The port of Hamburg plays a considerable and vital role for the history of Hamburg. It had been founded in 1189 and had quickly developed into one of Europe’s busiest ports. The trade enabled by the availability of goods in large volumes turned Hamburg into a affluent city before long. Passenger traffic became a more important factor in the 19th century, when many Europeans chose to emigrate to America. This also gave freight traffic another boost and Hamburg became the terminus of the Hamburg America Line, the world’s largest shipping company back then. The port was repeatedly enlarged in those years, adding space for storage and docks. Trade was facilitated even further when the free port was established in 1888, as from then on merchants did not have to clear German customs to sell to other European countries. In the past decades, cruise travel to Hamburg has picked up pace, but still contributes only a small percentage to the port’s revenues.
Hamburg has 320 mooring areas for vessels and ten terminals, most of which are for container goods. Another important freight good are liquids such as petroleum which can be accepted at three of the terminals. Apart from the turnover of goods, there are also facilities to process and enhance goods located within the port area, while shipbuilding and dockyard work has gradually declined over the years. Instead, tourism has become a growing factor for the port.
There are a number of companies offering tourists to see the port and witness daily operations routines. Most commonly, visitors will embark on a harbor boat tour. These depart from the St. Pauli Landungsbrücken (jetties) which can easily be reached by tram and subway (the train station is also called “Landungsbrücken”). Once there, you may choose between different options for your tour. Most join short innerharbor tours, lasting about an hour and departing every 30 minutes, on which you’ll get a chance to get close to the giant vessels and possibly see some loading and unloading operations for an approximate fare of 16 Euros. To join a tour with an English-speaking guide, advance reservations are recommended. Investing a few Euros more will get you on a tour lasting two hours which will bring you deeper into the port area and affords a look at the newly constructed city quarter called Hafen City, an ambitious urban development area. Both the shorter and the longer tour will let you see the Speicherstadt area, which is one of the most interesting parts of the port.
This part of the premises, roughly translated as “storage city”, features several rows of multi-storey warehouses with red brick facades at waterfront. Those warehouses are built on timber piles and can be accessed both from land and from water. Having been constructed from 1883 on, the Speicherstadt served for many decades as storage area for goods transported into the port of Hamburg, mainly tea, coffee, and spices. These goods were savored here and then packaged into ready-to-sell units. This is still being done up until today, although the number of goods stored here has significantly decreased due to the rise of container shipping and the building now often house electronics or carpet shipments. As the Speicherstadt buildings’ occupancy rates dropped, some of the historic houses were converted to other uses.
There are now a number of tourist attractions located in the Speicherstadt. Apart from the Hamburg Dungeon (Kehrwieder 2, open daily 10 am- 6 pm), an interactive journey into the dark chapters of history not for the faint-hearted (and not for kids, either), there is the popular Miniatur Wunderland (Kehrwieder 4, open every day 9:30 am-6 pm, longer on weekends), the world’s largest miniature railway installation which depicts true-to-original scenes from Europe and America complete with the corresponding scenery. One could spend hours in front of the installation and still discover new details. In addition, there are a number of museums located here. One, aptly called the Speicherstadtmuseum (Am Sandtorkai 36, open daily 10 am - 5 pm, closed on Mondays in the winter months) showcases the history of the storage city and has a walk-in section showing how goods are stored and processed in the buildings. Some of these goods are also the centerpiece in the museum next door, the Gewürzmuseum (spice museum, Am Sandtorkai 34, open Tuesday-Sunday 10 am- 5 pm). This unusual exhibition informs about spices, how to handle them and how to tell their quality. All spices on display may be experienced with all senses and there is a tasting session included in admission. Since 2008, Hamburg also has a maritime exhibtion in the Speicherstadt area, the International Maritime Museum (Koreastrasse 1, open Tuesday-Sunday 10 am - 6 pm). The museum grew out of a private collection of model vessels, art and other maritime items from many centuries. Parts of the exhibition deal with maritime research, others are devoted to military shipping. There is also an original ship used by an explorer to travel at the South Pole. Finally, the Deutsches Zollmuseum (Alter Wandrahm 16, open Tuesday-Sunday 10 am - 5 pm) is a showcase of the history of borderpatrol and customs and also introduces visitors to the everyday duties of customs officers. Sections of the exhibition deal with issues such as contraband, wildlife conservation and counterfeiting of brand products.
While most tourists choose to go on a harbor boat tour, there are also a number of ferries connecting the different parts of the port. These were installed to transport workers from one point to the other, but may also be used by visitors. Four of the ferry lines also depart from St. Pauli Landungsbrücken. Near this terminal, the most famous of the museums ships on display in the port area can be found, the Rickmer Rickmers. The three-masted sailing ship has been built in Germany in 1896 and can now be visited daily between 10 am and 6 pm. Many tourists are interested in seeing large cruise ships and in Hamburg, you can do so at the two cruise terminals. There are two mooring points at the Cruise Center near HafenCity at Chicagokai and one more in Altona.
While certainly the daily operations of such a large port are most fascinating to witness, the port welcomes the most visitors for their large-scale events. One of these are the bi-annual Cruise Days, a celebration of cruise ships used by shipowners to present their vessels and programs. In the course of the three-day event, there is usually a ship parade and several accompanying events on land. A parade is also part of the activities at the annual Hafengeburtstag event, celebrating the anniversary of the port’s founding. The Hamburg port’s “birthday” is May 7 and since 1977, the festival takes place on a weekend either shortly before or after that date. The event attracts about a million visitors each year and features a large fireworks show and a “ballet” performance of tugboats.