If Rothenburg ob der Tauber is a Germany stuck in time, and Nuremberg is a Germany cautiously toeing the line between past and present, Hamburg is a Germany dashing into the future. While popular with domestic tourists, Hamburg is usually absent from the travel itineraries of foreign tourists, and that’s somewhat understandable — Germany’s richest and second-largest city doesn’t have time for lederhosen or quaint half-timbered homes! Hamburg feels a lot more like Scandinavia than stereotypical Germany. It has more bridges than any other city in the world, and more canals than Amsterdam and Venice combined. While I found Munich and Berlin to be more interesting German cities to visit, I sure wouldn’t mind living in Hamburg.
But first, some history. With its crucial port and strategic transportation links, Hamburg was a prime target for Allied bombers during World War II. Bombers hit the city with air raids that destroyed roofs, broke water mains, and tore up streets. Since that summer of 1943 had been especially dry and hot, the result of the attack was an unprecedented firestorm. A tornado of flames raged, baking many inhabitants inside their bomb shelters, and sucking those who ventured outside off their feet and into a heat vortex. Roads and sidewalks caught on fire, and anyone who tried to run across got stuck in boiling asphalt. In just three hours, the inferno killed 42,000 civilians. After the eight days of air raids, roughly one million survivors were evacuated, leaving behind a demolished city.
Of course, you can barely tell now. Hamburg has successfully recovered, growing wealthier than ever, and its new port is currently the second busiest in Europe. The port left its original location to accommodate larger modern container ships, leaving behind vacant prime real estate, which is being developed into HafenCity, Europe’s largest urban development project. When it’s done, downtown Hamburg will be 40% bigger, employing 15,000 workers and housing 10,000 residents.
The pride and joy of Hamburg — and an icon of modern Germany — is Elbphilharmonie, a stunning building that just opened this year, and houses a concert hall, hotel, apartment complex, and shopping mall. Its wavy silhouette and reflective exterior resemble water and steamer ships, both of which have been so integral to Hamburg. When we visited Elbphilharmonie on a random Tuesday evening, hundreds of Hamburgers of all ages were sitting right outside, elegantly drinking wine while watching a free live screening of the Philip Glass/Vivaldi concert that was taking place inside. Free classical music for the masses, while watching the sunset over the water? Hamburg has clearly figured out the good life.
Our time in Hamburg was brief, but it offered us a sufficient preview into another side of Germany: the Germany that isn’t bogged down by its history, as so many of its other cities are. Americans tend to visit Germany for two reasons: getting drunk off good beer, and satiating our obsession with World War II history. Hamburg doesn’t pander to those; it’s too absorbed with its own future and I respect that. Compared to all the other German cities we visited, this was where we heard English the least, which makes sense since its economy doesn’t depend on English-speaking tourists as much. Hamburg is still rapidly developing, and I look forward to returning someday to see how much has been transformed.
Tips for future travelers:
One of my favorite areas was touristy Landungsbrücken, which includes a half-mile-long floating dock designed to accommodate the Elbe River’s 13-foot tides. The best meal we had in Hamburg was from one of the many fish stands at Landungsbrücken — “Fischbrötchen und Pommes”, or pickled herring in a bun, with a side of fries (and the best ketchup I’ve ever had!). In fact, we loved it so much that we had it twice in one night.
If you still like the Beatles, visit the Reeperbahn, Hamburg’s Red Light District. Sure, you can find prostitutes if that’s your thing, but there are also some pretty legit music venues here. The Beatles were unknown when they first arrived in Hamburg from Liverpool, but after a season of gigs in front of tough crowds in the Reeperbahn, they launched into international stardom.
Check out the Schulterblatt neighborhood for cafes and restaurants. Nicknamed “Latte Macchiato Boulevard,” this gentrifying neighborhood is oozing with creative energy thanks to its squatter-building-turned-arts-venue.
We stayed at the Scandic Hamburg Emporio, which is actually a Swedish hotel chain, but it felt appropriate for Scandinavian-esque Hamburg. Each room has huge windows, and the hotel provides the most lavish breakfast buffet I’ve ever experienced.
To get to HafenCity, catch the 7-minute public ferry, which takes you straight to Elbphilharmonie. Once there, wait in line at the main entrance for a free ticket to the public plaza on the sixth floor. It’s a great place to watch the sun set.