Hamburg, Germany's foremost port and one of its most handsome cities, might also be one of Europe's most underrated destinations. Many Americans -- and even Europeans -- have yet to discover its charms, not least of which is its beauty, thanks to its location on the banks of the Elbe River. Germany's second-largest city also has lovely buildings with traditional architecture, premier museums and a long history with the powerful Hanseatic League. It's a sophisticated destination that is walkable and bikeable.
Founded in 800 by Charlemagne, Hamburg initially took off as a trading center, given its proximity to the rest of Northern Europe and its location on the Elbe, which links the North Sea to inland Europe. While Hamburg was largely destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II, 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 beautiful Rathaus (City Hall) dominate the cityscape. The notable exception is HafenCity, a separate district of newer housing, offices and cultural centers.
Today, Hamburg is a thriving north German city of just fewer than 2 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 1 million people routinely turn out along the banks of the Elbe to see the ship arrive from the North Sea. Celebrity Cruises, Silversea, Costa Cruises, MSC Cruises, Hurtigrutren and Ponant Cruises also visit Hamburg.
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. Hamburg has numerous bike lanes, which aren't always clearly marked. (Look for a color difference on sidewalks; bike lanes might be red or feature bricks of a different color than walking lanes.) Bikes don't always slow for pedestrians, so keep alert, especially at intersections. Jaywalking is dangerous, as is crossing against lights.
Germany, as part of the European Union, uses the euro. Bank-owned ATMs are located 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 might 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).
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 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.
Leather purses, bags and fashion clothing are plentiful in Hamburg. 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.
A Marklin set of model trains makes for a great gift or souvenir. 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.