Last May I stayed in Hamburg, my train arrived at 3 pm and I left the following day at about the same time. Can one get a more than superficial impression of such a big city, the second largest German city (~ 1,8 million inhabitants) after Berlin, in such a short time? I think so, after all tourists are only interested in the city centre, who'd want to visit the suburbs, which are more or less the same everywhere in the world anyway?
I left my luggage in a locker at the train station, went to the Tourist Information there and bought a Hamburg Card. It saves money on tickets when going hither and thither by U-Bahn, S-Bahn (kind of tubes) or bus and on entrance fees.
Then off to the Landungsbrücken (five minutes by tube) and onto a boat for a trip through the harbour. I went to the nearest stall where trips were sold for 10 € (2 € off with the Hamburg card) and found the sign ‘Speicherstadt on request’. ‘Speicherstadt‘, the historic ware-house district with high red-brick buildings decorated in a neo-Gothic style where importers and shipping magnates used to store their goods (some still do) until they were sold. Why on request? It‘s only possible to enter it between high tide and low tide, in the first case the bridges are too narrow, in the second the waterways aren‘t deep enough for the barges. I was lucky, the Speicherstadt could be visited.
I love ships, the bigger, the better, but I was unfortunate, none was coming into or going out of the river Elbe. We saw some enormous container ships and ships in docks which were to be repaired, every time we passed one, the captain gave explanations. When we were in the Speicherstadt, he told us about the goods stored there, mainly coffee, tea, cocoa, spices and Persian carpets, after Tehran, Hamburg has the biggest stock of Persian carpets.
After an hour we were back on land and I took the tube to the city centre (5 min.), peeped into the city hall, a richly decorated Neo-Renaissance building finished in 1896. With its tower of 112 metres it‘s Europe's highest town hall. On its façade it shows the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire since Hamburg was, as a Free Imperial City, only under the sovereignty of the emperor. It houses the city council and also the government of the city-state Hamburg, one of the sixteen Federal States of Germany.
Crossing the square in front of the city hall and a bridge across a canal-like part of the river Alster (Hamburg has over 2,300 bridges, more than Amsterdam (1200) and Venice (400) combined, in fact there are more bridges inside the city limits than in any other city or town on earth) I came to the Alsterakaden, the Alster Arcades, with fashion shops, restaurants and cafés. While I was having my cappuccino and a piece of cake looking at a flock of swans in the water and the city hall in the background, a young violinist was playing classical music two cafés away. A woman at the table next to me said to her friend, "This reminds me of Venice." The architect Alexis de Châteauneuf who designed the arcades in 1844 would have been pleased because that had just been his intention.
From the arcades it’s just a stone’s throw to the Hanse-Viertel, a mall with elegant and expensive shops, cafés and restaurants. The pavement inside is covered with clinker-bricks which are so well polished that I was afraid of slithering, I looked at where I was putting my feet as often as at the shop windows. As shopping is not my thing, I just walked through.
My next destination was the Hummel Denkmal, the monument for the man who’s responsible for the typical Hamburg greeting of "Hummel, Hummel" [‘u’ pronounced like ‘oo’ in ‘book‘] to which the correct reply is "Mors, Mors". The city centre is full of figures of water-carriers, more than 100, about 1,50m high, all identical but painted differently. I wanted to see the original, though, which was erected in 1938. I walked from the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Straße into Bäckerbreitergang, among some trees I found a fountain as the fundament and a more than life-size statue of a water-carrier with some children clinging to his legs on it. There was a water carrier once, a Herr Bentz (1787 - 1854), a grumbly man, children used to shout ‘Hummel, Hummel’ after him, the surname of the man who had lived in his house before him. His answer ‘Mors, Mors’ is short for ‘Klei mi an mors!’ which is Low German for "Lick my back bottom!"
I went back to the Jungfernstieg, the street where the Alster Arcades start, running along the Binnenalster (inner Alster) which has been dammed up and looks like a lake with sailing boats and barges for tourist trips. There’s a restaurant overlooking the lake.
As to nightlife attractions: Hamburg has a lot to offer from high to very low. I was thinking of watching a play or a film which hadn‘t come to my small town but as the sun was still shining at 8 pm, I decided to stay outside as long as possible. For ‘low’ it was still too early, you may have heard of the Reeperbahn (‘ee’ pronounced like ‘a’ in ‘rape’), Germany’s most infamous red light district, but what should an elderly lady do there on her own? The "most interesting" (very big quotation marks) part is off limits for women anyway.
The next morning I learned by chance that it was a good idea not to go there, the local newspaper showed a list of the six most dangerous places in Hamburg, the Reeperbahn being No 1 with five times as many crimes as No 2 although it has the highest police density in the whole country and the area is video checked.
The tube took me to Veddel (BallinStadt) (5 min. from the central train station, entrance fee 9, 80 €, with Hamburg card 8 €, daily 10am - 6 pm), where in 1899 Albert Ballin, the general director of the shipping company Hapag had a town built catering for the needs of the people who wanted to emigrate. Ballin was a good man (from the brochure) "Although he never lost sight of the business side of his enterprise, his plans showed a sense of social responsibility, which …also extended to the poorest of the poor." The BallinStadt used to have thirty buildings, three buildings have been reconstructed showing and explaining with written texts, audio guides and video films the way the more than five million emigrants lived and were prepared for their new lives abroad before departure.
My next destination was the Speicherstadtmuseum, (St. Annenufer 2, 3 E, no concessions because it’s private, Tuesday - Sunday, 10am - 5 pm). It’s located on the third floor (no lift!) of a typical red-brick warehouse that is over one hundred years old in the authentic surroundings of the warehouse district. Typical tools like grippers, bales of rubber, coffee-sacks, sampling instruments and historical photos are exhibited showing how people worked in the import - export business a century ago. There’s also a small café on the premises.
On my way to the other small museum in the Speicherstadt, Spicy’s, the only museum of spices worldwide, Am Sandtorkai 32 (3 €, no concessions, either, it’s also private, Tuesday - Sunday, 10 am - 5 pm, second floor, no lift), also located in an old warehouse and also interactive - from the 700 exhibits 50 are spices in open sacks which the visitors can smell, touch or rub between their fingers - I passed the Kesselhaus, Am Sandtorkei 30 (Tuesday - Sunday, 10 am - 6 pm, free entrance)
This was the great discovery of my visit, I hadn’t heard about it and the information I got there overwhelmed me. The Kesselhaus is the former power plant of the historic Speicherstadt warehouse district, it houses a small café and an 8x4 metre model of and information on the HafenCity, the continent’s largest inner city development project. An area of former ware houses, between the city centre and the harbour, both only a few minutes walk away, is being turned into a new town, 800 people are already living there, in 2025 when it’s finished, there will be 12,000. HafenCity will have living quarters, business premises, schools, a part of the Hamburg university, cultural institutions, the new Philharmonic concert hall, restaurants, squares and promenades.
Every year in May, Hamburg celebrates the anniversary of the harbour, this year (2008) it was 819 years old. Had I arrived some days earlier, I could have seen a lot of wonderful old sailing ships parading in front of the Landungsbrücken, but then nearly a million other tourists would have been with me. That’s not my beer - as the Germans say.