Hamburg’s renaissance is centred on the docks, but reaches every street corner, reports Andrew Eames.

There’s a new word on the streets of Germany’s second biggest city: to “cornern”. In our era of smartphones and predictive text, where language gets mashed, this piece of Denglish means to buy a beer from a kiosk and stand on a street corner chatting with a group of friends. It is something of a social phenomenon in the trendier areas of Hamburg on sunny summer evenings.

Elements of Hamburg society don’t like this “cornerning”, and it certainly doesn’t sit comfortably with the staid, buttoned-up image of the wealthy trading city. But then this is also the city that has recently been declared the most liveable in Germany (Economist Intelligence Unit), the fourth best city destination in the world (Lonely Planet), and home to the world’s best nightlife (Hostelworld).

Locals are slightly mystified by all these sudden accolades. Hamburg has been like this for a long time, they say, but it seems that the rest of us are only just cottoning on.

There’s a very big reason for this “why now?” A reason that rises proudly from among the former wharves. The Elbphilharmonie, or Elphi for short, is a giant construct of glass and brick, a radical wave-topped warehouse. This hugely expensive concert hall/hotel/apartment block is Hamburg’s equivalent of the Eiffel Tower, and it has attracted a staggering four million visitors in its first year of operation. And that includes an awful lot of bloggers and journalists whose media coverage has put the city on the map.


Sometimes fancifully called the Venice of the North thanks to all its bridges and canals, Hamburg has always thrived on its waterside location. Mariners navigating up the River Elbe into Germany’s largest port have long appreciated the fact that they can moor right next to downtown, rather than be excluded to some distant, industrial no man’s land. Hamburg’s central docklands make them feel welcome, although fast turnaround times these days mean they barely get the chance to go ashore.

It was the port that created the original urbanisation along a web of streets between the banks of the Elbe and the Alster lakes. Here, the remaining Hanseatic warehouses and shipping company headquarters have been transformed into banks and exclusive boutiques. The key cultural institutions such as the Kunsthalle art gallery are here, as are the famous St Michael’s church and the Rathaus, the neo-Renaissance style town hall. The city centre is pleasant enough, especially on the terraced lakeside at Jungfernstieg, where white and red cruisers pick up passengers for a saunter out onto the stippled, swan-rich waters of the two Alster lakes. The Outer Alster, in particular, is lined with coffee houses and fine villas. Around Uhlenhorst, along the eastern shore,
it looks like some luxury seaside resort with joggers, cyclists and picnickers making the most of the waterside greenery. But there’s far more to Hamburg than this.


The best approach to Hamburg’s waterside is the elevated U-bahn, which runs out through Baumwall to Landungsbruecken, the busy landing stage for all the harbour cruises and ferries. There’s a new elevated walkway here, too, with a unique view: to your right, big ships and cranes silhouetted like question marks against the sky, and to your left, warehouses and the Elphi. And it’s towards the left that Hamburg’s gravity has shifted in the past decade, expanding the city centre by some 40 per cent. Not long ago HafenCity’s docklands became too small for the new generation ships; now it is one of the largest urban developments in Europe, and one which has taken care to mix offices with residential and cultural institutions. And to make sure it is sustainable and accessible, planning rules here insist that any residential projects must be one third for sale, one third rentable, and one third social housing.

All this new development, with its sleek modern architecture, is behind the initial barricade of the Speicherstadt, two massive and elegant UNESCO-registered rows of brick-built warehouses dating back 100 years, separated by a finger of water. Originally for storage of spices and coffee, these now house tourist attractions such as Miniatur Wunderland, a miniature model world which has topped the list of Germany’s most popular attractions for the past two years, beating centuries-old historic sites.

Beyond Speicherstadt are the various quays in their new configurations, particularly Grasbrookkai and Sandtorkai, with waterside bars, restaurants and prestigious commercial tenants. The city’s cruise terminal (cruising is huge here) is on Strandkai, and a collection of historic ships rubs gently against the pontoon in Sandtorhafen.

Dominating this whole dockscape is the €800 million Elphi, which sits out on the end of Kaiserkai, drawing a constant stream of visitors. Designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, its audacious concept meant that its construction was fraught with budget-busting delays, but that’s all water under the bridge, now that it’s finished. At its heart is an organically shaped concert hall with 2,100 seats and a wide programme of different types of music. Some of its concert tickets are only available to locals, and most sell out, but everyone can come up to what is called the Plaza (at busy times you need to pre-book through the visitor centre), on the intersection between the original giant brick warehouse and the flowing glasswork on top. Positioned right at the point of the quay, the Elphi offers a magnificent view in all directions; this concert hall has its feet in the water, and its head in the clouds.

St Pauli and beyond

Hamburg’s reputation as nightlife destination is traditionally associated with the salty Reeperbahn, but these days the table-dancing clubs are going out of business. There’s still an “over 18s only” shutter across Herbertstrasse, the heart of the prostitution zone, and stag parties still come swaying down the streets, but more people come here these days for music, and musicals; this is, after all, where the Beatles started out and perfected their craft from 1960-62. There’s now a big music festival every September. Locals are here, too, but not on the main drag; the side streets around the Reeperbahn are home to large numbers of public relations companies and discreet restaurants such as Krug in Paul-Roosen Strasse, or Chug on Taubenstrasse which serves taster flights of innovative cocktail creations.

For the many locals heading for a night out, the early evening hangouts are further inland, to the north, in the up and coming districts of Karolinenviertel and Sternschanze. This is where all that trendy “cornerning” is going on.

Karolinen is essentially just a couple of streets of local fashion designers and quirky shops and cafés. Its main axis is Marktstrasse, with shoemakers, pottery shops and street art.

The biggest landmark building in this area is the huge World War II bunker on Feldstrasse, which currently hosts all kinds of creative organisations, but is slated to become a hotel with a roof garden and a museum. Next door is a fine conversion already completed: the brick-built Rindermarkthalle, a former cattle market, now with an open-plan interior housing pop-up stores and food outlets at the centre and supermarkets around the edges (though not the usual German discount stores).

Sternschanze sits to the northwest of the Rindermarkthalle. Its main axis, Schulterblatt Strasse, is a mix of shops and manifestations of typical Hamburgian alternative living, particularly in the iconic squat of Rote Flora, a former music hall now festooned in banners and rechristened Achidi-John-Platz after an African immigrant who died in suspicious circumstances. There’s a squatter stockade of campervans around the corner, and the wide pavements create a big gathering point on summer evenings.

This part of town is a focal point for the young, the creative and the upwardly mobile, many of whom gravitate a couple of streets north to the Schanzenhofe, a hipsterish conversion of brick-built, market-style buildings. Here, there’s a big craft brewery (Ratsherrn) beer garden, a coffee roaster cum meeting place café (Elbgold Rostkaffee) and the Bullerei, a big restaurant run by TV chef Tim Mälzer, Germany’s equivalent of Jamie Oliver.

Altona and Ovelgonne

Until as recently as 1871, the Hanseatic city of Hamburg was staunchly independent, and it was surrounded on the north and west by Denmark. Its western axis, Altona, was under Danish rule, and so the adjoining region of Ottensen is distinctively low-rise, with Scandinavian-influenced architecture and sociable triangular town squares that could be out of Paris’s Montmartre. This is still an independent thinking part of town, and with the shops along Ottenser Hauptstrasse (starting with big brands and ending with quirky independents, delis and bakeries) there’s enough going on for locals not to need to go downtown for their needs.

A short walk south from Ottensen’s centre you find yourself back on the banks of the river. This exclusive northern bank is a place of big villas built for merchants and sea captains, while down towards the water’s edge are pretty rows of Danish-influenced cottages. Here, at Ovelgonne, is one of Hamburg’s biggest surprises: the Elbstrand beach along the river bank. This long stretch of sand, with fish restaurants and beach bar Strandperle, is a destination for families on hot summer days. It’s an unusual place to build sandcastles, in the shadow of passing supertankers.

Despite its distance downstream, Elbstrand and Ovelgonne are part of Hamburg’s public transportation system. In fact, route 62 back to Landungsbrucken must be one of the travel bargains of the world. Who needs a harbour cruise when this ferry, which runs every ten minutes, charges down the Elbe, with the Elphi looming up out of the haze?

Miniatur Wunderland

At first sight, the departures board of this German airport seems normal enough. It must be one of the big hubs, for there are imminent flights to the likes of New York, Johannesburg, Osaka and Panama City, with airlines like Lufthansa, United and Condor. But also coming up is a flight to Kilimanjaro, which strikes an odd note: surely the tiny Kilimanjaro airport doesn’t have direct flights departing from Germany? And then, at 1425, the killer entry: destination Death Star, serviced by the Millennium Falcon. And there it is, parked up on the apron among the A380s and the B777s: the Star Wars’ Falcon, an ugly duckling among the beautiful big birds. It’s a geek moment the model-makers couldn’t resist.

As you might have guessed by now, this is not a real airport. This is Knuffingen, in Hamburg’s Miniatur Wunderland, but half-close your eyes and you can barely tell the difference. In the distance, planes are taking off and landing. Arrivals are taxiing to the gates, led by “Follow Me” vehicles and attended by passenger buses and baggage crews. Fire engines circle the perimeter, and the whole thing is a blaze of lights, especially when “night time” falls.

For aviation enthusiasts, the realism and detail of Knuffingen airport is mesmerising, especially when you see the lift system that shuffles the departed aircraft back to the arriving queue, and all the apron vehicles bringing themselves into recharging docking stations when they sense their battery power is getting low. Its ambition and complexity are breath-taking.

For the past couple of years, Miniatur Wunderland, which is housed in Hamburg’s UNESCO-registered Speicherstadt warehouses where downtown meets docklands, has been Germany’s most popular tourist attraction. This is slightly to the consternation of the national tourist board, because cultural icons such as Neuschwanstein Castle and the Brandenburg Gate are being trumped by what is essentially a model railway.

Wunderland doesn’t need special promotion; word of mouth has always done it proud. The annual throughput of 1.4 million people is already a struggle within the confined space available, and at the busiest times you can wait for many hours if you haven’t reserved in advance. Sometimes, in the height of the summer, the doors stay open until the early hours of the morning to give everyone a chance.

It is clear from the entrance  that the project is still very much home-grown; there’s none of the flashy presentation associated with big entertainment corporations. Inside, a screen shows the origins of its 16.5 million visitors since it started 17 years ago. The big numbers are the Germans, Austrians, Swiss, Dutch, Brits and Americans; the small numbers are Tonga (six visitors so far) and the Vatican City (five – and it doesn’t say whether one was the Holy Father himself).

Miniatur Wunderland is the brainchild of twin brothers Frederik and Gerrit Braun, who both remain fully involved in the project. When they first went to the tourist board with their idea, all those years ago, they were turned down, on the basis that model railways appeal only to men and boys. And yet today, says marketing officer Thomas Cerny, it is female visitors who declare themselves most satisfied, probably because they “come with the lowest expectations”.

Certainly the statistics are impressive. Aside from the airport, some 270 model trains are simultaneously threading their way through a variety of national landscapes (Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, Italy, etc), along with 9,250 cars, 260,000 model people and 385,000 LED lights. There are even ships on real water bringing themselves into docks guided by working rudders and propellers.

But what makes it work for everyone, and not just trainspotter types, is the detail; the little touches of humour, such as the water skiing penguins and the two monks gazing through the trees at a naked sunbather. There are over 100 figures making love in these landscapes. And there’s lots of social observation: the wannabe suicide being talked down off a clifftop, the long queues of women at the toilets in the pop concert, and the Hamburg hipster pulling his bed out of the wall in his studio flat when night falls.

And night does fall. Every 15 minutes the mood and the lighting changes. Several after-dark set pieces include the eruption of Vesuvius, complete with smoke and lava, which took years to perfect. And the opening up of the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg’s extraordinary wave-topped concert hall, with tiny moving figures in the orchestra.

All of this is run by a team of around 370 people, which includes the two cleaners who have to walk over the displays like delicate-toed King Kongs between 4am and 6am, wielding vacuum cleaners; dust is the biggest enemy of something with so many tiny electrically powered moving parts, and it takes them three weeks to clean the whole thing, before they start again.

Miniatur Wunderland is clearly a hugely, and maybe unexpectedly, successful enterprise. The Brauns have just turned 50, and their next plan is to open up a France and England section, but with no room left in the current warehouse, they’ve submitted plans to do so in its sister building across the canal. That’ll mean a bridge between the two, but that also brings the model makers up against a new obstacle: Speicherstadt’s UNESCO World Heritage status.

So the next chapter in its development starts with UNESCO versus Miniatur Wunderland, something of a David and Goliath battle. There’s probably a model in that.