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Hamburg: Germany’s ‘Gate to the World’

Travelers who head north in the western part of Germany will reach Hamburg sooner or later. It’s usually sooner. They will find a truly stunning city that offers water, more water, even more water, and culture.

Berlin, February 17th, 2019. Update: July 16th, 2022 (The Berlin Spectator) — Hamburg is proud of many things, including a building which is only five and a half years old. It may not have been cheap, 789 million Euro (902 million Dollars or 683 million Pounds) to be exact, but it is worth every Cent. The Elbphilharmonie (Elbe Philharmonic) is an unbelievable sight.

Sublime Sound Quality

At sunrise, the sparkle in its windows and its entire aura silence even its former critics, those who complained about the building’s price tag, the duration of its construction and what not. Audiences who have heard their share of Vivaldi and Mahler in the Elbphilharmonie’s largest concert hall say attending concerts here was awesome, and the sound quality sublime.

Just entering the building erected right in the Elbe river is a lasting experience, even without Beethoven or Ravel sounds. Any visitor will realize that the attractiveness is not limited to the outside and that this venue is actually worth several times the pile of money invested. Beauty used to be in the eyes of the beholder. Not here. In the case of the Elbphilharmonie, it is obvious to everyone.

The Elbe Philharmonic might have been expensive to build. But it is stunning.
The new Elbphilharmonie is more than impressive. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

The view from the building is just as stunning as the sight of it from the port. Spending a night at The Westin Hamburg, located right inside the elegant structure, is probably even better than attending concerts there, because of the breathtaking view of the harbor and the city from its more expensive suites. So you want big ships to sail straight into your hotel room? Rent a suite.

Tunnel with Elevators

But the Port of Hamburg was a breathtaking sight even long before the Elbphilharmonie was planned or built. Watching ships move by at Landungsbrücken, especially at sunrise, is priceless. Ferries the rides with which are included in day tickets for the public transport system can be taken here, or boats which do harbor tours for tourists. There are many of the latter in the ‘Gate to the World’. This is what the author Lotte Huebner first called the city in 1916.

In order to cross the Elbe river without getting their feet wet, people in Hamburg use several inventions. So-called ships take people across the river. Some use another convenient thing called bridges. And there are tunnels. One of them, the St. Pauli Elbtunnel, is special.

Jungfernstieg is one of Hamburg's sightseeing spots.
Hamburg’s Jungfernstieg is quite a sight. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

At Landungsbrücken, elevators for pedestrians, bikes and even cars are available. Those who want to get a good idea of how deep they are descending into the ground can also walk down the staircase before entering one of the two tubes. Yes, this old tunnel is a great object to take photos of. And it does have a light at the end of it.

Quarter of Stairs

It is all about water in Hamburg. Following the Elbe river westbound by car or S-Bahn (city train) makes a lot of sense. In Hamburg’s Othmarschen borough, expensive villas in neatly trimmed, huge gardens are nice to look at and even nicer to live in. But prices for a picturesque lot right at the riverbank amount to seven-digit figures, while just looking at them from the train does not cost a dime.

Some 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) west of Landungsbrücken, the Quarter of Stairs (Treppenviertel) in Blankenese is a truly wonderful spot. Walking around here, through tiny paths and up and down the only hills Hamburg provides is more than nice, especially when it does not rain.

There is a light at the end of the old Elbe Tunnel.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

The next thing to do would be to look at those little houses in this area from the Elbe beach, and to shoot millions of photographs of the same. In the river itself, both small and huge ships can be seen moving back and forth. This view is better than the movies.

Bathing in the Elbe

Yes, Blankenese is one of the nicest places in Hamburg. Luckily, the Elbe just lost one of its purposes. For decades, it was being abused as a cooling system for the Brokdorf nuclear power plant located some 50 kilometers (31 miles) down the river, in the neighboring state of Schleswig-Holstein. On December 31st, 2021, the reactor was finally taken off the grid and shut down for good.

Getting tired? Use the Bergziege (‘Mountain Goat’), a tiny bus that will take you back to the S-Bahn train station. Yet another activity would be to walk back towards the city center. About half way there, Övelgönne provides another nice Elbe beach, restaurants and pubs. It might sound weird but, in summer, people actually bathe in this river.

The Elbe Philharmonic and the Port of Hamburg are lit up like a Christmas tree.
The Elbphilharmonie on the left and the ships are lit up like a Christmas tree. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

So far, this was all about the Elbe river, the port, the old tunnel and the beaches. But what about the Alster? The latter is both a lake and a small river. At Jungfernstieg, right in the very city center, real Hamburgers do not really have eyes for all the beauty anymore, unless they just returned to their nice birth city for the first time in a decade, like the author of these lines.

Registered Ducks

Looking across the Binnenalster lake at Jungfernstieg will convince anyone that there is no nicer large city in Germany. On the continent. In the world. In the solar system. Sorry, I got carried away. But I’m right.

Those swans and large ducks assembled here would agree. They all seem to be registered. At least those seven big ducks which were busy doing nothing on the Ballindamm side of the Binnenalster lake this week had little tags with numbers on their legs. Welcome to Germany. Those birds probably even pay taxes.

A registered duck looks at the Alster lake in Hamburg.
Large ducks at the Binnenalster lake are registered. Are they being protected from becoming somebody’s dinner or are they victims of bureaucracy? Photo: Imanuel Marcus

And there is the Alstertal, a long park with a small river which runs through the entire city. There is nothing better than feeding registered ducks or renting a canoe on a nice spring day. At Poppenbüttler Schleuse and other beautiful spots, restaurants offer delicious meals.

Cultural Red Light District

All that water. Nice. On the other hand it can lead to problems, such as storm surges. Last century, it happened seven times. The new millennium has brought along four serious storm tides so far. When it happens, the storms press a lot of water up the Elbe.

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In Hamburg, the water can suddenly rise to 6 meters (20 feet) above its usual level. What this means is that there is no pier and that Mr. Gilbert will have to conduct his Bruckner symphonies wearing rubber boots. It means those who own these elegant villas at Elbchaussee will need rather big hoses to save their wine cellars.

Hamburg has gates that close when the water level rises.
Hamburg has gates that close when the water level rises. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

Let’s finally get away from the water. A ten minute walk from Landungsbrücken will take the enthusiastic tourist to Hamburg’s red light district. This is where the main brothels are located. Starting at 8 p.m., prostitutes will be looking for customers in areas designated to them. In Herbertstrasse, a little street open to men only, sex workers sit behind windows completely naked.

Back in the Good Old Times

What might seem extreme to American tourists or other visitors is perfectly normal to most Hamburgers. The port and the red light district belong together. Prostitutes need to register and pay taxes. Many of them are ‘legal’. And they have been part of the picture for a long time.

But Hamburg’s red light district also is a cultural spot. At the former Star Club, which was located right here, four “blokes” known as The Beatles became famous some five decades ago. Other venues, such as Grosse Freiheit 36, the Grünspan, or Angie’s, offed great concerts and atmospheres until the virus hit and forced them to take a break. A musical theater is there too, right in the middle of what Hamburgers call the Kiez. ‘The Tina Turner Musical’ is on right now.

The Elbe Philharmonic is a more than beautiful sight.
Here we go. The concert hall shot from the Baumwall city train station. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

There used to be great places like the Aftershave, where people danced many nights away, to Jazz-Funk and Rare Groove tunes, or like Sam Brasil, where Bossa Nova and Samba acts did their thing. Those were the good times. Oh, yes.

Gateway to Scandinavia

Hamburg is funky in several ways. Venues all over town, including the Fabrik in the Altona borough, the Markthalle at Hauptbahnhof, and many others, used to offer culture for people with a good taste, including children. Some of them still do.

Parts of Altona and Sternschanze accommodate lots of students and artists, but also the extreme left. Members of groups of this kind would stage violent protests or become squatters. The Rote Flora theater used to be a hotspot. But, all in all, Hamburg is not extremist. Yes, the city has always been more progressive than cities in the more conservative and more religious south of Germany.

Boats move in the Elbe river early in the morning.
It’s all about water. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

Hamburg is also a media city. And it is one of the most international cities in the country, because of the port and its geographic location. Hamburg is Germany’s gateway to Scandinavia. It even feels and looks like Scandinavia, in a way.

Shopping with Deep Pockets

Hamburg is Venice. O.k., it isn’t, but it also has many canals. Canoeing, sailing and similar sports are very popular in Germany’s marvel of the north. So is walking along the Elbe and jogging through Hamburg’s numerous parks.

Shopping might not be a sport, but it is even more popular. In the city center, at Jungfernstieg, the Alsterhaus is an excellent department store. Everything they sell is high quality, including the food. Looking for huge truffles from France? Get them here. How about wine and champagne for several hundred bucks, or all the designer clothes you want? This is the place.

Life is wonderful at the Strandperle pub. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

Looking at City Hall is compulsory. Completed in 1897, this building is truly impressive. It still accommodates the First Mayor of Hamburg and the city state’s Bürgerschaft, which is its legislative assembly. A few meters away from City Hall, the Alsterarkaden offer both beauty and nice shops.

Just the Way You Are

The Tesla store around the corner has the Model 3 in stock. A bit further away, the Steinway store used to offer concert grands decades ago. Where in the hell is it? It seems to be gone. Elegant boutiques and excellent restaurants are successfully trying to lure people into investing into their wardrobe. Where is that big cinema at Gänsemarkt, where a 12-year-old boy wanted to watch ‘Airport 77’ in 1976, but wasn’t old enough?

There are great seasonal events in Hamburg. In very cold winters, when the Alster freezes, which might happen every 4 millennia these days, they sell Glühwein (yes, hot wine punch) right on the lake. There are great music festivals. And there is the Hafengeburtstag, which is the port’s birthday party. Let’s not even mention the 24 mostly excellent museums. Seven million tourists per year used to visit Hamburg before Corona hit.

Hamburg, my beauty of the north, I grew up in your Poppenbüttel district. I will try to be back as often as possible. I love you just the way you are. And I miss you.

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