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.