9 Things to See & Do in Hamburg Port & City
1. Hamburg Port & Maritime City
3. HafenCity – Elbphilharmonie
4. Old Elbe Tunnel
5. Hamburg City Hall
6. University of Hamburg
7. St Michael’s Church & St Nikolai Memorial
8. St Pauli & Reeperbahn
9. Alster Lakes
Hamburg is a truly multifaceted port city in Germany. Museums, art galleries, a multitude of bridges across the little canals, fashionable speciality boutiques behind Neo-Renaissance façades at Colonnaden which dates back to 1874 and now contributes a Venetian atmosphere … whatever your interests are, you will find it in Hamburg!
Hamburg’s architecture is stunning and unique such as the expressionist Chilehaus from 1924 whose sharp corner looks like a ship’s bow and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was commissioned by Henry B. Sloman who had made a fortune in South America on the saltpetre business. Originally a centre for maritime trade, the Chilehaus is one of the contributions to the city’s maritime history.
Over the past few decades, Hamburg has undergone a major development around the old port area. With a unique waterside project, Hamburg now ranks top of European cities in architectural ingenuity, integrating modern architecture with a true maritime feel into urban public spaces.
The old harbour consists of a variety of architectural styles, ranging from authentic warehouse buildings and other structures relating to traditional maritime purposes in the Speicherstadt – to modern steel or glass constructions in the neighbouring HafenCity.
St Pauli’s Landungsbrücken (Landing Bridges) is another landmark in Hamburg that with its historic and eye-catching waterfront buildings is quite unique. The piers used to be used by steam ships. Today, it is a popular promenade for tourists and locals alike with vibrant restaurants and small gift shops, as well as it is a ‘hub’ for trains, ferries and cruise boats taking visitors down the Elbe to explore the huge Hamburg Port. The local ferry will take you across the Elbe to reach the waterfront theatres on the other side.
You will also be able to visit the spectacular Rickmer Rickmers museum sailing ship (a three masted barque) that has a prominent location in the harbour. A few hundred metres further to the west, Hamburg’s famous Fish Market, established in 1703, is located. It is open on Sunday mornings!
The iconic Speicherstadt is Hamburg’s old warehouse complex – which in fact has the distinction of being the largest in the world! As a beautiful series of traditional warehouse buildings, it spans the entire long island area known as the Speicherstadt.
The Speicherstadt used to be an independent free port area in the Hanseatic City of Hamburg with its own customs regulations and taxes. From 1881 it was the only free port along the Elbe (and in Hamburg) exempt from the usual import taxes. This obviously created a need for storage capacity!
As a consequence, the Neo-Gothic warehouses were constructed between 1883 and 1927 as storage buildings for ship cargo, founded on poles in the water. Although only the first building completed, the Speicherstadt was inaugurated by Emperor Wilhelm II already in 1888!
Right until 2013, the Speicherstadt remained a free economic zone in Hamburg. The Speicherstadt warehouse district is today unique cultural heritage and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With its canals lining the storage buildings, it is an extremely picturesque part of the city. The long island houses the gigantic model railway Miniatur Wunderland which over the last years has become an increasingly popular attraction in Hamburg – as well as other museums such as the German Customs Museum and the Kaffeerösterei, a coffee museum in the former coffee warehouse.
The neighbouring district, the modern HafenCity, is also a spectacular quarter on the Elbe, constructed in 2008 in the old Port of Hamburg area. It is known for its outstanding architecture including the Kontorhausviertel and, not least, the imposing Elbphilharmonie concert hall that has become a new landmark of Hamburg.
This unique structure features a viewing platform that offers panoramic views of the port, the picturesque canals, and the city of Hamburg.
Designed by the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, the Elbphilharmonie is an acoustic wonder for classical music, founded on a former warehouse and turned into a spectacular crystal of glass panels where not two plates are identical. The acoustics inside the hall are outstanding thanks to the Japanese acoustics expert Yasuhisa Toyota. In a neighbouring warehouse, the Miniatur Wunderland features an amazingly complete miniature replica of the structure.
The Alter Elbtunnel, or Old Elbe Tunnel, connects Landungsbrücken with the port area of Hamburg. Anyone can visit the old tunnel that today has been converted into a pedestrian-friendly underwater passage, allowing visitors to pass the river. Both pedestrians and cyclists can pass the Elbe here, and cars may even be allowed to use the car elevator for a fee. The Art Deco style makes the historic tunnel quite unique.
The Old Elbe Tunnel used to be the direct way for dock workers to arrive to the docks from the city. The ingenious, hydraulically driven system (from 1911) of transporting cars up and down in an elevator to enable them to drive through the tunnel still exists. Only when the new Elbe Tunnel (as well as several bridges) was built in the 1970s, was the Old Elbe Tunnel abandoned as a common access route.
The construction of Hamburg’s City Hall (Rathaus) began in 1886 on the foundation of wooden poles in the wetlands by Lake Alster. A special feature of it was a convenient passage to both the Chamber of Commerce and the Stock Exchange. The eye-catching Hygiea Fountain is the centrepiece of the courtyard between the buildings and is named after the Greek goddess of health. She was added in memory of the cholera epidemic that ravaged the city a few years later, in 1892.
The impressive Neo-Renaissance building has undergone several renovations over the years and is today the seat of the local parliament, senate, and mayor! The City Hall is open to the public and you may join a guided tour to discover the gems of the Rathaus. The square right in front of the building (Rathausmarkt) is a popular market and meeting place in the city.
A little north of the city centre you will find Universität Hamburg. The university was founded in 1919 as the first democratically established university in Germany. Nevertheless, it had roots back to the 1600s when the Akademisches Gymnasium existed. At the turn of the twentieth century, the merchant Edmund Siemers donated a building meant for general lecturing purposes – and this building developed over time into the University of Hamburg! Above the entrance of the hall, you will see the phrase: Der Forschung, Der Lehre, Der Bildung (Research, Teaching, Education).
More academic institutes followed: the Hamburgische Wissenschaftliche Stiftung in 1907, as well as the Colonial Institute in 1908. Soon the university expanded with the establishment of an observatory, a chemistry laboratory, a physics laboratory, the Botanical Garden, and an institute for seaborne and tropical diseases. During the 21st century, it further developed into the university that exists today. The most recent addition is the University Museum that opened in 2019 (the centenary anniversary) – a museum of the people, the reforms, and the scientific fields that have shaped the current institution.
St Michael’s Church is one of the top sights in Hamburg. The current church dates back to 1912 and is built upon the foundation of two previous church buildings that were destroyed by devastating fires in the past. Although also quite damaged during WWII, the exterior and interior of St Michael’s have been fully renovated and the church is today among the most magnificent churches in Germany.
One of the striking characteristics is the beautiful copper roof which is visible from many places in the city. On a clear day you have amazing views of the city and harbour from the observation deck of the 132-metre tall tower. Moreover, St Michael’s Church also features the largest church bell in all of Germany!
St Nikolai Memorial is another landmark in Hamburg. Today only ruins of the original church remain since it was bombed by Allied forces in Operation Gomorrah during WWII. However, the spire remained relatively intact. There is now a memorial and museum on site.
The original 12th-century church chapel was dedicated to Saint Nicholas who was the patron saint of sailors. It was later replaced by a stone church that stood right until the Great Fire ravaged in 1842. A new Neo-Gothic church construction was erected in the years 1846 – 1874 – it distinguished itself by being the highest in the world at the time. Today, you can go up the spire with a glass lift to enjoy the panoramic views of the port of Hamburg, the lakes, and the cityscape.
When considering going out into Hamburg’s nightlife, it is impossible not to think of St Pauli and Reeperbahn.
Reeperbahn is the historic ropemaking thoroughfare which over the years became a popular place of pleasure and Hamburg’s lively red-light district. There is also an annual Reeperbahn Festival in September taking place at all the Reeperbahn music venues.
In the 1960’s the Beatles arrived at St Pauli and played in the bars – first on a small scale for paltry payment – and later on a somewhat larger scale. This is where they really broke through!
St Pauli is also today the neighbourhood where you will find both theatres, cabarets, nightclubs, and trendy bars. There is a Beatles Monument at the end of Grosse Freiheit just off Reeperbahn and you can still see some of the places they used to play at such as the Star Club, Indra and Kaiserkeller.
At Christmas, St Pauli is the focal point of the traditional ‘Santa Pauli’ Christmas market.
One thing not to miss in Hamburg is the Alster Lake with its waterfront Alster Arcade, designed by Alexis de Chateauneuf, and the Jungfernstieg promenade which has a touch of Venetian charm. This is the perfect location for a stroll and for elegant shopping. In the surrounding streets you have ample opportunities to find both designer clothes, antiques, and enticing luxury eateries. Just round the corner you come upon the oldest shopping street in Hamburg, the Mellinpassage, featuring both art nouveau frescoes and beautiful stained-glass windows.
According to the legend, Hamburg will remain a free Hanseatic town as long as the white and black swans swim on the Alster Lake. There is both an Inner Alster Lake (Binnenalster) and an Outer Alster Lake (Aussenalster) – and as soon as the weather permits, they become crowded with people – sailing or kayaking on them and walking or cycling along them.
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9 Things to See & Do in Hamburg Port & City
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