Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Hamburg | Germany Part 3

Ahoi! Moin!

View of the Speicherstadt and Altstadt in the distance
From Berlin we went to Hamburg and settled promptly into EAL's summer sublet in the Hamburg-Nord borough of the city. From my few days there, Hamburg seemed a cool, brisk place true to its roots as a port city and center of commerce. Fewer tourists than in Berlin, with a decidedly more northern feel, whatever that actually means. It's intuition, and after visiting other cities in Germany, Hamburg's northern European character was certainly strong. In spite of that, it reminded me of San Francisco.

Trees in the Stadtpark, planetarium in the distance

Though the sun sets late in the north, we did not have much daylight left to sightsee and instead went around the Stadtpark, a large urban park with fountains, a lake, a planetarium, exercise groups, a forest, and gardens.

Walking near the Stadtpark
Left: Hamburg planetarium, closed when we were there
Right: flowers in the Stadtpark

That domed building is the planetarium. On the lawn in front of it are people of all ages engaging in a sport I can only describe as single combat with padded mock weapons mixed with capture the flag.

Farmers market in Hamburg-Nord

We started the next morning with strawberries from the farmers market. Our plan was to do as much walking around the Altstadt and port as possible, and make good use of our Hamburg card. I believe it was about 10 Euros and included public transit (train, bus, ferry) and gave some nice discounts on museums.

The Rathaus, one of many photos

Our first stop was the Rathaus of Hamburg, the city hall and seat of parliament for the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg. Hamburg, Bremen, and Berlin and their respective metropolitan areas are city-states, and this Rathaus is where the parliament and senate of Hamburg meet.

There will be plenty of Rathaus later in the post. We went off to look at some churches.

Left: Hauptkirche Sankt Michaelis, "Michel"
Right: Martin Luther

Not a whole lot of photos of the Hauptkirchen, but the ones that I have are interspersed throughout this post. I'm trying to go in chronological order from now on, but during our stay in Hamburg, EAL and I walked all around. Also, Protestant churches are much more sedate than Catholic cathedrals; the Hauptkirchen (Sts. Michael, Peter, James, and Catherine) are Lutheran. Pictures online show impressive interiors, but we just walked around them.

Left: the Speicherstadt
Right: interesting architecture in the Speicherstadt

Next stop was the HafenCity quarter, which includes the historical warehouse district (Speicherstadt) and parts of the harbor. By the way, Hamburg is the second largest port in Europe after Rotterdam, and counts as a sea port despite its position on the Elbe River, well inland.


Don't let these dinky yachts fool you: the Port of Hamburg is a serious operation, and far larger than San Francisco or Oakland in terms of shipping activity.

Warehouses in the warehouse district

The Speicherstadt is as good a place as any to begin the history lesson of the blog post. The name "Freie und Hansestadt Hamburg" -- the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg -- is a lesson in itself. From the middle ages onward, Hamburg was a member of the Hanseatic League, a confederation of major port cities and their guilds that dominated trade on the northern coast of Europe.

Hamburg specifically was also a free imperial city in the Holy Roman Empire, having both autonomy and representation in the Imperial Diet of the HRE until the unification of Germany in 1871. Its long history as a center for commerce and transport is integral to the modern identity of the city, which still is a major financial power in Europe.

Even more warehouses in the Speicherstadt
The historical warehouse district, the Speicherstadt, is one of the most charming and iconic features of Hamburg. The unification of Germany; the birth of the German nation from various iterations of the Holy Roman Empire, the German Confederation, the German Empire, etc; is complicated. When the independent and sovereign city-state of Hamburg was incorporated, the question of remaining a customs free zone or joining the German Customs Union complicated commerce in Hamburg. In 1888, the construction of these warehouses was completed, treaties were signed, and the Speicherstadt of Hamburg entered both the German customs zone and retained its free port.

Due to its significance as a major port, industrial and economic center, shipyard, and U-boat pen, Hamburg was the target of RAF and USAAF fire in WWII. This culminated in Operation Gomorrah at the end of July 1943 when an Allied firestorm destroyed a significant part of the city and port, killed over 42000 civilians, and displaced over a million.

Warehouses in the Speicherstadt in miniature Hamburg in Miniatur Wunderland -- note the bridge!
Half of the Speicherstadt was destroyed, but much was subsequently rebuilt and incorporated into the hip new HafenCity district. Many of the old warehouses still are warehouses, but now it is a place for tourism. One tourist trap that I highly, highly recommend is Miniatur Wunderland, a truly unbelievable museum of miniature scenes on a grand scale. It has the largest model train set in the world, an intensely complex model airport, model Hamburg Hauptbanhof, etc, etc. Miniatur Wunderland had a special exhibit on the history of Germany as told from a fictional town through the ages, which was very educational. Many photos were taken, and I will eventually share them here.

This is an incredible exhibit regardless of your interest in miniatures, transportation, or history. An upcoming installation is a model of Rome.

Left: cannons, misc headstones by the Internationales Maritimes Museum
Right: a search and rescue boat on land

After lunch, we headed to the Internationales Maritimes Museum, which is essentially the most comprehensive museum about boats, ships, trade, navies, fishing, exploration, navigation, etc you can possibly imagine. Photos in a blog post are imminent, but for now, here are some of the outdoors exhibits.

U-Bootes (German for U-boats)

The first time I learned that "U-boats" came from Unterseeboot "undersea boat," I thought German was a silly language. Then again, "submarine" means literally the same thing. In common (American) parlance, U-boats are specifically German military submarines, and indeed, these U-Bootes were Kriegsmarine crafts used in WWII.

Left: yours truly in front of the museum
Right: the museum

Nine floors about all things maritime. It was pretty great, and reasonably priced thanks to the Hamburg card. Also, if you didn't have enough miniatures from Miniatur Wunderland, there are more model ships and die-cast miniatures of every single commercial or military vessel from WWI on than you would ever need to see.

Left: der Erdbeerhof!!!
Right: seal of the city of Hamburg

Walking around HafenCity was very pleasant on a mostly sunny day. I've included the city seal/coat of arms here because it appears in a few other photos and has remained mostly unchanged since the 12th century. It's everywhere in the city, on logos and flags, storm drains, and train tickets. Out of the places I visited, I'd say that the city pride of Hamburg is very strong, coming from historical identity of being very old and very rich.

Harbor yet again

We roamed around the harbor, looked at boats, and generally racked up steps in a very picturesque, cool part of town. The Speicherstadt was all around us, but what is Hamburg without pictures of boats on water?

Top: St. Pauli Landungsbrücken
Bottom: a cruise ship and many cranes

Because we spent most of our day by the port, we figured we needed to take some public transit to make the most of our Hamburg cards. Thus, we took an S-Bahn to the Landsbrücken piers and boarded a ferry towards a local beach. Ferries, by the way, are included in public transportation and reasonably priced (about the same as an S-Bahn ticket).

Top: Fischauktionshalle
Bottom: shipping cranes

We headed a short stretch west on the Elbe River, which was enough to get a sense of the scale of the port. I admit to feeling a little homesick seeing the dinosaurs/shipping cranes, a very welcoming sight to anyone heading over the Bay Bridge or out of Oakland via BART. I wonder if Hamburgers make shirts with these cranes on them like is done in Oakland.

Antique boats

We stopped at the Museumshafen Oevelgönne, a stretch of harbor showcasing old sailboats and their equipment. Our destination was a nearby beach, but by then, it was a bit chilly. Supposedly, there was a U-Boot museum nearby as well that we could have toured, but that didn't happen.

There's the beach, and there's the outline of a labyrinth I did not try too hard to solve. Not pictured is the step pyramid, which I stood at the top of to take these photos. We finally finished our farmers market strawberries here.

We spent some time sitting around the beach park and then headed back to the ferry. I napped a bit, and we disembarked a stop short so we could see more of Hamburg by foot. I particularly wanted to see the old fish auction hall (Fischauktionshalle), which now a venue for concerts and other events.

Some impressions of the Altona district of Hamburg by foot: it's a city of young and old, counterculture and convention, and generally a cool place to be. Having been in Boston for a bit, I'd say it reminds me of San Francisco with Boston-like coloring, and a dash of Oakland, as much as a city in northern Europe can be.

Here's the Fischauktionshalle. It looks pretty cool but was closed when we got there.

Entering, descending, and going through the Elbe tunnel

Our last stop that day was the Elbe tunnel, whose northern entrance, a green-domed building, was right by where we initially boarded the ferry. It was built in 1911 and does exactly what it is named: it goes under the Elbe River, and has a cool aesthetic. A precursor or pioneer of Art Deco? Not really sure, but the interior is decorated with cool terra cotta images of fish, crabs, and other sea creatures.

Museum für Völkerkunde

Unfortunately, Hamburg had a torrential downpour the next day, and our plans for walking around gardens and seeing more of the river and the city on foot were washed away. If only we had our museum-heavy day then!

We had a light day of sightseeing, and took advantage of various free museums from the University of Hamburg (taxidermy, paleontology) to stay out of the rain. When weather relented, we walked through a pretty upscale part of town to the Museum of Ethnology (Museum für Völkerkunde). Admission was free when we got there, but I was nonetheless impressed by the size and depth of the collection and the detail of the exhibits.

Some strange Chinese compound near the museum

Another history lesson: before WWII, Hamburg had one of the largest Jewish populations in Germany. Before and during WWII, Jewish Hamburgers were confined in ghettos, deported, and many were murdered in the Holocaust. In Hamburg, elsewhere in Germany, and around Europe, stopelsteine are planted at the homes and workplaces of some of these victims as a memorial. We saw quite a few of these on our walk through a historically Jewish neighborhood that day.

On our way to the Elbe, we were stopped in an alley by a few small, blonde German children who basically tried to hustle EAL and me for cash. Cute kids, and I was pretty proud of EAL for having the German language skills to negotiate safe passage from a bunch of giggly kindergartners.

Hamburger Kunsthalle

Walked by the art museum after crossing Kennedy Brücke. We ended the day with coffee and cake and browsing the shops around the Hauptbanhof while we waited for Mom to arrive from Frankfurt. When she arrived, we had some pretty decent Chinese food and called it a day.

Left: a church in St. Georg
Right: a restaurant with St. George slaying a dragon, one of my favorite pieces of religious imagery ever

We were off to Cologne early that afternoon and stored our luggage at the Hauptbanhof so we could sightsee unladen. Our plan was to take a tour of the Rathaus, and had some time to walk around and Hamburg-Mitte before it began.


In the distance is the iconic Elbe Philharmonic Hall. We walked all around the Altstadt, the Speicherstadt, and Mitte to show Mom the highlights.

I have no idea who this is

Left: Rathaus courtyard
Right: storm drain with the seal of the city

IIRC, tickets for the Rathaus tour are 4 Euros per person. While we waited for the tour to begin, we read through the exhibit inside about the institutionalization, deportation, forced sterilization, murder, etc of disabled and mentally ill persons during the Holocaust, with particular focus on local victims. The prevailing lesson of that exhibit was the complicity of ordinary Hamburgers, the dehumanization of very vulnerable members of society, and the long process of gaining recognition by the post-war government and communities for their suffering in the Holocaust.

The Rathaus was built in the 1880s-1890s and still functions today as the seat of parliament and senate of the city-state of Hamburg. In this first room, gold-leafed reliefs show the idealized life of a Hamburger man. The highest mark of a man was to take the citizen's oath, which required him to own property, pay 1000 gold marks per year in tax, etc.

I knew zero things about Hamburg's government before this tour, and I will share my net gain of knowledge here.

121 Hamburger sit in parliament, have day jobs and thus meet infrequently, are elected every five years, and elect the mayor of Hamburg. The mayor appoints the 12 senators, who fill that position full time and are not allowed to vote. 14 members of parliament are sent to Berlin for the Bundestag.

Parliament chamber, all in oak

All sessions of parliament are open to the public, but visitors are required to stay the whole time so as not to create a disturbance.

The Green Room

These are original light fixtures of the Rathaus, which was powered by electricity and heated by steam since its very beginning.

The Emperor's Hall

The Emperor's Hall was decorated specially for Kaiser Wilhelm's visit. It is dedicated to seafaring and retains its original leather wall coverings.
Left: Kaiser Wilhelm I
Right: Otto von Bismarck

German unification and imperialism were spearheaded by some bellicose and prominent Prussians, most notably King (and later, Kaiser) Wilhelm I and statesman Otto von Bismarck, who would become the first chancellor of the German Empire.

These busts are placed on a table by the window. The Hamburger parliament declared that no emperor or chancellor would look down upon a man of Hamburg. Instead, they stay at waist-level.

Many lavish rooms followed. The Rathaus was built after the old one burned down in 1842, and all of its fine decorations were gifted by the many wealthy shipping companies headquartered in Hamburg. Hence, some of the materials come from abroad, and many of the carvings and paintings reference other countries and continents where Hamburgers have done business with.

One of the most impressive rooms is the Orphans' Room. All of the extensive and lavish wood carvings in this room were commissioned from orphans who had specifically learned the trade. The reasoning was to apprentice kids to a necessary trade with which they could support themselves later in life.

All these carvings were done by children. I am in awe.

Left: Senatus Populusque Hamburg(iensis?)
Right: senate chamber

We were told that the senate meets every Tuesday and are not permitted to leave until business is done. Apparently, there are showers and facilities in the Rathaus specifically to keep them there.

The SPQH comes from SPQR, the senate and people of Rome. The civic pride of Hamburg is especially evident in the Rathaus, and symbols are everywhere. Most of the wood is local oak, and oak leaves and acorns are common design motifs.

"God with us"

If you look closely, you can see oak leaves and acorns there. Wisdom and justice? Law and justice? I'm not entirely sure.

The ballroom

The ballroom is still used for special events in the city. The murals depict the history of Hamburg.

A few interesting details here. First, the mural shows the Christianization of Hamburg. Catholics on horses approach a river, with a bishop and his gold-cloaked colleagues communicating with the pagan Hamburgers on the other side. The bishop, however, looks like he's gesturing at an empty patch of land. Originally, there was supposed to be a supplicating convert down there, but parliament, the mayor, or senate must have rejected that. After all, no pagan Hamburger kneels to a bishop.

The four statues represent Wisdom, Knowledge, Strength, and Diligence, the four qualities of a true Hamburger.

My notes indicated that somewhere between the senate and the ballroom appeared the words "Vaterstadt" and "Vaterland" together, but I can't remember where. Anyhow, they mean Father-city and Fatherland. Hamburg seems to have been, and be proud of both.

Almost immediately after the tour, we hustled over to the Hauptbanhof. Onwards to Cologne!


  1. I've never been able to visit Hamburg myself but it looks like an interesting place. I like seeing how different port cities differ from each other, but have that same industrial kind of vibe I'm getting from your photos. The Rathaus looks like it was an interesting visit, if only for the decor!

    1. The impression I got was that Hamburg is a no-nonsense, no-frills kind of place well aware of its role in the vast machine of global commerce. Boats on boats aside, the city itself felt very old-fashioned nautical: "ahoi" is actually used as a casual greeting!

  2. Those carvings were done by children? Woah :o // I'm always fascinated by miniatures :D The level of details of those things is astounding! -Audrey | Brunch at Audrey's

    1. Everything from the furniture to the statue to the doors in the Orphan Room was carved by kids. I couldn't believe it either.

      You want miniatures, I'll give miniatures (somewhere down the line). Miniatur Wunderland was detail overload.