteenth century. By 1900, its Hamburg-America Line had become the world's largest transatlantic shipping company.
In the harbor district the old and new of Hamburg comes together most dramatically. The Auswandererhalle is being renovated to open in 2007 as The Emigration Museum. All prospective emigrants had to spend two weeks quarantined here before allowed onto the steamships bound for New York, Buenos Aires, and elsewhere. More than five million German and East Europeans sailed for the Americas between 1850 and 1934.
In the Harbor District the old and
new of Hamburg comes together.
At the historic center of the Port of Hamburg is the Speicherstadt, some of its hundred-year-old brick warehouses now housing a number of museums relevant to the history of Hamburg as an international port-of- trade. Rising up next door is HafenCity, Europe's largest urban development project which is creating a whole new town (5,500 apartments for 12,000 residents) to be completed by 2020.
Like all great port cities frequented by sailors Hamburg has been notorious for its pleasure palaces. The storied Reeperbahn remains the second largest red light district in Europe, offering not only sexual exercise but an array of music halls, bars, and nightclubs. Also in the St. Pauli district the thrice-yearly carnival "Der DOM" helps create a Coney Island-cum-Oktoberfest atmosphere every March, August, and November.
The Fish Market on a Sunday morning.
Those seeking more sophisticated neighborhoods for bars and restaurants might wander over to the Schanzenviertel, or explore the area along the great harbor promenade known as Landungsbrücke. The latter offers a marvelous jazz brunch on Sundays at the old St. Pauli Fish Market. A superb nearby restaurant with historic chic is the River Kasematten, where jazz greats like Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington packed them in after the War.
Cutting edge pop music has long been a staple of the Hamburg scene. It was here that the Beatles were introduced to Europe. Nowadays the latest hip-hop and heavy metal bands record here and attract huge followings among young Hamburgers. Next to London, Hamburg is the likeliest European venue to stage top Broadway musicals, like "Mama Mia" or "The Lion King".
Operatic and symphonic music play no second fiddle in Hamburg. The State Opera House offers more than fifty performances each season; the long-awaited new main concert hall of the Elbephilharmonie, with its soaring glass facade, is scheduled to open to great fanfare in 2009.
Over the past 150 years, Hamburg has been a city of incredible ups and downs.
It has known generations of amazing growth only to be followed by fiery destruction and reborn again from the ashes.
In its Victorian heyday from 1850 to 1900, Hamburg quadrupled in size (to 800,000). During World War II, Allied bombing wiped out most of the inner city at the cost of some 42,000 lives and more than a million people made homeless. A half century later the greater Hamburg area is home to some four million people, Germany's second largest metropolitan area, and it has become the fastest growing tourism center in the nation, with eight million annual visitors.
All this without sandy beaches and palm trees, without world renowned museums like those offered by New York or Paris, without historic architectural wonders like those of Rome, Florence, or Venice.
What brings people here? Perhaps it is the inchoate vitality which seems to permeate the city. "Regard me not among the antique beauties of old," it seems to say. "Come to see only that I am — quite extraordinarily — alive!"
SUGGESTIONS FOR A FEW DAYS IN HAMBURG
The Kunsthalle Museum.
Among the score of museums, the "can't miss" variety includes the Kunsthalle, one of Germany's major art galleries, with works of art from the Middle Ages to the present.
On current display is an exhibition featuring work of German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. The Kunsthalle has about twenty special exhibitions each year (www.hamburger-kunsthalle.de). The HistoryMuseum is the largest city history museum in Germany and often mounts special exhibits like the current one focusing on the pop music scene, past and present.
The History Museum has exhibits illustrating Hamburg's Hanseatic era.
Gröninger Braukeller (above).
The Junges Hotel Hamburg.
The main shopping district of Hamburg is in the pedestrian streets near the Rathaus and central railway station. The newly remodeled Jungfernstieg is a famous boulevard which includes the Alsterhaus, a German version of Harrods, and other exclusive shops. The bigger department stores, like Karstad, are found in the nearby Mönckebergstrasse.
Of course there is any number of fine dining opportunities in Hamburg. For traditional seafood dear to the hearts of Hamburgers try some of the harbor-side restaurants. A good one is Alt Helgoländer Fischerstube opposite the fish auction hall.
Typical Hamburg specialties include Pannfisch, Scholle (pan-fried plaice), and Bratkartoffeln (pan-fried potatoes). A terrific old brewery pub in the city center is Gröninger Braukeller (Willy-Brandt-Strasse 47), where they've been brewing their famous pilsener for ages. Specialty of the house is the Brauerschmaus, a platter of sausages, other cooked meats and potato salad.
By the way, the American hamburger is not clearly traceable to Hamburg origins, although some say the north German frikadelle — beef ground up with stale bread, egg and onions — could have been some sort of prototype to the Whopper.
Top-notch hotels cluster around the Alster Lake (e.g., Hotel Atlantic Kempinski Hamburg) and the harbor (the stately Hotel HafenHamburg). A good mid-range choice convenient to the railway station and city center is Junges Hotel Hamburg (www.jungeshotel.de).
The friendly little hotel (128 rooms) does offer a small convention/conference center, spa and an international restaurant on the premises. Singles from 89 Euros, doubles from 100 Euros (Kurt-Schumacher-Allee 14).
HamburgAirport is expanding apace with the city. There are now direct flights available from New York and Toronto, in addition to plenty of non-stops from other German and European cities. Rail connections from Frankfurt (3.5 hours) and Berlin (1.5) are numerous, and autobahns fan out in all directions (Be forewarned, however, that the autobahns around Hamburg seem always to be under construction or undergoing repair; such is the byproduct of "progress".).
For travelers for whom time is hardly of the essence, the Queen Mary II makes a couple of New York-Hamburg crossings during the summer. The cruise ship center welcomes scores of the big cruise liners each year.