Hamburg; a fabulous maritime city that's 110 kilometres from the sea

Captain Hoffman stands on the bridge in naval uniform intently watching an approaching container vessel. But instead of barking orders for a change of course he takes up a microphone and announces in a kindly manner - from two 600-watt speakers - the tonnage, length and homeport of the oncoming ship. Then at the click of a mouse a lofty anthem booms out across the water. 

Herr Hoffman welcomes arriving ships with an announcement and their national anthem. Photo My Bathroom Wall 

“I have 153 national anthems here,” Herr Hoffman says proudly. “They used to be on vinyl, then cassette tapes, and now they are MP3’s. That one was from the Marshall Islands because that is where the ship is flagged.”

Before you think the German navy has completely lost the plot, we’re on dry land, Herr Hoffman is retired, and his ‘bridge’ is a small office on the side of the Schulauer Fährhaus restaurant. This bonkers little ceremony takes place at a narrow point in the Elbe River 22 kilometres west of Hamburg, conducted for all arriving and departing ships over 5,000 tons. It first began in 1952 – initiated by the restaurateur who was constantly being asked by customers where the ships were from.

A ship passing the Schulauer Fährhaus and so called 'Welcome Point'. Photo Schulauer Fährhaus

Hamburg is Germany’s richest city, the country’s media, design, and music capital, and Europe’s second biggest port. It feels more chilled than Munich, less swaggering than Berlin, and despite being 110 kilometres from the North Sea, the connection with seafaring is ever present.

You can’t miss the giant port that smothers one bank of the River Elbe. The city is clearly proud of it, and flaunts it with an historic riverfront that grandstands the dry-docked cruise liners here for refits, the banks of containers and rows of cranes.

And the love of shipping doesn’t stop there.

The splendidly shipping-themed lobby of the 25hour HafenCity Hotel. Photo 25hours Hotels

I stayed at the 25hour HafenCity Hotel, a funky new place where standard bedroom décor includes a rope ladder, a life size cartoon of a sailor in the bathroom, a globe and a faux antique Louis Vuitton travel trunk. I could however have chosen the Atlantic Kempinski, which was built for first class passengers travelling on the Hamburg-America line and has a lobby bar like a cruise liner’s; or the recently refurbished Fairmont Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten, where older rooms have double doors with a space in between, formerly for the discreet delivery of luggage – just as posh old liners once insisted upon. 

The Fairmont Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten. Photo Fairmont Hotels

The ‘Love Boat’ theme was playing when I entered the Fairmont bar, which is a cabin-like nook with wood panelling and a spiral staircase. The chap taking red wine and cheese at the bar immediately chatted: “This has been my ritual to escape the hustle of every day life for forty years now.” And with an air-twirl of his fork he added, “Did you know that Hamburg has 64 kilometres of docks and more bridges than Venice and Amsterdam put together?” I looked sceptical, but a short while later the white-coated barman returned and said he’d checked his mobile and it wasn’t correct. “Wikipedia says that there are 2,400 bridges in Hamburg, more than Venice, Amsterdam and London put together,” he beamed. 

The almost seaside vibe at the Strandpearl bar/restaurant. Photo My Bathroom Wall

At the Strandpearl beach restaurant, I joined the tables of beautiful people on a rather grey beach and watched as the mammoth blue bulk of a container ship slide past. As I chomped through a bratwurst and beer, two mates in their 70s asked if the seats beside me were taken. Wolf excitedly told me that the blue container ship was the APL Sentosa – “Too big for the Panama Canal even, 70 meters longer than the Eiffel Tower and carrying up to 14,000 containers!”  His friend Berndt rolled his eyes: “Oh, here we go again,” he bemoaned through a huge smile. “Wolf knows everything about ships.”

The views are fabulous from the open air section of the 'Clouds' Bar. Photo Clouds Bar

The hippest places for cocktails are ‘Clouds’ and the ‘20up Bar’, both topping tall buildings and angled for the best floor-to-ceiling harbour views. There are bars down on the river, too -- cheap eats on the ten Landsbrücken pontoons with a seaside-feeling medley of excitable children and excruciating postcards. Nearby I sat in a deckchair and felt the sand between my toes at the mellower Hamburg del Mar bar, then I had a drink on the floating Astra floating biergarten, and rounded off on the curvaceous wooden deck of a little red lighthouse ship.

The 'Hamburg del Mar' bar, even though the mar is 110 kilometres away. Photo My Bathroom Wall

On the U3 metro line I was startled when the train emerged from a tunnel to reveal fantastic views of Hamburg’s river. Between Landsbrücken and Baumwall stations, the train trundles over rails elevated on spindly iron stilts for views not unlike those heading in or out of Sydney’s Circular Quay Railways Station. Public transport ferries fuss along the Elbe and dozens of harbour cruise options vie for the tourist’s attention, and there’s an extraordinary river tunnel too, built in 1911 for workers to commute to the docks. Glass lifts for pedestrians, and older garage-sized ones that take two cars at a time, descend 75-meters to the tunnel floor.

The late afternoon sun drew me to stroll westwards along the riverbank on my last day in Hamburg. I passed U-434, a Russian submarine (now a museum) and an office block in the shape of a ship, and eventually reached a cute cluster of historic vessels at the Oevelgönne museum.

The welcoming wooden interior of the old ferry boat restaurant. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Inside the cosy dining room of a converted 1952 Hamburg ferry, I tasted the city’s speciality of Labskaus – once a common seamen’s dish - a delicious hash of beef, potato and onion topped with an egg. The young waitress bent beside the table like a First Class airhostess and after the meal suggested that I should get a ferry back to where I’d started - and that one was leaving in four minutes. “At night when I finish it feels like a village here,” she said, “all peaceful and quiet. I get the ferry back to the centre sitting on deck watching the lights of the docks cranes and ships, and I feel very lucky.”

Four minutes later, the tug-like ferry arrived and lowered its gantry. I hurried on and took her advice, sitting on deck to watch the eerily lit cargo ships, their containers stacked like toy bricks, and red lights pinpointing the toiling crane tips.

I felt very lucky too.

Sunset over the River Elbe. Photo Visit Hamburg

puzzle Hamburg makes a great city break. It's an intriguing place with lots to see, a buzzing atmosphere, and outstanding maritime heritage. It's easy to get to, yet noticably less touristy than other top tier European cities.
31 Hamburg Airport is 8.5 kilometres north of the city and handled 16m passengers in 2016. There are flights to many European cities, plus to Dubai with Emirates, and Tehran with Iran Air
weather The best time to visit Hamburg is in summer from May to October. Temperatures rarely top  the high 20s and there is the chance of showers at any time of the year. Winters are chilly to cold, but snow falls only a few times a year. 
35 is the city’s website. Public transport day pass is €7.5 and the Hamburg Card is €9.5 a day, including discounted entry to museums and places of interest.