General Information About Hamburg
Although it’s several more miles before the mighty Elbe empties itself into the North Sea, Hamburg has all the atmosphere and attributes of a busy harbour town.
Hamburg’s status as a heaving international port has seen it labelled as the so-called “gateway to the world”, and the description certainly sits well with somewhere constantly awhirl with different cultural flavours.
Hamburg is the second largest metropolis in Germany and has every ounce of the grit and character that this would suggest.
Aesthetically, it’s less like Berlin and Munich and more akin to northern European capitals such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen. All are cities set on water (Hamburg in fact has more bridges than Amsterdam or Venice), and many of its buildings stand along quaysides and canals. It’s also Germany’s greenest city, with a full two thirds of its area dedicated to parkland or lakes.
Away from the greenery though, Hamburg can change at the turn of a corner. This was where the Beatles nurtured their talents in the early 1960s, playing the dingy clubs of the notorious Reeperbahn red-light district. The area still draws visitors in large numbers – Hamburg’s nightlife and live music scene are both renowned today. Elsewhere, you’ll find moneyed waterside neighbourhoods, colourful fish markets and a handsome spread of period buildings. This is, after all, somewhere that was declared a Free Imperial City more than 500 years ago.
Today, the city’s most popular visitor attractions form an appropriately diverse collection. They range from the impressive concert hall Elbphilharmonie which is already Hamburg’s new landmark, the Miniatur Wunderland, a colossal model railway that continues to be expanded, to Hamburg Zoo, open since 1863 and notable for using moats in place of barred cages. Elsewhere, theatres, museums and lakeside walks all add to the city’s all-round appeal.
It’s a fantastic place to eat and a great place to cycle – a city where street art meets summer beaches and electronic music meets edgy architecture. To say Hamburg is rarely boring is something of an understatement.
The ‘Hammaburg’ was the name given to a fortified structure, complete with moat, that was first built here by Saxons between the Elbe and Alster Rivers in AD825. The fortress was raided and burnt by marauding Vikings on numerous occasions over the next century, but as the nearby town of Lübeck flourished to become a major regional power, Hamburg, perfectly located 100km (62 miles) from the mouth of the Elbe, gladly donned the mantle of North Sea port and trading post. Commerce then took over as Hamburg’s principle function, and has remained so to this day.
By the end of the Middle Ages, Hamburg was really coming into its own as a major economic power in Northern Europe, developing an independent infrastructure, including its own stock exchange and bank.
As a fortified and protected city always careful to adopt a politically neutral stance, Hamburg continued to prosper while war and conflict debilitated many other parts of Europe. In fact, Hamburg was further bolstered by a profusion of Dutch seafaring merchants who immigrated to the Elbe region during the ’80-year war’ for religious independence, which ravaged the Netherlands during the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
However, this thriving city-state could not escape the clutches of Napoleon, and was annexed into part of the French Empire in 1810. Yet this was short-lived, as the Emperor was overthrown five years later, and by 1819 the newly titled ‘free and hanseatic city of Hamburg’ was enjoying business as usual.
Hamburg concentrated on broadening and developing its trading connections across the globe, including Africa, South America and the Far East, and the harbour city expanded dramatically to accommodate new trade, swallowing up many small villages on the southern banks of the Elbe.
Yet Hamburg’s more recent history has been less rosy. Fire destroyed a quarter of the city centre in 1842, and a firestorm started by Allied bombing during WWII totally eradicated the eastern half of Hamburg, which took another 20 years to rebuild.
Today, however, the city that’s also the continent’s second largest port continues to enjoy its centuries-old tradition of economic good fortune.
Did you know?
- Hamburg has 2,300 bridges – more than Amsterdam and Venice combined.
- Opened in 1907, the city’s zoo, Tierpark Hagenbeck, has no cages. Instead, animals freely roam in open enclosures surrounded by moats.
- The Beatles regularly performed in different clubs in Hamburg between 1960-62 before achieving worldwide fame.
In 1965 the city had about 1,850,000 inhabitants, but since then the population has been slowly decreasing. More than three-fourths of the residents are Protestants, and the remainder are predominantly Roman Catholic. There is a small Muslim community, which includes many Turkish Gastarbeiter (“guest workers”). The Jews, of whom there had been 27,000 in 1933 (when Hitler took power), now number only about 1,000.
Weather in Hamburg
Best time to visit:
Being located high in the north of Germany, Hamburg has a temperate climate with particularly cold winters. The weather is warmest between May and October, which consequently marks the main tourist season. However, with a busy events calendar, there’s nearly always something happening in Hamburg year-round. For those who enjoy the cold, Christmas is a picturesque and atmospheric time in the city, with large fairs and quite often snow, and the chance to skate on the city’s frozen lakes.
Not only do the Hamburg double-decker bus tours take you to the most interesting parts of new and old Hamburg, but they also give you the freedom to see and do what you want, when you want, by allowing you to disembark at leisure and pick up the tour later at one of the many designated stop points en route. Tickets are valid for 24 hours.
Hamburg is aesthetically set around the two lakes – Binnenalster (Inner Alster) and Aussenalster (Outer Alster). Cruising the Aster Lake is an experience allowing you to view the city from a uniquely scenic perspective. One of the best boat trips is the Alster-Kreuz-Fahrten, which makes nine stops on its leisurely two-hour journey and where you can hopp on and hopp off wherever you like.
There are many interesting walking tours of Hamburg, covering the Old Town, New Town, parks and port, but the ‘Beatles in Hamburg’ walking tour seems to be the one that’s steadily increased in popularity since its launch in 2009. Take a tour in the footsteps of the world’s most famous band, in the city where it all began for them in the early 1960s. Knowledgeable guides take you on a tour that includes venues in the Reeperbahn, where the band played their earliest gigs, and the new Beatles Museum, providing a detailed account of the band’s fledgling years here.
Excursions from Hamburg
One of the quaintest and most charming riverside villages, and a favourite spot for city-dwellers on weekend breaks. Perched on the north bank of the Elbe, its narrow, winding streets lined with beautifully preserved fishermen’s cottages lead down to a picturesque harbour. From Hamburg, Blankenese is just a 35-minute ride on bus 36 from Mönckebergstrasse or via the ferry service from St Pauli-Landungsbrucken.
Located 60km (37 miles) northeast of Hamburg, with trains running half-hourly, the beautiful medieval town of Lübeck was one of Germany’s most important, being head of the influential Hanseatic League controlling the highly lucrative Baltic Sea routes during the Middle Ages. Today, the city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, whose 16th-century Old Town, located on a central island, retains a unique architectural legacy as well as picture-perfect looks. Boat trips are available, there are several small museums, plus some very pleasant bars, cafés and restaurants here, all combining to a truly pleasant day out.
This popular and nearby excursion destination is one of the quaintest and most charming riverside villages, and a favourite spot for city-dwellers on weekend breaks. Perched upon a steep hillside overlooking the north bank of the Elbe, the village first gained favour with ship’s captains as the perfect location for a quiet retirement. Narrow, winding streets lined with beautifully preserved fishermen’s cottages lead down to a picturesque harbour scattered with cafés and restaurants, where many happy hours can be spent watching the steam ships come and go. There’s even a string of small, attractive sandy beaches here that are perfect during summer. From Hamburg, Blankenese is just a 35-minute ride on bus 36 from Mönckebergstrasse or via the ferry service from St Pauli-Landungsbrucken – both options are recommended for the scenery.
Getting around Hamburg
Public transport in Hamburg is popular, efficient and used by almost everyone. Buses travel around the clock, including a special Nachtbus (night bus) service, and the hub is centrally located at Rathausmarket by the town hall.
HVV (tel: +49 40 19449; www.hvv.de) runs Hamburg’s excellent integrated system combining rapid transit rail, regional rail, buses and harbour ferries.
The U-Bahn (Unterbahn, underground railway) and S-Bahn (Schnellbahn, rapid transit light railway) form a very useful, interlinked network. You must buy tickets for the U-Bahn, S-Bahn and all regional trains in advance. You can buy individual tickets per journey, but if you are around for a day or more, it is worth investing in an All Day ticket, which offers unlimited travel for one adult and three children under the age of 15. The 9am Day Ticket offers the same but is only valid after 0900.
The Happy Weekend ticket allows unlimited travel for up to five people on Saturday and Sunday. The Hamburg Card, which you can buy at the tourist office, gives unlimited travel on all public transport and grants free or reduced-price admission to many top attractions and excursions.
You can buy all travel-only tickets from automated ticket machines at the stations or from bus drivers.
Taxis in Hamburg are easily available throughout the day, and can be hailed in the streets or taken from the frequent taxi stands, which are signified by a green box on a raised post.
For advance booking, reputable companies include Das Taxi (tel: +49 40 22 11 22), Hansa Taxi (tel: +49 40 211 211) and Taxiruf (tel: +49 40 44 10 11).
DrivingDriving in Hamburg has all the drawbacks of driving and parking as in any other major city and is not recommended. Note that if you do drive, you can leave your car free-of-charge at one of the HVV park-and-ride facilities (see www.hvv.de for more information) at rapid transit and regional rail stations which avoids the hassle of finding an inner-city car park.
Car hire operators in Hamburg include Avis (tel: +49 40 5075 2314; www.avis.com), Europcar (tel: +49 40 335 941; www.europcar.com) and Hertz (tel: +49 40 5935 1367; www.hertz.com). You usually have to be at least 21 years old to hire a car, although some companies charge a surcharge if you’re under 25.
Hamburg’s StadtRAD bikeshare scheme (tel: +49 40 8221 88100; stadtrad.hamburg.de/kundenbuchung/) has hundreds of unmistakable, pillar-box-red bikes neatly lined up at numerous rental points across the city. Often located outside U-Bahn and S-Bahn stations, StadtRAD bikes are free for the first half hour.
Shopping in Hamburg
Shopping opportunities in Hamburg are of exactly the affluent, upscale variety you’d expect from one of Europe’s most prosperous cities, and with a little bit extra. Hamburg’s main shopping mall, Europa Passage, is in fact the largest in Europe. Meanwhile, the historic city centre offers a profusion of intriguing and quirky second-hand stores, while those with plastic to melt can visit the expensive and über-chic fashion boutiques of the rejuvenated Schanzenviertel district.
The main retail street in Hamburg is Mönckebergerstrasse, and there are several major indoor centres with varying degrees of exclusivity. Jungfernstieg and Neuer Wall boast the most expensive stores. The emphasis is on national and international brand names in fashion, jewellery and high-class furnishings.
The centrally located Altona Fish Market has been a lively and vibrant market ever since it began in 1703. It’s open daily and now sells an awful lot more than just fish. Locally, the market has something near cult status and is worth a stroll simply for the atmosphere and notoriously lively banter between stallholders.
For those religiously dedicated to their shopping and the culture of the mall, a visit to Europa Passage, Ballindamm 40, will be like a pilgrimage to a major cathedral. This is the largest inner-city mall in all Europe; a vast retail sanctuary designed in spectacular contemporary style, spread over five floors and containing 120 shops housing every conceivable international brand name. The Hamburg’s longest shopping centre Hamburger Meile, Hamburger Straße 27, hosts even 150 shops, restaurants and cafés. The biggest shopping temple of Hamburg with 240 shops is the AEZ Alstertal shopping centre, Heegbarg 31. No desire remains open in this mall. In the west of Hamburg there is the Elbe shopping centre, Osdorfer Landstraße 131-135, with 180 shops. A cosy little mall with shops with moderate prices is the shopping centre Harburg-Arcaden, Lüneburger Straße 39.
Shops in Hamburg are open Monday to Saturday from around 1000 to 1800; and until 2000 in the larger malls such as Europa Passage and on Mönckebergstrasse.
Hamburg Culture and History
Hamburg’s history begins with the Hammaburg, a moated castle of modest size, built in about ad 825 on a sandy promontory between the Alster and Elbe rivers. In 834, during the reign of the emperor Louis the Pious, the castle’s baptistery became the seat of an archbishopric, and Archbishop Ansgar made the young city of Hamburg the base of his missions to the heathens of northern Europe. Vikings burned the city in 845, and the rebuilt Hamburg was burned down again eight times in the following 300 years. By the end of the 11th century, Hamburg’s role as the spiritual metropolis of the north was over, and henceforth commerce rather than religion was to be the principal raison d’être of the city. Between 1120 and 1140 some trading businesses were installed, and the foundation of Lübeck, on the Baltic, by Adolf II, count of Holstein, further promoted the economic development of Hamburg as Lübeck’s port on the North Sea. In the autumn of 1188 a group of Hamburg entrepreneurs received from their feudal overlord, Adolph III of Schauenburg (Schaumburg), count of Holstein, a charter for the building of a new town, adjacent to the old one, with a harbour on the Alster River and with facilities for the use of the Elbe River as an outer roadstead. On May 7, 1189, the emperor Frederick I Barbarossa confirmed Count Adolph’s dispositions in a charter granting special trading rights, toll exemptions, and navigation privileges.
In the 13th century Hamburg grew steadily in both area and economic importance, owing to the development of the Hanse (an association of merchants trading in a particular area) into a widespread association of north German merchant cities, the great Hanseatic League, in which Hamburg’s role was second only to Lübeck’s. A major entrepôt for the trade between Russia and Flanders, Hamburg proceeded to safeguard the trade routes by acquiring tracts of land along the branches of the Elbe in the immediate vicinity of the town and also on the estuary farther downstream (Ritzebüttel, nucleus of the later Cuxhaven, was acquired by Hamburg in 1393). It thus came to control the use of the river and to be recognized as the protector, in the emperor’s name, of navigation on its lower course. Some political complications arose with the death, in 1459, of the last Schauenburg count of Holstein, since his princely rights in Germany passed thereafter to the royal house of Denmark, but Hamburg scarcely recognized Danish suzerainty in any but a formal way.
Evolution of the modern city
Toward the end of the Middle Ages, the Hanseatic League gradually dissolved. Hamburg then went its own way and by 1550 had surpassed even Lübeck in economic importance. A stock exchange was founded in 1558 and the Bank of Hamburg in 1619; a convoy system for shipping was inaugurated in 1662, Hamburg’s merchantmen being the first to be escorted on the high seas by men-of-war. About the same time marine insurance was first introduced into Germany. There were two causes for this new ascendancy: first, the wars of religion in the Low Countries in the second half of the 16th century had prompted many Dutch merchants to emigrate to the Unterelbe (Lower Elbe) region, with the result that Hamburg was henceforth to be the focus of their already established international commerce; second, the city had been so efficiently fortified in the decade 1616–25 that it could pursue its business untroubled throughout the worst crises of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48). By the end of the 17th century, Hamburg, with 70,000 inhabitants, was the largest city in Germany after Cologne.
The Treaty of Gottorp, concluded with the Danes on May 27, 1768, released Hamburg from theoretical subjection to the king of Denmark and so paved its way to being acknowledged, in 1770, as an “immediate” imperial city of Germany (that is, having no overlord other than the emperor). In addition, the treaty ceded to Hamburg the islands, from Veddel to Finkenwerder, that lay between the city and the left banks of the Elbe River and that, a century later, were to be the site of new docks. Hamburg, however, was not to enjoy its new advantage for long: the Napoleonic Wars overthrew the old order in Germany, and in 1810 the little state was annexed to Napoleon’s French Empire.
After Napoleon’s downfall (1814–15), Hamburg became a member state of the German Confederation, with the designation “Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg” from 1819. Prosperity was quickly recovered, as Hamburg’s trade was extended to newly opened territories in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Even the great fire of May 1842, which devastated one-fourth of the city, did not check the booming economy, and the harbour was converted into one accessible at any time, without ships’ having to depend on the state of the tides in the Elbe Estuary. Under the German Empire, founded in 1871, the political status of Hamburg was maintained, and development proceeded unchecked. The splendid Baroque houses of the densely populated Brook Island were demolished in the 1880s to make room for the warehouses of the new free port. By the end of the 19th century, in the course of which the population grew from 130,000 to 700,000, Hamburg had expanded far beyond its previous limits, absorbing such former suburbs as Sankt Pauli and Sankt Georg and spreading its tentacles into the countryside, toward Eimsbüttel, Eppendorf, Harvestehude, and Barmbek.
Hamburg entered the 20th century determined to maintain and to strengthen its position as “Germany’s gateway to the world”; new docks and wharves were constructed on the left bank of the Elbe River. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 brought progress to a standstill, however. Hamburg’s international trade collapsed, and its merchant fleet of 1,466 ships was virtually confined to port. After the war the victorious Allies demanded nearly all of Hamburg’s ships by way of reparation from Germany.
For many years after the war, Hamburg could undertake no further development because it had already exhausted all the potentialities of its territory. The Greater Hamburg Ordinance of January 26, 1937, changed this situation by allowing Hamburg to incorporate the neighbouring cities of Altona, Wandsbek, and Harburg, which until then had belonged to Prussia. The immediate prospect of expansion, with the development of these areas on a basis of large-scale planning, was shattered by the outbreak, in 1939, of World War II, during which repeated air raids demolished 55 percent of Hamburg’s residential area and 60 percent of the harbour installations and killed 55,000 people. When the war ended in 1945, only the most strenuous efforts could supply the elementary needs for Hamburg’s survival.
Reconstruction proceeded rapidly, however. Symptomatic of the city’s postwar commercial efflorescence was the vast new business district City-Nord, built in the 1960s. At the same time, nightclubs on the Reeperbahn became proving grounds for British rock and roll bands-most notably the Beatles-who took advantage of a direct ship route from Liverpool, England. In 1962 the city experienced a flood, which killed more than 300 people and destroyed much of the old part of the city. In the mid-1960s, Hamburg’s population exceeded 1,800,000, though it has fallen in the decades since, owing to a population shift toward the suburbs. With continued immigration of foreigners to the city, Hamburg’s foreign-born population reached 10 percent by the 1980s.
The unification of Germany in 1990 increased trade between the city and eastern and central Europe. During the 1990s the city underwent continued modernization. In 1993 Hamburg hosted a multimedia festival, an exhibition on the use of modern communication methods in business and the arts. The following year the city became the seat of a Roman Catholic bishopric.
Hamburg’s cherished traditions, together with its thriving business and cultural life and the energy of its inhabitants make it one of the most vibrant cities in the world.
Among Hamburg’s six principal museums, the Kunsthalle, founded in 1868 by Alfred Lichtwark, an outstanding patron of artists, is one of Europe’s most remarkable galleries. It is particularly notable for its collection of 19th- and 20th-century works, including many of the German Romantic school. The Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe (Museum of Art and Crafts), founded in 1877 by the jurist Justus Brinckmann, has one of the most significant collections of ancient artifacts in Germany and is also famous for its examples of Asian art and of Jugendstil (Art Nouveau). The Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte, which has grown from a collection of local antiquities started in 1839, contains a wide range of exhibits, from costumes to parts of old buildings and from architect’s drawings to models of ships, shown in such a way as to present an impressive conspectus of the state’s history. The Museum für Völkerkunde (Museum of Ethnology and Prehistory), founded in 1878, has impressive collections in its own fields. The Altonaer Museum, opened in 1863, specializes in north German subjects, with special attention to Schleswig-Holstein, and houses Germany’s largest collection of old ships’ figureheads. The Helms-Museum, in the Harburg district, is a local museum for the part of Hamburg south of the Elbe but also houses antiquities representing the prehistory and early history of the whole territory. The Ernst-Barlach-Haus, in Jenisch Park, was founded in 1961–62 by another great patron of the arts, Hermann F. Reemtsma, to make his private collection accessible to the public. Hamburg’s once famous Zoological Museum was destroyed by bombs in 1943 after a century of existence.
The Hamburg Staatsoper, which dates from 1678, has won world renown. Its performances of classical and contemporary works bear comparison with those given by the great opera houses of Vienna, Milan, London, and New York City. The Deutsche Schauspielhaus, a leading theatre, enjoyed a particularly high reputation from 1955 to 1963, when Gustaf Gründgens directed and performed there. The Thalia-Theater, founded in 1843, with a multifaceted program that includes plenty of light entertainment, is popular with local audiences. All three establishments are generously funded by the state. The numerous other theatres include the tiny Piccolo-Theater and the Hansa-Theater, said to be the last genuine variety theatre in the German-speaking world. Plays of a local character or in Plattdeutsch (Low German) are performed in the Ohnsorg-Theater and sometimes in the Sankt Pauli-Theater, which dates from 1841 and is Hamburg’s oldest playhouse.
The birthplace of Mendelssohn and Brahms, Hamburg has a sustained tradition of musical activity. Three great orchestras-the Philharmonische Staatsorchester, the Symphonie-Orchester des Norddeutschen Rundfunks, and the Hamburger Symfoniker-familiarize the public with classical and contemporary compositions. There are also groups specializing in chamber music, in choral performances, and in church music; and orchestras, choirs, singers, and instrumentalists from other parts of Germany or from abroad are also invited to Hamburg. The focal point of Hamburg’s musical life is the Neo-Baroque Musikhalle, built in 1904–08 with money donated by the shipowner Carl Laeisz.
An important aspect of Hamburg’s history is its prominence as a centre of newspaper and periodical publishing, which dates to the 17th century. By 1830 Hamburg had more newspapers than any other city in Germany. In the 1920s Berlin began its ascendancy as a press centre, and Hamburg fell into second place, which it still occupies. Its daily newspapers include the Hamburger Abendblatt, the Hamburger Morgenpost, and the Bild-Zeitung. In addition, a wide range of weekly and monthly magazines issue from the various publishing firms located in the city.
Sports have long been popular in Hamburg. The Hamburger Turnerschaft (1816) is Germany’s oldest athletic club. The first German rowing club, founded in Hamburg in 1836, took part in 1837 in Germany’s first official rowing race, against the English Rowing Club formed by members of Hamburg’s then numerous English colony. The Hamburger Rennklub, for horse racing, was founded in 1852, and the North German Derby, first run in 1869, became an annual event, as the German Derby, in 1889. Hamburg’s first public football (soccer) matches were played in 1881–82, after disputes about the rules of the game with the local Anglo-American Football Club. Another noteworthy event is the international tennis championship, which takes place every year in May.
An aspect of the city that cannot be ignored is its world-famous red-light district, centred on the Reeperbahn, where prostitution is legally permitted and kept under control by the police. Another famous Hamburg institution is the colourful Sunday-morning market held at the Fischmarkt by the harbour, where items ranging from fish to secondhand household goods are available.