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Hamburg: One Writer’s Top 10

Hamburg’s Landungsbrücken piers on the River Elbe PHOTO Hans Peter Marten (GNTO)

By Monique Burns

In Northern Germany, Hamburg, the great port on the River Elbe, is festive year round.  In spring, summer and fall, sightseeing boats, freighters, ferries and tall ships fill the harbor while canoes, kayaks and paddleboats ply the leafy Alster Lakes.  Winter brings Christmas Markets with hand-crafted ornaments and souvenirs. Throughout the year, the “Music City” stages classical concerts in the Elbphilharmonie and other stylish venues, international musicals in theaters like the Deutsches Schauspielhaus, and rock, pop and jazz music in the perennially hip clubs of St. Pauli.  Art shows, history exhibits and festivals add to the enchantment along the River Elbe.

Hamburg harbor with cruiseship Queen Mary PHOTO Ingo Boelter (GNTO)
  1. Hamburg Harbor

Hamburg residents like to point out that the River Elbe is the world’s third-busiest port.  What’s more, unlike Rotterdam and Antwerp, the Elbe has not one but two outlets: the North Sea to the west and the Baltic to the east.  Fortunately, for visitors, hard-working Hamburgians also like to mix business with pleasure.  The River Elbe is the city’s biggest playground, hosting the annual Port Birthday (www.hamburg.com/port-anniversary) in May with Grand Parades of ferries, yachts, freighters and tall ships and even a Tugboat Ballet.  In September, Hamburg Cruise Days (www.hamburg.com/cruise-days) draws ocean liners from around the world for food, music and special events.  And, whenever the Queen Elizabeth 2 comes to town, fireworks explode over the harbor.  Head to the Landungsbrücken piers in St. Pauli and hop a Barkassen-Meyer (www.barkassen-meyer.de) sightseeing boat for a 1 or 2-hour harbor tour, including the Speicherstadt warehouse district (see below) and HafenCity, Europe’s largest urban development project with eateries and attractions.  www.hamburg.com


Elbphilharmonie concert hall. Photo Thies Raetzke.
  1. Elbphilharmonie

Opened along the River Elbe in January 2017, the landmark Elbphilharmonie concert hall, designed by Swiss firm Herzog & deMeuron, features a stylish wave-like glass roof rising above an historic red-brick warehouse that once housed tea, coffee and tobacco.  Inside, two concert halls boast acoustics by Japanese master Yasuhisa Toyota, who also engineered sound for the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and Suntory Hall in Tokyo. One-hour guided tours, as well as concerts, can be booked online.  The Plaza level is open free to the public from 9 a.m. till midnight.  Störtebeker (www.stoertebeker-eph.com) runs a gourmet restaurant, brewpub and tasting room/shop on three levels. There’s also a 244-room luxury Westin hotel (www.westinhamburg.com) with a restaurant, bar and lounge. The Elbphilharmonie’s wraparound observation deck offers panoramic views of the harbor and city landmarks, including Hamburg’s beloved “Michel” (see below).  www.elbphilharmonie.de


Speicherstadt warehouse district. PHOTO: Spryrosdrakopoulos
  1. Speicherstadt

The world’s largest warehouse district, the Speicherstadt has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2015.  Extending over three million square feet, the district includes restored 19th-century red-brick warehouses separated by canals crossed by muscular iron footbridges.  Learn about shipping and shipbuilding on the Elbe at the International Maritime Museum (www.imm-hamburg.de) housed in a handsome brick warehouse with stepped roofs.  Or take a trip around the globe at Miniatur Wunderland (www.miniatur-wunderland.de), the world’s largest model railway with detailed representations of Germany, Austria, France, Italy and North America.  Overnight in the romantic waterside quarter at the Westin at the Elbphilharmonie (see above).  Or check into 25hours Hotel HafenCity (www.25hours-hotels.com), a hip boutique hotel with 170 “cabins” in maritime-modern style, steamer trunks as desks, shipping containers as meeting rooms and stylish Schindelhauer rental bikes for exploring.  www.hamburg.com/sights/speicherstadt


BallinStadt Emigration Museum PHOTO Helger Ellgaard
  1. BallinStadt Emigration Museum

South of the Speicherstadt, on the River Elbe’s Veddel Island, Hamburg’s maritime story continues at BallinStadt Emigration Museum.  Between 1850 and 1939, five million immigrants, many Eastern European Jews, headed to America from Hamburg, “the port of dreams.”  Albert Ballin, general-director of the Hapag steamship line—now shipping giant Hapag-Lloyd—built an emigration center with more than two dozen buildings, including a hospital, dormitories, a synagogue, a church and a kosher kitchen.  In 2007, the low-slung brick Emigration Halls were transformed into the BallinStadt Emigration Museum with colorful high-tech exhibits, models of emigrants’ humble quarters and computers for tracing visitors’ ancestry.  In addition to a well-stocked gift shop, visit Restaurant Nach Amerika, which serves burgers, spaghetti and salads as well as dishes based on recipes served to the emigrants.  For a taste of Hamburg, try labskaus, a hearty hash of corned beef, fish, potatoes, onions and beetroot, topped with a fried egg.  It’s guaranteed to keep you fueled all day long.  www.ballinstadt.de


Hotel Fontenay on the Alster Lake COURTESY The Fontenay Hamburg


  1. Alster Lakes

In October 2017, the western shore of the Alster Lakes—Hamburg’s other watery playground—welcomed The Fontenay (www.thefontenay.de), an ultra-luxurious design hotel with 131 rooms and suites, a gourmet restaurant, a spa, and a rooftop infinity pool, lounge and observation deck. Splurge on a Fontenay stay, if you can.  Otherwise, start your explorations at Hamburg’s Jungfernstieg promenade.  Stop in the grand Alsterhaus (www.alsterhaus.de) department store for coffee, tea, cream-filled pastries or lunch—plus spectacular lake views—at Restaurant Le Buffet.   Outside, board a long, low-slung Alster Touristik (www.alstertouristik.de) sightseeing boat.  Or consider a Boat Hire (www.hamburg.com/visitors/hamburg-by/boat) and rent your own kayak, canoe or paddleboat. Cruise from the Inner Alster into the Outer Alster, with tree-shaded banks lined with stylish mansions, yacht clubs, and two legendary grand hotels, the Fairmont Hotel Vierjahreszeiten (www.fairmont.com) and Kempinski Hotel Atlantic (www.kempinski.com). www.hamburg.com/explore/outdoors/alster


Hamburger Rathaus. PHOTO Dipl. Fotograf Ralf Brunner


  1. Hamburg Rathaus

If you think Hamburg City Hall is just for politicos, think again.  Built in 1897, the ornate Neoclassical building, which faces a lively market square and a breezy lakeside canal, draws locals and visitors alike.  Tours, given daily, take in artistic touches like the stunning mosaic of Hammonia, the city’s patron goddess of freedom, peace and prosperity.  In summer, the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra (www.symphonikerhamburg.de) gives moderately priced concerts in the City Hall courtyard adorned with sculpture and a fountain of Hygieia, Greek goddess of health, placed in memory of victims of the city’s 1892 cholera epidemic.  There’s more culture next door at the Bucerius Kunst Forum (www.buceriuskunstforum.de) with changing art exhibits of everything from Dutch Old Masters and bold German Expressionist works to paintings by American Edward Hopper.  Before leaving Rathausmarkt square, relax over a snack, and a glass of wine or beer, while people-watching and listening to street musicians.  www.hamburg.com/sights/city hall.


Keith Haring exhibit at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe PHOTO Monique Burns
  1. Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe

Art-loving visitors hie to Hamburger Kunsthalle (www.hamburger-kunsthalle.de) to see 19th-century masters and to Deichtorhallen (www.deichtorhallen.de) for contemporary art and photography.  But, all too often, tourists bypass the Arts and Crafts Museum, a short walk south of Hamburg Central Station.  Eclectic almost to the point of eccentricity, the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe houses a dizzying array of art and artifacts, everything from 19th-century musical instruments and bejeweled Jewish and Christian religious relics to oil paintings, sculptures and fully furnished period rooms.  Just as intriguing are the museum’s superb temporary exhibits.  A recent show featured several breathtaking rooms filled with works by the late American artist Keith Haring, best known for his striking AIDS and political posters as well as his stunning graphics for major corporate and tourist events.  www.mkg-hamburg.de


Hauptkirche St. Michaelis PHOTO Renkus-Heinz
  1. The Michel

Of Hamburg’s many churches, the most beloved is Hauptkirche St. Michaelis.  The Michel’s weathered copper dome is a beacon to passing ships and its daily trumpet chorales are a 300-year-old tradition.  Destroyed several times by fire and painstakingly rebuilt, the Michel epitomizes Hamburg’s indomitable spirit.  The Michel has long been a center of liturgical music overseen by city music directors like Georg Philipp Telemann, and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, buried in the church crypt.  Native son and composer Johannes Brahms was baptized and confirmed here.  Today, the ornate gold-and-white Baroque interior is graced with five organs providing music for Sunday services, free noon concerts and other events. Tour the church, then climb the tower for fabulous harbor views.  Only three blocks northwest, the Composers Quarter (www.kompostinenquartier.com) on Peterstrasse includes the Brahms Museum plus five interconnected museums dedicated to Hamburg composers Georg Telemann, C.P.E. Bach, Johann Adolf Hasse, Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, and Gustav Mahler.  www.st-michaelis.de


Club Indra near the Reeperbahn COURTESY Hempel’s Beatles Tour
  1. Hempel’s Beatles Tour

In Hamburg, the “Music City,” the Beatles cut their teeth, playing upwards of 300 gigs in and around the Reeperbahn, the famous red-light district known for its annual club-music extravaganza, the Reeperbahn Festival (www.reeperbahnfestival.com).  Follow in the band’s footsteps as Stefanie Hempel points out Beatles landmarks and pauses to sing their hits accompanied by her little black ukulele. On the Grosse Freiheit, see clubs like Indra, at no. 64, where the Beatles debuted in Hamburg on August 1960. Across the street, a stone marker recalls the long-gone Star-Club where the Beatles and other top headliners appeared.  At Beatles-Platz, snap selfies inside open-work metal silhouettes of band members.  You’re at the corner of Grosse Freiheit and the Reeperbahn, gateway to the Red Light District with its casino, strip joints, peep shows and bars.  On nearby Herbertstrasse, signs on a high wooden gate warn youngsters under 18—and women—to stay out.  Take a quick peek, anyway, at storefronts where ladies of the night ply their trade.  www.hempels-musictour.de


Hamburg, St.-Pauli-Fischmarkt, Fischauktionshalle
  1. Altonaer Fischauktionshalle

In the Altona district, on the Elbe waterfront bordering St. Pauli, is the cavernous red-brick Fish Auction Hall.  A 19th-century architectural landmark with industrial-size steel girders and stained-glass windows, the building alone is worth a visit.   But starting early on Sunday mornings, the Fischauktionshalle draws big raucous crowds to its well-priced public brunches, offering a wide variety of dishes including salami, smoked salmon and mackerel, bratwurst, ham and eggs, and cheese, desserts and fresh pastries.  Feast to your heart’s content, then boogie down, as several bands play rock, jazz and German schlager music onstage.  Outside, Fish Market stalls sell everything from flowers to fish sandwiches and souvenirs.  At year’s end, the Fischauktionshalle hosts a gala New Year’s Eve Party (www.eventim.de) with a buffet, drinks and live music.  www.fischauktionshalle.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.

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