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City Portrait Hamburg

July 13, 2003

It's Germany's largest deep water port as well as one of the country's biggest cities. Take an inside look at Hamburg, the center of German imports and exports and a true city of saints and sinners.

Landungsbrücke in HamburgImage: Illuscope

Hamburg is a city of superlatives: the biggest, the most, the oldest. It has the biggest and busiest harbor in Germany, most of Germany's major media, the oldest stock exchange in Germany, more bridges than Venice -- and even the world's largest fitness studio.

Hamburg is also the most expensive place to live in Germany. But the people who live there think it’s worth it, as do the thousands who visit each year.

It's one of the few German cities with that buzzing, big-city feel, and is renowned for its elegant flair. Packed to the gills, the city is, quite literally, running out of space. Easing the burden, the city center is scheduled to grow in size by nearly 40 percent when a recently begun 383-acre harbor redevelopment project is completed, sometime in the next 20 years.

The lay of the land

Container Hafen in Hamburg
78 million tons of goods pass through every yearImage: AP

Germany's second-largest city has been a gateway to the world for centuries. It is located at the confluence of the Alster and Elbe rivers, and has a direct link to the North Sea some 100 kilometers (62 miles) downstream. It’s no wonder the harbor grew by leaps and bounds starting in the 12th century, making Hamburg Germany’s most important port.

The harbor dominates the cityscape. Though by no means pretty in the traditional sense, it’s certainly worth a visit, if only to appreciate its size and scale. Huge container ships bound for some exotic destination float by and a variety of aromas -- flowers, coffee, spices -- waft from the warehouses lining the shores.

Located at the base of the crescent-shaped New City (which is divided from the crescent-shaped Old City by the Elbe River) the harbor covers more than 12 percent of Hamburg, and 78 million tons of goods pass through it every year.

…but not a drop to drink

Die Alster in Hamburg
Water, water everywhere...Image: AP

Even away from the harbor, water is everywhere in Hamburg. Foghorns can be heard downtown; shrieking sea gulls and an ever-present sea breeze enhance the maritime feeling. The rivers Elbe, Alster and Bille all traverse the city, creating 64 kilometers of canals requiring 2,500 bridges, giving the city its nickname "Venice of the North."

The perimeter of the inner Alster can be walked in about a half hour, and visitors can either rent a boat to explore the enormous outer Alster, or simply sit at one of the casual dockside cafes that line its shores.

In the heart of the New City is the grand Church of Saint Michael, referred to by locals as just "Michael." The distinctive 134-meter (440-foot) Baroque spire is hard to miss and the external beauty gives an idea of the gleaming elegance on the inside.

Saint Michael's tower and the many other spires and domes that dot the skyline in the Old and New City, among them the St. Petrikirche and the Jakobkirche, are relatively young by European standards. The Great Fire of 1842 destroyed a third of Hamburg, but it quickly rose from the ashes, rebuilt itself and reclaimed its title as one of Europe's top ports.

Deichstrasse, with its impressively restored row of 17th and 18th century buildings, is one of the few surviving streets in the Old City where you can see Hamburg as it was in pre-industrial times. A stroll along the impressive facades, which reach right to the water’s edge, is a reminder of just how tightly shipping and trade were once tied to the life of the city.

The wild mile and its opposite

The red-light district in Hamburg is legendaryImage: DW

A reporter once asked John Lennon what it was like growing up in Liverpool, and he replied, "I didn't grow up in Liverpool, I grew up in Hamburg." And of course, the city’s greatest international recognition comes as a result of its being the place where the Beatles’ career took off.

The "fab four" played in clubs on the notorious Reeperbahn, a lively, half-kilometer long strip of bars and sex shops in the St. Pauli district that has since become Hamburg’s top attraction. One of Europe’s largest red-light districts, the Reeperbahn innocently got its name from the rope makers (rope is "reep" in the local low-German dialect) who used to live in the area and pull their long cords of rope down the street.

Today the street seethes with life. Ladies of the night (and day) rub shoulders with tourists and locals; sex clubs vie for space with a new influx of upscale restaurants, cafes and nightspots.

Hamburg’s Kunstmeile (Art Mile), seen as a kind of anti-Reeperbahn, is a neat string of galleries and museums in the Old Town. The Hamburger Kunsthalle displays unique 20th century minimalist works that escaped the Nazis' plundering in 1937. There is also the modern art Galerie der Gegenwart, housed in a gleaming white cubic building.

Something fishy

Aussenalster in Hamburg zugefroren
Sunday strollers brave the ice on Lake AlsterImage: AP

After partaking in the city’s culture both low and high, dipping into its food culture is next on the list. A visit to the Fischmarkt is a must, at least for those who can wake up -- or are still up -- at the crack of dawn. At the market, which has taken place for over 300 years, visitors can buy everything from smoked eel (a local snack) to flowers, fruit and just about everything else you'd expect to find in a market.

To wash down the smoked eel, grab be sure to grab an Alsterwasser, a local brew of beer and lemon soda, at the Strandperle located at am Schulberg.

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Tips in Hamburg

The Harbor Area: At least five private companies offer boat tours of Hamburg's Elbe River and its impressive port area. Most tours commence from the Landungsbrücke on bei den St. Pauli Strasse.

The Sunday Fish Market: Hamburg's traditional flea market opens its doors with shopping, music and entertainment every Sunday morning from 5 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Tip: For many, the Fischmarkt is the last stop after a night of revelry in one of Germany's most party-loving towns. The Fischmarkt is located on the Grosse Elbestrasse.

Alster: A literal urban oasis, the Alster is a large lake, divided into two parts, in the heart of Hamburg's spectacular downtown. Locals sail its waters and enjoy the beer gardens that line it. Hamburg's traditional drink, Alsterwasser (a mix of beer and lemon-lime soft drink), flows freely here. On the city side, the lake is lined with some of Hamburg's most important properties, including the headquarters of shipping giant Hapag-Lloyd and the swanky Four Season's hotel.

Spiecherstadt: The Speicherstadt is the world's oldest brick warehouse complex and the former center of trade in this port city. Today, it is filled with museums, art galleries and dozens of Persian rug shops. There's also a Spice Museum that pays homage to the Speicherstadt's former importance as a way station for herbs and spices sold in Europe. It is found in the St. Pauli district at Landungsbrücke 3A.