Hafengeburtstag port festival
Hamburg celebrates its maritime heritage with the “Hafengeburtstag” port festival every May.


Hamburg, The second largest city in Germany, is engaged in a multi-year project to reclaim its maritime heritage by shifting the center of its urban activities and new building development toward its waterfront harbor on the Elbe River. The focus of development is HafenCity Hamburg, located between the city’s warehouse district, one of the world’s largest, and the river. Scheduled to be completed by 2025, the HafenCity project includes apartments, businesses, and cultural, tourism and leisure attractions. It will expand Hamburg’s existing city center by an estimated 40 percent.

Since Hamburg’s post-World War II reconstruction period, the city’s focus was toward its geographic center surrounding the hour-glass shaped Alster Lake. The lake attracts residents and visitors to view the opulent villas erected by wealthy 19th-century trade merchants along its banks. The area is popular for the four-mile jogging and cycling track that follows a green park circling the water. Two landmark hotels, the Fairmont Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten (earlier a “Four Seasons”), and the Hotel Atlantic Kempinski opened on opposite sides of Alster Lake in 1897 and 1909. Today, the two hotels are the most popular addresses for Americans visiting Hamburg, including a small media group recently hosted by Hamburg Tourismus, the marketing arm for tourism to the city.

Celebrating Harbor History

Despite Alster Lake’s beauty and popularity, the Elbe waterfront represents Hamburg’s economic history. It has served for nine centuries as Germany’s trading gateway to the North Sea, located 70 miles west of Hamburg. The expansive harbor connects a network of canals extending like fingers through Hamburg’s revitalized warehouse district into the city. The port handles more maritime cargo than New York and has enabled Hamburg to become one of Germany’s wealthiest cities. 

Our media visit in May began at the city’s Harbor Festival Parade commemorating the 824th anniversary of Hamburg’s membership in the Hanseatic League of European free trade cities. Thousands of spectators, elaborate fireworks and hundreds of parading sailing ships make this annual holiday the Hamburg version of America’s July 4th. It celebrates the port as the lifeline for the city’s 1.8 million residents. 

“There are 100,000 more inhabitants in Hamburg than 10 years ago,” Hamburg harbor guide Thomas Menai told the press guests. “This is a growing city that has benefitted from the fall of the Iron Curtain.”

As explained by Menai and Hamburg Tourismus marketing representative Guido Neumann, there are many components of the ongoing, multi-year port redevelopment project. The city’s new Elbe Philharmonic Hall is a modern glass edifice rising on the waterfront and scheduled to open in 2017. It will include a Westin Hamburg hotel as well as luxury apartments in the concert hall complex.


Following the Beatles’ Tracks


Steffi Hempel
Steffi Hempel conducts Beatles tours of Hamburg

An enjoyable and enlightening evening can be spent “On the Tracks of the Beatles,” courtesy of Hempel’s Beatles-Tour, hosted by the engaging young singer-songwriter Steffi Hempel. She grew up as a fan of the Beatles from age nine while living in the German Democratic Republic of East Germany during the end of the Cold War. Hempel knows literally everything about the launch of the Beatles’ careers in Hamburg from 1960 through 1962, which predated their success in Liverpool.

Hempel sings Beatles tunes during her two-and-a-half-hour guided walking tour through Hamburg’s St. Pauli nightclub district while revealing dozens of little-known tidbits about the famous four. The tour visits bars, such as the Starck Club and Kaiserkeller, where the Beatles first became known, and then ventures into the courtyard of the existing apartment building where the group lived for a time.

It was in Hamburg that Ringo Starr met and joined the three other Beatles and a German friend named Astrid Kirchherr convinced the four to adopt the famous Beatles haircut. Despite a rainy evening that restricted some of her musical presentation, Hempel delivered a winning finale for the American group’s experience of Hamburg.


Cruise Numbers Surging

A third cruise terminal and new river embankment are under construction in Hamburg’s port. The number of cruise passengers has risen from 130,000 passenger calls in 2010 to the more than 400,000 expected this year. Cunard’s Queen Mary 2, which visited Hamburg port during the harbor festival, will call at Hamburg at least eight times in 2013-14, with Americans able to extend seven-day transatlantic cruises between New York and Southampton by two days with an embarkation or disembarkation in Hamburg. Other cruise lines scheduled to call in the months ahead, according to Hamburg Tourismus, are Azamara Club Cruises, Costa Cruises, Crystal Cruises, Seabourn, Celebrity and MSC Cruises. 

The city has improved its transportation accessibility and can be reached in 90 minutes by train from either Berlin to the east or Copenhagen to the north. A new subway connection from the airport to Hamburg’s central rail station opened in 2006 when Germany hosted the World Cup Soccer finals. The modern Terminal 1, opened in 2005 at Hamburg’s Airport, provides a smooth entry for Americans taking the daily nonstop flight on United Airlines flying from New York’s Newark Liberty International Airport. There is also a recently completed riverside walking and cycling path that extends almost 400 miles from Hamburg east to Prague in the Czech Republic.

Anna Ziegler, the Assistant Director of Sales at the Fairmont Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten, said 11 percent of the Hamburg property’s guest mix comprises of Americans, many of them cruise passengers from Seabourn, Crystal, Celebrity and the Cunard Queen Mary 2 who spend an overnight in the city before or after their northern European cruise itineraries. The Fairmont Vier Jahreszeiten is the only hotel partner of the Virtuoso travel agency consortium in Hamburg, Ziegler noted.

The Hamburg port has popular dining facilities including Block Brau, a new German beer and nautical-themed casual restaurant with a wide deck garden affording panoramic views of the river. Another unique Hamburg port favorite is the Fischauktionshalle (“Fish Auction Hall”) located inside the city’s 400-year-old fish market. Between 5 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. on Sundays, dozens of vendors line the piers outside the hall selling fresh fish, flowers, nuts and baked goods as they have for centuries. Inside the hall reservations are needed to get table seating where hundreds of fish market visitors enjoy a bountiful breakfast buffet while listening enthusiastically to German bands performing covers of classic American rock tunes.


Money-saving ‘Hamburg Card’


Hamburg Kunsthalle
The Hamburg Kunsthalle is the third-largest art museum in Germany.

Visitors with more than a few hours to spend seeing Hamburg’s attractions should consider buying the Hamburg Card offered by Hamburg Tourismus. Priced at €8 and 90 cents for one day, €20 and 90 cents for three days or €36 and 50 cents for five days, the card provides free transportation on all city buses, subways and trams, up to 40 percent off museum entries, and discounts on concerts, shows and souvenirs, with 150 attractions throughout the city honoring the card. They can be purchased at the central train station, the Hamburg tourist office at the harbor or at the airport, and in some hotels. Group discounts are available and travel agencies can contact Julia Grundmann, head of sales promotion at Hamburg Tourism, for more information on obtaining them for clients.

Population Grows Younger

According to the Hamburg Tourismus group tour guide Tomas Kaiser, Hamburg’s appeal in Germany is to a younger demographic of newly arriving city dwellers. “The population here is 50 percent younger than 10 years ago, and the young population keeps growing by 10 percent each year.” Kaiser said. “Munich is seen as more old fashioned. The young people of Germany love Berlin first, Hamburg second and Munich third.” Kaiser noted that Frankfurt, in comparison to Hamburg’s 1.8 million population, has only 700,000 residents. 

The guides revealed other surprising features about Hamburg during the press visit. There are 100 art galleries in Hamburg and “every residential street has trees... it is the greenest city in Europe with a population of more than one million people,” said Kaiser.

American Tourism Lags 

Remarkably, U.S. tourism is only a small part of the city’s business compared to Dutch, Scandinavian, British and German domestic visitors. The European visitors flock here for festivals and weekend getaways to enjoy the music and nightlife scene, both around the harbor and in the former red-light district of St. Pauli, now undergoing its own reformation into a music and dining district.


Lakefront Signature Suite
Lakefront Signature Suite at the Fairmont Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten.


According to Kaiser, there are about 150,000 overnights by Americans per year, with the average length of stay at 1.8 nights. That works out to roughly 80,000 visitor from the U.S. annually. This comprises only a small part of the 5.6 million total visitors to Hamburg during 2012, and contrasts sharply with the 700,000 Americans who visited Munich last year. 

The Hamburg hosts suggested a variety of reasons why more Americans should discover Germany’s most northerly big city. For starters, the 2,500-seat St. Michael’s Church serves as the city’s largest music venue for classical concerts. Its historic figures include Johannes Brahms, baptized here in 1833, George Telemann, and Christian Phillipp Emanuel Bach, son of Johann Sebastian Bach, who served as music directors here in the late 18th century.

Art, Beer and Food

The Hamburg Kunsthalle is the third-largest art museum in Germany. It includes intriguing, unfamiliar pieces by famed French painters including Eugene Delacroix Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Paul Cezanne, Gustav Courbet, and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Most interesting, given that the small American group was staying at the Atlantic Kempinski Hotel, were two paintings by Edouard Vuillard presenting views from the same Atlantic Hotel of the wharfs on Alster Lake in 1913, four years after the hotel’s opening. Another 1913 painting by Pierre Bonnard was a “View Out of the Atlantic Hotel on the Illuminated Parade on the Alster during Kaiser Day.” The painting revealed that famed Wilhelm II, the German Kaiser and King of Prussia until 1918, enjoyed celebrating his birthday with a boat parade starring himself on Hamburg’s lake. German and Dutch masters are strongly represented throughout the Kunsthalle.

It was surprising to learn that Germany lags behind the U.S. in the development of a micro-brewery industry, but such was the revelation of Axel Ohm, the Marketing Manager and Chief Executive Officer of the newly-opened Ratsherrn Brauerei, the first Hamburg gastro-pub with beer brewed on premises. After a tour of the brewery with craft beer store manager Max Marner, guests can enjoy the excellent German pub grub and home brew in the adjoining Altes Maedchen Restaurant, which has quickly become one of Hamburg’s most popular.

Another dining choice is the Egyptian-themed Nil Restaurant, named after the River Nile. The Nil was serving three-course fixed menus for €28 ($38) and four courses for €42 on the night of our visit, with specialties including the white fish plaice from Brittany, braised ox cheek and a pork pate.