Hamburg is the second-largest city in Germany after Berlin. The city lies on the River Elbe and is most famous for being home to Europe’s third-largest port.
Located in northern Germany, the city’s official title is ‘The Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg’ reflecting its history as a member of the medieval Hanseatic League and a free imperial city of the Holy Roman Empire.
Hamburg has an array of historic and cultural sites stretching from its foundation in the 9th century to the present day. We’ve picked some of the best to help you discover this city’s fascinating history.
1. Hamburg City Hall
Hamburg City Hall’s impressive architecture dominates the centre of the Hamburg, and houses the city’s senate and parliament.
After the old city hall was destroyed in the great fire of 1842, it took 55 years for the new Hamburg City Hall (Rathaus) to open. The present building was built between 1886-1897, at a cost of 11 million German gold marks (about €80 million). It reopened on 26 October 1897 when the First Mayor Johannes Versmann received the key.
It has 647 rooms and stands on over 4,000 oak piles. Unlike the usual restrained Hanseatic style, the building has an elaborate façade, flanked by a total of 20 statues of emperors. In the Senate chamber, there is a large glass roof, symbolising an ancient Germanic custom that the council meets in the open air.
2. Port of Hamburg
Hamburg is the third largest container port in Europe, and the 17th largest container port in the world, covering an area of 28.57 square miles.
Founded on 7 May 1189 by Frederick I, the port is almost as old as the history of Hamburg itself. Located at a strategic location near the mouth of the River Elbe, the Port of Hamburg become the most important trading centre in the region, and was able to maintain its own tax and customs regulations for a time.
During the age of the Hanseatic League from the 13th-16th centuries, Hamburg was considered second only to the port and city of Lübeck in terms of its position as a central trading point for sea-borne trade.
3. Speicherstadt Warehouse Complex
The Speicherstadt is the world’s largest warehouse complex, spanning an area of 260,000 square metres. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a must-see on a trip to Hamburg.
In 1871, the Hanseatic City of Hamburg became part of the German Empire. Although able to maintain its own tax and customs regulations for a while, in 1881, a new customs union was installed. From this point on, only the free port area along the River Elbe was exempt from import sales taxes and customs, meaning the city thus needed to create new storage capacities inside the free economic zone in Hamburg’s port.
Construction of the Speicherstadt began in 1883 after 1,100 houses were torn down to make way and 20,000 people relocated.
4. Hamburg Fish Market
Lined-up in an open space by the Elbe harbor basin is Hamburg’s famous Fischmarkt (fish market), in St Pauli. Opening at the crack of dawn, a visit here is a legendary Hamburg experience, whether you’re starting your day early or even finishing your night out.
The market has been running since 1703, initially under two rival fish markets, in Hamburg and Altona (since 1896), separated only by official administrative borders. As early as the 19th century, attempts were made to merge the two markets into one common fish market, though the merger was eventually completed in March 1938, under the ‘Fish Market Hamburg-Altona GmbH’ (FMH).
5. Beatles-Platz Square
The Beatles-Platz Square is a plaza in the St. Pauli quarter, and is home to five life-sized silhouettes of The Beatles, who got their first taste of stardom here in the 1960’s. The Square is actually circular, 29 metres in diameter, and paved black to make it look like a vinyl record.
Beatles-Platz Square was built in 2008 to commemorate Hamburg’s important role in the history of The Beatles.
In the 1960’s, many bars and music venues along St. Pauli’s infamous Reeperbahn and Große Freiheit streets hosted bands, helping them gain stardom, both for German and international musicians.
Before the ‘British Invasion’ began in 1964, the Beatles too spent two years playing gigs in this area (from August 1960 to December 1962) in small venues like Indra and the Star-Club and later the larger Kaiserkeller, amongst the area’s neon lights, clubs and restaurants.
6. Landing Bridges
Sometimes also known as the St. Pauli Piers, the Landungsbrücken by the River Elbe are the largest landing place in the Port of Hamburg at 688 metres long, and also one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions. They consist of floating pontoons, accessible from land by 10 movable bridges.
The first pier pontoons were built in 1839 and served as a terminal for steamships, with the coal they needed for their engines also stored here. As these ships were fuelled by coal, the pier also ensured a sufficient safe distance from the city whilst they re-fuelled, helping reduce any fire risks.
7. Deichstraße Historic Street
Deichstraße (“Dike Street”) is the oldest remaining street in the Altstadt of Hamburg, dating back to the 14th century.
Located adjacent to Nikolaifleet canal and close to the Speicherstadt, the timber-framed houses with their baroque fronts are characteristic of the area and some of the last remainders of a time long gone.
Back in the 17th century, large parts of the Hamburg city centre looked like Deichstraße. The houses combined counting houses, living quarters and storage spaces all under the same roof, and could be entered from either land or from water.
8. St Nicholas Church / Memorial
St Nikolai church was once the world’s tallest building from 1874-1876. Mostly destroyed in World War Two, it is now a memorial and museum site, the Mahnmal St-Nikolai.
The first chapel dedicated to Saint Nicholas, patron saint of sailors, was erected in the 12th century on the banks of the Alster river. This wooden chapel later became a sizeable brick and stone church, which remained in place and expanded until the mid-19th century.
During Hamburg’s Great Fire of 1842, the St. Nikolai Church was the first large public building to burn. Soon after, a fundraising campaign was started to rebuild the church. A new church was designed in the neo-Gothic style by English architect George Gilbert Scott and completed in 1874. Its 147.4 metre spire made it the tallest building in the world for 2 years.
9. Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial
Neuengamme was a network of Nazi concentration camps, consisting of the main camp, Neuengamme, and more than 85 satellite camps. It was northwest Germany’s largest concentration camp, situated 15 km southeast of the centre of Hamburg. The grounds of the former concentration camp now serve as a memorial and research centre in Bergedorf.
In 1937, Hitler declared five cities to be converted into Führer cities in the new Nazi regime, one of which was Hamburg. In 1938, a former brick factory was turned into the Neuengamme concentration camp.
Over the course of the most shameful chapter of Hamburg’s history, approximately 100,000 prisoners from German-occupied territories came through Neuengamme and its sub-camps (24 of which were for women), and used as slave labour in the outskirts of Bergedorf district. They were forced to dig canals, work in clay pits and manufacture arms.
10. Old Elbe Tunnel
The Old Elbe Tunnel connects Hamburg’s Landungsbrücken piers with the port. A nostalgic piece of Hamburg’s history, the tunnel has already celebrated its 100th anniversary and continues to be used today.
The Old Elbe Tunnel was completed on 7 September 1911. At 426 metres-long, it was a technical innovation at the time of its construction and the first river tunnel on the continent, modelled on the Clyde Tunnel in Glasgow.
Built 24 metres beneath the surface, its two 6 metre-diameter tubes connect central Hamburg from the Landungsbrücken piers in St. Pauli (which house the machinery) with the docks and shipyards on the southern banks of the River Elbe at Steinwerder.