Germany's second-largest city, Hamburg, is awash with history -- from emigration to World War II to the Beatles. It's also a thriving 21st-century metropolis with an inviting harbor boardwalk, avant-garde architecture and Las Vegas-style nightlife. Every visit here makes me wonder why so many Americans skip it. I love this city.
Even though it's about 60 miles from the North Sea, Hamburg's seaport on the Elbe River was the world's third largest a century ago. But World War II devastated the commercial center, and during the Cold War trade to the east was cut off. Port traffic dwindled, and so did the city's influence. But Hamburg's been enthusiastically rebuilt, and, since Germany's reunification, it has gained back its former status as a leading trade center.
Hamburg's port has evolved with the city's needs and changes in shipping technology. One example is HafenCity, a huge development project that enlarged downtown Hamburg by about 40 percent. The centerpiece is the striking Elbphilharmonie -- a combination concert hall, public plaza, hotel and apartment complex. Its daring design and huge size fit in well with the massive scale of the surrounding port.
Water seems to be everywhere in this city of nearly 2,500 bridges. Hamburg's delightful lakes -- the Aussenalster and Binnenalster -- were created in the Middle Ages, when townsfolk built a mill that dammed the local river. Back in the 1950s, a law guaranteed public access to the Aussenalster, and today, peaceful paths and bike lanes are a hit with locals. Along with plenty of downtown parkland, the lakes provide Hamburg -- one of Germany's greenest cities -- with an elegant promenade, the Jungfernstieg, which comes complete with top-of-the-line shops.
Just a block away, Hamburg's massive city hall, built in the 19th century, overlooks a lively scene. It's flanked by graceful arcades and surrounded by plenty of commerce. Hamburg's bold architecture and maritime atmosphere give this northern German city an almost Scandinavian feel. You'd hardly know that this was one of the most heavily bombed cities in World War II.
With its strategic port, munitions factories and transportation links, Hamburg was a prime target for the Allies. On July 27, 1943, they hit the city center first with explosive bombs to open roofs, break water mains and tear up streets -- making it hard for firefighters to respond. Then came a hellish onslaught of incendiary bombs: 700 bombers concentrated their attack on a relatively small area. The result was a firestorm -- a tornado of raging flames reaching horrific temperatures. In three hours, the inferno killed more than 40,000 people, left hundreds of thousands homeless and reduced eight square miles of Hamburg to rubble and ashes.
Somehow the towering spire of St. Nicholas Church survived the bombing. It and the ruins of the church itself are now a memorial, left to commemorate those lost and to remind future generations of the horrors of war. In its museum, you'll see scorched and melted fragments demonstrating the heat of the firestorm.
Though Hamburg is mostly rebuilt, many WWII-era bunkers were just too expensive to tear down. So they survive, incorporated into today's cityscape. In Florapark, a green space in the Schulterblatt neighborhood, one old bunker is now a graffiti-covered climbing wall. A bunker in the St. Pauli neighborhood is filled with concert venues, recording studios and dance clubs -- and heavy metal rock bands here never draw complaints from their neighbors.
Hamburg's Reeperbahn thoroughfare has long been the heart of Germany's most famous entertainment zone. It gained notoriety as a rough and sleazy sailors' quarter filled with nightclubs and brothels. But, as the city's changed, so has its entertainment district. Today this street -- where the Beatles launched their careers back in 1960 -- is a destination for theater and live music. Considered the Broadway of Germany for its many musicals, the boulevard attracts theater-goers from all over the country.
Outside the city center, another popular destination is the BallinStadt Emigration Museum. For German Americans, Hamburg has a special meaning, because their ancestors may have sailed from this harbor. Millions of Germans and other Europeans emigrated to the United States from this city between 1850 and 1930. A German counterpart to Ellis Island, the museum tells the story of emigration through Hamburg from the mid-19th century through World War II.
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An unforgettable capper to your Hamburg visit is its harbor tour -- the best of its kind in Europe. You'll see plenty of Hamburg's bold new architecture, as well as its more established beach communities. But mostly, the hour-long cruise gets you up close to Hamburg's shipping industry -- all those enormous container ships, cranes and dry docks.
Hamburg is one of the great "undiscovered" cities in Europe. With its trading heritage and a strong economy, a visit here showcases a wealthy city that rose like a phoenix from a terrible recent past.
IF YOU VISIT...
SLEEPING: Hotel Wedina -- hip, full of character, and design-conscious -- is near the train station (splurge, www.hotelwedina.de). Hotel Furst Bismarck is draped in Old World charm and elegance (moderate, www.fuerstbismarck.de).
EATING: Kajute sits on pontoons on the Aussenalster and is good if you're willing to pay a little more for atmosphere (splurge, An der Alster 10a, tel. +49-40-243-037). Oma's Apotheke is a cozy cafe-bar-restaurant with vintage decor and tasty German cuisine (moderate, Schanzenstrasse 87, tel. +49-40-43-6620).
GETTING AROUND: Public transport makes sightseeing efficient in this spread-out city. Hamburg's subway system includes both the U-Bahn (with four lines) and S-Bahn (commuter rail lines).
TOURIST INFORMATION: www.hamburg-tourism.de.