Hamburg is Germany's second-largest city and its most important port. Like other great European “second cities” — such as Marseille, Glasgow and Barcelona — this northern port city has a special pride. Popular with Germans (but a rare stop for Americans), Hamburg has a real feel and edgy charm — and an honest grip on where it came from and where it's going.
Travelers looking for quaint, Old World Europe won't find it in Hamburg. The city's medieval center was virtually leveled by a huge fire in 1842, and World War II bombing decimated the rest. Today's city center is a soulless mixture of office buildings and brand-name chain shops.
Instead, Hamburg's allure is around the edges, showcasing reminders of Germany's industrial prosperity. A century ago, Hamburg's port was the world's third largest, and between 1850 and 1930, more than 5 million Germans emigrated to the U.S. from here.
These days, the city's fishy maritime atmosphere — with a constant breeze and the evocative cry of seagulls — gives Hamburg an almost Scandinavian feel that's worlds away from the sun-drenched, Baroque joviality of Bavaria.
One city-center sight that's worth visiting is the 647-room City Hall. After the previous City Hall burned down in the fire, the city constructed the current building to highlight the wealth and grandeur of turn-of-the-20th-century imperial Germany. It shows off Neo-Renaissance, Neo-Gothic and other then-popular historicist styles.
From City Hall, a short walk north leads to Binnenalster, the first (and smaller) of Hamburg's two delightful lakes. Lining the lake is the Jungfernstieg, the city's most elegant promenade boasting top-of-the-line shops. From spring through fall, canalboats take visitors on a sleepy tour around the lake.
Just above Binnenalster is the larger lake, Aussenalster. In the past, private gardens tumbled down from mansions lining the lake. But a 1953 law guaranteed public lake access for everyone, and walking and biking paths now parallel its shore, providing Hamburg — one of Germany's greenest cities — with a sprawling parkland.
Cradling the city to the south is another body of water: the Elbe River, site of the city's former docklands. With the advent of modern container ships that demanded more space than Hamburg's industrial zone could accommodate, most business shifted to a larger port nearby — and all this prime real estate (just half a mile from City Hall) suddenly became available. Now this area — like the former docklands areas in London, Barcelona and Oslo — is being gentrified. The result: HafenCity, Europe's biggest urban development project.
The centerpiece of HafenCity is the Elbphilharmonie Concert Hall, a towering and wildly beautiful piece of architecture that's slated to be finished in 2015. When it opens, it will serve as a concert hall, hotel, apartment complex and shopping mall.