Hamburg, Window onto the World

Hamburg, Window onto the World

Published: September 5, 2012 (Issue # 1725)


The Alter Elbtunnel, a miracle of engineering when it was built more than 100 years ago, is still very much in use.

The summer in St. Petersburg is coming to an end, causing thoughts to turn to holidays abroad. But travel abroad doesn’t necessarily have to entail a long-haul flight to a hot, faraway destination. Europe has an unlimited wealth of cities that are perfect for short breaks, not least of which is St. Petersburg’s twin city of Hamburg.

St. Petersburg and Hamburg are indeed like sister cities — perhaps born of different fathers, but the same mother: The sea. Maritime Hamburg owes its current prosperous situation to the Emperor Charlemagne and Frederick I “Barbarossa”: The first built a castle on the River Alster, the second gave the city trade privileges. St. Petersburg was similarly founded on the River Neva by Peter the Great, which determined its significance as a port and trade city. Germany’s second city is the country’s biggest port and the second biggest in Europe, while Russia’s northern capital is one of the country’s biggest ports, though while Petersburg is home to about 300 bridges, there are more than 2,300 in Hamburg. Petersburg is known as the “window onto Europe,” while the Germans call Hamburg their “window onto the world.”

What to see


The modern HafenCity buildings include both residential and office space.

One of Hamburg’s most popular sites is the St. Michaelis Church. With its 132-meter bell tower, it is considered one of the most impressive churches in Hamburg and in northern Germany, and its clock is the largest in the country. The church’s bell tower, which houses a viewing platform 106 meters above the ground, is a key part of the city’s distinctive skyline.

Opposite the church is a small courtyard of apartments that has been preserved from the district where the widows of sailors and dockers were once housed, known as the tradesmen’s widows’ apartments. In every little house that has survived, a mirror is attached to the wall opposite the window. In this way, inquisitive widows could see from their rooms who was walking in the street outside, who was visiting who, and so on.

Those visiting Hamburg for more than a day should definitely set sail on a short sea voyage around the Hamburg port. The port is not only of major economic importance, it is a tourist attraction in its own right. It is truly impressive, with its enormous vessels packed with different colored cube-shaped containers moving slowly along the piers, while — like a life-size version of the computer game Tetris — giant cranes lift and release the cubes into the wombs of cargo ships. Work at the port is very different to what it was 100 years ago: If, back then, ships took weeks to load and unload, during which time the sailors amused themselves with the pleasures offered by the city’s infamous Reeperbahn district, then now even the biggest ship (with a capacity of 8,000 containers) can be loaded in just one day. Russia is Hamburg port’s second biggest trade partner after China, and there can be no doubt, watching the port at work, that some of those multicolored containers will soon be making their way to Petersburg.

About 150,000 people are employed in the port industry, and the enormous territory of the port is connected to the city by numerous bridges, regular ferry services, and the historical tunnel under the Elba, the Alter Elbtunnel. Built in 1911 and considered a miracle of engineering at the time, the tunnel continues to operate more than 100 years later. Four cargo lifts carry transport down to and up from the tunnel during working hours, two cars at a time (tickets cost two euros per vehicle), while the tunnel is open 24 hours free of charge for pedestrians and cyclists. They can descend into the tunnel by the stairs to see how this impressive example of progress and efficiency works.


The view from the artificial Lake Alster onto the center of Hamburg at night, with the Rathaus illuminated (r).

Visitors who go to the river pier early on a Sunday morning will come across the Fischmarkt (fish market). Its location and opening hours were not determined by chance. It has long been traditional in Hamburg to spend Saturday night in Reeperbahn, and then go to the fish market in the morning to “continue the feast.” For the market is not only a place for selling bounty from the sea at inexpensive prices; there is music playing and a party atmosphere, and the sale process is an attraction in itself.

Another popular Hamburg attraction is Miniatur Wunderland (, the most extensive model railroad in the world. Wunderland is a huge yet miniature world, with its own inhabitants and moving transport. The story of its creation is fascinating, and not unlike a German fairy tale: Once upon a time, there lived in Hamburg two twin brothers, Frederik and Gerrit Braun. The first was an optimist and a dreamer, emotional and passionate. The second was rational, cautious and thoughtful. If ever the idea of one brother gained the support of the second, their plans were inevitably realized. After a series of successful projects, Frederik was captivated by the desire to build the longest model railway in the world. Gerrit, having thought it through carefully, supported his brother’s idea. In 2000, they found suitable premises in the form of old warehouses in the Speicherstadt district. Miniatur Wunderland consists of seven geographical areas and more than 1,000 components, including 15 kilometers of railway and thousands of human figures created with incredible imagination and humor. The areas represented include Switzerland, Austria, the U.S., Scandinavia and of course Hamburg — the birthplace of this wonderland. Its copy is the largest and most populous city depicted in the project. This is a must-see site, and with typical German efficiency, a time for visiting can be reserved online to avoid standing in line.

Hamburg is also home to a museum of automobile prototypes, the Automuseum prototyp (, where a compact old factory building houses a collection of post-war sports cars made by Porsche, Audi and BMW. It is truly a car lovers’ haven, with many models having been driven in rallies held from the mid 20th century up to the Formula One rally at which Michael Schumacher made his debut. A particularly interesting exhibit is Otto Mathe’s small, almost toy-like “Fetzenflieger,” assembled by Porsche. The vehicle set the speed record in 1952 with a speed of 210 kilometers per hour. Visitors to the museum can also sit in a vintage car and race around a computer-generated racetrack, or listen to the sounds made by the engines of various cars in a separate booth.

The city most associated with The Beatles may be their native Liverpool, but it was in fact Hamburg where the legendary British rock band cut its teeth. The group became extremely popular in Hamburg at the beginning of the 1960s. They first appeared on July 17, 1960 at the Indra club on Grosse Freiheit street. At that time they were simply an unknown group from Liverpool. Here, in the St. Pauli district, they played first in a movie theater, then in the Kaiserkeller club — sharing the stage with strippers — while George Harrison hid from the police because he was only 17 years old. From 1960-62, the band gave about 800 concerts in Hamburg — more than anywhere else at any time. It was here that they perfected their own inimitable style, here that they chose their iconic hairstyle and released their album “The Beatles in Hamburg.” Later John Lennon would say, “I grew up in Liverpool but I came of age in Hamburg.” The city propelled The Beatles from inexperienced amateur musicians into polished professionals, for whom fame and fortune were just around the corner.


Hamburg, Germany’s second city, is the industrial center of Europe.

Musical excursions around places in the city associated with the band are led by Stefani Hempel and her small ukulele ( Stefani takes visitors around the most famous sites, and after each story, performs a Beatles song.

As a large port city, Hamburg has long been famed for its nightlife, and the Reeperbahn was legendary among generations of young men in the Soviet Union who heard about the hedonistic district from their older comrades who returned from their national service in the navy full of stories. Next to the broad and bustling Reeperbahn street is the small Herbertstrasse with its red lights, famed for the ladies sitting at its windows and for its brothels, all of which are off limits to minors and women. Today, the Reeperbahn district attracts tourists not only with its memories of The Beatles and its sex shops, but with its buzzing nightlife. The red light district has now been transformed into a district of clubs, bars, art galleries, cabarets, theaters and even upscale restaurants. The Reeperbahn is unlikely to make an impression during the daytime; the best time to visit it is after 8 p.m., when the night lights are illuminated and the seedy establishments and cabarets open their doors.



The city’s historical Speicherstadt warehouse district is home to an abundance of bridges.

Hamburg is not home to the wealth of historical architecture for which other German cities are famed. After being heavily bombed during World War II in 1943, almost all of the city center was left in ruins and burned down as a result of firebombing. But the city’s contemporary architecture is another impressive asset, not least in the futuristic HafenCity ( At one point in the 19th century, this part of the Speicherstadt district was considered the most elegant warehouse complex in the world. Today, HafenCity is one of the biggest urban accommodation projects in Europe. It is as though the architectural projects of the future have been implemented — and virtually in the center of the city. Taken on its own, each individual building seems like nothing special, but together, they create an unprecedented facade of a modern megalopolis on water. Interestingly, Hamburgers like to see their port out of their windows, and homes with an “industrial port view” have an increased value.

Strange though it may seem, Hamburg Airport, a transport hub, is transformed on the weekend into a shopping mall ( Residents flock to the airport to do their shopping — after all, stores in the city are closed and the prices are sometimes cheaper here. The airport also offers excursions, taking in its panoramic viewing platforms, an old Junkers Ju 52, the world’s only airport model exhibition and the on-site fire brigade.

Excursions do not, however, take in the internal workshop and hangars of Lufthansa Technik company ( Here, not only are airplanes serviced and repaired, they are also fitted with seats for passengers — it is a little-known fact that airplanes are bought by airlines with empty interiors, and carriers themselves design and fit out the interiors. Aircraft furniture is big business, involving engineers and designers, among others. Here, standard craft are reequipped to satisfy the whimsical fantasies of wealthy passengers from Russia and the Arab Emirates. However, the most heavily reequipped planes are not shown to the public: What has been done to them, for whom and at what cost is a closely guarded secret.


Lufthansa Technik designs airplane interiors at Hamburg Airport.

How to get there:

The St. Petersburg Times flew courtesy of Lufthansa, Pulkovo Airport’s biggest foreign airline, which this summer launched a direct flight from Petersburg to Hamburg, connecting the two Baltic capitals twice a week — on Wednesdays and Sundays. The flight time is just two and a half hours.

Where to stay:

Sofitel, 40 Alter Wall, is located near Lake Alster in the historic heart of the city, 500 meters from the Rathaus.

Hotel Atlantic Kempinski, 72 An der Alster, is a luxury hotel on the shores of Lake Alster. It is not uncommon to encounter in the hotel lobby the rock star Udo Lindenberg, who has lived here for many years.

Leave a comment