Nautical Knots and Locks of Love in Hamburg, Germany

Angela Dansby

Following my exploration of Heligoland three weeks ago, I spent a weekend in Hamburg, Germany’s northerly darling that’s a gateway to the world as a major international port. It accesses the North Sea via the Elbe River and rivals Venice with its web of canals and waterways. More than 15,000 ships from over 100 countries pass through Hamburg each year. The city-state also has a lake (Alster, divided into inner and outer parts), massive shipping and ship building industries, and maritime culture from water “buses” to a weekly fish market. This explains why Hamburg is Germany’s second most populated city after Berlin with nearly 2 million residents. Due to trade, it also has more consulates than almost any city in the world.

The Elbe River divides in Hamburg into two branches, Norderelbe and Süderelbe, but becomes one again near the Altona fish market, flowing into the North Sea about 65 miles downstream from Hamburg. (No surprise, fish restaurants abound, such as Alt Helgolander Fischerstube, where you can enjoy fresh catch like codfish.) Two other rivers flow into the Elbe, the northerly Alster and easterly Bille, for a patchwork of waterways around the city’s harbor. Locks of love on its many bridges bind Hamburg together in a kitschy-cute way.

Ironically, in spite of all of this water, Hamburg was burned down nine times since its founding in 808 AD! First the Vikings were to blame in 845 then several others over the following 300 years. But the ultimate destruction was during World War II, when 39,000 bombs demolished 55 percent of Hamburg’s residential area and 60 percent of its harbor. (Afterwards, the Allies received nearly all of Hamburg’s ships as reparation from Germany.) Topping this off, the city had a flood in 1962, which destroyed much of the remaining Altstadt (Old Town).

Given this destructive history, Hamburg has largely been rebuilt, including its Neustadt (New Town) and Altstadt. So technically, the Old Town is new, too. It’s the heart of Hamburg as a former medieval settlement. Only a few buildings in it survived the war and flood like timber-framed houses on Deichstrasse. Another is the magnificent, Neo-Renaissance Rathaus (City Hall) rebuilt in 1897 for the sixth time after several relocations, fires and other trauma. Its inside and courtyard are also impressive.

Notable modern restorations include Sankt Michaelis church dating back to the 1600s and UNESCO World Heritage Site Speicherstadt (“warehouse city”), the world’s largest complex of warehouses. St. Michaelis burned down twice (once by lightening!) and was heavily damaged during WWII but restored each time to its former glory. The seemingly endless staircase in the church’s tower, completely restored in 1996, leads to some of the best views of the city (Tower Bar in Hotel Hafen does, too). Spanning 260,000 square meters, Speicherstadt includes the Chilehaus, designed like a ship’s bow as a center for international maritime trade and Kontorhausviertel (“trading house district”).

In contrast to such restorations are modern architectural gems like the striking Elbephilharmonie concert hall on the Norderelbe River. It looks like a crown on the city, gleaming in honor of its rebirth. Inside it offers lovely views of the harbor, two concert halls and dining venues. To see the concert halls, you must book a tour or buy a ticket to a performance as I did during India Week in celebration of Diwali. What a cool surprise to listen to Indian electronica artists in Hamburg!

The Elbephilharmonie is the pinnacle of the futuristic HafenCity, which is scheduled to be finished in 2025, extending inner-city Hamburg by 40 percent. Other notable modern buildings are the Alsterarkaden near the Rathaus, Heinrich Hertz TV Tower, Speigel publishing house and sustainable Unilever-Haus. No wonder this area is home to HafenCity University Hamburg, the only university in Europe to focus solely on architecture and metropolitan development.

HafenCity also features the excellent International Maritime Museum, which covers navigation, shipbuilding, naval history, merchant and passenger shipping, marine exploration, nautical knots and more. It has 38,000+ model ships from all over the world collected by one individual (Peter Tamm) and an excellent restaurant called Catch of the Day, where you can eat just that. The Altonaer Museum houses Germany’s largest collection of old ships’ figureheads and the U-Bootmuseum takes people inside a Russian submarine. (Claustrophobics, stay away and tall people, beware the low circular doors and ceiling!) Tours of the harbor are offered by several ships from the Landungsbrücken Piers. This social hub features cool beach bars and connects to a small industrial island called Steinwerder via the St. Pauli ElbTunnel.

While all things nautical dominate Hamburg, it is also known for the arts, such as the remarkable Kunsthalle and Deichtorhallen museums. Follow the Art Route to see the highlights, including the Jungfernstieg promenade.

In sharp contrast to such culture, Hamburg has a world-famous red light district called Reeperbahn, centered on a street of the same name, where prostitution is legal and controlled by police. Nightclubs in the district were proving grounds for British rock bands, notably the Beatles, due to a direct ferry from Liverpool, England.

Also the birthplace of Mendelssohn and Brahms, Hamburg maintains its musical heritage with performers of all types at the Elbephilharmonie, twin music theaters on Steinwerder, numerous theaters featuring the same shows as London (think “Hamilton”) and live music venues like Birdland jazz club, where I landed for a night.

Hamburg pleasantly surprised me with its progressiveness, not just architecturally and culturally, but also with its open and friendly people. It’s as if old school attitudes burned down with the city after the war. New generations of Germans and a strong ex-pat population (nearly 20 percent) add to the city’s vibrancy.  

Loads of locks of love along waterways symbolize the rebirth of a war-torn, once loveless city. Nowadays Hamburg’s scars are washed over with impressive buildings, parks, cultural events, night lights and nightlife. It is the Venice of northern Europe with the resiliency and engineering savvy typical of Germany but also a touch of Italian charm. A weekend is not enough time to see it. I must return to fasten my own lock of love on Hamburg.

Denmark is about 50 times smaller than Greenland with only 2 percent of its land space (43,000 vs. 2 million km2). However, Greenland has 1 percent of Denmark’s population (58,000 vs. 5.9 million).