Hamburg, Germany's foremost port and one of its most handsome cities, may also be one of Europe's most underrated destinations. Many Americans -- and even Europeans -- have yet to discover its charms, including its beautiful situation on the banks of the River Elbe and around the Alster lake, the loveliness of its mostly traditional architecture, its premier museums, and its long history and association with the powerful Hanseatic League. The city is also more sophisticated and walkable than Germany's capital, Berlin, a huge plus for visitors.
Founded back in 800 by Charlemagne, the city initially took off as a trading center, given its proximity to the rest of Northern Europe and its location on the Elbe River, which links the North Sea to inland Europe. While Hamburg was largely destroyed by Allied bombing during the Second World War, much of it was rebuilt in the traditional style, resulting in a powerful sense of continuity with the past. Few intrusive modern structures upset the skyline, so the churches and the lovely Rathaus (City Hall) dominate the cityscape. The notable exception is HafenCity, a separate district of brand-new housing, offices and cultural centers.
Today, Hamburg is a thriving north German city of just fewer than two million people with the surrounding districts doubling the population. The city thrives on its port, shipyards and international trade, and it's also a media and civil aerospace center. Not surprisingly, water is a key element in Hamburg life. The Elbe passes through the city, splitting into waterways that meander, canal-like, between handsome, brick, Victorian-era former warehouses that now serve as offices, residences and museums. Hamburg's lakes -- the Binnenalster (Inner Alster) and much larger Aussenalster (Outer Alster) -- form centerpieces for the city center and its transition to the close-in residential suburbs. Parallel canals and narrow streets link the Alster and the Elbe's wide expanses. For the tourist, it's a delight to follow them.
The city has oodles of individual sights relating to its maritime heritage: excellent museums, historic ships, architectural landmarks and a church tower viewpoint. Visitors can take simple pleasure in walking the grand Elbe River promenade, the canal paths in the Speicherstadt (Warehouse District) and the lakeside footpaths. Day cruises are a popular pastime, with numerous boat operators departing from the Landungsbrucken pier to cruise the Elbe River and from Jungfernsteig for Alster trips.
Hamburg's visitors are mostly Germans and other Europeans, and most of the cruise calls are by ships carrying German-speaking passengers. However, some lines catering to North Americans are finding their way there. Cunard's Queen Mary 2 is the city's favorite caller, and one million people routinely turn out along the banks of the Elbe to see her arrive from the North Sea. Celebrity Cruises, Silversea, Costa Cruises, MSC Cruises, Hurtigrutren and Ponant Cruises have followed.
In HafenCity, at present, there is a cruise berth and little else nearby, but a terminal and adjacent hotel are due to be completed in the next couple of years. Access to downtown is by city bus or, for those who'd like a 20-minute stroll, by foot. But, a U-4 (underground) is under construction. A walk through the construction zone to the nearest attractions, such as the Hamburg International Maritime Museum and the Miniatur Wunderland model railway, takes about 15 minutes.
From the Elbe River berth at Altona, where the bigger ships dock, there are plenty of cafes and shops within easy walking distance along the Elbmeile. Though the city ranges upward, just behind, your best bet if heading downtown is to take a taxi or the city bus that passes along Grosse Elbstrasse, parallel to the River Elbe. The nearest S-Bahn station is Reeperbahn, a 15-minute walk through a lively entertainment and arts district.
Harbor & Alster Cruises: Scenic cruises are popular in Hamburg, and visitors can choose between cruises around the harbor and on the Alster lake. Rainer Abicht Elbreederei GMBH offers one-hour harbor tours with English commentary at noon daily. The route includes the Elbe and connecting canals, with views of shipyards and major city sights. Tours depart from Landungsbrucken, bridge 1 landing (S-Bahn/U-Bahn Landungsbrucken). Alsterdampfschiffahrt E.V. operates the historic steamship St. Georg (built in 1876) on 45-minutes cruises of the Binnenalster and Aussenalster and the narrow waterways that connect the two to the canal system. The sights of the city surround you, and the lakeside Japanese cherry blossoms are a riot of color in May. (Cruises depart daily 10:45 a.m. - 5:45 p.m. S-Bahn/U-Bahn Jungfernsteig.)
St. Michaelis Church: This church was built from 1751 to 1762 in a high Baroque style. Besides touring the interior and vaulted crypt, you can climb the viewing tower for a city, river and lake panorama. (Englische Planke 1a. S-Bahn Stadthausbrucke, U-Bahn Baumwall. Open 9 a.m. - 7:30 p.m.)
Hamburger Kunsthalle:The city's major art museum, housed in three distinctively different buildings spanning 150 years, exhibits collections from Hamburg artists of the 14th century, Dutch and Flemish painters of the 16th and 17th centuries, and French and German artists of the 19th century, as well as modern art. Some of the better-known painters on view are Paul Cezanne, Albrecht Durer, Paul Gauguin, Max Liebermann, Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol. (Glockengiesserwall. S-Bahn/U-Bahn Hauptbahnhof. Open Tuesday - Sunday 10 a.m. - 6 p.m., Thursday to 9 p.m., Closed Monday.)
International Maritime Museum: Housed in a beautiful brick warehouse building, this museum has 10 floors of exhibits, including the Peter Tam collection of thousands of tiny ship models; full-size ship models that include a large 25-foot Lego model of Queen Mary 2; dioramas of harbors; oil paintings of naval ships; and exhibits on navigation, communication and shipbuilding. Historic film footage shows the lively activity of pre-WWII Hamburg shipping and giant passenger liners sailing overseas. (Kaispeicher B, Koreastrasse 1. U-Bahn Messberg. Open Tuesday to Sunday 10 a.m. - 6 p.m., Thursday to 8 p.m.)
Miniatur Wunderland: The largest model railway layout in the world is spread over two floors with sections devoted to Hamburg and its port, Germany's Harz Mountains, Scandinavia, Switzerland and the United States. Scale models, apart from 800 trains winding through the landscape, include 10,000 cars, trucks and buses; numerous ships, roads and buildings; 200,000 miniature figures and varied scenery and spots of activity, such as a ship docking and firefighters attacking a blaze at city hall. The settings go through day and night cycles. (Kehrweider 2-4. U-Bahn Baumwall or Messberg. Open Monday to Friday 9:30 a.m. - 6 p.m., Tuesday to 9 p.m., Saturday 8 a.m. - 9 p.m., Sunday 8:30 a.m. - 8 p.m.)
Museum Ship Cap San Diego: This is a classic, 1960-built, refrigerated cargo ship belonging to the Hamburg-Sud (Hamburg South America Line). View the passenger cabins, officer and crew quarters, main lounge and bar, crew mess, bridge, decks, cargo holds and engine room. A snack bar serves light meals. (Uberseebrucke. U-Bahn Baumwall; S-Bahn Landungsbrucken.Open daily 10 a.m. - 6 p.m.)
Rathaus: The Neo-Renaissance City Hall, built between 1886 and 1897, houses some 647 rooms with varying decorative styles and serves as the administrative center for the State of Hamburg. It's open daily at widely varying hours with English language tours beginning hourly at 10:15 a.m. It also houses a Rathauswienkeller (city hall wine cellar), which is open to the public. The square out front is used for civic event and festivals. (U-Bahn Rathaus)
Shopping: Hamburg is a highly sophisticated city with many of the better-known stores and designers you'd find in other major European and American cities. The shopping galleries are very attractive, so you might find yourself doing a lot of looking and little buying. The principal shopping street is Monckebergstrasse (the Mo), which runs from the main railway station (Hauptbahnhof) to the city hall market square (Rathausmarkt). Alsterarkaden, an Italianate arcade, parallels the Alsterfleet and offers smaller specialty shops and outdoor cafes and restaurants. Also parallel is Neuer Wall, the most upscale street for famous designers, such as Gucci, Ferragamo and Vuitton.
Old Elbe Tunnel: Built between 1907 and 1911 for cars and pedestrians, the Old Elbe Tunnel connects Hamburg St. Pauli with Steinwerder on the opposite bank. It is a worthwhile outing on foot, especially if not taking the harbor tour, as there is a great view of Hamburg's skyline from the far side. Pedestrians have free access at all hours, Monday to Friday. Elevators or stairs take you to the tunnel level then up again on the other side. The pedestrian footpath runs alongside the two single-lane vehicular tunnels (approximately 1,400 feet). (S-Bahn and U-Bahn Landungsbrucken.)
BallinStadt (Ballin City): This relatively new museum traces -- with English and German captions -- the route from the mid-19th century, which some five million emigrants took from the port of Hamburg by sea to new lives in North and South America and Australia. The museum is built on the Veddel Island site where the emigration halls used to be. Exhibits include photographs, artifacts, ship models and passenger list records of the people who passed through there. Anyone with a German or Eastern European background will find the visit more than worthwhile. A harbor launch brings visitors directly from the cruise port at St. Pauli Landungsbrucken to Veddel. (Veddeler Bogen 2. S-Bahn Veddel - Ballinstadt. Open daily 10 a.m. - 6 p.m.)
Reeperbahn: If you are a night owl in town pre- or post-cruise, take the S-Bahn to the Reeperbahn station in St. Pauli for a mile-long strip of nightclubs, dance halls, restaurants and bars. Once a sinful playground for sailors and merchant seamen, the district is open to everyone who likes to party into the wee hours. Theater (musicals are best for non-German speakers) and, during the day, art galleries and museums have now entered the mix to soften its former reputation as the red-light district.
Blankenese: This Elbe River town is a bedroom suburb for Hamburg, offering considerable charm and wonderful views of the widening Elbe from its high banks. Most of the well-kept houses are turn-of-the-last-century, colorful and accented with tidy gardens. The S-Bahn takes about 30 minutes (Bus 48 a little longer) and boasts some good river views on the approach to Blankenese. From the station, the 15-minute walk takes you past art galleries and clothing shops on the way down to the river's promenade. Tere, cafes attract sightseers who enjoy watching the constant river traffic of barges, tugs, container vessels and ferries. For a dining treat, try the Michelin-rated Seven Seas restaurant at the Hotel Sullberg, which offers great river views and classic French gourmet cuisine. A water taxi is an alternate way to get there from Landungsbrucken.
The Hamburg Card is a good bet, even for a one-day visit, as it includes unlimited use of the city's transit system (HVV) of subways, elevated lines, buses and ferries. It also offers discounts from 10 to 50 percent on many of the city attractions, 10 percent for select shops and 20 percent for select restaurants. A list of attractions and discounts comes with the card, which can be purchased at the pier, Hamburg information centers, transit stations, on the buses, at the main railway station and the airport. You can purchase a one-day card for yourself, or get a better deal if you have up to five people traveling together. Often, no one asks to see the card as an honor system prevails, but don't try to slip aboard without paying the fare; if you're caught, the fines will set you back big time. It won't work to plead ignorance as an ill-informed tourist.
The transit system is comprehensive, well-run and safe. Some elevated lines afford good views of the city, the Elbe River and Alster. Make sure you get a system map, and check the direction you want to go with the strip charts on the station platform. Most rail and bus stops have illuminated signs that indicate how many minutes until the next train or bus arrives. Some ferry routes operate regular transit services along the Elbe.
There are several companies offering city tours and hop-on, hop-off buses that offer commentary in English and German. Day passes are available. With the latter, the duration for the entire route is 1.5 hours, and buses operate daily every 30 minutes from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. The main departure point for Top-Tour Hamburg's hop-on, hop-off is Hauptbahnhof (main railway station).
Taxis are plentiful at the ports and at the main railway station when ships are in town.
And, finally, if you want to work off your cruise ship "diet," check out the city's bike scheme (www.stadtrad.hamburg.de); stations are located all over town, and bikes for hire are reasonably priced. A heads-up, though: Your best bet is to register before you get there and take a look at locales for pick-up and drop-off before you arrive.
The pontoon walkways and promenades on the Elbe River waterfront are Hamburg's main draws, and lunch spots facing the harbor are numerous. The majority of cafes and restaurants feature local seafood (Atlantic cod, plaice, mackerel, sole, whiting, crab, lobster and shrimp) from the nearby North Sea and typical German-style sausages like weisswurst (white veal or port sausages), bratwurst (smoked pork sausages) and knockwurst or knackwurst (pork &beef spiced with garlic), all served with sauerkraut. Just in from Langdungsbrucken is a lively district of Iberian (Portuguese and Spanish) restaurants with sidewalk dining in the warmer months. In general, Hamburg is a truly international city with most international cuisines represented.
For casual dining along the Elbe River waterfront, try Nordsee for fish and chips and prepared boxes of sushi. You can choose to sit at the counter or at tables outside. (Landungsbrucken, Brucke 1, open daily until late.)
One of the city's best seafood restaurants is Seepferdchen (seepferdchen.de/restaurant), located near the Altona cruise terminal and opposite the fischmarkt. It's open for lunch and dinner.
Edelcurry is a busy curry-and-wurst restaurant featuring moderately priced, popular German-style fast food like sausages with a curry sauce, decent salads and heaps of French fries. It is located in the heart of the shopping district in Neustadt. (Gross Bleichen 68. U-Bahn Jungfernsteig. Open Monday - Saturday 11 a.m. - 10 p.m., Sunday noon - 8 p.m.)
For the most delicious French-German infusion in a bistro atmosphere, try Restaurant Cox (www.restaurant-cox.de, Greifswalder Strasse in the St. George neighborhood), which is open for lunch and dinner.
Messmer Momentum is a stylish tea lounge that serves a full English-style afternoon tea, including scones and clotted cream, crustless sandwiches, delectable pastries, jams and jellies. The tables have views out to the canal, and attached are a tea museum and tea shop. (Am Kaiserkai 10. U-Bahn Baumwall. Open Monday - Saturday 11 am - 8 p.m.)
Fleetschlosschen, located in a historic building that was once a pilot station, is positioned opposite the maritime museum and offers Middle Eastern fare. Seating is both indoors and outdoors, and lunchtime specialties are wraps of Arab-style bread with salad, ham or tuna, and feta or mozzarella cheese with an herbal cream base. (Brooktorkai 17. Open daily for lunch and dinner.)
Churrascaria O Frango is one of a score of Portuguese-Spanish restaurants in a tight neighborhood along Ditmar Koel-Strasse and side streets just in from Landungsbrucken. The menu runs from tapas to paellas to grilled meats in wine sauces. Tables at this tucked-away, small corner restaurant are located both inside and out on the sidewalk; sit outside in the summer for a more lively atmosphere. (Reimarustrasse 17. Open daily all day until late.)
Tsao Yang is a fine-dining Chinese and Asian restaurant, located in the Hotel Atlantic Kempinski. The all-white room with bright red glasses and red vases faces the Alster. The specialty is Peking Duck with several different tasting dips. (An der Alster 72-79. Open daily noon - 3 p.m. and 6 - 11:30 p.m.)
Hamburg has two principal cruise ship terminals, both under construction, with further development planned. The upriver berth is at HafenCity, a rapidly developing residential, office building, cultural and entertainment district cleared of former industrial buildings and commercial docks. It is located to the south of the city center, behind the rebuilt Victorian brick warehouse buildings destroyed during World War II, which now house museums, restaurants and offices.
The all-new Hamburg Cruise Center's Altona terminal opened in 2011. It's located a half-mile downriver from the Landungsbrucken (a long, floating pontoon landing), where the historic ships are berthed and where cruise ships used to dock.
Hamburg is a big city with a diverse population, so it is wise, as in similar urban circumstances, to watch your possessions. This is especially true when in crowded locations, such as major shopping streets, indoor gallery passages, ATM queues, the bus, transportation stations, and the subway and elevated lines. Just ignore touts, and simply walk away.
Be aware when pedestrians have the right-of-way at designated crosswalks and when cars and buses have priority. Jaywalking is dangerous.
Germany, part of the European Union (EU), uses the euro. For the most up-to-date rates, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. There are bank-owned ATM's in the main shopping streets.
You will need euros for small purchases like snacks and drinks, postcards, inexpensive souvenirs, W.C. (public bathroom) visits and entry fees; credit cards may not be accepted.
German is the city's most widely spoken language, and English is often understood well enough to have questions answered on the streets, in shops and in restaurants. A few useful words are danke (thank you); bitte (please); and morgan (good morning -- Germans generally drop the "guten" in front).
For women, the best souvenirs are leather purses, bags and fashion clothing. Specialty items, such as handbags, are found near the railway station end of Monckebergstrasse (the main shopping street) at Nadelheim. Another shopping district surrounds Gansemarkt (go to the U-bahn station of the same name), where Tate offers fashionable clothing items and Bethge sells leather bags, briefcases and purses.
The best gift for men and boys is a Marklin set of model trains. The Marklin train store sells the world's best model railroad items -- passenger and freight cars, locomotives, stations, villages and accessories -- from its location adjacent to Nadelheim.
Hamburg, Germany's design capital, has the intriguing Stillwerk, a complex of shops and studios near Hamburg Cruise Center's Altona terminal. It features a wide array of sophisticated boutiques, from household names to emerging artists and designers.
Contact Hamburg Tourism or stop by the Hamburg Tourist Information Center at Central Railway Station, Kirchenallee Main Entrance, or at the Harbour, St. Pauli Landungsbrucken between Jetties 4 and 5
Ring the German National Tourist Office (U.S.) at 212-661-7200
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Northern Europe and Baltics Forum
The Independent Traveler: Germany Forum
--by Theodore W. Scull, Cruise Critic contributor; updated by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief