In the famous city of Hamburg, Germany, the past is ever present. For a start, the city’s name pays homage to its deep medieval ties. Hamburg means ‘castle’ or ‘fort’, and is a reference to the city’s first permanent building, a castle which the Emperor Charlemagne built in 808 AD as a defence against Slavic invasion. Walk along the streets of Hamburg and history is around every corner. The city is home to the world’s second oldest bank, Berenberg Bank. Most of its architecture dates back hundreds of years including its warehouse district, the Speicherstadt, the largest of its kind in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As for me, I like to sit by the centuries-old River Elbe which cuts a swathe through Hamburg, with the knowledge that this is the same river that writer-mathematician-astronomer-geographer-astrologer, Claudius Ptolemy, wrote about in the 1 st century.
Where Music from the Past is Revived
History lovers should make Old Town or Altstadt their first stop. The historic heart of Hamburg and the city’s oldest district sits by the harbour and is a charming cluster of vintage buildings and grand cathedrals lining ancient streets with glistening canals snaking through. A walking tour is the best way to take in the sights.
Begin with St Michael’s Church which we locals call Michel. It is right next to my serviced residence, Citadines Michel Hamburg, which is named after it. The church is the city’s largest and most famous, and a landmark for ships sailing up the River Elbe. Few pass through the city without a picture of its 132-metre Baroque-style copper spire, as it is one of the tallest structures in the city and is visible from almost any point in the city centre.
The site of the church dates back to 1648, but the current building completed in 1912 is the third one built after a lightning strike destroyed the first and a fire ravaged the second. Guarding the main entrance is a copper rendition of Archangel Michael, the church’s namesake. Once inside the white vaulted chamber, you will be in awe of the pulpit at the centre which is crafted out of marble and designed to look like a chalice with the Angel of Annunciation at its roof. The 20-metre altar, also made of marble and portraying the highlights of Jesus’ life on earth, is equally impressive. Music lovers will appreciate the fact that Baroque composer and pianist, Johannes Brahms, one of the ‘Three Bs’ of classical music (the other two being Ludwig van Beethoven and Johann Sebastian Bach) was baptised and confirmed right here. The church has five organs, including its largest, a Steinmeyer with 85 registers, five keyboards and over 6,000 pipes. Come at noon, and you will be treated to a 15-minute organ recital which is sure to take you back in time.
Before you leave, climb the church’s 83-metre tall tower for a panoramic view of the city and to get up close to the copper-plated clock tower, the largest in Germany. I take all my visitors up the tower. The view is different at different times of the year and I never tire of the experience. Every day at 10am and then again at 9pm, except on Sundays when it happens at noon, the tower warden plays a trumpet solo from the tower, and this beautiful rendition can be heard throughout the city. The powerful performance echoes the church’s musical ties with the rest of the city.
Where the Architecture of Old Lives On
From the church, walk the history-steeped streets. Keep an eye out for the magnificent architecture of Old Town like the Chilehaus, a 10-storey office building that is a fine example of the 1920s’ Brick Expressionism style of architecture. Another photo-worthy office building is the nine-storey Sprinkenhof, which is just a four-minute walk from the town centre.
Stay on the path for another 15 minutes and you will find yourself at Cremon Street, once a marsh island. Here, half-timbre warehouses and residences, some constructed as early as 17 th century, line the canal. They are poignant remnants of times past. While you are there, drop in on the Johannes Brahms Museum which is in Cremon. The merchant house is not far from where the composer was born. On display are his music scores and concert programmes, as well as the square piano which Brahms used to give music lessons between 1861 and 1862.
The focal point of Old Town is Hamburg Rathaus or the City Hall, which overlooks the Binnenalster Lake. Constructed in the late 19 th century, it still houses the city’s government offices, including the First Mayor of Hamburg’s office and the meeting rooms for the city’s parliament and senate. The building’s façade is constructed in the richly ornate style of the Neo-Renaissance, a reflection of the prosperity Hamburg enjoyed during that time. Its 647 rooms outnumber that of the Buckingham Palace. Today, it is one of the very few completely preserved historical buildings in Hamburg. In front of the City Hall is Rathausmarkt, a market square where outdoor events are organised all summer.
Before you leave Old Town, make sure you visit Deichstrasse, Hamburg’s oldest street. On that street is Alt Hamburger Aalspeicher, a 400-year-old house-turned-restaurant that transports you back to 16 th century Hamburg.
Where you find the ‘Gateway to the World’
I grew up in Munich, the capital of Bavaria, Germany, which is very close to the Alps. It is very different from Hamburg which is known for its location by the river, proximity to the North Sea and Baltic Sea, and many canals and bridges which outnumber those in Venice. As it had welcomed me, Hamburg opened its doors to many others throughout history. Between 1850 and 1939, about five million European emigrants came through Hamburg en route to the New World to seek their fortune which earned the city the nickname ‘Gateway to the World’. To accommodate them while they awaited the departure of their ships from the Port of Hamburg, a cluster of living quarters, dining rooms, bath amenities, a church, a synagogue, a music pavilion and even medical examination rooms called the Emigration Halls, were built. That slice of Hamburg history is captured in the Ballinstadt Emigration Museum, named after Albert Ballin, the director general of shipping company HAPAG, who had Emigration Halls built in 1901.
I always encourage my visitors to visit the museum, one of the most popular in the city, so they can immerse themselves in that period of Hamburg’s past. The lives of the emigrants are faithfully reconstructed within its three halls. Through interactive exhibits, experience how they left their homes in Eastern Europe, lived in Hamburg as they awaited passage to a new life, and arrived in New York where they resettled. For those whose personal history is connected to those migrants, the passenger lists from 1850 to 1934 will be of particular interest. It is the world’s largest inventory of passenger lists from emigrant ships and a unique source for family history research.
Where Tastes of Hamburg Abound
Since Hamburg is a city intimately associated with the water, you cannot miss out on a visit to the St Pauli Fischmarkt or Hamburg Fishmarket, an open-air market originating in the early 18 th century and known for its fresh seafood as well as a variety of plants, flowers, fruits, food, and decorative items. Opened only on Sundays, you have to think of the place as less of a market and more of a carnival for adults, because the 70,000 people who visit it weekly certainly do. There is live music featuring anything from country to rock (which inevitably encourages spontaneous dancing), beer (because this is Germany after all), and snacks like the Fischbrötchen (fish sandwich).
Right at the heart of the fish market is a restaurant called Alt Helgolaender Fischerstube where you should go to for a taste of Labskaus. This culinary specialty of Northern Germany consists of salted meat or corned beef, potatoes and onions, as well as beetroot, pickled gherkin and herring served on the side, though some recipes mix them all together. Labskaus was popularised by sailors for whom potatoes and salted meats were staples.
The next time you want to immerse yourself in a little European history, come visit me at the Citadines Michel Hamburg. And when you are done letting the city’s past enthrall you, we will have a beer by the river and watch the ships go by.
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