Discovering ‘Undiscovered’ Hamburg

By Rick Steves
St. Pauli Landungsbrücken Harborfront, Hamburg
The sun sets over Hamburg's huge port, one of Europe's busiest, which accommodates about 9,000 vessels a year. (photo: Robyn Stencil)
Neighborhood climbing wall made from former WWII bunker in the Schanzenviertel district, Hamburg
Hamburg creatively recycles its urban past: This graffiti-covered WWII bunker is now the largest climbing wall in the city. (photo: Rick Steves)

Germany's second-largest city, Hamburg, is awash with history — and played especially key roles in the stories of 19th-century emigration, World War II, and the Beatles. It's also a thriving 21st-century metropolis with an inviting harbor boardwalk, avant-garde architecture, and Las Vegas–style nightlife. Every visit here makes me wonder why so many Americans skip it. I love this city.

Even though it's about 60 miles from the North Sea, Hamburg's seaport on the Elbe River was the world's third largest a century ago. But World War II devastated the commercial center, and during the Cold War trade to the east was cut off. Port traffic dwindled, and so did the city's influence. But Hamburg's been enthusiastically rebuilt, and, since Germany's reunification, it has gained back its former status as a leading trade center.

Hamburg's port has evolved with the city's needs and changes in shipping technology. One example is HafenCity, a huge development project that enlarged downtown Hamburg by about 40 percent. The centerpiece is the striking Elbphilharmonie — a combination concert hall, public plaza, hotel, and apartment complex. Its daring design and huge size fit in well with the massive scale of the surrounding port.

Water seems to be everywhere in this city of nearly 2,500 bridges. Hamburg's delightful lakes — the Aussenalster and Binnenalster — were created in the Middle Ages, when townsfolk built a mill that dammed the local river. Back in the 1950s, a law guaranteed public access to the Aussenalster, and today, peaceful paths and bike lanes are a hit with locals. Along with plenty of downtown parkland, the lakes provide Hamburg — one of Germany's greenest cities — with an elegant promenade, the Jungfernstieg, which comes complete with top-of-the-line shops.

Just a block away, Hamburg's massive city hall, built in the 19th century, overlooks a lively scene. It's flanked by graceful arcades and surrounded by plenty of commerce. With its bold architecture and salty waterfront atmosphere, Hamburg feels nothing like Germany's inland cities to the south. And at first glance it's hard to believe that it was one of the most heavily bombed cities in World War II.

With its strategic port, munitions factories, and transportation links, Hamburg was a prime target for the Allies. On July 27, 1943, they hit the city center first with explosive bombs to open roofs, break water mains, and tear up streets — making it hard for firefighters to respond. Then came a hellish onslaught of incendiary bombs: 700 bombers concentrated their attack on a relatively small area. The result was a firestorm — a tornado of raging flames reaching horrific temperatures. In three hours, the inferno killed over 40,000 people, left hundreds of thousands homeless, and reduced eight square miles of Hamburg to rubble and ashes.

Somehow the towering spire of St. Nicholas' Church survived the bombing. It and the ruins of the church itself are now a memorial, left to commemorate those lost and to remind future generations of the horrors of war. In its museum, you'll see scorched and melted fragments demonstrating the heat of the firestorm.

Though Hamburg is mostly rebuilt, many WWII-era bunkers were just too expensive to tear down. So they survive, incorporated into today's cityscape. In Florapark, a green space in the Schulterblatt neighborhood, one old bunker is now a graffiti-covered climbing wall. A bunker in the St. Pauli neighborhood is filled with concert venues, recording studios, and dance clubs — and heavy metal rock bands here never draw complaints from their neighbors.

Hamburg's Reeperbahn thoroughfare has long been the heart of Germany's most famous entertainment zone. It gained notoriety as a rough and sleazy sailors' quarter filled with nightclubs and brothels. But, as the city's changed, so has its entertainment district. Today this street — where the Beatles launched their careers back in 1960 — is a destination for theater and live music. Considered the Broadway of Germany for its many musicals, the boulevard attracts theater-goers from all over the country.

Outside the city center, another popular destination is the BallinStadt Emigration Museum. For German Americans, Hamburg has a special meaning, because their ancestors may have sailed from this harbor. Millions of Germans and other Europeans emigrated to the United States from this city between 1850 and 1930. A German counterpart to Ellis Island, the museum tells the story of emigration through Hamburg from the mid-19th century through World War II.

An unforgettable capper to your Hamburg visit is its harbor tour — the best of its kind in Europe. You'll see plenty of Hamburg's bold new architecture as well as its more established beach communities. But mostly, an hour-long cruise gets you up close to Hamburg's shipping industry — all those enormous container ships, cranes, and dry docks.

Hamburg is one of the great "undiscovered" cities in Europe. With its trading heritage and a strong economy, a visit here showcases a wealthy city that rose like a phoenix from a terrible recent past.