In my memory, Hamburg is the “City of Water”. From the Elbe River, and the Alster Lake to an extensive canal system, the maritime spirit infuses the entire port town, giving it a distinctively buzzy vibe.
Years of living in Hamburg made me realize one thing: water is omnipresent in this city. The Elbe, the Alster, and the Bille, all these rivers traverse here. So does a network of waterways. They interlace like a spider web, and together with the Alster, they eventually form a picturesque lake right at the heart of the city. As a result, life in Hamburg is centered around the water.
I remember the cool breeze and the incessant cry of gulls as I board the ferry running along the river. Or the boisterous voice of hawkers at the waterfront fish market. I also recall the time when I woke up early and wandered through numerous bridges of the Speicherstadt. Or watching the sunset with friends on the shore of Lake Alster. In all those memories, water always plays the lead role.
1. Elbe River
Connected to the North Sea via the Elbe River, Hamburg has engaged in business with the world since a very early age. By joining the Hanseatic League in the 12th century, the city grew into a major port in Northern Europe. In due course, it was granted the status of an Imperial Free City.
The Elbe brings prosperity to the harbor city.
The Elbe continued to bring prosperity to the city in the following centuries, turning it into a mighty trading power. During the Second World War and later the Cold War period, the river was hindered, leading to a substantial decline in Hamburg’s global trade. These days, Hamburg is one of Germany’s wealthiest states and the second-largest port in Europe, after Rotterdam.
There is no better way to experience the Elbe River than taking the ferry. It starts at Landungsbrücken – a landing pier with two striking turquoise-colored roofs. The ferry then passes by waterfront neighborhoods awash with multicultural eateries, extraordinary modern architecture, and the infamous Reeperbahn red-light district. But nowhere in Hamburg is the maritime culture as vivid as the Fish Market.
1.1 Hamburg Fish Market
Taking place from pre-dawn to about 08:00 AM every Sunday, Hamburg Fish Market is among the largest and oldest in Germany. The market has operated since 1703, attracting thousands of visitors weekly.
It mirrors the development of the city, in both good and bad times. Today, in an impressive industrial hall, fishermen and merchants from across the state trade their freshly harvested products. And their cry at full volume has become the trademark of this market.
1.2 Sankt Michaelis Church
Dating back to the 1760s, Sankt Michalis Church is another landmark of the city. It is built to impress, featuring a Baroque interior decorated with intricate golden ornaments. A high marble altar and a pulpit made of heavy stone stand at the center. Facing them is an elaborate pipe organ with multiple divisions.
Though not directly located at the waterfront, St. Michalis Church has always served as a landfall mark for ships sailing on the Elbe River. More specifically, its copper-covered clock tower which reaches a height of 312 meters is an essential part of Hamburg’s skyline.
Standing tall on the bank of the Elbe River, the Elbphilharmonie is Hamburg’s newest icon. The old and the new are seamlessly blended in this remarkable theater. It consists of an irregular glass structure atop a solid base that used to be a warehouse. Nearly 1100 individually curved glass panes make up the building’s iridescent façade. They keep catching the reflection of the sky and water, turning the whole theater into a colossal crystal.
The Elbphilharmonie has successfully captured in glass and brick the soul of Hamburg. That’s why it has been adored by both locals and visitors. Aside from its main function as a concert hall, this building complex accommodates a hotel, a restaurant, and a bar. There is also a plaza with panoramic views of the river and the city.
2. Hamburg Alster Lake
Even though the Elbe brings livelihood, it is not the only source of life in the harbor city. Hamburg’s heart beats around Alster Lake which was formed in medieval times by damming the Alster River. It is picturesque, with leafy paths and appealing parks lining its bank. The lake is crucial for Hamburger’s life as they are the base of many recreational activities, from jogging, sailing, and rowing to just chilling on the lakeshore.
Many architectural landmarks were built along the bank of Alster Lake, including the elegant promenade Jungfernstieg and the luxury Atlantic Hotel. Yet the most impressive is the City Hall in Neo-Renaissance style. This building was constructed during a period of prosperity (1886-1897) in which the German Empire was formed. Hence, its appearance is markedly lavish, with an elaborate façade, a grandiose clock tower, and nearly 650 chambers. There is also a passage connecting the City Hall with the Chamber of Commerce, reflecting the importance of trade in Hamburg’s history.
3. Speicherstadt & Kontorhaus District
As mentioned above, Hamburg is covered by an extensive canal system. It spreads across the city like a spider web, linking rivers, streams, and lakes. While most of these waterways are natural, some were dug for goods loading. Such loading canals can be found around the centuries-old Speicherstadt where the maritime spirit infuses the architecture. Here, tens of brick warehouses were built on oak piles with the purpose of loading and storing goods. They are stunning at night when gables, windows, and various decorative elements reflect on the water, creating bizarre images. The district is the largest of its kind and thus has been listed as a UNESCO Heritage Site since 2015.
Also part of this UNESCO Heritage Site is the Kontorhaus District – an area of large office buildings in the style of Brick Expressionism. They were constructed in the early 20th century to handle port-related issues, with the crowning gem being the Chilehaus finished in 1924. This dark brown complex was designed by architect Fritz Höger for a businessman who derived his wealth from trading with Chile. It resembles an ocean liner, featuring distinctive curved walls, long horizontal lines, and staggered windows that look like portholes. The building signifies the influence of global trade on Hamburg’s cityscape in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
4. The City of Bridges
If you think Amsterdam has lots of bridges, you will be surprised by Hamburg’s number. To cross the city’s countless waterways, around 2500 bridges have been built. The total amount is more than that of London, Amsterdam, and Venice put together.
They come in various sizes and cover a wide range of architectural styles. For instance, the Kennedy Bridge which is made of stone connects the two sides of the Binnenalster. Meanwhile, the Köhlbrand Bridge is a large cable-stayed bridge that crosses the Elbe River. It joins the harbor area with the southern island of Wilhelmsburg.
Tips for visiting Hamburg
- The most comfortable way to explore the Elbe and the narrow canals of the Speicherstadt is by taking boat tours. Most tours last around one hour and depart from Landungsbrücke.
- You can also explore the Elbe River by taking the ferries. Most attractions along the Elbe, including the Fish Market, Dockland, and Elbstrand, are accessible by Ferry 62 departing from Landungsbrücke. Taking the ferry is more flexible in time as you can decide your own pace. Another advantage is that the ferry ticket is included in your public transport ticket.
- For Alster Lake, you can either take a boat trip or explore on foot. If you choose the boat trip, the old-fashioned ship is recommended for summer. Under the summer heat, the fancy glass-covered ship might turn into a moving sauna.