Germany’s newest UNESCO World Heritage site is in Hamburg. As you walk along the city’s harbour, passing the futuristic architecture in Hafen City on the way, you’ll notice a row of Gothic redbrick buildings just across the canal. That’s Speicherstadt, the old warehouse district.
Speicherstadt is located on an island. Getting here – and wandering around – you pass at least one bridge, probably more. Did you know Hamburg has more bridges than Amsterdam, London and Venice combined?
As everywhere else, one can’t seem to escape love locks. They’re colourful and sometimes brighten up a grey, dull area. They can be decorative; I’ll admit. But in general, I’m not a fan. I dislike how this newest form of… let’s call it ‘public art’, sometimes completely takes over monuments and masterpieces of architecture. Also, I have issues with the words ‘love’ and ‘lock’. They really don’t belong together. Love should be free, no? Not locked up with the key thrown away.
Luckily, the locks on the bridges in Speicherstadt aren’t too intrusive. Can’t say whether that’s because people here are appropriating the city less than elsewhere – or because the city authorities diligently remove them.
The old warehouse district once served as storage houses for teas, coffees, carpets and other exciting goods from faraway shores. Speicherstadt was a so-called free zone, which meant no customs duties.
As you walk along the 1.5 km long stretch, you’ll find cafes, pubs, restaurants and all kinds of quirky shops in the warehouses. But that’s not all.
In the oldest building – Building B (the blocks are numbered from A to X; leave it to the Germans to use such a logical naming policy) – is the International Maritime Museum. Further along are the Customs Museum, the Afghan Museum, Miniatur Wunderland, the more contemporary Hamburg Dungeon, the brand new Coffee Museum, and the enigmatically named Dialog im Dunkeln (Dialogue in the Dark).
In a perfect world, there would be time enough to explore everything thoroughly, but if you have only a weekend, like I did, I’ll suggest a more in-depth look at these three:
Miniatur Wunderland – essentially the largest model railway in the world – has more than 15 000 metres of railway tracks and nearly 10 000 trains. You don’t need to be a train spotter to appreciate this transport heaven. Real – yet miniature – scenes from all over Germany and the Alps can be seen along the tracks. There’s a wintry Arctic Sweden and a Norwegian fjord complete with a cruise ship. Even Mount Rushmore and the American West appear around a corner.
215 000 figurines show human life in many of its facets: at a football match, at a pop concert, hanging at the beach, attending a funeral service, at the gym, finding a body floating in water. There are churches – and a red light district. A fire brigade is putting out a fire, the police are apprehending criminals, a UFO is coming in to land. And Pippi is there, of course. My favourite is the busy (fictitious) Knuffingen Airport – the world’s smallest commercial airport – where planes actually take off and land! A Condor flight takes off and vanishes into the clouds. From another direction, an Air Berlin flight comes in for landing.
Despite the crowds, I spend a couple of hours here, just wandering around, gawking at this marvel of technology. And I don’t even have my kids along.
Tip: On a windy, cold and rainy Sunday, Miniatur Wunderland can be a bit of a push-and-shove experience. Visiting on a weekday might be a good idea, during school hours especially.
Interested in coffee? Where it comes from, how the beans are roasted, and, not least, how to properly prepare it? In the newly opened Coffee Museum, you can discover the history of coffee and see lots of corny artefacts, including some that are, shall we say, not exactly politically correct. It’s an interesting peek into the not so remote past, accompanied by the crackling sound of 50s and 60s music on vinyl.
You can also try the goods. Sampling 5 or 6 types of coffee, from various countries and of varying strength and bitterness, you learn to slurp loudly, a must for a coffee taster.
http://kaffeemuseum-burg.de/ (website in German only)
Dialogue in the Dark
Ever wondered what it’s like to be blind? You’ll have the chance to find out at Dialog im Dunkeln – Dialogue in the Dark. For 1.5 hours, a blind guide will lead you through a warehouse in Speicherstadt. And she will be the strong and safe one, while you’ll stumble through complete darkness, white cane in hand, exercising your other senses. Mine, I discovered, were a bit out of practice. Here’s my blind experience: Being blind in Hamburg.
There’s also Dinner in the Dark – and the new Dialog im Stillen (Dialogue in Silence), where you learn to speak with your hands and listen with your eyes. Next time.
Kontorhausviertel and Chilehaus
Around the corner from Speicherstadt is the other part of the World Heritage site: Kontorhausviertel (office district), with the legendary Chilehaus. You may wonder why an office district is considered important enough to be worthy of special preservation for future generations, but once here, you’ll see why.
This is what UNESCO says:
Adjacent to the modernist Chilehaus office building, the Kontorhaus district is an area of over five hectares featuring six very large office complexes built from the 1920s to the 1940s to house port-related businesses. The complex exemplifies the effects of the rapid growth in international trade in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Before you read on, here’s a quick quiz for you: What’s this odd-looking structure?
If you said ‘stairway’, you’re absolutely right. Isn’t it fabulous? Imagine walking up and down this to work every day?
Chilehaus is probably the most iconic image of Hamburg. The postcard! A huge 1920s building, an example of the so-called Backsteinexprissionismus, the expressionist style of architecture, Chilehaus appears different depending on which angle you’re seeing it from. And the name? Not as exciting as the Modernist structure itself, perhaps: Chilehaus was built by a shipping mogul who imported saltpeter from Chile. Simple as that.
Have you visited Speicherstadt? And – I’m curious: what are your thoughts on love locks?
Speicherstadt and Kontorhaus District with Chilehaus is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here are more UNESCO World Heritage sites I have visited around the world.
Disclosure: I’ve been in Hamburg a few times. My latest visit was part of a collaborative campaign between Hamburg Tourism and Nordic Travel Bloggers. As ever and always, I keep the right to write whatever I want.
Wow! So many interesting sites in one city! I have never treated Germany a travel destination, I admit, but after your visit and so many wonderful experiences I am ready to alter this attitude. I’ve just clicked to ‘Blind experience…’ post and I am so curious to read it!
Your neighbour country, too 🙂
I have been to Speicherstadt and loved it. Miniatur Wunderland was a highlight for me. By the way, I had no idea that Hamburg has more bridges than Amsterdam, London and Venice combined! About love locks — not a fan. When I first saw them in Europe, I thought they were romantic and even pretty, but they’ve gotten completely out-of-control and ugly in so many places. Hopefully, that won’t happen in Hamburg.
Looks like they have it under control – at least here in the warehouse district.
This looks like such an interesting place to visit – I love learning from you about lesser-known places in Europe. Not sure how I feel about the love locks – romantic idea but when they are becoming so heavy that historic bridges are being damaged then I can certainly understand why they are being removed.
I first saw love locks on the iconic bridge in Paris and thought they were wonderful. Now that I’ve seen them so many other places in the world, not so much. I found your comment about the words love and lock being oxymoronic to be very thought provoking – and I agree. I MUST get to Hamburg someday soon.
Thanks, Barbara 🙂
Great article about a fascinating place. Thanks for describing it in detail. My first thought when I saw the brick buildings going down to the canal was the line of industrial buildings along the Chicago River in Chicago. Then I remembered the warehouses with devices for loading ships on the canals of Brugge. Thanks for the memories–and I’d love to add Hamburg to those memories.
I’ve only been in Chicago once, when I was a kid. Would love to see it through grown-up eyes, the river and all.
Well … I know where I won’t be missing when I head to Germany. Thanks for such a detailed post!
My pleasure 🙂
Thanks for the tour, Sophie! Germany was never on my radar but you’ve given me several reasons why it should be.
I did think that was a stairway. The architect must have had the cross-section of a tree trunk in mind when he designed it. You know, when you run up a hill, they tell you to look at the ground to trick your mind so you don’t feel like you’re going uphill. I bet if I had to walk up these stairs every day, I could trick my mind so it doesn’t realize I’m actually going up 4 flights.
I agree with your point about love being free – though I hadn’t thought of it that way when I saw love locks in Paris. I still don’t understand how locks became a symbol of love.
So cool that stairway 🙂
What a fascinating read!! I have never been to Hamburg but now after reading this, I am ready to add to bucket list for sure! I was astounded to learn that Hamburg has more bridges than Amsterdam, London and Venice combined. How incredible! I too, could spend hours and hours in Miniatur Wunderland. I have heard and seen so many videos, I MUST see this place one day! Thanks for the lovely tour Sophie!!
You’d love Hamburg, Jeff 🙂
Thanks for sharing this is really neat!