Early hours at Greater Alster Lake, Hamburg

Hamburg: Reminisce about the City of Water

Tiếng Việt

In my memory, Hamburg is the “City of Water”. From the Elbe River, 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.

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 Middle Age 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 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 architectures, and the infamous Reeperbahn red-light district. But nowhere in Hamburg is the maritime culture is as vivid as the Fish Market.

Hamburg – the harbor city
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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.

Fish Market

St. Michaelis Church

Dating back to the 1760s, St. 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.

Inside the Michael Church
Pipe organ in St. Michaelis Church
The clock tower of St. Michaelis Church is visible from afar

Elbphilharmonie

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 theatre. It consists of an irregular glass structure atop a solid base that used to be a warehouse. Nearly 1100 individually curved glass panes make of the building’s iridescent façade. They keep catching the reflection of the sky and water, turning the whole theatre 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.

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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, rowing to just chilling on the lakeshore.

Alster Lake. The twin bridges mark the border between Binnenalster (Inner Alster) and Außenalster (Outer Alster)
Dusk at the Alster Lake

Many architectural landmarks were built along the bank of Alster Lake, including the elegant promenade Jungfernstieg and the luxury Atlantic Hotel. Yet most iconic 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.

Hamburg City Hall
The City Hall at night

Hamburg Canals

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 exceptionally beautiful 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.

Speicherstadt
Brick houses in the Speicherstadt

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 is 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.

Chilehaus – an iconic brick house in Hamburg
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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 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.

Lombard Bridge

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.
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41 thoughts on “Hamburg: Reminisce about the City of Water”

  1. danjwalker4 – Exeter, England – I'm Dan, a freelance editor living in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. I like writing about my travels, experience with culture, and I'm a big geek when it comes to languages.
    danjwalker4 says:

    Those are some absolutely stunning photos of Hamburg! I really love the city as well!

    1. I am glad that you like it 🙂 I often travel alone so my camera is my only companion. He see what I see, so I think why not telling stories from his perspective 😛

    1. In my opinion, it is the best part of the city. Although sunny days are rare in Hamburg (even in summer), the city is still worth a trip 🙂

  2. PurplePumpernickel – I am a MostlyVegetarian, AspiringWriter & StayHomeMomWife, who plays, eats & runs in Singapore. I am still waiting to Grow Up.
    PurplePumpernickel says:

    I did not know that Hamburg was connected by waterways and canals; I have learnt something new today. Lovely photographs and a wonderful glimpse into a beautiful city!

  3. Aixa – Life had to be more than mortgage payments and car insurance, so we packed up and moved to Buenos Aires. Six months later, we were back in NYC visiting family when the pandemic tried to strand us back where we started from. We flew to Mexico’s Riviera Maya and drove 4,500 miles, sightseeing in pandemic-stricken Mexico. The U.S. embassy warned us to leave Mexico or be on our own if we got sick, but we’re wanderers now who have realized how limited our time is.
    Aixa says:

    So many wonderful photos! Great post.

  4. vinneve – I believe in this quote "Life is a JOURNEY, travel it well." Wherever we may end up so long as there is LOVE we will be happy!
    vinneve says:

    So vibrant! I like all your photos, beautiful and wishing I can visit there too!

  5. Jolene – Sydney, Australia – Jolene is a banker by trade, a writer at heart, and is a contributor to Thought Catalog. You are welcome to peek into her adventures and reflections on films and life at "SoMuchToTellYou", her ultimate love affair with words.
    Jolene says:

    Really like those photos Len, you must miss it!

    1. Partially! I only miss my friends. The scenery is great, but it gets boring after 10 years. There is nothing new, except a new concert hall 🙂 And I surely don’t miss Hamburg’s weather.

      1. Jolene – Sydney, Australia – Jolene is a banker by trade, a writer at heart, and is a contributor to Thought Catalog. You are welcome to peek into her adventures and reflections on films and life at "SoMuchToTellYou", her ultimate love affair with words.
        Jolene says:

        Haha, oh I didn’t realise you were there for 10 years. That sounds just like Australia, nothing new in 10 years except maybe a new road leading to nowhere.

  6. Arundhati Basu – New Jersey, US – The great affair in my life is to travel. I count myself immensely fortunate that my partner shares this passion. We are a team that likes to spend time planning and plotting out places to go. Destination check, flights check, accommodation check, cheesy grins check. Off we go.
    Dippy Dotty Girl says:

    It is such a beautiful and vibrant city. I have missed it. Your photos of Hamburg do it justice.

  7. shanghaiskies – Never having even set foot in Asia before, a British and German couple escape to Shanghai in the wake of Brexit.
    shanghaiskies says:

    Thank you for writing about my home town and honouring it with beautiful photos 🙂

    1. My pleasure 🙂 Though I didn’t grow up in Hamburg, I call the harbour city my second hometown. I lived there for almost 10 years.

  8. Alison and Don – Occupation: being/living/experiencing/travelling In our sixties, (Don is now 77) with apparently no other authentic option, my husband Don and I sold our apartment and car, sold or gave away all our stuff and set off to discover the world. And ourselves. We started in Italy in 2011 and from there have travelled to Spain, India, Bali, Australia, New Zealand, SE Asia, South America, etc. - you can see the blog archive. We will continue travelling until it's time to stop - if that time ever comes. So far it suits us very well. We are interested in how the world works, how life works, how the creation of experience works, how the mind works. As we travel and both "choose" our course, and at the same time just let it unfold, we discover the "mechanics" of life, the astounding creativity of life, and a continual need to return to trust and presence. Opening the heart, and acceptance of what is, as it is, are keystones for us both. Interests: In no particular order: travel, figure skating (as a fan), acceptance, authenticity, walking/hiking, joy, creativity, being human, adventure, presence, NOW. Same for Don except replace figure skating with Formula One motor racing.
    Alison and Don says:

    I know I say this every time, but I so appreciate your photography – such clarity, excellent composition, and you capture the light so beautifully.
    You’ve sold me on Hamburg. It looks like an amazing city.
    Alison

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