Dispatches from Hamburg: First Impressions

Image Credit: Hamburg, Speicherstadt, WasserschlossWikipedia Commons/Dietmar RabichLicence: CC BY-SA 4.0

By Kate Docking and David Peace


And so, after months of planning, a few too many sleepless nights, in defiance of Brexit red-tape, and in trepidation of COVID travel restrictions, the team has arrived here in Hamburg – the historic port city of the medieval Hanseatic League and modern Germany’s gateway to the world.

We British members of the team are now following in the footsteps of countless others before us who have throughout Hamburg’s long history come here to either make a new home for themselves and their families or to build on all the opportunities that this unique place has to offer as one of Europe’s great port cities.

But as new migrants to this city, what are our first impressions?

Perhaps it would be too easy to fall into the list of “-est words” often used to describe Hamburg: the biggest, the oldest, the largest, the busiest. But how else to describe this city, the “pearl of the north”, so often compared to Venice for its web of bridges and canals, and to London in its outlook and capricious weather?

The city brims with the bustle of life, business, and prospects. Taking the road in from the Southwest via Hamburg’s Hanseatic sister city of Bremen, sitting with its face towards the North Sea, it’s hard not to be struck by that first image that appears from above the treeline. The motorway stretches out towards a city alive with traffic, trains, tankers, and planes jostling with each other across the port’s skyline pierced by electric blue docking cranes, the rumble of growing stacks of rainbow coloured shipping containers, and what looks like all the cargo of the world carried on the bulked-up backs of steel freighter ships emblazoned with the names of faraway places and the flags of distant countries.

And then through the new Elbtunnel, and under the old great river that weaves its way through the belly of the city. Beyond the industrial south, across of the river, moving towards the heart of Hamburg’s Hafencity, and the waters of the Alster lake beyond it, the city changes. Green grass and tall trees stretch down winding streets flanked along their length by a patchwork of buildings each telling stories of the different ages in the city’s past – from the pretty homes of the city’s old bourgeoisie, born from the wealth of the old docks, to the scars of totalitarianism, and in its wake the concrete necessity for post-war efficiency and security, and the new aspirations of a unified Germany embodied in the gilt-lit glow of the Elbphilharmonie’s glass spires overlooking the river waters. 

From street to street the city changes its face and shifts in tempo from upbeat hustle to quiet respites, lively metro stations and bars to secluded café corners and small, overgrown, forgotten flower gardens tucked away between the concrete balconies of klinker-brick apartments. Like the city, its people also seem at first glance to embody its diverse, multifaced nature – a place where communal rules are importantly guarded but where individual expression can be glimpsed at in every graffiti mark. A city who wears its green credentials proudly in its parks, bicycles, and politics, yet is also brimming with freighter traffic along its streets and parking spaces filled with the gleam and sight of familiar German car brands. Where it’s not uncommon to see suit-clad business workers sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on a bus with a student in ripped jeans and a guitar-case, as families and tourists stroll outside along the highstreets.

The Reeperbahn, with its mesmerising neon lights and thumping sounds echoing from the vast array of tightly packed bars and clubs, promises vibrant nights of dancing until dawn. On Sunday mornings, the Fischmarkt by the Elbe is frequented not only by restaurant proprietors keen to nab the best catch but by revellers flooding out of nightlife establishments in the Reeperbahn, on the hunt for a fresh crab sandwich to devour on their way home.

 Altona – or all zu nah, “all too near” as it was called by the Hamburg council in 1537 who deemed a pub built in the then independent settlement to be encroaching into the city – is littered with numerous local bars which line its cobbled streets. In these friendly, laid back and bohemian watering holes – in one, quite literally a watering hole, you can even wash your clothes as it also functions as a laundrette – residents of Hamburg’s largest district greet each other enthusiastically over inexpensive pints of locally brewed beer.

And there is the weather. The winter in Hamburg can feel relentless as the Fischmarkt is frequently overpowered by the Elbe’s waves, the ominous flood warning siren often penetrates the city sounds of children playing, dogs barking and trains halting, and layer upon layer of warm clothes are needed before venturing out into the chilling winds. It goes without saying that you don’t move to Hamburg for spectacular sunny weather.Yet Hamburg makes you feel almost instantly at home. Each varying districts often appear as cosy villages; and rather than feeling like a small, isolated individual in an immense, unwelcoming metropolis, you somehow belong in Hamburg. Locals take great pride in their city, and rightly so; for it is the sheer diversity of Hamburg – which offers quiet nature reserves alongside brimming beer halls, sandy beaches but also industrial harbours, sprawling flea markets offering old furniture close-by to immaculate designer shops – that makes it special. It’s precisely this uniqueness that prompts people from around the world to make Hamburg their home.