Frequently described as "the gateway to the world" by its proud citizens, the handsome port city of Hamburg has for centuries welcomed merchants, traders, and sailors to a rich assortment of grand hotels, fine restaurants, and, yes, seedy bars and brothels.
This vibrant, affluent city's success began with its role as a founding member of the Hanseatic League, a medieval alliance of northern European cities that once dominated the shipping trade in the North and Baltic Seas. To this day, the city is known as "the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg," reflecting both its association with the league and its status as an independent city-state.
Shipping continues to be a major industry. Straddling the mighty Elbe River, more than 100 km (62 miles) inland from the North Sea, Hamburg’s inner city harbor is the third-biggest port in Europe. The city is now also one of Germany’s major media hubs, serving as headquarters for the publishing giants Axel Springer, Grüner + Jahr, and Bau Verlag; and for such influential publications as Die Zeit, Der Spiegel, and Stern.
The profits of these endeavors are apparent throughout Hamburg, from its imposing neo-Renaissance town hall, to the multitude of luxury boutiques studding the adjacent Neuerwall, to the Elbchaussee, a long, leafy stretch of road lined with Hollywood-like mansions and overlooking the Elbe. Hamburg has more millionaires per capita than any other German city.
Like many other of the country’s urban centers, however, the city has suffered a tumultuous history. Since its founding as "Hammaburg" in 811, Hamburg has been destroyed by Vikings, burned down by Poles, and occupied by Danish and French armies. The Great Fire of 1842 devastated much of its commercial center, and in 1943 the Allied Forces' Operation Gomorrah bombing raids and the resulting firestorms left 40,000 people dead and large swaths of Hamburg in ruins.
Scars from World War II still remain, and you need only walk down a residential street to see the plain, functional apartment buildings that were built to replace those destroyed by bombs. There are also frequent reminders of the terrible fate suffered by Hamburg’s Jews, and others considered enemies of the state during this time. Memorials in HafenCity and near Dammtor train station mark where those persecuted by Nazis were deported to concentration camps. As part of a Germany-wide project, small brass plaques set into sidewalks outside apartment buildings commemorate former residents executed by the regime.
Modern-day Hamburg is a progressive city endowed with attractive architecture, cultural diversity, and liberal attitudes. It’s notable for its parks and trees and a pair of beautiful inner city lakes, but it's famous for its enormous red-light party district, which fans off from the seamy, neon-lit Reeperbahn. Shabby but chic quarters such as St. Pauli and the Schanzenviertel are as beloved by locals as the affluent Blankenese and Eppendorf, and the city’s annual schedule of spring and summer festivals has enough room for a huge gay-pride parade in the middle of town, as well as a celebration of Hafengeburtstag—the harbor's birthday.
As you'd expect in such a wealthy city, Hamburg has more than its share of world-class museums and art galleries, as well as an assortment of grand theaters and music venues, an opera company, and an internationally renowned ballet company. Not content to rest on its laurels, the city is also steaming ahead with the ambitious HafenCity, an urban-renewal project that has transformed a significant section of the city’s port front. The Elbphilharmonie—a futuristic concert hall that the city hopes will become as iconic as the Sydney Opera House—is to be its centerpiece.