Hamburg was founded by Charlemagne in 808 AD, shortly after he defeated the Saxons and forcibly converted them to Christianity, It was originally established as Hammaburg, and its main purpose was to support missionaries operating in Schleswig-Holstein, Denmark, and Scandinavia. The town developed slowly until it came under the control of the Schaumburgs. Under their rule, the population increased and trade became important. On May 7, 1189, Duke Adolf III managed to obtain from Emperor Friedrich I Barbarossa an Imperial guarantee of free trade along the Elbe, from its mouth to Hamburg. From this moment onwards, Hamburg would be an important trading city.
Hamburg’s path to wealth began when it joined the Hanseatic League in 1321. It became a partner town with the fabulously rich Lübeck. During the Middle Ages, light loads were unloaded in Lübeck and transported overland to Hamburg, where the journey continued by sea rather than risk sailing around Denmark.
Hamburg becomes a "Free City"
Hamburg became a Free Imperial City in 1510. It adopted the Lutheran Reformation early on and attracted religious refugees from all parts of Europe. Its population doubled to 40,000 between 1550 and 1600. After the collapse of the Hanseatic League, Hamburg increasingly turned its access to the Atlantic Ocean to expand in trade. However, during French occupation in the Napoleonic Wars and with the continental system, there was a ban on trade with Britain, which left the city in a state of financial ruin. Its sovereignty was finally guaranteed at the Congress of Vienna and Hamburg went on to became known as the official Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg, and has remained that way ever since.
Great Fire of 1842 and Free Port System
The Great Fire of 1842 destroyed most of the old town, including 71 city blocks and 1,749 houses. However, for most of the 19th century it saw tremendous growth as trans-Atlantic trade increased in importance. In 1871, it joined the new German Empire led by Prussia. To counter the effects of the customs union, it founded the free port system still in existence today. A large part of Hamburg’s port is a tax-free zone allowing for cheaper re-exports, a system where taxes are only payable should the goods enter Germany itself.
Impact of World War I
Shortly before the First World War, Hamburg was the world’s third-largest port, behind London and New York. However, the war cost the lives of 40,000 Hamburgers, interrupted trade, and the war reparations cost Hamburg virtually its entire commercial fleet.
The Nazi Era and World War II
The town was severely affected by the Nazi regime. Shortly before the war, Hamburg had the largest Jewish community in Germany, and they suffered the same terrible fate as other Jews in Nazi-controlled areas. The city itself suffered air raids early on, with the most severe in July 1943. Air raids killed 55,000 people, destroyed more than half of all houses and 80% of port facilities. Around 70,000 Hamburgers died on the front. During the war, the population declined from 1.7 million to 1.1 million.
At the foundation of the Federal Republic of (West) Germany in 1949, Hamburg joined as a city state. As before, it relied on trade to recover and it became one of the wealthiest cities in Germany. Currently, the port is still Hamburg’s lifeline, but other industries are important too. It is a major media city and controls a significant part of Germany’s printed media.
Hamburg, the largest city in Germany after the capital of Berlin, lies at the head of the long funnel-shaped estuary of the River Elbe. Its location makes it an important link between the sea and Germany's network of inland waterways and numerous islands. The city is best known for its famous harbour area, the Port of Hamburg. In addition to being a major transportation hub, Hamburg has become one of Europe's most important cultural and commercial centers, as well as a major tourist destination.
The only part of old Hamburg to survive centuries of fires and wars, the narrow, curving Deichstrasse gives a sense of the city's past. Built long before the 19th century warehouses and 21st century Harbour side complexes, the street offers a glimpse into the city's Hansa past. The Hanseatic League was a medieval association of independent port cities and merchants along the Baltic and north Atlantic from the 11th to the 18th centuries, and even into the 19th century. Its distinct architecture is found throughout Baltic Germany.
Deichstrasse takes you straight onto a bridge over one of the city's many canals. Massive brick warehouses, built a couple of centuries after the Hansa's power faded, form a canyon along the canal's sides.
A second footbridge leads into the hottest new neighborhood, Hafencity, where old and new mix in a striking blend of 19th century, neo-Hansa brick with contemporary steel and glass apartments, their balconies jutting out over attractive cafés, eye to eye with vintage sailing vessels. Many of the most interesting things to do in Hamburg are in this port area.
When Hamburg finally joined the German customs zone in 1888, work began on a new warehouse district for its free port. Residential quarters on the Zollkanal were removed and storage facilities were constructed on oak piles and with Gothic Revival architecture. Now protected as a World Heritage Site, the Speicherstadt or City of Warehouses has an atmosphere all its own, and it is enough just to walk through these red brick canyons, crossing the canals and admiring the glazed decoration on the gabled facades. Some of the warehouses have recently been turned into apartments, others are visitor attractions, while a few still fill their original purpose, storing spices, tea, coffee and electronics.
Encompassing the Speicherstadt, HafenCity is a new waterside quarter that was made official in 2008. Partly on reclaimed land in the Elbe, HafenCity will continue to grow over the next 15 years, creating homes for 12,000 people and jobs for up to 40,000. Already a large chunk of the free port has been regenerated, and outside the heritage quarter the architecture is creative and cutting edge. Think glossy office blocks, apartment complexes and leisure amenities, all designed with real panache and sensitivity for their waterfront location. So far the main sight to see is the Elbphilharmonie concert hall, which deserves its own entry.
Officially unveiled in 2017, the Elbphilharmonie is Hamburg’s tallest inhabited building at more than 100 metres. Despite its considerable size, this project by Herzog & de Meuron still has a light, ethereal quality, and its enigmatic profile has been compared to waves, the sails of a ship or a quartz crystal. On that shimmering facade are around 1,000 curved windows, and at the very top is the Plaza, an observation deck and sleek cafe both open to the public. The Great Concert Hall has space for 2,100 spectators and if you love music you owe it to yourself to hear the Elbphilharmonie Orchestra play in one of the most acoustically advanced venues ever built.
4. Planten un Blomen
If you had to make a list of Europe’s best urban parks, Planten un Blomen, 47 hectares of gardens, lawns, ponds, greenhouses and botanical plantations will be near the top. In the park’s green folds is the Old Botanical Garden, which was planted on the site of the city wall in 1821. Allow some time to poke around the five inter-connected greenhouses: The largest, the Schaugewächshaus has plants from Mediterranean climes and contains laurels, olive trees, palms and eucalyptus. Just as captivating is the Kakteenhaus, replete with succulent plants from desert climates. Outside the park really shines in summer, when the rose garden is in bloom, the apothecary is most fragrant and the colourful musical fountain injects more magic into the scene.
5. International Maritime Museum
Kaispeicher B, the oldest warehouse in the Speicherstadt, is 11 storeys high and has an arresting gabled facade. As you will know from the monumental propeller out front, it houses Hamburg’s maritime museum, which opened in 2008. The core of the collection began with Peter Tamm, the chairman of Europe’s largest publishing house Axel Spriner AG, who was an avid hoarder of model ships and naval memorabilia. Anyone seduced by the romance of the open sea will be won over the by the museums’ cache of maritime artefacts: There are whole sailboats and engrossing curios like Admiral Nelson’s letters, a reproduction of Ernest Shackleton’s lifeboat and a 3,000 year old canoe discovered in Hamburg’s harbour.
6. Kunsthalle Hamburg
A brief walk from the Hauptbahnhof, between the Binnenalster and Außenalster is one of Germany’s largest and richest museums. It is no exaggeration to say that the Kunsthalle has enough to keep you under its spell for a whole day: There are old masters like Goya, Rembrandt, Rubens, Lucas Cranach the Younger and Canaletto. Then Caspar David Friedrich, Max Liebermann, Manet, Degas and Gauguin are some of the many luminaries in the 19th cetury gallery. Moving into the modern gallery and contemporary art the illustrious names keep coming, like Paul Klee, Kirchner, Franz Marc, Picasso, Francis Bacon, moving on to Warhol, Tracey Emin and Joseph Beuys.
7. St Pauli
If you arrive expecting a sanitised, corporate district, St Pauli will be a rude awakening. The quarter, just east of the centre and descending to the Elbe is rough around the edges and daubed in graffiti and neon. The Reeperbahn is notorious, and its porn shops, parade of prostitutes and strip clubs hardly need mention here. But you may never have more fun on a night out around this street, whatever your taste in music, and St Pauli’s rebellious and creative ambience makes it a great place to live if you are young. Beatles fans can take a self-guided tour. Three of the clubs Fab Four played at in the early 60s are still open in some form: Kaiserkeller/Große Freiheit 36, Indra and Moondoo, while Paul McCartney ran up a big tab at the bar Gretel & Alfons, which he never paid off.
8. Miniatur Wunderland
The Speicherstadt’s blockbuster attraction is a moving miniature world filling a whole warehouse. A bit like HafenCity itself, Minatur Wunderland is has been rolled out in phases since the early 2000s. It all began with a miniature railway rattling through 1:87 scale models of Austria, Central Germany and an amalgam known as Knuffingen. But over the last 16 years scale models of Italy, Hamburg, the United, States, Switzerland and Knuffingen’s airport have been added, while many more are in the pipeline for the 2020s. All these places have thousands of automated moving parts, from people to traffic, controlled by a sophisticated computer. As of 2017 there are 15.4 kilometres of railway track, while the world flits from day to night in 15 minute cycles, and visitors can flick a total of 200 switches to control things like windmills, a helicopter or space shuttle.
9. Harbour Boat Tour
Boat trips aren’t just another thing to do in Hamburg; They are the best way to see the harbour and waterside districts. Public HADAG ferries depart the floating jetties at Landungsbrücken and make round trips. So say you want a whirlwind trip past the hulking cranes of Europe’s second busiest container port, you can catch the 61 boat, which sails to Neuhof and back. If you would like to marvel at the HafenCity and the Elbphilharmonie from the water step aboard number 72.
At the dynamic and commercial heart of Hamburg, Jungfernstieg is a waterfront promenade on the Binnenlaster. The name comes from a historic tradition of wealthy Hanseaten families parading their unwed daughters (Jungfern) for eligible bachelors. Landward there are flagship shops and department stores like the storied Alsterhaus in tall Neoclassical and Historicist buildings. Also, see the refined white arcade that lines the Kleine Alster off to the side, built in the middle of the 19th century. Fronting the Binnenlaster is a terrace where you can bask in the sun in summer check out the water jet, or tuck into a coffee and pastry (Kopenhagener or Franzbrötchen) at the glass Alsterpavilion.
11. Elbe Tunnel
Nobody had ever seen anything like the 426 metre Elbe Tunnel when it opened in 1911. At 24 metres below the river, it transformed the lives of Hamburg’s harbour workers commuting from the right to the left bank. The northern entrance is hard to miss at Landungsbrücken for its vivid green dome, and that Jugendstil architecture is half the tunnel’s charm. There are two parallel tunnels for cars and pedestrians/cyclists. If you go on foot take the steps to gauge the size of this project and take your time to enjoy the vintage signage, maritime motifs and glazed tiles.
For those brave partygoers who have the stamina, a Hamburg tradition requires you to stagger down from the Reeperbahn to the fish market on the harbour to continue the party into Sunday morning. From March to November the market opens at 05:00 and the 19th-century Fischauktionhalle has live bands and djs. There is a strange mix of early risers and people who have not even been to bed hovering around the stalls, which sell flowers, fruit and fresh fish (the fish traders are pretty entertaining). You can also soak up some of that alcohol with a Fischbrötchen, Hamburg’s answer to Berlin’s Currywurst. It’s a roll stuffed with mackerel, herring, pollock, salmon or shrimp, fresh from the North Sea.
13. Hamburg Rathaus
Hamburg’s city hall is as stirring as they come, and reflects the prosperity and optimism of a newly united Germany at the end of the 19th century. The architecture on the 133 metre wide facade is Neo-Renaissance, and the tower in the centre soars to 112 metres. There are short-term exhibitions inside, which are free to view and you can go through to the courtyard, which has a fountain crowned with a statue of the goddess Hygieia. Or you can pay a small fee and take an hour-long tour. The interior has more of a Historicist design and one of its talking points is the amazing number of rooms inside: 647 at the last count, because oddly enough a whole new room was discovered in the tower in 1971.
Head a couple of stops north of the Reeperbahn for a walk on Hamburg’s grubby but independent side. To the naked eye Sternschanze is a bit intimidating for its walls coated in graffiti and some of the interesting characters that roam its streets. You’ll come across anarchist communes mingling with hipster bars and unusual shops. If there’s a demonstration happening in Hamburg you can put money on it going down in Sternschanze. But because of the neighbourhood’s DIY ethic some of the best parties also take place in this quarter. They are organised by university students or local art scenesters but open to everyone in the loop. Just do a bit of digging online and see what you can find.
15. Hamburger Dom
Heiligengeistfeld in St Pauli is the stage for a humungous funfair and market three times a year. The Hamburger Dom is 30 days long each time and happens roughly in November (Winterdom), April (Frühlingsdom) and August (Summerdom). There are classic carousels, state of the art roller coasters and sideshows aplenty, while the food is always a big factor. More than 100 stalls trade at the fair, most selling Hamburg’s beloved herring sandwiches, Currywurst or more international fare. The air is filled with the fragrance of roasted almonds, and other sweet treats like Schmalzkuchen (mini donuts) and candyfloss. The oldest of the three fairs is the Winterdom, which goes back to the 1000s and found its present location at Heiligengeistfeld in 1893. Be there on Friday nights for the fireworks display at 22:30 to kick off a night out on the Reeperbahn.
Planten un Blomen
International Maritime Museum
Harbour Boat Tour
16. St. Michael's Church
The most famous of Hamburg's many churches, St. Michael's (Hauptkirche Sankt Michaelis) was built in the Baroque style between 1750 and 1762 and is one of the city's most important landmarks. One of the top things to do when visiting this catholic church is to ascend its 132-meter-high tower, known locally as "Michel." Accessible by stairs and an elevator, the tower's viewing platforms offer excellent panoramic views over the city and port, a particular treat during their regular extended evening openings.
Also, be sure to look out for the stunning bronze statue of Archangel Michael killing the devil, a fascinating piece of artwork that can be seen over the entrance. Also of note is the church's crypt, the final resting place of some 2,425 people, and one of the city's most interesting concert venues.
In a courtyard to the east of the church are the Krameramtswohnungen, dwellings originally built to house the widows of members of the local Shopkeepers' Guild, as well as a museum.
17. Rickmer Rickmers and Cap San Diego
Berthed along the river at Landungsbrücken, Rickmer Rickmers is a three-masted tall ship with a long and colorful history. Built in 1896, the ship returned to Hamburg in 1983 and, after four years of restoration, is now a museum focused on the role of the merchant marine in the 19th and early 20th centuries (there's even a restaurant onboard).
The MS Cap San Diego, a 1960s cargo ship, is another merchant marine ship museum with visitor access to the entire vessel, from the bridge to the engine rooms (fun overnight stays are also available).
A different view of the Cold War is available in the former Soviet submarine, B-515, now open as a museum and docked at St. Pauli Fischmarkt 10. For those interested in maritime-themed art, a visit to the Altonaer Museum is well worthwhile, and features numerous important paintings, sculptures, and cultural artifacts related to shipping.
18. Alster Lakes
The focal points of Hamburg's inner city area are the Inner Alster (Binnenalster) and Outer Alster (Aussenalster), two artificial lakes connected to the rivers Alster and the Elbe. It's here you will find Hamburg's most picturesque city squares and historic avenues, as well as its famous pedestrian areas, the passagens. The best routes take in the elegant Jungfernstieg with its cafés and landing stages used by tour boats, and the Ballindamm, with the city's largest shopping center.
The lakes are also popular for sailing and kayaking in summer and skating in winter, and are lined by many beautiful parks and gardens. The area is also popular among cyclists.
Also popular is the Pöseldorf area, with its galleries, boutiques, and cafés, along with the canals, or "fleetes," which link the lakes with the Elbe. If you're visiting in late summer, be sure to attend the annual Alstervergnügen, a street fair held around the lakes with great entertainment, including numerous concerts.