Port of Hamburg
Hamburg, Germany's foremost port and one of its most handsome cities, might also be one of Europe's most underrated destinations. Many Americans -- and even Europeans -- have yet to discover its charms, not least of which is its beauty, thanks to its location on the banks of the Elbe River. Germany's second-largest city also has lovely buildings with traditional architecture, premier museums and a long history with the powerful Hanseatic League. It's a sophisticated destination that is walkable and bikeable.
Founded in 800 by Charlemagne, Hamburg initially took off as a trading center, given its proximity to the rest of Northern Europe and its location on the Elbe, which links the North Sea to inland Europe. While Hamburg was largely destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II, much of it was rebuilt in the traditional style, resulting in a powerful sense of continuity with the past. Few intrusive modern structures upset the skyline, so the churches and the beautiful Rathaus (City Hall) dominate the cityscape. The notable exception is HafenCity, a separate district of newer housing, offices and cultural centers.
Today, Hamburg is a thriving north German city of just fewer than 2 million people with the surrounding districts doubling the population. The city thrives on its port, shipyards and international trade, and it's also a media and civil aerospace center. Not surprisingly, water is a key element in Hamburg life. The Elbe passes through the city, splitting into waterways that meander, canal-like, between handsome, brick, Victorian-era former warehouses that now serve as offices, residences and museums. Hamburg's lakes -- the Binnenalster (Inner Alster) and much larger Aussenalster (Outer Alster) -- form centerpieces for the city center and its transition to the close-in residential suburbs. Parallel canals and narrow streets link the Alster and the Elbe's wide expanses. For the tourist, it's a delight to follow them.
The city has oodles of individual sights relating to its maritime heritage: excellent museums, historic ships, architectural landmarks and a church tower viewpoint. Visitors can take simple pleasure in walking the grand Elbe River promenade, the canal paths in the Speicherstadt (Warehouse District) and the lakeside footpaths. Day cruises are a popular pastime, with numerous boat operators departing from the Landungsbrucken pier to cruise the Elbe River and from Jungfernsteig for Alster trips.
Hamburg's visitors are mostly Germans and other Europeans, and most of the cruise calls are by ships carrying German-speaking passengers. However, some lines catering to North Americans are finding their way there. Cunard's Queen Mary 2 is the city's favorite caller, and 1 million people routinely turn out along the banks of the Elbe to see the ship arrive from the North Sea. Celebrity Cruises, Silversea, Costa Cruises, MSC Cruises, Hurtigrutren and Ponant Cruises also visit Hamburg.
Find a Cruise to the Baltic Sea
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Hamburg has three principal cruise ship terminals. The upriver berth is at HafenCity, a rapidly developing residential, corporate, cultural and entertainment district cleared of former industrial buildings and commercial docks. It is located to the south of the city center, behind the rebuilt Victorian brick warehouse buildings destroyed during World War II, which now house museums, restaurants and offices.
From here, you're about a 20-minute walk from restaurants, shopping and bars. You can also head downtown via city bus or the underground. From HafenCity, you'll be about 15 minutes by foot from attractions such as the Hamburg International Maritime Museum and the Miniatur Wunderland model railway.
The Hamburg Cruise Center's Altona terminal opened in 2011. It's located a half-mile downriver from the Landungsbrucken (a long, floating pontoon landing), where the historic ships are berthed and where cruise ships used to dock. From the Elbe River berth at Altona, there are plenty of cafes and shops within easy walking distance along the Elbmeile. Though the city ranges upward, just behind, it's easiest to take a taxi or the city bus that passes along Grosse Elbstrasse, parallel to the River Elbe, to the downtown area. The nearest S-Bahn station is Reeperbahn, a 15-minute walk through a lively entertainment and arts district.
Steinwerder, which opened in June 2015, has two berths and can handle up to 8,000 passengers a day. It's positioned between the other two cruise terminals, south of the city. It can accommodate large cruise ships. Steinwerder has little nearby; you'll probably need to get in a vehicle to leave the port area. Buses make regular loops here, as do taxis.
Good to Know
Hamburg is a big city with a diverse population, so it is wise, as in similar urban circumstances, to watch your possessions. This is especially true when in crowded locations, such as major shopping streets, indoor gallery passages, ATM queues, the bus, transportation stations, and the subway and elevated lines. Just ignore touts, and simply walk away.
Be aware when pedestrians have the right of way at designated crosswalks and when cars and buses have priority. Hamburg has numerous bike lanes, which aren't always clearly marked. (Look for a color difference on sidewalks; bike lanes might be red or feature bricks of a different color than walking lanes.) Bikes don't always slow for pedestrians, so keep alert, especially at intersections. Jaywalking is dangerous, as is crossing against lights.
Public transit: The Hamburg Card is a good bet, even for a one-day visit, as it includes unlimited use of the city's transit system (HVV) of subways, elevated lines, buses and ferries. It also offers discounts from 10 percent to 50 percent on many of the city attractions, 10 percent for select shops and 20 percent for select restaurants. A list of attractions and discounts comes with the card, which can be purchased at the pier, Hamburg information centers, transit stations, on the buses, at the main railway station, the airport or online ahead of your journey. You can purchase a one-day card for yourself or get a better deal if you have up to five people traveling together. Often, no one asks to see the card as an honor system prevails, but don't try to slip aboard without paying the fare; if you're caught, the fines will set you back big time. It won't work to plead ignorance as an ill-informed tourist.
The transit system is comprehensive, well-run and safe. Some elevated lines afford good views of the city, the Elbe River and Alster. Make sure you get a system map, and check the direction you want to go with the strip charts on the station platform. Most rail and bus stops have illuminated signs that indicate how many minutes until the next train or bus arrives. Some ferry routes operate regular transit services along the Elbe.
Taxis: Taxis are plentiful at the ports and at the main railway station when ships are in town, and most drivers speak English. Taxis can be harder to come by when it rains, as they're in high demand then.
Rideshare: Ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft are not available in Hamburg.
Hop-on, hop-off: There are several companies offering city tours and hop-on, hop-off buses that offer commentary in English and German. Day passes are available. With the latter, the duration for the entire route is 90 minutes, and buses operate daily every 30 minutes from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. The main departure point for Top-Tour Hamburg's hop-on, hop-off is Hauptbahnhof (main railway station).
By bike: And, finally, if you want to work off your cruise ship "diet," check out the city's bike scheme (www.stadtrad.hamburg.de); stations are located all over town, and bikes for hire are reasonably priced. A heads-up, though: Your best bet is to register before you get there and take a look at locales for pick-up and drop-off before you arrive. If you'd rather have a guided cycling tour, companies like Hamburg City Cycles offer excellent tour options of varying lengths. Look for the English option when booking.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Germany, as part of the European Union, uses the euro. Bank-owned ATMs are located in the main shopping streets. You will need euros for small purchases like snacks and drinks, postcards, inexpensive souvenirs, W.C. (public bathroom) visits and entry fees; credit cards might not be accepted.
German is the city's most widely spoken language, and English is often understood well enough to have questions answered on the streets, in shops and in restaurants. A few useful words are danke (thank you); bitte (please); and morgan (good morning -- Germans generally drop the "guten" in front).
Food and Drink
The pontoon walkways and promenades on the Elbe River waterfront are Hamburg's main draws, and lunch spots facing the harbor are numerous. The majority of cafes and restaurants feature local seafood (Atlantic cod, plaice, mackerel, sole, whiting, crab, lobster and shrimp) from the nearby North Sea and typical German-style sausages like weisswurst (white veal or port sausages), bratwurst (smoked pork sausages) and knockwurst or knackwurst (pork and beef spiced with garlic), all served with sauerkraut. Just in from Langdungsbrucken is a lively district of Iberian (Portuguese and Spanish) restaurants with sidewalk dining in the warmer months. In general, Hamburg is a truly international city with most international cuisines represented.
For casual dining along the Elbe River waterfront, try Nordsee for fish and chips and prepared boxes of sushi. You can choose to sit at the counter or at tables outside. (Landungsbrucken, Brucke 1, open daily until late.)
For the most delicious French-German infusion in a bistro atmosphere, try Restaurant Cox (www.restaurant-cox.de, Greifswalder Strasse in the St. George neighborhood), which is open for lunch and dinner.
Messmer Momentum is a stylish tea lounge that serves a full English-style afternoon tea, including scones and clotted cream, crustless sandwiches, delectable pastries, jams and jellies. The tables have views out to the canal, and a tea museum and tea shop are attached. (Am Kaiserkai 10. U-Bahn Baumwall. Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily; seminars are offered from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. every Thursday.)
Fleetschlosschen, located in a historic building that was once a pilot station, is positioned opposite the maritime museum and offers Middle Eastern fare. Seating is both indoors and outdoors, and lunchtime specialties are wraps of Arab-style bread with salad, ham or tuna, and feta or mozzarella cheese with an herbal cream base. (Brooktorkai 17. Open daily for lunch and dinner.)
Churrascaria O Frango is one of a score of Portuguese-Spanish restaurants in a tight neighborhood along Ditmar Koel-Strasse and side streets just in from Landungsbrucken. The menu runs from tapas to paellas to grilled meats in wine sauces. Tables at this tucked-away, small corner restaurant are located inside and out on the sidewalk; sit outside in the summer for a more lively atmosphere. (Reimarustrasse 17. Open noon to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.)
Hamburg is a highly sophisticated city with many of the better-known stores and designers you'd find in other major European and American cities. The shopping galleries are attractive, so you might find yourself doing a lot of looking and little buying. The principal shopping street is Monckebergstrasse (the Mo), which runs from the main railway station (Hauptbahnhof) to the city hall market square (Rathausmarkt). Alsterarkaden, an Italianate arcade, parallels the Alsterfleet and offers smaller specialty shops and outdoor cafes and restaurants. Also parallel is Neuer Wall, the most upscale street for famous designers, such as Gucci, Ferragamo and Vuitton.
Leather purses, bags and fashion clothing are plentiful in Hamburg. Specialty items, such as handbags, are found near the railway station end of Monckebergstrasse (the main shopping street) at Nadelheim. Another shopping district surrounds Gansemarkt (go to the U-bahn station of the same name), where Tate offers fashionable clothing items and Bethge sells leather bags, briefcases and purses.
A Marklin set of model trains makes for a great gift or souvenir. The Marklin train store sells the world's best model railroad items -- passenger and freight cars, locomotives, stations, villages and accessories -- from its location adjacent to Nadelheim.
Hamburg, Germany's design capital, has the intriguing Stillwerk, a complex of shops and studios near Hamburg Cruise Center's Altona terminal. It features a wide array of sophisticated boutiques, from household names to emerging artists and designers.