Americans have long been drawn to the charms of Munich and, more recently, the energy of Berlin. But right now, arguably, the most exciting metropolis in Germany is Hamburg. One of the continent’s wealthiest cities and for centuries one of its most important ports, Hamburg nevertheless has a reputation for reserve, not excitement. Perhaps its instinct for restraint has something to do with the fact that the city is closer, both culturally and geographically, to Scandinavia than southern Germany. Its ties to the great cities of the North and Baltic seas go back at least to the Middle Ages, when Hamburg ranked among the most important members of the Hanseatic League and Bavaria was another country entirely.
Hamburg’s old port district, a quarter of canals lined with historic brick warehouses, is now home to its most impressive new landmark: the Elbphilharmonie. The exuberance of this concert hall’s architecture — a great glass exclamation point on the tip of an island, with a curvaceous roofline hearkening to the waves of the Elbe River and the sea beyond — would seem to be at odds with the usual character of the city. Indeed, many locals feel ambivalent about the Elbphilharmonie, considering its monumental budget overruns and years-long delays. But now that it’s finished at last, it looks perfectly at home, the most important piece of a revival that has placed Hamburg among the cultural centers in Europe.
The Westin Hamburg
Even without the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg is a compelling city. It does not rely heavily on tourism for its income, and most of the tourists who do visit come from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Thus Hamburg retains a strong sense of authenticity, a quality increasingly difficult to find. Because Hamburg was severely damaged during World War II, parts of the center are less than charming. Nevertheless, beautiful quarters remain. The most stylish neighborhood is the old port, Speicherstadt, its historic warehouses now home to restaurants, boutiques, cafés and museums. I couldn’t resist trying out one of the two hotels in the neighborhood. Ordinarily I find Westins eminently resistible, but the 244 rooms of the new Westin Hamburg occupy much of the Elbphilharmonie building, affording some of the best views in the city from within its best contemporary architecture.