Hamburg gains attention as an international destination with new development, a host of cultural offerings and much more.
By Micaela Myers
My great-grandfather left the port of Hamburg in 1875, and that was about all I knew of this German city until I visited in May. The second largest city in Germany, Hamburg is located on the river Elbe, about 60 miles from where the river meets the North Sea, making the city an important port and leading foreign trade center. But these days, Hamburg also is gaining momentum as an international travel destination.
Part of the city’s draw is water, which adds beauty and activities. In addition to the Elbe, there’s the expansive Alster, which has been dammed to form the inner and outer Alster lakes, surrounded by walking and running trails, parks, trees and restaurants. On the lake, sailboats and paddleboats add to the charm. Numerous canals and more than 2,500 bridges (more than Amsterdam, London and Venice, Italy, combined) mean water is never far away.
The largest urban development project in Europe is underway in Hamburg, expanding the city center by 40 percent. Known as HafenCity, the project is being constructed on nearly 400 acres of land that previously were used as port space. This new district, part of which is already complete, invites both culture and leisure with spaces for working, shopping and eating. Cultural institutions in HafenCity—such as the stunning Elbphilharmonie Hamburg building, HafenCity University, Hamburg Cruise Center and upcoming Überseequartier’s Science Center—are expected to attract 3 million visitors a year.
Surprisingly, the Beatles also bring interest to Hamburg. As fans celebrate the 50th anniversary of the album “Please Please Me,” Hamburgians hope to spread the word that the Beatles got their start in Hamburg’s St. Pauli red-light district (known as the Reeperbahn) from 1960 to 1962, playing local clubs every night for hours. It was in Hamburg that they recorded their first commercially released record, 1962’s “My Bonnie,” and collectively adopted a signature hairstyle. The cover of John Lennon’s first solo album, “Rock ’n’ Roll,” shows him in the entrance of Hamburg’s Jägerpassage 1, and he’s quoted as saying, “I might have been born in Liverpool, but I grew up in Hamburg.”
Today, visitors can step inside metal silhouettes of the band for photos at nearby Beatles-Platz. Travelers also can sign up for a musical tour with Beatles expert, guide and musician Stefanie Hempel (hempels-musictour.com/en). But the Beatles are hardly the only famous musicians to have entertained crowds in the Reeperbahn; the shortlist includes Jimi Hendrix, Ray Charles, Chubby Checker, Little Richard and many more.
If music and HafenCity aren’t reasons enough to consider Hamburg on your next international adventure, the city offers much more—from culture and shopping to architecture and cuisine.
All of the things most people look for in a European vacation are present in Hamburg—museums, fine dining, culture, high-end shopping and spectacular architecture. Local museums celebrate art, the evolution of the automobile and maritime history, as well as unique spectacles such as the Miniatur Wunderland, which is just what its name implies—a delicate wonderland featuring 68,000 square feet of miniature trains, trees and figures under one roof (miniatur-wunderland.com). Those interested in exploring their heritage can visit BallinStadt emigration museum (ballinstadt.net). Between 1850 and 1939, approximately 5 million people emigrated from the port of Hamburg to the United States, my relatives among them.
If the Reeperbahn isn’t your scene for music, take in a musical. Third only to New York City and London, Hamburg offers a host of mainstream musicals, from “The Lion King” to “Sister Act.” The city also houses the Hamburg State Opera, the world’s first public opera house; the Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra; and the Hamburg Ballet (hamburgische-staatsoper.de).
Shopping meccas include the Europa Passage, home to 120 stores (europa-passage.de), and Jungfernstieg, a promenade lined with luxury shops (alsterhaus.de). Hungry travelers can head to Block Bräu for harbor views and beer, the picturesque Wasserschloss (in the warehouse district between two canals) for gourmet tea or a tasty meal, or Ratsherrn Brauerei for the best of Hamburgian microbrew. (And no, hamburgers aren’t from Germany—they’re all American!)
Several historic hotels make lodging options in Hamburg just as opulent as the city itself. Opened in 1909, Hotel Atlantic Kempinski on Alster Lake offers 215 rooms and 30 suites, all renovated to maintain the hotel’s grand luxury while featuring state-of-the-art amenities (kempinski.com).
Located on the Inner Alster, the equally remarkable Fairmont Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten is near the Jungfernstieg shopping area and the opera (fairmont.com/vier-jahreszeiten-hamburg). Established in 1897, the hotel’s 156 rooms and suites underwent complete renovations in 2010.
Avoiding predictable tourist spots and instead visiting an up-and-coming international destination offers many benefits, including the bragging rights that accompany catching on far before the rest of the world. Best yet, you’ll beat the crowds and lines, and enjoy the city like a local.
While Germany may not be known for its islands, it is home to several, including the paradisiacal gem known as Sylt (en.sylt.de). The largest of the North Frisian Islands at 38 square miles, Sylt features nearly 25 miles of white sand beach, plus dunes, meadows and adorable thatched cottages. Accessible by train from Hamburg for a weekend foray, Sylt is known in Germany as a playground of the stars. As such, top accommodations and even Michelin-starred restaurants are on hand for guests to enjoy the island charm in luxury.
Stay: For cozy elegance, try the Hotel Stadt Hamburg, located in the bustling downtown of Sylt (hotel-stadt-hamburg.de).
Dine: Head to Kupferkanne Kampen for coffee and pastries in a charming setting above the sea. For lunch, enjoy local cuisine (try the oysters) right on the beach at La Grande Plage. Dinner can be found closer to town at Alte Friesenstube, housed in a traditional Frisian home from 1648 and offering up favorites like fried fish.