“It was June and the world smelled of roses. The sunshine was like powdered gold over the grassy hillside.”
~Maud Hart Lovelace, Betsy-Tacy and Tib
A few months ago, our son Andrew emailed an article about Hamburg titled “The Cool City that German Tourists Keep for Themselves.” Ever since spending time in Germany’s second largest city, Andrew has expressed surprise by the lack of American tourists. “It’s hugely popular with Germans, but not a big destination for Americans, like Berlin or Munich. You will love Hamburg,” he kept assuring me, and I could tell it was a place he couldn’t wait to share.
We left Berlin mid-morning for the three-hour drive on the Autobahn, our cobalt blue Volkswagen Touran rental packed to the ceiling. It was another unseasonably warm June day, and our goal was to arrive in Hamburg in time for lunch at a favorite place of Andrew and Mark’s on Outer Alster Lake.
We would be staying in Hamburg for four nights, exploring the city as well as using it as a home base for two special day trips. I had booked several tours and came prepared with my usual 5×8 card wish list. Andrew and Mark handled logistics and picked the restaurants and would be our tour guides and translators.
Wednesday Afternoon, 2 p.m. – Alster Lakes
Herb and I dropped our bags at the hotel – Andrew, Mark and the rental car would later head to an Airbnb – and made our way to the Alster Lakes. At first glance, I felt as if I were back in Minneapolis. Tree-lined city lakes – Outer Alster and Inner Alster – were buzzing with runners, bicyclists and boaters taking advantage of a sunny summer afternoon. Our time in Hamburg had barely begun, but I immediately knew why Andrew thought I would love it here.
We parked the car and walked through a leafy residential neighborhood to a lakeside café called Coco riviera. The section with comfy lounge chairs was completely booked, but we managed to secure an umbrella-covered picnic table with a lakeside view. Mark ordered a traditional German currywurst for us to share, and we soaked in the moment as well as the sunshine.
Wednesday Afternoon, 5 p.m – Miniatur Wunderland
Months before leaving home, I had booked tickets for Hamburg’s most popular attraction, Miniatur Wunderland. Billed as having the world’s largest model train system as well as re-creations of cities and landscapes around the world, Miniatur Wunderland also claims to be “almost always packed.” I had assumed our entry time was designed to limit the number of people each hour, but I wasn’t prepared for how incredibly crowded and simply overwhelming the place was. I found myself jostling for a spot to watch model airplanes taking off down a runway, fire trucks racing to extinguish a blaze and cable cars making their way to the top of a mountain.
Miniatur Wunderland’s statistics are staggering: 1,166 digitally controlled trains with more than 10,000 wagons, 4,600 houses and bridges, more than 10,000 vehicles, 52 airplanes, 290,000 figures and almost 500,000 built-in LED lights. Exhibits flow from one room to another, without any set route or queue. At various times the rooms grow dark, with a host of bright lights transforming the scenes into nighttime versions of their daytime selves. It was fun to watch the youngest visitors take in the magic, but the truth is, Miniatur Wunderland is like a miniature Disneyland – as enjoyable for adults as it is for kids.
Thursday Morning, 10 a.m. – Hamburg Harbor Cruise
Although I had booked tickets in advance for one of Hamburg’s popular harbor cruises, we may have been able to have secured a spot that morning. The harbor was busy, to be sure, but there seemed to be a variety of boats and tours, with ticket stands set up along the waterfront.
Our tour boat was an open-air “barge” style, piloted by a German gentleman who also offered non-stop narration the entire hour. The English phone app version paled in comparison, and Herb and I eventually turned it off, content to enjoy the scenery and listen to Andrew, Mark and the other German-speaking passengers laugh at the narrator’s comedic commentary!
The tour took us through the Speicherstadt, considered the largest warehouse district in the world. Built between 1883 and 1927, the district features distinctive red brick buildings constructed in the Neo-Gothic style and is surrounded by multiple canals and bridges. The most recognizable and oldest building in the district is the Wasserschloss, a “moated castle” perched between two canals that was originally a workshop for dock workers.
The narrow canals of the Speicherstadt faded into the background as our boat headed into open waters and passed Hamburg’s newest landmark, the Elbphilharmonie. Nicknamed Elphi and opened in 2017, the modern glassy concert hall with a sail or wave-shaped top is built on an old brick warehouse in the HafenCity neighborhood. Elphi is the tallest inhabited building in Hamburg and features three concert venues. It’s a stunning sight, especially from the water.
The Hamburg Fishmarkt rounded out our morning of beautiful architecture before heading into the shipping area. After the tour, we stopped for lunch at Siebens at the Fishmarkt.
The Port of Hamburg is connected to the North Sea by the Elbe River. It’s the largest seaport in Germany and the third largest in Europe. The last stretch of our one-hour cruise – filled with cranes, containers and cargo ships – left no doubt that Hamburg is a major player in the shipping world.
After the harbor tour, we stopped by the Old Elbe Tunnel, an Art Deco landmark built in 1911 to provide a more direct route for dock workers traveling between the southern banks of the Elbe River and the piers. The tunnel is 1,397 feet long and lies 78 feet below the river. Officially known as the St. Pauli Elbtunnel, it is still used by pedestrians and bicyclists – as well as tourists – wishing to cross the river.
We didn’t have time to explore the tunnel, but rode the antique lift to the bottom for a quick look.
Thursday Afternoon, 2:30 p.m. – Airbus Factory Tour
It was Herb’s birthday, and he couldn’t have been more excited about spending it a place he’d long wanted to tour. I had booked online tickets to Hamburg’s Airbus Factory months earlier, a two-and-a-half-hour experience that would take us behind the scenes of how passenger jets are built.
The Airbus Factory is about half an hour from the St. Pauli waterfront part of the city. We traveled by ferry across the Elbe, joining commuters with bicycles and families heading to beaches that line the river. A friend of Andrew and Mark’s who lives nearby met us at a ferry stop close to the factory and drove us to the tour.
As expected, security was extremely tight. We were asked to check in with passports in hand twenty minutes before the tour. Sadly, photography was not allowed, and cell photos were required to be turned off during the tour. We were given ID badges and headsets to better hear our guide in our group of 25 visitors.
The Airbus campus is like a small city and employs 16,000 workers. Our guide told us that it is the third largest civil engineering plant in the world. We traveled by bus to reach the various buildings on the tour, starting with Building 51.
The tour was extremely engineering-oriented, certainly not something in my wheelhouse! I was overwhelmed by the deluge of technical information, and as it turned out, so was Herb. But in the process, we learned how a plane is built, a well-orchestrated assembly line process that takes months to complete. Remarkably, the front, center and rear sections are built separately and later assembled together. Some huge parts are even produced in other plants and flown to Hamburg in a special plane called a Beluga for final assembly.
Herb was fascinated to see where the fuel tanks were located – right below the passengers’ feet – and I was most comforted by the safety process. All planes with more than 16 seats must meet the same safety standards.
Friday Afternoon, 5 p.m. – Ti Breizh – Haus der Bretagne & Elbphilharmonie
We returned to Hamburg from a day trip in time to have dinner at a restaurant Andrew and Mark had been hoping we could experience. In addition to authentic French crêpes, the special attraction at the Ti Breizh – Haus der Bretagne is the outdoor seating on a pontoon that rises and falls with the tides on the Elbe. Outdoor reservations are taken only for large groups, but because we arrived early, we were able to secure a table – the last one available!
After dinner, Herb and I walked to the Elbphilharmonie to see the view from the observation deck. Admission is free, but you need to get a ticket from the on-site ticket office before entering. The escalator itself is worth the visit. Billed as the world’s first curved escalator, it surrounds riders with 8,000 sequins that give off a snowy-white glow as you float upwards. On the eight floor, banks of floor-to-ceiling, curvy-shaped windows lead to the observation deck. The view, of course, is the main attraction, offering images of Hamburg in all four directions. We were too early for sunset, but the Elbe River gave us a little preview.
Saturday Morning, 8 a.m. – Beatles-Platz
As we were heading out of Hamburg on our second day trip, Mark took a slight detour to a place he knew I had really been hoping to visit. In the early 1960s, the Beatles spent two years playing clubs in Hamburg. In 2008, life-size statues in silhouette form honored the Fab Four in the St. Pauli neighborhood where they had played. There are actually five silhouettes, including original bass player Stuart Sutcliffe, who was with the group in Hamburg. Beatles song titles are etched in a circle around the brick pavement, and nameplates of the Beatles and their instruments are affixed to the metal sculptures. It sounded like a party was going on at one of the nearby clubs, even at 8 a.m.
“Hamburg totally wrecked us. I remember getting home to England and my dad thought I was half-dead. I looked like a skeleton, I hadn’t noticed the change, I’d been having such a ball!”
A Final Thought
The article Andrew had sent me before we left home described Hamburg as “a dream for the visually hungry.” I love that phrase not only because – at least from my perspective – it is certainly true, but also because the city is such a mix of the interesting and the beautiful and the surprising. I couldn’t possibly post all the photos I took here without seriously overloading this website, but I will leave you with one more.
I fell in love with Hamburg, and in a way, I felt as if the city loved me back.