A Walking Tour of Polished Concrete: Hamburg’s Futuristic Harbor City

The top of the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg. Photos bySony Stark.
The top of the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg. Photos bySony Stark.

A Walking Tour of Polished Concrete: Hamburg’s Futuristic Harbor City

By Sonja Stark

“Rome wasn’t built in a day” but by comparison HafenCity could be. This conceptual city on the River Elbe is taking shape at record speed in North Germany’s landscape of dikes, canals and ports.

It will take the span of 25 years (by 2025) for the Hanseatic sub-district to complete a showpiece of futuristic design, green space, transportation hubs and cultural hotspots.

All the while, rather than elevating the streets, a safety infrastructure of flood-secure plinths and cantilevered buildings are being built to withstand storm surges and rising tides.

High Dialect, High Expectations

My introduction to Hamburg is a walking tour on the island districts called HafenCity. Technically, it’s still Hamburg; it’s a city within a city, but the urban development waterfront project is famously dubbed HafenCity or Harbor City.

Behind the historical warehouse district is the Kesselhaus Information Center formerly a boiler house dating back 150 years crammed with curious visitors. A moderator stands next to a large three-dimensional scale model with a pointer illustrating the stages of completion of each neighborhood.

The structural enormity of this project makes many jaws drop.

“All told, 157 hectacres in HafenCity will increase the size of Hamburg by 40%,” emphasizes the moderator.

Forty-seven projects are already completed and another thirty-five are under construction or in the planning stage. There will be, in total, ten new neighborhoods at a cost of roughly ten billion dollars.

Aerial View of the Traditional Pier in HafenCity
Aerial View of the Traditional Pier in HafenCity

Understanding the Waterway’s Importance

For more than 800 years, Hamburg has been prosperous due in part to merchant trade; coffee, spices, cocoa and oriental carpets, along the Elbe and Alster Rivers. The port is the largest in Germany and is commonly referred to as the “Gateway to the World.”

My tour begins by visiting centuries-old maritime vessels moored at the traditional ship harbor in the Sandtorhafen quarter.

Twenty restored floating relics sway lightly against a backdrop of modern high-rises and glossy promenades. The tugboat Fairplay VIII and pilot schooner Elbe No. 5 are permanently on display.

Once a low-lying marshland, the harbor sits on a long pontoon that was redesigned to withstand the river ebbing and flowing as much as 15 feet above sea level.

The prize-winning Unilever Headquarters employs 1,200. In 2009 it was designated the World's Best Office Building.
The prize-winning Unilever Headquarters employs 1,200. In 2009 it was designated the World’s Best Office Building.

A Growing Economy

Real estate in HafenCity is in high demand by industry giants like the Spiegel Group, Germanischer Lloyd and Kühne & Nagel. Even environmental groups like Greenpeace are vying for space in this dynamic epicenter.

The tour winds through the sculptural atrium of the Unilever headquarters, a world-leading food and home brand producer of Pond’s, Lipton, Surf, Slimfast, Bertolli and more.

I admire the reasons why they have achieved top awards for sustainability and eco-friendly architecture. Energy is obtained via wind turbines, geothermal and photovoltaic systems. By 2020, the company’s carbon footprint will be slashed in half.

Hybrid Sophistication

HafenCity aims to please international cultural palettes with bold hybrid structures like the Elbphilharmonie Concert Hall. The undulating shape of the glass roof is certain to become an iconic riverside draw. The venue is built above the former Kaispeicher A, a cocoa warehouse gutted into a modern car garage.

Wearing duck boots and hardhats visiting the top of the Elbphilharmonie Concert Hall
Wearing duck boots and hardhats visiting the top of the Elbphilharmonie Concert Hall

My guide hands me a hardhat and yellow duck boots. Due to unforeseen logistics and expenses the star architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron have lapsed in completing by deadline.

Still, the busy PR manager is kind enough to escort me past the cranes to two nearly finished concert auditoriums holding audiences of 2,150 and 550 respectively.

We ascend skyward to one of the 45 residences perched high above. For a few million dollars the owner of the top flat can enjoy the greatest commanding views in Hamburg.

Business Lunch with a View

It’s curtains up for CARLS Bistro, Brasserie and Bar, ideally located on the ground floor of a building adjacent to the Elbphilharmonie. Once the concert hall makes it debut CARLS will be crowded with patrons both on the veranda outside and rooms indoors.

CARLS Bistro, Brasserie and Bar
CARLS Bistro, Brasserie and Bar

The tour breaks for a lunch bite.

I pull back two flowing red velvet curtains to find a spacious dining room with rich leather bench seats and wheel-sized lamps hanging from the ceiling.

An open kitchen faces several tables so we can watch Head Chef Michel Rinkert toss together favorite northern German cuisine like marinated Gluckstadt Herring or Boeuf Bourguignon with glazed onions and mashed potatoes.

HafenCity Trickles with Culture

HafenCity is beginning to trickle with community life that includes a primary school, sports hall, apartments and retail shops. There are already omore than 1,700 people living here and another 7,200 who commute to work every day.

My tour takes me past the impressive commercial center in the Überseequartier quarter where a large supermarket, several banks, a subway station and the city’s first Cruise Center and Hotel are now open for business. Galleries, boutiques and larger flagship stores are some of the newest tenants.

Bicycle and foot paths encourage exercise and well-being.
Bicycle and foot paths encourage exercise and well-being.

Throughout HafenCity there are parks, playgrounds and several sheltered spaces to relax and people-watch. By the summer of 2012, 15 outdoor market stalls on the Übersee Boulevard are expected to open three days a week.

The new Magellan-Terrassen space will be the setting for outdoor performances from tango to street theater to literature readings. Once the planted trees grow into maturity, the area will blossom into a charming green showpiece.

Icons of Design

After the tour ends, I’m left to my own devices to discover the historic warehouse complex where a vast milieu of museums and memorials reside.

Some of those include the only spice museum in the world (Gewürzmuseum), the International Maritime Museum, the Dungeon Museum and the world’s biggest model railway museum (Minautur Wounderland).

I decide to learn more about Germany’s love affair with cars at the Prototyp Automobile Museum. In November 2011, Le Mans winner Derek Bell and television celebrity Jay Leno (an avid car collector) chose the Protype Museum as one of the five best auto museums in the world.

A collection of Germany’s finest racing and world-record-breaking cars, including Michael Schumacher’s first Formula One (the Jordan F1 191), are on display. And if you’re old enough, Disney’s “Herbie the Love Bug” may not be the shiny white 1963 Volkswagen Beetle you remember, but it’s still nostalgic to view.

The Prototyp Automobile Museum
The Prototyp Automobile Museum

Cruising the Waters of HafenCity

A visit to HafenCity isn’t complete without a windy harbor cruise along the River Elbe on the Rainer Abicht Elbreederei. While passing through locks and cruising under bridges, the captain entertains you with stories of stevedores, tallymen and tugboat pilots.

HafenCity alone includes 55 landing facilities, 177 bridges (there are some 2300 in Hamburg) and 217 miles of railway tracks. That’s an enormous swath of steel landmarks dotting the horizon.

Thousands of container terminals from Asia, the Americas and Africa crowd the shoreline. Some ferries will dock on the eastern part of the Free Port Zone so you can visit the Harbour Museum and BallinStadt, which focuses on the history of emigration.

Marine Hamburg Boat Cruise on the River Elbe
Marine Hamburg Boat Cruise on the River Elbe

As you glide past the outskirts of Hamburg, you can ponder the reasons why a life-size gold cow statue, a recent addition by an unknown source, was erected on a crumbling pier between two bridges.

Dinner on the Promenade

In the summer, Kaisers Restaurant is the prime location for al fresco dining on the sparkling waterfront overlooking the Marco Polo terraces.

The kitchen serves up seasonal foods from home-style hamburgers to fine cuisine to modern dishes from around the world. I’m treated to a hearty potato stew for starters and medallions of pork loin for the main entrée.

A City in Constant Flux

Every year, every month, every hour the global metropolis grows more lively and attractive for tourism. Empty brown lots are rapidly evolving into modern universities, a lively art scene and panoply of shops.

Thousands of container terminals crowd the shoreline.
Thousands of container terminals crowd the shoreline.

An outrageous-looking angular ring Science Center might actually be closer to construction if you return this year.

One of the best times of year to visit HafenCity is in May when the celebration of the harbor’s birthday (Hafengeburstag) launches tugboat “ballets”, tours of old galleons and new cruise ships. A fireworks show in the evening caps off the day.

In May you also might catch a glimpse of the legendary Queen Mary 2 when she docks at the Hamburg Cruise Center.

Outstanding Comfort on AirBerlin

Airberlin has all new cabins on their long-haul non-stop flights between New York, Miami and Ft. Myers to Dusseldorf and Berlin, Germany. Aboard the A330-200s are all new seats in Business and Economy Class and a new in-flight entertainment system. More legroom, additional amenities like coat hooks, adjustable headrests and an on-demand audio-video system for custom entertainment allows passengers a new benchmark in international travel.

Breaking for beer overlooking the Elbe River
Breaking for beer overlooking the Elbe River

Helpful HafenCity Links:

Hamburg Travel and Tourism
St. Pauli Landungsbrücken at the Harbor
Between Jetty 4 and 5
Sun-Wed 9a to 6p Thu-Sat 9a to 7p

Kesselhaus Information Center
Am Sandtorkai 30
Tues-Sun 10a to 6p
Open till 8p on Thurs from May to September
Ask for a guided tour of Elbphilharmonie

Elbphilharmonie Concert Hall
Box Office at Am Kaispeicher
20457 Hamburg HafenCity

CARLS Brasserie
Am Kaiserkai 69
20457 Hamburg HafenCity

Internationales Maritimes Museum
Koreastrabe 1
Tues-Sun 10am to 6p, Thu to 8p
20457 Hamburg HafenCity

German cuisine with a French accent at CARLS Bistro and Brasserie
German cuisine with a French accent at CARLS Bistro and Brasserie

Protyp Automobile Museum
Shanghaialle 7/Beim Lohseplatz
20457 Hamburg HafenCity
20457 Hamburg
Tues-Sun 10a to 6p

St.Annenufer 2, Block R
20457 Hamburg HafenCity
Tues-Fri 10a to 5p
Sat-Sun 10a to 6p

Minatur Wunderland Museum
Kehrwieder 2-4, Block D
20457 Hamburg HafenCity
M, W, Thurs 9:30a-6p, Tues 9:30a-9p
Fri 9:30a-7p Sat 8a-9p Sun 8:30a-8p

Kaisers Restaurant
Am Kaiserkai 23
20457 Hamburg HafenCity
Open M-Sun 10a to 10p


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Sonja Stark
Sonja is an award-winning, freelance videographer and the founder of PilotGirl Productions. She shoots professional 4K video for top-rated television productions, shows and documentaries. She is GoNOMAD's most regular blogger, click to read her latest post about travel and life in video.