Berlin Hauptbahnhof, that awe-inspiring steel and glass behemoth, is incredibly quiet for 7:45 on a Friday morning. We are on platform 7, some 3 levels below the main entrance, awaiting train 794, one of many Inter City Express or ICE trains that ply the German rails everyday. Part of an extensive high-speed network, the ICEs are some of the fastest in the world, and obviously, I’m excited at the prospect of traveling on one!
Our train to Hamburg is late though – not something one would expect from the über efficient Germans! Thankfully, its not particularly crowded, so we do get our choice of seats, and after a quick stop at a Berlin suburb, we are on our way, leaving behind the North German countryside in a blur…
Spitalerstraße runs due west from Hamburg Hauptbahnhof, the city’s main station. A major shopping thoroughfare, the street is open only to pedestrians, bicyclists and public buses, making for a pleasant stroll through what is essentially the city centre.
City Hall Square or Rathausmarkt marks the end of Spitalerstraße, with Hamburg’s magnificent City Hall taking centre stage. Completed in the late 19th-century, the Neo-renaissance Rathaus continues to serve as the office of the Mayor today. Across from it sit 1600 Styrofoam Pandas, part of a traveling exhibit by the World Wildlife Fund, and a sombre reminder of their dwindling numbers.
The city’s best-known landmark, however, is probably the tower at St.Pauli Landungsbrücken. The water level indicator built into the tower (Pegelturm) still provides seafarers with current tide conditions. About 10 piers make up the St.Pauli landing stages, offering ferry, tour and charter service for locals and tourists alike. We board one such tour boat for what is the quintessential Hamburg experience – a guided tour of its harbour!
Located on the River Elbe, some 110-km inland from the North Sea, the Port of Hamburg is the second largest in Europe, and by far its most storied. The city itself traces much of its history to its harbour, but despite the deep historical roots, Hamburg operates one of the most modern and efficient ports in the world today. We decide to brave the blustery conditions on the forward deck, for this is truly an experience to savour…
Not only does the harbour tour provide a close look at ginormous shipping vessels and gantry-lined container terminals, it also offers one of the most splendid views of the Hamburg skyline – St.Pauli Landungsbrücken set against the backdrop of a half dozen church spires, all vying for your attention…
The 90-minute harbour tour sets you back about €12 and is worth every penny. The thickly accented bilingual guide is an added bonus for sure!
Back at St.Pauli Landungsbrücken, we head to Blockbräu Brauhaus, a microbrewery located in the historic port building. Lunch is a busy time at the Brauhaus, and as we quickly discover, securing a table can be a challenge! The Brezel Burger that I order is gimmicky, no doubt, but at least the no-frills Pilsner accompanying it is guaranteed to satisfy 😉
A short stroll from the brewery lies the St.Pauli Elbe Tunnel, or simply, the old Elbe Tunnel – a real hidden gem! Built in 1911 to connect central Hamburg with the docks and shipyards on the south side of the river, the tunnel was designed to carry both pedestrians and vehicles. Today though, automobile traffic is sparse, with bicyclists and pedestrians making up most of the numbers.
Four large vehicular elevators provide access to the tunnel portal, and while a staircase does exist as well, it is a lot more fun to ride in one of them. Once below, a walk through the tunnel looks most tempting. If only time would permit…
At the eastern edge of Hamburg’s massive harbour lies HafenCity, literally Harbour City. What was once home to old port warehouses is today one of Europe’s largest redevelopment projects, comprising both commercial and residential buildings. Amongst the many contemporary structures at HafenCity, it is the Unilever building that stands out the most – a riveting, ultra-modern construction housing its German, Austrian and Swiss headquarters.
Within HafenCity lies the Warehouse District or Speicherstadt, an impressive collection of old warehouses. While some of them have been retained for their original function, a lot many have been re-purposed to house museums and such.
Miniatur Wunderland, the largest model railway exhibit in the world, is housed in one of those heritage buildings, and just happens to be the most visited museum in the city! To say that Miniatur Wunderland is fascinating is an understatement. It is simply mind-boggling! This is a true labour of love, if ever there was one. Suffice to say, you should plan to spend at least a half-day here, if not more.
And no bigger validator of that than my own sister. She’s as removed from a rail enthusiast as you can possibly imagine – she slept through our ICE journey this morning (!) – but decides to humour me some more. Fifteen minutes later, we’re still staring in awe at the Swiss layout. There are six more sections to see, and she shows no urgency whatsoever of leaving!
Although Hamburg is best known for its port, it also boasts a labyrinth of canals, and two urban lakes – a city, practically hemmed in by water. And all that water only means one thing – plenty of bridges! A little known fact about Hamburg – it has more bridges than any other city in the world, and more canals than Amsterdam, Venice and London put together! Hard to believe at first, but walk around a bit and you’ll see for yourself.
The lakes were created out of the Alster River, whereas the canals spawned out of the Elbe. Exposed to the tidal range of the latter, the canals can often appear bone dry at different times of the day, giving them quite a surreal feel.
Our walk back to Hamburg Hauptbahnhof is along Ballindamm, a street that lines the city’s inner lake or Binnenalster, and a very scenic one at that. But the real visual treat awaits me within the cathedral-like train shed of Hauptbahnhof, where strategically placed footbridges provide sweeping views of the station…
As it turns out, I have plenty of time to oggle at the going-ons below – our ICE back to Berlin is delayed, by 18-minutes no less! What up Deutsche Bahn??
A full set of pictures from Hamburg can be viewed here.