Elegant lakeside city
Hamburg’s commercial city exudes such an atmosphere of relaxed well-being, of understated elegance, that the capital of the Free and Hanseatic State of Hamburg could be mistaken for a spa town. Jungfernstieg, the broad boulevard overlooking the inner Alster Lake, is where affluent families once strolled on Sunday with their daughters (Jungfern). Today it is where the most exquisite boutiques cluster around a luxurious department store, the Alsterhaus.
From the terrace opposite the Alsterhaus, sturdy looking sightseeing boats depart to explore the inner and outer Alster Lakes, the historic warehouse district, the Elbe River, and Hafen City, Hamburg’s ambitious new residential and business quarter.
It’s no coincidence that so much of Hamburg can be viewed from the water. Hamburg’s wealth –and it is Germany’s wealthiest city — began with the sea. In the Middle Ages its convenient port made it one of Europe’s most important trading centres. Presently, the port is Europe’s second most important (after Rotterdam) and the waterways still offer the best tourist experiences in the city.
What to see in Hamburg:
A one-hour Alster boat tour, the best way to appreciate Hamburg’s picturesque skyline. There are few skyscrapers -but its church spires and the tower of the neo-renaissance Town Hall give it shape. The view is especially lovely at sunset.
If you have more time and are there between April and early October, take the cruise that runs from the Jungfernstieg to Winterhuder Fahrhaus. It criss-crosses the Alster, offering glimpses of the east and west banks of the lake. You can hop off at any of nine stop along the way to sightsee or have a coffee in one of the waterside cafes. Hop aboard the next boat to resume your voyage. (This tour runs only in season. Check the website for details.). www.alstertouristik.de
Hafen City, Europe’s biggest building site. This waterfront development project has been under construction since the master plan was approved in 2000. Completion is expected in 2025. This immense undertaking that will almost double the size of Hamburg’s business and residential quarters. In a welter of innovative buildings, the star is the new concert hall, the Elbephilharmonie by the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron. Built on top of an abandoned brick warehouse, the glass superstructure is 12 stories high on one side and 18 on the other. It looks like an enormous wave or a ghostly ship in full sail. Glimpses from the water and the hop-on, hop-off bus tour will give you an idea of the scale of the work.
You can’t miss seeing the facade of the flamboyant town hall that stands in a lively square a block back from the Alster lakefront. The building is said to have 647 rooms; however, as a room in the tower was only discovered by accident in 1971, there may be more. The town hall is the seat of Hamburg’s government- its Parliament and Senate – but the ornate lobby is open to the public.
Hamburg’s beloved St. Michaelis Church, one of Hamburg’s five Protestant churches, is the city’s icon. Since its completion in 1667 it has been destroyed by lightening, fire and WW2 bombing, but restored each time. Another church, St. Nicolai, has also been destroyed and rebuilt several times in its long history but was left in ruins after WW 2 as a reminder of the consequences of war. In 2005 a lift was installed to take visitors to a 75.3 metre-high platform inside the spire from which to enjoy a view over Hamburg and particularly of the nearby Speicherstadt, literally the ‘city of warehouses.
Hier wohnte: Keep an eye out, as you walk in Hamburg, for the glint of what looks like a brass cobblestone set in the pavement. It will be a ‘stolperstein, a memorial stone for an individual victim of the Holocaust. Installed in front of the victim’s last known residence, the inscription begins with ‘Here lived” followed by the person’s birth date, the name of the camp in which he or she perished and, if known, the date of death. Often stolpersteine are in groups representing whole families. To date, well over 2,000 of these individual memorial stones have been installed in Hamburg. Many of them can be seen in the University district. More than 30,000 stolpersteine have already been laid in European cities and towns and the work of tracing the victims is ongoing. While the vast majority of the stones commemorate Jews who perished in the Holocaust, others are in memory of homosexual, political or religious victims. Gunter Demnig, the artist who conceived and carries out this project, hammered the first memory blocks into the pavement in Berlin in 1996.
Day out: Lubeck, a UNESCO Heritage Site, is only an hour from Hamburg by train or car. Worth visiting for its Old City, medieval gate, Gothic city hall, the St. Marien Church and Buddenbrook Haus, childhood home of the writers Heinrich and Thomas Mann: buddenbrookhaus.de. Readers of Thomas Mann’s Nobel Prize winning novel ‘Buddenbrooks’ will recognise the house, which became a museum in 1991, as the setting for the book. Best souvenir of Lubeck? Chocolate covered marzipan from Niederegger, the long-established cafe and shop opposite the town hall.