Despite sitting 65 miles inland on the Elbe River, Hamburg is a seafaring town (pop. 1.8 million). It is 800 years old, but the 2-year-old glass-and-steel Elbe Philharmonic (Elbphilharmonie) concert hall below hints that Hamburg is determined to be a vibrant 21st Century city as well.
The wave form of the roofline is a reminder that Hamburg dominated trade on the Baltic and North seas from the 12th to the 15th centuries, and its history and growth have been tied to shipping and transportation since. Depending on whom you ask, its port ranks first in Germany, second in Europe and third in the world (after New York and London), and it can accommodate the largest ships on the sea.
While its economy is still dominated by sea trade, Hamburg also is a center of German publishing. And it is one of three German cities (others: Berlin and Bremen) that is a state as well, with its own state offices and legislature.
Building the concert hall on top of a long-existing warehouse created problems, and the Philharmonic hall came in 10 times over original cost estimates and six years late. But the acoustics are wonderful, and the design now is a Hamburg icon that draws millions of visitors a year.
At the heart of the city is the imposing 19th-century neo-Renaissance city hall (Rathaus).
The swan is another symbol of the city. Legend says the city will be free as long as there are swans on the Alster, one of the tributaries of the Elbe.
Hamburg’s muscle can be felt in the massive ships in the harbor, the industrial dockyards lining the Elbe and the skyline of cranes.
Warehouses are an integral part of shipping. Warehouse City (Speicherstadt) in Hamburg is the largest contiguous warehouse district in the world.
The Unilever headquarters is an example of the striking architecture that is emblematic of Harbor City (Hafenstadt), by surface area the largest urban renewal project on the Continent.
Big German cities are identified with their major churches. Hamburg probably is most associated with St. Michael’s Church (called “Michel” here).
A second big church, no longer active, is St. Nikolai. Never reconstructed after WWII bombing, it serves as a memorial to the destruction that war brings.
The “green heart” of Hamburg is the vast Planten un Blomen Park, conveniently (for us) contiguous to the convention center.
Hamburg is crossed by hundreds of canals fed by the three rivers that meet in the city — the Elbe and its tributaries, the Alster and the Bille. Some 2,300 bridges — more than in London, Amsterdam and Venice combined — cross the city’s canals.
The fabled Reeperbahn “red-light” district — during daylight. The first two blocks outside the subway stop were dingy and sleazy, and that was the end of the visit.
On the other hand, “Hamburg’s castle,” as one article called it, was an unexpected delight. Its suburban grounds were lush and beautifully maintained, and displays inside included insights into privileged life in previous centuries.
One of our favorite memories will be Lake Alster, just 400 yards from the hotel. Lined by paths and cafés, the lake welcomed us with a mellow vibe on each visit.
Your host. That look turned into a smile an instant later. Honest.
World’s best traveling partner. Not fazed by anything — bad weather, rude people, strange languages, changing plans or spouse with a headcold.
Rotary International 2019 at Hamburg Messe.