Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie concert hall has finally opened its doors, signalling a new chapter for the city’s ambitious Hafencity development. Marisa Cannon reports.

Driving past Gothic brick warehouses and over iron truss bridges, our car weaves through traffic towards the site of Hamburg’s new Elbphilharmonie. It has been a few weeks since the soft launch of the €860 million concert hall and there’s a tangible sense of excitement from our guide whenever its name crops up in conversation. “We’ve waited a long time for this,” he says.

As we turn a corner, the crystalline fortress comes into view. Towering over the city’s docklands, it is a vision of undulating, reflective panes, the curvature of which mirror the movement of a ship’s sails, beating above a wedge of red brick below. Sunlight glints off the façade’s concave panels – a glittering beacon on Hamburg’s horizon.

Striking though it is, the project has had its share of controversies since it was first commissioned in the early 2000s. Tom Schulz, spokesman for the Elbphilharmonie, says things started well when property developer Alexander Gérard approached old school friends Herzog and De Meuron, architects of Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” stadium and the new Tate Modern, to design a landmark on the banks of the River Elbe.

“The wave-like silhouette was such a hit with the city authority that it took over the project from Gérard, and the task of funding it,” he says. At that point, the total cost was estimated at €77 million.

A slew of challenges soon followed. Construction paused for over a year while the city launched a lawsuit against its contractor for grossly underestimating costs. Unsurprisingly, revelations of a €300 toilet brush and €1,000 paper towel dispenser for the lavatories weren’t well received.

Under new management, the construction company thrashed out a new contract with the city. Seven years overdue and ten times over budget, the Elbphilharmonie opened officially last month. The public mood is now soaring, and hopes are pinned on the performance space redefining the city as a cultural centre.

Inside, the building is split into three, with luxury apartments and the four-star Westin Hamburg cushioning three concert venues at its centre. The acoustics of the largest of these, which seats 2,100 people, were developed by Yasuhisa Toyota, who worked on the renovation of the Sydney Opera House. Occupied for rehearsals when I visited, the sound quality is said to have moved musicians to tears.

In the public areas, the interior design is clean and economical, with details redolent of the city’s maritime history including funnel-shaped columns and strip lights that look like neon grab handles. In the building’s brick base, Europe’s longest curved escalator transports visitors along an 82-metre stretch of white light and glistening wall sequins to a 360-degree viewing platform and the halls’ entrance.

Performers in the coming months include Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Mitsuko Uchida and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “The response has been extraordinary,” Schulz says. “We’re totally sold out for the first season, but we are still looking to create a few more dates because the demand is there.”


The launch of the Elbphilharmonie heralds a glitzy new chapter for the old port harbour in which it is situated, and where an enormous regeneration project is well under way. In 2000, Hamburg’s senate decided to rename the district Hafencity, announcing plans to revitalise the 157-hectare stretch of land, which had fallen into disuse when the traditional loading harbour became too small for modern containers.

Not unlike the revival of London’s Docklands, a mixed-use development was proposed, comprising office and residential blocks, retail areas, leisure facilities and parkland. With just over half of the project now finished, it is due to be completed in 2025 and is currently Europe’s largest inner-city development project, intended to expand the centre by 40 per cent and create more than 45,000 jobs. So far, more than 700 companies have moved in, including Unilever, Hanjin Shipping, Greenpeace and Twitter.

Susanne Buehler, Hafencity’s head of communications, says the area has attracted as much as €10 billion worth of private investment. “A crucial element in Hafencity’s strong attraction – as well as its situation at the heart of Hamburg, beside the River Elbe – is its visionary and sustainable urban development strategy,” she says. Buildings are heated through a combination of fuel cells, solar panels and geothermal energy, while commuters are transported around the district by hydrogen-fuelled buses and a new metro line.

Boasting more parkland per capita than anywhere else in the city, it is also blossoming into an attractive tourist destination. Bike-sharing stations have made the area more navigable, with cycling paths and walking routes installed along the river, while guided tours are available on the district’s history, planning and green-friendly initiatives.

Hafencity is also home to the International Maritime Museum, which has the world’s largest private collection of model ships, and historic monuments such as Chilehaus – a UNESCO-protected Expressionist warehouse that smacks of New York’s Flatiron Building. The quirky 25 Hours Hamburg Hafencity hotel is nearby, offering 170 rooms that evoke the area’s shipbuilding history, along with a stylish bar and restaurant; and meeting space for 200 people (see panel opposite for other Hafencity event venues).


As Hafencity continues to take shape, it will only add to Hamburg’s reputation as a business destination. Germany’s second-biggest city, after Berlin, it is notably wealthier than the capital, with one of the highest numbers of millionaires per capita than anywhere else in Europe. Last year, it was voted Europe’s second-best city to invest in (again after Berlin) by PwC and the Urban Land Institute, while ranking fifth for economic potential and seventh for business friendliness by the Financial TimesEuropean Cities and Regions of the Future Rankings 2016/17.

In this historic port city, shipping is big business – it is Europe’s third-largest container port, after Rotterdam and Antwerp. Meanwhile, Airbus’s Hamburg plant is the world’s third-largest aerospace facility after Boeing’s factory near Seattle and Airbus’s Toulouse HQ. Facebook, Google, Airbnb and Yelp have all opened offices here in recent years.

Some of this economic strength can be credited to the government’s cluster policy, which was launched in 2002 in support of Hamburg’s innovation and technology-related industries. The aim is to focus growth in the city’s eight strongest sectors, or “clusters” (such as aviation, the maritime industry, renewable energy and logistics) through funding, development programmes and academic partnerships.

One cluster is the media sector, which produces the lion’s share of Germany’s top-circulating publications. Der Spiegel, Bauer Media and Gruner and Jahr – which prints German Vogue and National Geographic Traveller – are all based in Hamburg. Content start-ups are benefiting from this cosy network, too, with companies looking to invest in new streams that will carry them through the digital revolution.

Next Media Hamburg is a government-funded cluster initiative that gives a helping hand to the city’s digital and media-related start-ups. “There have always been support initiatives for new media companies, but the city decided to create a central point of contact so entrepreneurs could find everything that they need in one place,” says May Lena Bork the programme’s director. The project helps start-ups from the earliest seed stages, offering consulting services, access to potential investors and the chance to gain visibility at overseas conferences.

Last year, Next Media launched an accelerator scheme to give start-ups the chance to win a place on a six-month mentoring programme and up to €50,000-worth of funding, in partnership with Google News Lab, Amazon Web Services and Speigel Group, among others.

Bork says the programme has opened up to more investors. “It’s a good way for companies to see what ideas could work for them, and it’s easier for a start-up to trial new things than for large companies to risk it.”

She adds that the start-up culture is not only attracting local entrepreneurs but foreign firms, too, with many approaching the accelerator in the last few rounds. With global visitors also set to descend on the city’s dazzling new cultural landmark, Hamburg’s footing on the world stage can only become firmer.


Hamburg continues to boast strong visitor numbers, with 6.3 million hotel stays in 2015 – an increase of 3.7 per cent on the previous year – of which 50 per cent were for business. In July, the city will host the G20 summit – good news for the city’s renowned Fairmont, Sofitel, Park Hyatt and Steigenberger properties, which will likely receive a large portion of the summit’s delegates.

Some 15 more hotels are set to join them in 2017, including the Fontenay, which will become the first luxury hotel to open in the city in 18 years when it is launched in July. Located on the western bank of Alster lake, the 131-room Leading Hotels of the World member is housed in a handsome droplet-shaped structure that reflects the fluid lines of the lake and surrounding parkland. It will have a Michelin-starred chef, a 1,000 sqm rooftop spa, indoor and outdoor pools, and a panoramic rooftop bar.

This month, boutique group Sir Hotels, which has properties in Amsterdam and Berlin, will open Sir Nikolai in Hamburg’s old town. Located in a grand former merchant townhouse and goods store, it will have 94 rooms, a 300 sqm underground spa with a pool and sauna overlooking the canal, plus a Japanese-Peruvian restaurant.


In 2015, Hamburg joined the International Congress and Convention Association’s top 100 worldwide rankings, hosting over 600,000 events and more than two million participants each year. Although event space inside the Elbphilharmonie itself is limited, the foyers around the halls can be booked out for private events, as can the Stortebeker restaurant, which holds up to 230 people. Meetings can also be held in the Westin. Elsewhere in Hafencity, vestiges of the district’s maritime history have been repurposed into charming event venues able to accommodate everything from small cocktail gatherings to mid-scale exhibitions.

Westin Hamburg

The 205-room Westin has eight meeting rooms below the Elbphilharmonie in the building’s brick warehouse. Ranging from 23 sqm to 469 sqm, the rooms are sleek with sea-themed details such as reef-like reliefs on the walls and rippling ceiling light fixtures. The largest has a capacity of 220 people. On the lobby level, the Bridge Bar is a pleasant venue for cocktails offering views across the River Elbe.

MS Bleichen

Originally a bulk freighter, the MS Bleichen has been transformed into a creative event venue with three venues. Below deck is the ship’s former cargo compartment – a dimly lit, atmospheric space with industrial steel walls, rustic wooden floorboards and capacity for 200 people. There is also the Salon, the captain’s quaint dining quarters, for smaller parties, while the main deck can be filled with cushioned banquettes and recliners for informal receptions overlooking the historic dockside warehouses.

Schuppen 52

Built at the turn of the 20th century, this former store warehouse has functioned as an event space since the 1970s. Everything from formal gala dinners to conferences can be held under its lofty ceilings, with room for up to 3,000 people for banquets and receptions. There’s also a flexible outdoor area that can be extended into with a marquee for receptions or catering.

For further information on staging events in the city, visit