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Hamburg, Germany – City of Water

Diana Strinauti-Baur (Diana)

Tired of having the entire Bundesrepublik Deutschland painted with a lederhosen, beer and cuckoo clock brush, Diana and Shannon have joined forces to write their impressions of the fascinating northern German cities of Berlin and Hamburg. The two cities differ from each other, and together they differ completely from central and southern German culture, providing an opportunity for a completely different experience in Slow Travel.

With a distance of approximately 160 miles or 250 kilometers between them, both cities can certainly be experienced as part of one trip.

Fourteen years ago, when my husband’s company told us that he would be promoted to take over the German division of his American company, I suppose I imagined that it would be all lederhosen and beer for me. Visions of Oktoberfest danced in my head. I thought of white houses with dark wooden Alpine balconies housing beautiful red geraniums, while the ghost of Heidi could be heard singing from the snowcapped mountains beyond the clear blue lake.

And then I found out we were going to Hamburg. It was upon arriving in the Freie-und-Hansestadt-Hamburg that I realized that every pre-conception I had of Germany would be quickly and easily blown away, much like the maritime winds blow the sands across the North Sea beaches.

In Hamburg, you are more likely to find herring, sole, or sushi and sashimi on the menu than sausage. The Hamburgers, as the residents are called, pride themselves in being individualists and don’t identify with southern Germany in the least. It is truly like a different country!

The weather is cool and grey and influenced by the two seas, which border on both sides of Northern Germany: the North Sea and the Baltic. It is a city of water. It is flat; a good part of the surrounding land is below sea level and is as dependent on dykes as Holland is. Hamburg is one of the greenest cities in Europe. All that rain helps!!

Hamburg, known as the Free Harbor City of Hamburg, has many faces and many facets, as most port cities do. The Free Harbor Status is of significant importance. Ships come into Hamburg from all over the world and unload there, without customs being paid (hence, the “free” part of the deal). Other ships come, load the goods, and transport them to destinations in other parts of the world. This saves shipping costs for companies, and provides Hamburg with a special status. There is an entire section of this harbor dedicated to these tariff-free goods – it is called the Speicherstadt, or the Storage City. Architecturally interesting, it is patrolled by the Zoll (Customs) officials of Hamburg and your car might be searched either coming in or going out of this area of the harbor.


Speicherstadt - © Achim Conring

The designation of Hanseatic City is of special historic significance. There were historically 70 cities and 130 small towns in Germany with this title. It referred to the fact that people in these towns – towns that bordered on waterways – were international trades people, a breed unto themselves. In later history, five cities of the north became known as the “Deutsche Hansestädte”. These are Bremen, Hamburg, Lübek, Rostock and Wismar. The first letters of all license plates on cars in Germany reflect the town or city the car is registered in: F for Frankfurt, B for Berlin, etc. For the five Hanseatic Cities, an H is placed before the city initial: HH for Hamburg, HB for Bremen, HL for Lübek, HRO for Rostock, and HWI for Wismar. Hamburg is the largest and most populated of the Hanseatic Cities, and it is located on the Elbe River, at one of its widest points before the river ascends into the North Sea.

The harbor itself is like many other harbors, only much larger, and it defines the city’s identity in a most fundamental way. Business people here are known for their hanseatische Art – their “Port of the world style”, a culture where the handshake is more meaningful than a signed contract, where money, often in astronomical sums, switches hands with polite modesty and lowered eyes.

The city’s waterfront landscape has been completely changed in recent years by the construction of HafenCity. Over the next 20 years, this 383-acre project will be transformed into an exciting metropolitan area. HafenCity features a colorful mix of cultural and leisure facilities, retail and hospitality outlets, inner-city living quarters, service-sector office space as well as public parks, squares, and waterfront promenades.

Hamburg is the second largest and number one most affluent city in Germany. Money exudes in the most subtle of ways. Rich Hamburgers do not flaunt their wealth; they invest it quietly.

Another trivia point, which most people don’t know: tea culture, which is often associated with England, is far more developed in the north of Germany. Most of the tea in the western hemisphere comes to and is distributed through the Port of Hamburg. On a trip to Rome, I bought some tea at a shop on Camp dei Fiori, and asked where they get their lovely selection. The answer: Amburgo. Hamburg. Of course. Because of this, there are a large number of teahouses and tea shops throughout the city as well as throughout northern Germany. One of my personal favorites is the tea shop Samova, located in the Stilwerk Design Center, in the Fish Market area of the city. A few hipsters got together and developed a superior line of international teas not to be beaten.

The architecture of Hamburg is by far the most interesting in Germany. The reason for this is partly sinister. Knowing that they would occupy Hamburg at the end of World War Two, the British refrained from bombing the most beautiful mansions, located on the lake, which runs straight down the middle of the city. The result is that the city was spared from the types of bombings which destroyed places like Mainz and Dresden. The Jugendstil Villas, or the Art Nouveau mansions, circle the furthest end of the Aussenalster, or Outer Alster, one of two manmade lakes created by the Alster River running into the Elbe. The mansions are reminiscent of sugar icing, created from calcium stone and marble, and are an integral part of the history of this beautiful city.

Additionally, Hamburg has some of the most forward thinking modern architecture in the country. Influenced by the maritime culture, structures of steel, zink and glass dominate the waterfront, side by side with the traditional klinker (brick) buildings of the previous century. The result is a mix of styles which makes Hamburg one of the most interesting architectural cities in Europe.

Another interesting fact about Hamburg: there are more bridges than Venice and Amsterdam combined – over 2,500 in total. The waterways in and around Hamburg, serviced by a fleet of ferries which transport people from April to November, are graced with willows and beautiful fauna from all sides. Between the Villas and the waterways, the city has a sense of elegance and style which is not to be duplicated anywhere in Germany.

Hamburg Canal

Hamburg Canal - © Achim Conring

The Innenstadt

The Binnenalster, or the Inner Alster, is the small lake which is surrounded by the Innenstadt, or the heart of the city. Designer shops rule here, as do gourmet food temples. The Inner Alster and Outer Alster lakes are separated by a single bridge, the Kennedy Bridge. From the Bridge one can view the Atlantic Hotel, the Four Seasons, and the entire heart of the city.

Hamburg Innenstadt

Hamburg Innenstadt - © Achim Conring

Hotel Recommendations near the Innenstadt:

  • The Side Hotel, Drehbahn 49. Modern, sleek, and well located near the Binnenalster and the shopping arcades of the Innenstadt.
  • The Hotel Alsterblick, which is located on the Aussenalster near the Innenstadt, is a perfect place from which to enjoy the city of Hamburg - far enough removed from the city’s hustle-bustle. Its directly-off-the-lake location makes it a perfect place for people who would like to take advantage of the 7.5 km. walkway around the lake.


My favorite not-so-expensive restaurant in the Hamburg Innenstadt is Marinehof, Admiralitätstrasse 77. It serves up multi-cultural, extremely fresh and always interesting combinations of food in a simple, cool, and natural atmosphere.

The Elbe River

There is another very beautiful part of the city. It is on the Elbe River. The Elbe is the river which houses the Hamburg Harbor. It is from here that ships sail into and return from the North Sea. The homes along the Elbe are by far the most sought after and precious in the city — the outlying area of Blankenese houses the Treppenviertel, or Step Quarter, a neighborhood of historic homes connected only by twenty thousand stone steps which all lead to the river’s edge. One can walk from the city to Blankenese – about 6 miles, directly along the river’s edge, on a meticulously maintained promenade.

Walking Along the Elbe

Walking Along the Elbe

Hotel recommendations on or near the Elbe

  • Strandhotel Blankenese. Perfectly located directly on the bank of the Elbe River, the Strandhotel is both stately and quiet. Affords the visitor the opportunity for daily walks along the river’s promenade and is directly connected to the Blankenese Treppenviertel.
  • Landhaus Flottbeck. Located in a residential area of Gross Flottbeck, in the western part of the city between Otmarschen and Blankenese, Landhaus Flottbek offers both rooms and apartments in country style. Wonderful restaurant, as well.

Food recommendations on or near the Elbe

  • Röperhof, Othmarshen, Agatha-Lasch-Weg- One of the most romantic restaurants in Hamburg, in my estimation. Lovely, old “Fachwerk” house with a changing, fresh twist on traditional German specialties.
  • Restaurant Engel. On the waterfront, Teufelsbruck, Groß Flottbek. This lovely restaurant is built on a dock on the Elbe River. The food is international in flair and it is the perfect place to meet friends for an evening on the waterfront.

The Scene

Hamburg does have a "scene", as well. One of the largest red light districts in Europe, known as the Reeperbahn, is the pulsating heart of the city. It is here that the Beatles got their start. Along with the typical things one might find in such an area, the Reeperbahn also houses theaters and night life galore. A visit to the Reeperbahn is a must for every visitor. But women beware, we are not allowed on the one street where the ladies of the night rule! They will throw a beer at you if you try to walk down the Herbertstrasse.

This neighborhood, also known as St. Pauli (St. Pauli Girl Beer? Guess what SHE does for a living??), is home to FC St. Pauli, one of the most desperate and loved football teams in Germany. It constantly falls in the relegation, but the fans are the most loyal in the country. The other team, HSV – Hamburg Sport Verein, is more popular among the gentrified population of the city.

In addition, the city has incredible neighborhoods for food, design, lifestyle and culture. It is one of the best food towns in Europe, and I am not talking bratwurst here. Hamburg is, by far, the most international city in Germany, and is considered by most Germans to be the door to the world. It is a traditionally liberal-thinking city, where tolerance and open-mindedness are prerequisites to intelligent living.

Public transport is excellent in Hamburg. There is an extensive subway and regional rail line which connects the far–flung corners of the city. Some interesting neighborhoods to explore:

  • Eppendorf. a beautiful neighborhood of stately apartment houses, an area ripe with goldschmiede (goldsmiths) and antique shops, great cafes and wonderful restaurants. The longest outdoor market in Europe is here - under the railway line – over a kilometer-and-a-half long. Takes place on Tuesdays and Fridays. Check out Petit Café, Hegestrasse 29 for the some of the best “blechkuchen” you have ever tasted. Subway lines U3 or U1 to Kellinghusenstrasse.
  • St.Georg/Lange Reihe. hip, colorful, multinational neighborhood near the Hauptbahnhof (central train station). Here you can find great deals, good Turkish and Indian food, and some new gentrified cafes, as well. Check out the Turnhalle, an old athletic facility turned cool bistro. Lange Reihe 107. Subway lines to Hauptbahnhof.
  • Winterhude/Harvestehude. The neighborhoods of the well healed. Beautiful architecture, wonderful neighborhood shopping, fantastic café’s and restaurants. What can I say, these neighborhoods are pristine and deserve a walk through.
    • Food: if you are wandering around Winterhude and still can’t get your mind off of Italy, stop in and visit Sonja at Mangia e Bevi on Poelchaukamp 15. This is a spot for locals and Hamburg celebrities, as well – standing room only, side by side, eating real, yes real, Italian food.
  • Altona/Ottensen. again, colorful and hip, with a large Turkish population, these two adjacent neighborhoods offer more than their share of street culture and activities. Mercado is the shopping center which borders on both neighborhoods, and has a large international food court and market in the basement. S1 or S3 to Altona Bahnhof
  • Schanzenviertel. this once-seedy neighborhood has become sort of a cult area in Hamburg, with great sushi bars, ethnic shopping and nightlife. My favorite steh-café – or standing café - is here. It is called BOK, and serves up freshly sautéed Asian food. Take the U3 to Sternschanze.
  • The Fish Market. Directly on the water, the Fish Market takes place starting at 5.00 every Sunday morning. It is located close to the Reeperbahn, so many people just party through the night and go to the fish market at dawn. Fresh fish is auctioned off in a wild frenzy. By 9 in the morning, it is all over.
  • Blankenese. The part of the city furthest out on the Elbe River, but still considered to be in the city. A trip out on the S1 or S11 railway line will bring you to the Blankenese Bahnhof. From here you can walk directly down to the water on the Bahnhofstrasse, passing a variety of shops, café’s and coffee shops. For coffee fanatics, stop at Carroux, the coffee roaster extraordinaire in Germany. Here, in the rosterei, you can sample some of the best coffee in the country. Walking the winding paths down to the waterfront and the beach areas, you can eat traditional Northern German cuisine at a variety of restaurants. From the Bahnhof, you can also walk down the Blankenese Landstrasse to Lühmans Teestube for what is probably the best cake in the Universe. Raspberry cake, blackberry cake, apple-blackberry cake, cheesecake, scones with clotted cream, it is an unforgettable afternoon delight.

Related sections

Sarah Walker Photo Essays: Photo essays on Munich, Berlin, rural Germany, Bavaria, Austria, Vancouver, New York City.


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Diana is an American, married to a German, and lived 10 years in Hamburg before buying and renovating an old farm in Piemonte into a bed and breakfast. Visit them at (Notes from the author: I would like to thank Achim Conring, Hamburg photographer for his help with this article. He has graciously provided all the beautiful photography which I feel depicts the feeling of Hamburg so well. You can view more of Achim’s photos at and on flickr as well. Thanks, Achim!)

"Walking along the Elbe" was photographed by my friend and Hamburg resident, Susan Parden.

© Diana Strinauti-Baur, 2008

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