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Exploring the Baltic: Hamburg’s Watery World

 A parade of boats celebrates Hamburg's 825th port anniversary.

A parade of boats celebrates Hamburg’s 825th port anniversary.

By Monique Burns

Exploring the Baltic led me on a watery course.  I followed in the wake of the Hanseatic League, powerful traders who, for more than six centuries, plied that great sea and the mighty rivers flowing into it.  I toured Hamburg, the world’s second-largest port, renowned for art, architecture, and music—from Brahms to the Beatles, from U96 to Dark Age.  I paid homage to Warsaw, cosmopolitan city of Chopin, once home to the world’s second-largest Jewish population, memorialized now in the striking new Museum of the History of Polish Jews.  I celebrated tiny Riga with its grand gulf, a 2014 European Capital of Culture boasting 800 Art Nouveau buildings, not to mention world-class opera and folk music.  In Helsinki, the 2012 World Design Capital, I prowled the trendy Design District, marveled at Eliel Saarinen’s Art Nouveau architecture and Alvar Aalto’s Functionalist buildings, and sampled New Nordic Cuisine from sea, farm and forest.  At long last, I dropped anchor in St. Petersburg, the dazzling showplace of Peter the Great, awash in rivers and canals, gold-encrusted spires and statues, and opulent palaces housing treasured institutions like the Mariinsky Theatre, and the Hermitage, truly one of the world’s great art museums.

 In HafenCity, the new Elbphilharmonie concert hall rises. Photo Monique Burns.

In HafenCity, the new Elbphilharmonie concert hall rises. Photo Monique Burns.


Journeying through the Baltic, I marveled at the resilience of these cities as well as their beauty.  World War II and the Holocaust could not long stem the Baltic’s mighty tide.  Nor could 50 years of Communist repression.  One by one, the Baltic cities rebuilt themselves, emerging in our century as world-class cultural centers and gracious leaf-shaded enclaves.  New developments like Hamburg’s HafenCity rise, but the Baltic cities remain among the planet’s greenest.

Less than eight hours on Air Berlin from New York, Hamburg, Germany’s second-largest city, celebrated its 825th anniversary as a port in 2014.  The River Elbe extends along the harbor, streaming east, via the Elbe-Lübeck Canal, into the Baltic, and west into the North Sea. The world’s fastest-growing port and its second-largest, Hamburg might well overtake Rotterdam in this century. For now, Hamburg ships more than 132 million tons of goods to 900 cities around the globe, as far east as China and Japan.

All work and no play would make any city dull.  Fortunately, Hamburgians play as hard as they work.  The harbor is their chief playground, and they truly believe that there’s “absolutely nothing half as much worth doing as messing about in boats.”  Each May, a parade of ships, from tankers, tugboats, tall ships and cruise liners to yachts, kayaks and inflatables, celebrates the port anniversary.  In late summer or early fall, Hamburg Cruise Days—the world’s largest cruise festival—brings a half-dozen liners into the harbor for three days of music, food and entertainment.   Whenever Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary 2 call from New York, they’re greeted with fireworks.

In Altona, the harbor’s westernmost neighborhood, Hamburgians gather on Sundays at the 19th-century Fischauktionshalle to celebrate three passions: music, food and ships.  Inside the cavernous red-brick building, all iron trusswork and balconies, locals and tourists alike brunch on seafood and roast meats, bands belt out American pop and German pop, or schlager, music, while, outside, hawkers sell fish, flowers and fruit as pleasure boats drift by.  Other days, Hamburgians cruise the Elbe aboard public ferries and private crafts, marvel at the procession of ships, and watch the unloading of colorful shipping containers, some nine million annually.

Enthralled by Hamburg’s watery world, I spent two nights at 25hours, a design hotel with 170 “cabins” in maritime-modern style with steamer trunks as desks, meeting rooms housed in shipping containers and a hip restaurant where diners can lounge on Turkish rugs.  The hotel is at the harbor’s easternmost point, in HafenCity, Hamburg’s newest neighborhood and Europe’s largest urban development project.  Stroll around restored 19th-century red-brick warehouses and muscular iron footbridges in the mile-long Warehouse District, the world’s largest.  Learn about shipping and shipbuilding on the Elbe at the six-year-old International Maritime Museum, housed in a handsome red-brick warehouse with stepped roofs. Gaze up at the glistening metal Elbphilharmonie, opening in 2017, with a stylish Finnish design, and acoustics by Yasuhisa Toyota, the Japanese master who tweaked the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

In one of Hamburg's oldest quarters, Krameramtstubben restaurant. Photo Monique Burns
In one of Hamburg’s oldest quarters, Krameramtstubben restaurant. Photo Monique Burns

Hamburg’s newest neighborhood is just south of one of its oldest enclaves.  During World War II, anti-aircraft guns staunchly defended Hamburg’s harbor, a Nazi stronghold.  But Allied bombing raids razed much of the city, leaving only pockets of the past.  For a taste of Old Hamburg, dine at Krameramtsstuben, in a narrow courtyard alley with 17th-century half-timbered houses where merchants once sold spices, silks and iron goods.  In the upstairs dining room, as cozy as great-grandmother’s parlor with a beamed ceiling, antique furniture and framed paintings, enjoy copious helpings of fresh fish and meat with wine or beer.

Another early chapter of Hamburg’s story unfolds on Veddel Island in the Elbe.  Between 1850 and 1939, five million immigrants, many Eastern European Jews, left Hamburg, “the port of dreams,” for America.  Albert Ballin, general-director of the Hapag steamship line—now Hapag-Lloyd, one of the world’s largest container-shipping companies—built an emigration center with a hospital, dormitories, a synagogue, a church, a kosher kitchen and two-dozen other buildings.  In 2007, the low-slung, red-brick Emigration Halls were transformed into the BallinStadt Emigration Museum, with high-tech exhibits, including talking figurines, and computers for tracing visitors’ ancestry.

A red-and-white lake steamer plys the Inner Alster. Photo Monique Burns
A red-and-white lake steamer plys the Inner Alster. Photo Monique Burns


More watery adventures wait at the center city’s Alster Lake, dammed centuries ago to form two artificial lakes—models for the Charles River Basin in Cambridge, Massachusetts, home of Harvard University.  Stroll around the Jungfernstieg promenade, stopping in the grand Alsterhaus department store to sip coffee or tea, snack on rich cream-filled pastries, or lunch in the fourth-floor restaurant offering panoramic city views.  Board a sightseeing boat and cruise from the Binnenalster, or Inner Alster, into the Aussenalster, or Outer Alster, its waters plied by sailboats, motor yachts, sculls and kayaks, its leafy banks lined with ornate 19th-century mansions, and two legendary grand hotels, the Fairmont Hotel Vierjahreszeiten and the Kempinski Hotel Atlantic.

Nearly 130 years after Johannes Brahms was born in this port city, the Beatles cut their teeth here, playing 300 gigs between 1960 and 1962, and adopting their name and trademark mop-top haircuts.  Recently celebrating its 10th year, the 2 1/2-hour Hempel’s Beatles-Tour starts at the Feldstrasse U-Bahn subway station, a short stroll from St. Pauli, a bohemian neighborhood that’s home to the Red Light District as well as the September Reeperbahn Festival featuring more than 400 club concerts over three days.  In the afternoon, browse the artsy boutiques of the nearby Schanze quarter, selling everything from black watch caps with the unofficial St. Pauli logo—a white skull and crossbones—to retro clothing, pottery and 60s-style Indian textiles.  Dine early at Nil, a stylish bi-level bôite serving updated specialties like cassoulet, and veal with tarragon mustard.

The Grosse Freiheit, the climax of Hempel's Beatles-Tour PHOTO Monique Burns
The Grosse Freiheit, the climax of Hempel’s Beatles-Tour PHOTO Monique Burns

Then join Stefanie Hempel, who points out Beatles landmarks, while stopping to sing and play their hits on her little black ukulele. The tour’s highlight: the Grosse Freiheit, lined with clubs like Indra, at no. 64, where the “Fab Four” debuted in Hamburg on August 1960, and the Kaiserkeller, at no. 36, marked by a huge pink neon guitar. Across the street, a memorial stone recalls the long-gone Star-Club, where the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Little Richard, Chubby Checker, Ray Charles and other headliners appeared.  At the Beatles-Platz, steps from the Beatlemania museum, pose for photographs inside open-work metal silhouettes of band members.

You’re now at the corner of Grosse Freiheit and the Reeperbahn, gateway to the Red Light District with its casino, strip joints and peep shows, bars and cabarets, and seedy hotels.  There’s a strong police presence here, so feel free to stroll.  On Herbertstrasse, a few blocks away, signs on a high wooden gate warn youngsters under 18—and women—to stay out.  Take a quick peek, anyway, at the row of storefronts where ladies of the night advertise their wares and ply their trade.

Along with scores of nighttime attractions, St. Pauli has countless one-of-a-kind shops, quirky museums and other daytime attractions.  Explore the district, day or night, then head a few blocks south.  You’ll soon find yourself at the harbor, gateway to the Baltic and the true heart of Hamburg.



Air Berlin, the low-cost carrier that’s Germany’s second-largest airline, has frequent flights from U.S. gateways to Hamburg and other major cities in Germany and throughout EuropeLog on to www.airberlin.com.

The Hamburg CARD offers free travel by bus, train and ferry, plus deep discounts on harbor, lake and city tours, museums and attractions, and restaurants, for 1, 3 or 5 days.  Log on to www.hamburg-travel.com/search-book/hamburg-card.


Germany’s second-largest city has hundreds of hotels.  In portside HafenCity, Hamburg’s newest neighborhood, choose:

25hours Hotel HafenCity, Überseeallee 5, (49) 40-25-77-77-255, 20457 Hamburg, Germany. This trendy design hotel has nautically themed rooms, a stylish restaurant and a sauna.  www.25hours-hotels.com/en 

For a taste of old and new Hamburg, try:

Krameramtsstuben, Krayenkamp 10, (49) 40-365-800, 20459 Hamburg, Germany.  Superb fish and meat dishes served in cozy old-world dining rooms in a centuries-old courtyard.  www.krameramtsstuben.de 

Nil, Neuer Pferdemarkt 5, (40) 439-7823, 20359 Hamburg, Germany.  Stylish German and international cuisine in a hip bi-level setting. www.restaurant-nil.de


While in Hamburg, don’t miss: 

Hamburg Harbor Tour, (49) 40-31-99-16-17-0.  Hop aboard a Barkassen-Centrale ferry for a one or two-hour Harbor Tour year-round.  www.barkassencentrale.de 

Fischauktionshalle, Large Elbstrasse 9, 22767 Hamburg, Germany.  Come inside for the Sunday “Bootsmannbrunch” with band music and outside for the fish market.

Alster Lakes Tour, Anleger Jungfernstieg, (49) 40-35-74-24-0, 20354 Hamburg, Germany.  Cruise the leafy lakes aboard a red-and-white lake steamer.  www.alstertouristik.de 

International Maritime Museum Hamburg, Koreastrasse 1, (49) 40-30-09-2300, 20457 Hamburg, Germany.  Opened in HafenCity in 2008, its exhibits showcase shipping and shipbuilding on the Elbe.  www.immhh.de/english

BallinStadt Emigration Museum, Veddeler Bogen 2, (49) 40-31-97-91-60, 20539 Hamburg, Germany.  This beautifully conceived high-tech museum, with an on-site café, traces 19th-century emigration from Hamburg to the U.S.  www.english.hamburg.de/ballinstadt 

Hemple’s Beatles-Tour, Feldstrasse U-Bahn Station, (49) 151-1122-1570, Hamburg, Germany. Hamburg’s original Beatles Tour with hits sung to ukulele music by songwriter Stefanie Hemple.  www.hempels-musictour.com/en

For more information on Hamburg, Germany, visit www.hamburg-travel.com, www.hh-app.de, and www.germany.travel.

For more information on the Baltic Sea Region, visit http://onebsr.eu/tourists/one-bsr-destination-guide


Continue to Exploring the Baltic Part 2: Warsaw

Monique Burns is a longtime travel writer and editor, and a European Correspondent for Jax Fax Magazine, a travel magazine for U.S. travel agents.  A former Travel & Leisure Senior Editor, she travels frequently to Europe, but can sometimes be found in far-flung locales like India and Asia.  After more than 30 years in the travel business, she still appreciates the world’s many cultural differences and can honestly say that she’s never met a place she didn’t like.
Monique Burns is a longtime travel writer and editor, and a European Correspondent for Jax Fax Magazine, a travel magazine for U.S. travel agents. A former Travel & Leisure Senior Editor, she travels frequently to Europe, but can sometimes be found in far-flung locales like India and Asia. After more than 30 years in the travel business, she still appreciates the world’s many cultural differences and can honestly say that she’s never met a place she didn’t like.
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  1. November 14, 2014 at 12:08 am — Reply

    i have no comment thanks

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