Hotel Reichshof Hamburg
By Monique Burns
Given our long love affair with cars, we Americans rarely choose to vacation near train stations. But in Europe, with its extensive network of fast, modern trains, rail stations are not just waiting rooms, they’re popular destinations filled with restaurants and shops. Even luxury hotels are only a stone’s throw away.
In Hamburg, the Hotel Reichshof, one of Northern Germany’s most elegant hostelries, is right across from Central Station. Serving 450,000 passengers daily, the Hamburg Hauptbahnhof is Germany’s most frequently used station. Locals and sightseers, as well as travelers, are drawn to its many boutiques and eateries, including a lively food court serving everything from German brats and beer to Chinese, Japanese, Italian and Turkish fare.
Though convenient for those catching early-morning trains to popular cities like Lübeck, the Hanseatic city to the north, or Berlin, the German capital to the east, the Reichshof is no mere overnight stop. It’s a true luxury hotel with miles of marble, well-appointed Art Deco rooms and a stunning wood–paneled dining room, all wrapped up in an illustrious history.
In the 1900s, Central Station was just being built in Hamburg’s outlying St. Georg district, one–time site of a medieval leper’s colony and the city gallows. By the 17th century, the district was becoming a popular residential quarter. After the Great Fire of 1842, Hamburg’s center–city expanded north to St. Georg as elegant homes and apartments rose in and around the tree-shaded Alster Lakes.
On a Sunday in 1906—as Nicole Keller recounts in Hotel Reichshof Hamburg: A Legendary Hotel and Its Story—the enterprising Anton-Emil Langer happened to stroll past the Central Station construction site. Langer, who was in his early 40s and had already built 29 hotels, declared: “I shall build a hotel for train passengers according to the latest standards.” True to his word, four years later, in September 1910, the Reichshof opened with 300 rooms, all with telephones and some with private baths sporting faience tubs. By 1928, the Reichshof, now grown to 460 rooms, welcomed a stylish restaurant and bar.
Langer predicted that his hotel would “have a future into the year 2000.” Except for a brief closure between 2014 and 2015, the hotel has outlived Langer’s prediction by nearly two decades. Today, it’s still going strong as part of the CURIO Collection by Hilton, a carefully curated group of one-of-a-kind historic hotels.
Certainly, the Reichshof owes much of its success to Central Station and its trains. But ships also played a part in the Reichshof’s renown. Living in the great port of Hamburg, on the River Elbe, which stretches west to the North Sea and east to the Baltic, Langer was immersed in the city’s maritime life. Not only was Langer executive chef on the Hohenzollern, Emperor Wilhelm I’s imperial yacht, but he also worked for the Hamburg America Line, which carried freight, along with poor immigrants and well-heeled vacationers, before being transformed into the Hapag-Lloyd shipping line in 1970. Given Langer’s affinity for ships, it’s small wonder that the Reichshof looks and feels like an elegant ocean liner.
Entering the lobby through an old-style wooden revolving door, you’ll immediately notice Emil’s Café, Bistro & Bar, with a counter and bar stools on one side and, on the other, an alcove decorated with framed black-and-white photos of Old Hamburg and a nest of comfy leather sofas and tall-backed armchairs. Before you is the stunning front desk area with cascading Art Deco-style chandeliers in lavender and a dozen black-and-white Italian marble columns, capped in gold, soaring toward the ceiling. Lighted black-and-white “Fahrstühle” signs marking elevators and stained-glass windows adorning stair landings add to the Art Deco grandeur.
Just beyond the front desk, Bar 1910—long and snug like many cruise-ship lounges—is decorated with wall sconces and stained glass, and has upholstered bar stools, comfy club chairs and small tables, and a separate poolroom. Formerly the Malts and More Bar—or, simply, the M&M Bar—it once boasted the city’s largest collection of single malt whiskeys and attracted international celebrities like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. Over the years, the bar also has drawn actors and singers from the ornate Deutsches Schauspielhaus, Germany’s largest theater, just a few doors away. On Saturday nights, locals and guests alike flock here for live music and complimentary hors d’oeuvres.
Alongside the bar, the Stadt Restaurant is presided over by Chef Mario Regensburg whose extensive resume includes an apprenticeship at Hamburg’s five-star Hotel Süllberg under Michelin chef Karl-Heinz Hauser. Every morning, guests enjoy an elaborate buffet of fresh–baked breads, meats, cheeses and fruits, plus cooked-to-order eggs and omelets at a station usually manned by a cheery chef in a charming Tyrolean hat with peaked crown and feather. The seasonal dinner menu, which draws both locals and hotel guests, includes German and international dishes made with regionally sourced organic ingredients. Start with Local Fish Soup or Cabbage and Turnip Salad with Jerusalem artichokes, pumpkin and beetroot, then proceed to fish fillet with wild herbs or “Le Steak Frites Mignon” made with Frisian ox.
With a cavernous hall and an upper gallery, adorned with marble columns and honey-colored inlaid wood, the Stadt Restaurant could be the dining room of a grand ocean liner. Indeed, in its early days, writes Keller, the Reichshof was as self-sustaining as any seagoing vessel. By 1919, Langer had bought a farm west of Hamburg, which supplied the hotel with pork, chicken, goose and duck as well as fresh vegetables and hothouse flowers. The Reichshof even had its own multistoried, silo-type garage, an historic landmark that has since gone out of service. In 1937, the hotel dug its own well, 500 feet deep, which not only provided the hotel with water but actually saved it from burning down during World War II.
Sadly, Emil Langer—whose square-jawed likeness graces a bronze plaque on a stair landing—did not live to see the Reichshof’s later improvements. After his death in 1928, his widow Martha took over the hotel. For the next 40 years, Mrs. Langer proved to be an able hotelier, and the Reichshof attracted a glittering and loyal clientele from around the world. One frequent guest, a Danish woman, even instructed a neighbor that the Reichshof should be immediately informed upon her death.
In the 1930s and 40s, the Reichshof also attracted high–ranking Nazis, perhaps owing, in part, to its name, which, regrettably, evoked Hitler’s Third Reich. But Mrs. Langer knew how to handle her Nazis. According to one former employee, she hid Jews in the back of the hotel while playing cards with the Gestapo in the front. She also gave rock-bottom rates to Jewish clients who stayed in the hotel before hopping trains to flee Germany. As for Nazi employees, Mrs. Langer was always happy to help them find “better opportunities” elsewhere.
After World War II, Jewish guests who had survived the Holocaust returned to the Reichshof to pick up jewelry and other valuables, which Mrs. Langer had kept hidden in the hotel safe. On her 80th birthday, in recognition of her service to the Jewish community, Martha Langer received a commemorative scroll from the State of Israel and eight trees were planted there in her honor.
For all its long history and old-world elegance, the Reichshof, renovated in 2015, is quite up-to-date. Downstairs, the lobby features high-speed Wi-Fi, and the front desk, open 24 hours a day, offers speedy computerized check-in by friendly multilingual employees. On a lower level, Spa & Sports offers a modern gym with cardio and weight equipment, spa treatment rooms, and a Finnish sauna and steam sauna.
Upstairs, 278 guest rooms and suites, paneled in honey-colored wood, feature flat-screen HD-TVs and free Wi-Fi. Extra Large Rooms and Suites offer mini fridges, free access to the gym and fragrant herb-infused Noble Isle bath products from Great Britain. Wheelchair-Friendly Rooms feature extra-wide doors, easily accessible light switches and barrier-free bathrooms. All rooms and suites have Nespresso or Tassimo coffeemakers, ironing boards and irons, and big umbrellas to ward off Hamburg’s frequent showers.
Double sets of tall soundproofed windows are in all rooms, too. Request a street-side room and watch all the comings-and-goings outside Central Station without ever hearing so much as the screech of a train wheel or the chatter of passengers.
As Emil Langer realized, building a luxury hotel near a major train station is a perfect idea. After a good night’s sleep at the Reichshof, you can practically roll out of bed and into Central Station, then hop a train bound for the international airport, or for Lübeck, Berlin or anywhere else in Europe. Outside the station, an extensive network of Underground lines awaits Hamburg sightseers.
Or do as Langer did when he first came up with the notion of building the Reichshof: Take a long stroll through St. Georg. Just west is the Hamburger Kunsthalle, with its fine collection of German Romantic and Expressionist paintings by the likes of Caspar David Friedrich and Max Liebermann. Nearby are the Alster Lakes, lined with posh hotels, consulates and residences, surrounded by lush greenery, and plied by kayaks, canoes and long, low-slung sightseeing boats.
Heading southwest to the Altstadt and City Hall, you might take in a Hamburg Symphony summer concert in the sculpture-filled courtyard, see the revolving art exhibits at Bucerius Kunst Forum next door, or simply stroll through Rathaus square, stopping to hear a busker, or snack on pretzels and currywurst. From there, it’s a short walk south to the River Elbe and Hamburg’s busy harbor—the sight that first inspired hotelier Emil Langer.
IF YOU GO
For more on the Reichshof’s past, the excellent (and entertaining) 232-page Hotel Reichshof Hamburg: A Legendary Hotel and Its Story (Wasmuth, 2015) by Nicole Keller, with photographs by Julia Dautel and Oliver Schumacher, is on sale at the hotel, at local bookstores and on Amazon.com.
Hotel Reichshof Hamburg, CURIO Collection by Hilton, Kirchenallee 34-36, 20099 Hamburg, Germany, 49-40-370259-0. www.reichshof-hamburg.com
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.