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Hamburg – Venice of the North

[Hamburg, Germany]

Situated on the river Elbe, Hamburg is Germany’s second largest city and its own province with 1.5 million people. 2,000 bridges all over the city have earned it the nickname Venice of the North. Hamburg has the biggest number of millionaires per capita and the second largest port in Europe (Rotterdam is the largest). Two devastating fires 100 years apart – one in 1842 and one in 1943 – have gutted most of the old buildings in the city, so Hamburg doesn’t have an old medieval town center like most other cities do. Nevertheless, I found Hamburg to be charming and a delight to explore.

After much deliberation about where to start my exploration in this fairly spread-out city, I decided to head first to the Speicherstadt (warehouse district) and check out a museum that seemed unique and fun – Miniatur Wunderland. This area of Hamburg consists of huge red-brick riverside warehouses originally built in the late 1800s that are no longer part of the port. The original Hamburg port was located here but when it grew, it had to be moved up river, freeing up this area and neighboring Hafencity for other uses. Although many of these warehouses were damaged in the bombing of Hamburg during WWII, they’ve been renovated and repurposed to house museums and other attractions.

Miniatur Wunderland is in one of these warehouses. It houses miniature versions of Hamburg, Bavaria, Austria, Switzerland, Scandinavia and America. The level of detail is striking – if you look closely, you’ll see tiny people drinking beer, painting, talking, parading, sun-bathing. Night falls every 15 minutes and the little cities twinkle in the twilight. Miniature Hamburg includes the airport; little planes take off and land on a runway, and there is a departure and arrivals electronic board above.There are buttons on the outside of each area that activate some kind of action when you press them – maybe a helicopter will take off, a bungee jumper might plunge from a bridge, or a fire eater will come to life on the Las Vegas strip. It was a really fun museum to experience, and I got to see a miniature version of Hamburg before I got to explore the real one.

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From Miniatur Wunderland, I strolled down do the Elbphilharmonie – Hamburg’s new philharmonic that’s slated to open in 2017. It’s a combination concert hall, hotel, apartment complex and shopping mall. It’s a beautiful building and it looks like a ship from afar.

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Once I marveled at this beautiful building up close, I got onto a ferry – they are part of the public transit system – and got off at Landungsbruecken – a half-mile long floating dock that parallels the waterfront. Landing bridges connect the dock to the waterfront.

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Under bridges 6 and 7, I walked across the Elbtunnel – the oldest underground tunnel in continental Europe, built in 1911. It’s only 40 meters below the water, which means that big ships can’t go further upstream from here. The tunnel is small – only a quarter mile long and 15 feet high.

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Once on the other side, I walked to a terrace with a beautiful panoramic view of the city.

From there, I took a walk down Reeperbahn street – the Hamburg version of the Las Vegas strip. Hamburg’s’ red light district is here, discreetly tucked away on a side street with barriers on each side.Women are usually not allowed to walk down this street, but I poked my head around the barriers just to see – it was dead at this time of day.

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Supposedly, a gentleman can stroll down here at night and literally window shop until he sees something he likes. The barriers went up during the Third Reich – prostitution is legal here but German society at the time wanted it safely tucked away.

The rest of Reeperbahn street was also tame this time of day, but I did want to swing by the Beatles monument at the corner of this street and Grosser Freiheit. The band came here to practice and improve – they spend the period between 1960 and 1962 playing here, and its their time in Hamburg that’s often credited with their success.

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My last two stops were the City Hall (Rathaus) and the church of St. Nicholas. This church was severely damaged in the giant of fire of 1943. Hamburg was bombed into oblivion during WWII. The Germans had heavily bombed London and Rotterdam already, and the Allies were desperate for a commensurate response. In order to try and make a dent into Hitler’s popularity in Germany, they had tried dropping propaganda leaflets, but Hitler remained as popular as ever. The Allies decided to let Hamburg have it. Operation Gomorrah (named for the city’s lustful ways) was devastating – the Allies released the so-called “high bombs” first to open up roofs and break water mains. The unusually dry and warm weather created a fire storm that was completely unexpected – a fire tornado raged through the city, killed 42,000 and wounded 37,000 and over one million fled. Only the charred walls and the tower (tallest in Hamburg) remain. A museum in the church crypt depicts the history of the church. You’d think that the Germans would paint the Allies as the villains here, but the exhibit reminds visitors that Hitler had already done plenty of damage in Europe, and ultimately had started the wave of violence that Hamburg fell a victim of. A nearby exhibit details the destruction in Warsaw, bombed long before the same fate fell upon Hamburg. I have been nothing short of impressed with how Germans have handled talking about this exceptionally difficult part of their history.

In front of the Rathaus, I finally experienced the deja vu I was waiting for. I visited Hamburg in the distant 1998, but I don’t remember much other than visiting the Christmas market and taking a picture in front of a body of water. As I meandered around a market in front of the City Hall, I recognized where I had taken that photo – on the promenade in front of the Rathaus facing the Binnenalster lake. It made sense – Christmas markets in Germany are normally in front of City Hall. I watched a couple feed the swans, grabbed a cone of soft-serve Danish ice cream from a stall at the market and headed back to Krisi’s house.

In the evening, we drove to Finkenwerder (Airbus builds and tests them here) and took the ferry to the Fish Market. From there, we took a walk to Hennsler & Hennsler, a sushi restaurant by Hamburg celebrity chef Steffen Hennsler. It’s one of Krisi’s favorites; she made the reservation here months in advance and still, the earliest they had was 9:30 pm. The sushi was delicious – it was a nice break from the traditional German cuisine I had been eating.

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