Hamburg is a city of water. Sitting at the point where the River Elbe widens into the sea, it is full of lakes and canals. And bridges: Hamburg has more bridges than any other city in the world (apparently more than Amsterdam, Venice and London combined!). One of the best places to see the water and to explore Hamburg’s maritime history is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Speicherstadt. This was once the warehouse district, but is now a place where tourists can enjoy eye-catching architecture, museums, and more…
Speicherstadt, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
You might not immediately identify the buildings of Speicherstadt (literally “warehouse city”) as warehouses. The architecture is startling, a sea of neo-Gothic red brick, adorned with turrets, gables and arches. The uniformity of style is due to the fact that the whole area was purpose built as a freeport in 1881. (An interesting snippet of history: Hamburg was an independent city state until 1815, and was granted a permanent customs-free area after it joined the German Federation.)
It is not just the architecture of the area that is remarkable. Islands in the river have created a series of canals, criss-crossed by metal bridges. Some of the bridges are grand, like the Brooksbrücke, with statues on each corner. Some are small and functional and, inevitably, some are covered with lovers’ padlocks. Then there is the Kibbelsteg Bridge, with its quirky art installation – “Public Face” – which smiles or frowns depending on where you are standing.
Speicherstadt was partially destroyed in World War II. However it was later rebuilt as a residential and leisure area. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015, because it is the largest integrated warehouse district in the world, and because of its “unique buildings and winding network of streets, canals and bridges”.
Speicherstadt is a bit like Venice, but without all the tourists… The best way to explore is on foot. Walk along the central Brooksfleet Canal, wander through archways and along narrow side streets. Look out for decorative features on the facades of buildings and don’t miss the Wasserschloss (“water castle”), which was the only residential building in the original complex.
If you want to see the area from the water try a Waterways Trip. This will take you through the Speicherstadt and past the modern architecture of the adjoining HafenCity area. The tourist Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus also has stops to Speicherstadt and HafenCity.
This is very much a place where people live and work. I watched cyclists on their morning commute, and construction workers engaged on the seemingly never-ending process of renewal and renovation. Many of the buildings have been converted into apartments or offices, but a surprising number are still used as warehouses. And ships still move through the water.
But there is plenty here for tourists. The area is full of museums to suit every taste. Some reflect the history of the area: the International Maritime Museum, the Deutsches Zollmuseum (“customs museum”) and the Speicherstadtsmuseum. Or you might prefer the Hamburg Dungeon or the nearby Chocolate Museum! There is lots to choose from and, when you have had enough of museums, there are cafés and restaurants where you can stop and watch the world go by.
Around Speicherstadt: Kontorhausviertel and HafenCity
The UNESCO World Heritage Site also includes the Modernist buildings of the neighbouring Kontorhausviertel. These were early 20th century office buildings housing businesses associated with the Speicherstadt. Chief among them is the Chilehaus, a massive ten story building resembling the prow of a ship.
For a contrast in building styles, take a walk around HafenCity. This is still very much a work in progress, but you will see an eclectic mix of old and new. And make sure you end your architectural journey at the HafenCity Universität underground station – an ultra-modern construction of steel, glass and shifting colours.
This article is now available as a mobile app. Go to GPSmyCity to download the app for GPS-assisted travel directions to the attractions featured in this article.