We were at our best when we were playing in the dance halls of Liverpool and Hamburg. The world never saw that.
-Pete Best, original drummer for The Beatles from 1960-1962
Canada's The Globe and Mail boldly proclaims that "you haven’t experienced Germany until you have been to Hamburg," a statement that I can get behind. Hamburg is Germany's second largest city with a population of 1.7+ million people, and its history goes beyond its role in the Holy Roman Empire. This port city on the Elbe River is less touristy and more compact than Berlin, but you'll find just as much colorful street art and local culture here as you would in the capital city. Hamburg was badly damaged in World War II and air raids killed 42,000 civilians, but the city has since rebuilt and recovered. The area is growing rapidly and its cozy gentrified and working class neighborhoods are lively with residents. What I liked most about Hamburg was the variety of quality and classes of architecture, a lot of which was done in brick (something I hadn't seen much of in Germany). Here are some sights not to miss in Hamburg, and in my next post I'll talk about Hamburg's more notable architecture.
There is lots to do and see around Hamburg, and fortunately it's easy to navigate the city with the metro. (Pst, get a virtual tour of the fabulous circa 1901 Baroque Deutsches SchauSpielHaus theater interior at schauspielhaus.de.)
Rathaus & Alsterakaden shopping arcade
Hamburg’s city hall (rathaus) opened in 1897 to replace the former city hall that succumbed to a fire. This large city hall was built to show off the great wealth Hamburg had at the time as well as the city’s independence as a state. The lobby is open to the public (and dog-friendly) with has stunning stone vaulted ceilings.
Old Elbe Tunnel
This has to be one of Hamburg's best-kept secrets and definitely worth a visit. The 1911 Elbe Tunnel is a functioning pedestrian, cyclist, and vehicle tunnel 426 meters below the Elbe river and is the first river tunnel on the continent. It opened as a "technical sensation" over a hundred years ago and today serves as a beautiful piece of urban history. The Elbe Tunnel has been a protected monument since 2003 and received accolades as a "Historic Landmark of Civil Engineering in Germany" in 2011. On the outside, the almost plain tunnel entrance blends into the background of bustling cars, trains, buses, and people. Inside, though, the cavernous space and large whirring elevators are mesmerizing to watch. One you reach the bottom (either by the elevator or fear-of-heights-inducing stairs), one encounters a quiet, softly-lit, and white-tiled tunnel that stretches for a long distance. Cars and cyclists take turns using the extremely narrow roadway while pedestrians stay on the elevated sidewalks. The space is truly gorgeous, which is probably why the tunnel is available for rent for private functions. *sigh*
With more than one million tourists a year, Miniatur Wunderland is a sight to behold. Located within a former brick warehouse in the UNESCO warehouse district is, quite literally, a world to explore. A miniaturized, richly-detailed, and wonderful world, where adults and children act as voyeurs bending over to peer into buildings and town squares to people-watch. Taking over half a million work hours to create, Miniatur Wunderland has miniaturized Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Scandinavia, and the U.S. Up next are Italy, France, and Great Britain. Scenes range from airports to concerts to natural landscapes, and you can push buttons for activity. The space was really crowded and people tended to stand in front of the scenes for a long time (I wasn’t expecting this on a random week day in January), but seeing Miniatur Wunderland is worth the crowd.
I visited this gentrified part of town mostly out of curiosity to see the Rote Flora, a 1888 theater-turned-squatted-site. Interestingly enough, the building wasn't bombed-out during WWII, surviving that period unscathed, but was partially demolished in 1989 until locals stopped the process by officially squatting it. The Rote Flora has been squatted ever since then, and it's now a community, cultural, and political center; the backside features a skate park. As for the rest of the neighborhood, it was bustling with young families biking home, trendy local shops, and brightly painted (or graffiti'd) buildings. (To read more about the building's interesting and even violent past, visit this link.)