Hamburg: The Venice of the North

Hamburg is the second largest city in Germany with a population of about 1.8 million people. It is located in the far North between the North and the Baltic Seas and between Continental Europe and Scandinavia. Its location on the Elbe River where the Alster and Bille Rivers meet and between the city’s two lakes, the Binnenalster and the Aussenalster, has left the landscape filled with canals and over 2,300 bridges, more than either Amsterdam or Venice, giving it its nickname the Venice of the North. Like these other two cities, Hamburg has earned its wealth and historical importance from its location on a harbor making it one of the most important shipping cities in Europe. Even today, Hamburg has the most important port in Germany and one of the most important in Europe. Not far from the border of Denmark or nearby Hannover, Bremen and Lübeck, Hamburg can be easily reached by plane through the Hamburg Airport, the oldest airport in Germany, or also by train or by car on the famous German Autobahn. Once in the city it easy to get around on its extensive underground and light rail systems, on its 24 hour bus lines and even on the local ferries.

The origin of Hamburg has been traced back to Charlemagne and a castle he built there between the two rivers in 808 AD. By 834 Hamburg’s importance was attested to when it was appointed its first bishop, Ansgar, the so called Apostle of the North. It was later, however, in 1189, when Frederick Barbarossa granted Hamburg the title of, “Imperial Free City,” making it a tax free shipping port, that the city truly became influential. In 1241 Hamburg signed a trade alliance with nearby Lübeck and joined the Hanseatic League made up of other merchant cities in Europe, thus changing its name officially to the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg. By 1529 the city found itself under the protection of nearby Denmark, but even then it maintained its independent status within the Holy Roman Empire. During the 19th century Hamburg’s port grew to be the third largest in Europe and from there ships left regularly to the Americas, Africa, India and East Asia. Hamburg was dubbed the, “Gateway to the World,” as over 5 million emigrants from Northern and Eastern Europe departed from its port between 1850 and 1934. With the emergence of the Iron Curtain after World War II, trade with Eastern Europe from Hamburg was closed, leaving the city’s economy weakened. However, since reunification with Eastern Germany in 1990, Hamburg’s shipping industry is once again strong, and in addition it is third in the world in the aerospace industry, and its economy is bolstered by publishing, and steel, aluminum and copper plants. Hamburg is considered the second wealthiest city in Europe after London. Even today the city of Hamburg is officially called the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg and it still enjoys the status of a free city state within the German Federation, with its own Senate and Parliament. These are all due to its political importance that has grown from the essential role it has played in shipping throughout its history.

Unfortunately, much of historic Hamburg has been destroyed, due both to the Great Fire of 1842 and bombings during the Second World War, so the older buildings that have survived are treasured. What you do find now in Hamburg, however, is a beautiful modern city that has been well planned with many parks and recreational areas. It is a cosmopolitan city with a friendly liberal view of the world, and one can see it is still politically important with over 90 consulates located here. Hamburg is known for its love of music, as the birthplace of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), its universities, and museums. It is easy to enjoy this unpretentious city.

Main Attractions

Altstadt, or the Old Town

This is the oldest area of Hamburg that was settled before 1188 when the Neustadt, or New Town, was begun by Count Adolf III of Schanenburg. Here one finds the Rathaus, Hamburg’s Town Hall, which was built in 1897 in an eclectic style just south of the city’s Binnenalster Lake. It is the seat of Hamburg’s Senate and Parliament and through the back is connected the Hamburg Börse, or Hamburg’s Stock Exchange, built in 1841 in the late classical style, which also houses the Chamber of Commerce. The Rathaus can be visited on guided tours and often hosts temporary exhibits open to the public. Outside one finds the Rathausmarkt, the Town Hall Square, where festivals and events are often held. In the center of the square is the Hygieia Fountain, which was dedicated in 1892 after a cholera outbreak took the lives of over 8,000 people in Hamburg. The fountain is made of three bowls with the center bronze figure of the goddess Hygieia, symbolizing the hope of new health in the city.

The Churches

There were four major medieval churches within the original city limits. St. Petri (1195), St. Nikolai (1195), St. Katharine (1255) and St. Jacobi (1255). Each is important historically, but all have undergone major renovations. St. Jacobi still has its beautiful Lukas altar by H. Bornemann (1500) and an organ made by Arp Schnitger (1693). Its ceiling paintings of the civil virtues were done by J.M. Riesenberger, while in the nave is a wonderful panorama of Hamburg as it was in 1681. In addition there are some nice wall tapestries of landscapes worth seeing. The most important church in Hamburg, however, is St. Michaelis’ Church (1647) which is considered the most prominent landmark in Hamburg. As Hamburg’s largest church, it seats over 2,500 people, and it is often used for concerts. Built in the Baroque style, it too has undergone numerous renovations although the interior has maintained its original Baroque style. From its copper covered roof one stands 132 meters high and has a great view of the city. At the entrance is the bronze statue of St. Michael, cross in hand as he steps on the devil.

Wallenlagen, Town Ramparts Park

In 1804 the city of Hamburg knocked down the old city walls and ramparts to demonstrate neutrality to warring Austria, France and England, hoping to deter invasion. Napoleon invaded despite this. This space was then made into a 300 x 4,000 meter public park by I.H.A. Altmann, a Bremian gardener. The park was renovated in 1973 for the International Horticultural Festival. Within the park is the Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte, The Hamburg History Museum. It was begun by Fritz Schumacher in 1914 and covers the history of the port, seafaring, trade and commerce. It also looks at constitutional, cultural, and social history of the area from 800 BC to the present.


Built in 1869, this is Germany’s largest art museum. Within are altars by Master Bertram and Master Francke, taken from local churches. There are also 17th century Dutch paintings, and Impressionist, German Romanticist, Classical Modern and Contemporary pieces. Throughout the year the museum host many traveling exhibits and has a special show of local Hamburg artist Philipp Otto Runge.

Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe

Opened in 1865, this museum focuses on arts and crafts, including both interior and exterior design and photography. While much of the displays include local accomplishments, the museum exhibit also includes European, Islamic and far Eastern cultures, from antiquity to the present. 


Literally translated as the, “Dike Gate Halls,” built in 1911 this structure housed the fruit and vegetable market until 1962, and then the flower market until 1984 when it was set for demolition. It was saved Kurt A. Körber who restored the building and made it into an art museum. The museum exhibits a great collection of contemporary photography, design, architecture and contemporary art. It has over 6,000 square meters of exhibition space and is one of the largest in Europe.

Richmer Rickmers Museum Ship

This fully rigged ship with a steel hull was built in 1896 and is one of the last tall ship freighters in the world. In 1916 it was impounded in Portugal and given to the British where it was rechristened the Flores and used throughout World War I to transport war materials. At the end of the war it was returned to Portugal where it was used as a training vessel until it was bought by the city of Hamburg in 1983 to be used as a museum ship with a permanent exhibit onboard looking at the toil of shipping and shipping history during the sailing ship era.


Built in 1922 by Hamburg businessman Henry Brarens Sloman who made his money in trade with Chile, the building was supposed to symbolize the economic recovery after World War I. Shaped like a passenger ship, it has become the second most distinctive landmark in Hamburg. Of interest is the effect of the light hitting the brick and stone of the structure. In 1983 it was declared an architectural monument by UNESCO.


Built in 1675, this is one of the oldest standing buildings in Hamburg. It was once the chambers for the Chandler’s Guild, used to house old guild members and widows until 1863. Located on the Port Promenade, it now houses shops, a gallery and a restaurant.

Bismarck Monument

This monument to the, “Iron Chancellor,” Otto Von Bismarck (1815-1898), was built in 1906. It stands 34.4 meters tall and looks west to the North Sea. The chancellor is dressed in medieval armor with a sword and was made using 100 blocks of granite. It was designed by E. Schaudt and sculpted by H. Lederer.



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