Don't overlook Germany's second-largest city

The sun sets over Hamburg's huge port, one of Europe's busiest, which accommodates about 9,000 vessels a year.


By RICK STEVES | RICKSTEVES.COM Published: January 23, 2018

Germany’s second-largest city, Hamburg, is awash with history, and played especially key roles in the stories of 19th-century emigration, World War II and the Beatles. It’s also a thriving 21st-century metropolis with an inviting harbor boardwalk, avant-garde architecture and Las Vegas–style nightlife. Every visit here makes me wonder why so many Americans skip it.

Even though it’s about 60 miles from the North Sea, Hamburg’s seaport on the Elbe River was the world’s third largest a century ago. But World War II devastated the commercial center, and trade to the east was cut off during the Cold War. Port traffic dwindled and so did the city’s influence. But Hamburg’s been enthusiastically rebuilt and, since Germany’s reunification, it has gained back its former status as a leading trade center.

Hamburg’s port has evolved with the city’s needs and changes in shipping technology. One example is HafenCity, a huge development project that enlarged downtown Hamburg by about 40 percent. The centerpiece is the striking Elbphilharmonie, a combination concert hall, public plaza, hotel and apartment complex. Its daring design and huge size fit in well with the massive scale of the surrounding port.

Water seems to be everywhere in this city of nearly 2,500 bridges. Hamburg’s delightful lakes, the Aussenalster and Binnenalster, were created in the Middle Ages, when townsfolk built a mill that dammed the local river. In the 1950s, a law guaranteed public access to the Aussenalster, and today, peaceful paths and bike lanes are a hit with locals. Along with plenty of downtown parkland, the lakes provide Hamburg — one of Germany’s greenest cities — with an elegant promenade, the Jungfernstieg, which comes complete with top-of-the-line shops.

Just a block away, Hamburg’s massive city hall, built in the 19th century, overlooks a lively scene. It’s flanked by graceful arcades and surrounded by plenty of commerce. With its bold architecture and salty waterfront atmosphere, Hamburg feels nothing like Germany’s inland cities to the south. And at first glance, it’s hard to believe that it was one of the most heavily bombed cities in World War II.
With its strategic port, munitions factories and transportation links, Hamburg was a prime target for the Allies. On July 27, 1943, they hit the city center first with explosive bombs to open roofs, break water mains and tear up streets — making it hard for firefighters to respond. Then came a hellish onslaught of incendiary bombs: 700 bombers concentrated their attack on a relatively small area. The result was a firestorm — a tornado of raging flames reaching horrific temperatures. In three hours, the inferno killed more than 40,000 people, left hundreds of thousands homeless and reduced eight square miles of Hamburg to ashes.

Somehow, the towering spire of St. Nicholas’ Church survived the bombing. It and the ruins of the church itself are now a memorial, left to commemorate those lost and to remind future generations of the horrors of war. In its museum, you’ll see scorched and melted fragments demonstrating the heat of the firestorm.
Though Hamburg is mostly rebuilt, many WWII-era bunkers were just too expensive to tear down. So they survive, incorporated into today’s cityscape.

Hamburg’s Reeperbahn thoroughfare has long been the heart of Germany’s most famous entertainment zone. It gained notoriety as a rough and sleazy sailors’ quarter filled with nightclubs and brothels. But as the city has changed, so has its entertainment district. Today this street where the Beatles launched their careers in 1960 is a destination for theater and live music.

Outside the city center, another popular destination is the BallinStadt Emigration Museum. For German Americans, Hamburg has a special meaning, because their ancestors might have sailed from this harbor. Millions of Germans and other Europeans emigrated to the United States from this city between 1850 and 1930. A German counterpart to Ellis Island, the museum tells the story of emigration through Hamburg from the mid-19th century through World War II.

An unforgettable capper to your Hamburg visit is its harbor tour. You’ll see plenty of Hamburg’s bold new architecture as well as its more established beach communities. But mostly, an hour-long cruise gets you up close to Hamburg’s shipping industry — all those enormous container ships, cranes and dry docks.

Hamburg is one of the great “undiscovered” cities in Europe. With its trading heritage and a strong economy, a visit here showcases a wealthy city that rose like a phoenix from a terrible recent past.

Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.