With its ‘Art Mile’ linking some of Germany’s top art museums and the spectacular new HafenCity (Harbour City), Hamburg is a great cultural destination

Named after its mighty river, the Elbphilharmonie is Hamburg’s spectacular new landmark

Hamburg is centred around two inland lakes divided by the Lombard and John F. Kennedy bridges. The ‘Aussenalster’, Europe’s biggest urban lake, is rimmed by some of the city’s most impressive residences and in summer is criss-crossed by sailboats and windsurfers. The ‘Binnenalster’, with its tall geyser gushing up into the air between spring and autumn, is ringed with floating cafes and restaurants. It dovetails into a large square in front of the magnificent, Renaissance-style Rathaus (City Hall) with its 640 rooms – more than Buckingham Palace. Two thirds of the city is water or parkland and a local law requires that 2,000 new trees are planted every year.

View across the Innenalster lake to the Renaissance-style Rathaus (City Hall)

Over the last decade Hamburg has acquired a brand new district. Europe’s largest regeneration project, HafenCity (‘Hafen’ is German for harbour) is revitalising a former port area with hotels, shops, office buildings and apartments. When completed by 2030, the new ‘downtown on the waterfront’ will increase the footprint of the inner city by 40 per cent.

Hamburg’s five main city centre art museums are just a few hundred metres apart along the ‘Kunstmeile’, or Art Mile, which partially follows the arc of the long since demolished city wall. Along the way you may cross one of Hamburg’s many bridges or canals, reputably more than Venice and Amsterdam combined. Facing one another across a raised plaza popular with skateboarders are two branches of the city’s main art museum which could not be more different in either their design or their collections.

The red brick Kunsthalle (Art Hall) is the city’s most venerable art institution. Established in 1869, it is Hamburg’s oldest museum. Once regarded as the epitome of the Hamburg bourgeoisie’s taste in art, it houses one of Germany’s most important public collections, with works spanning seven centuries of art history from the Middle Ages to the present day.

The Kunsthalle (Art Hall) is Hamburg’s oldest museum

As well as permanently displaying over 700 iconic works from the city’s permanent collection, such as Edvard Munch’s Madonna, Monet’s Waterloo Bridge and Hill and Ploughed Field near Dresden by Caspar David Friedrich (who has a whole room to himself), the Kunsthalle shows a series of special exhibitions spread throughout a labyrinth of adjoining rooms. A lovely Impressionist collection includes works by Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Gauguin and Sisley.

The Kunsthalle was joined in 1997 by the stark, white block that is the Gallery of Contemporary Art, known inevitably as ‘the Cube’. In the underground passageway connecting the buildings, try not to strain your neck reading Jenny Holzer’s Ceiling Snakewith its digital sayings running like ticker-tape along the ceiling (‘Going with the flow is soothing, but risky’, ‘Too much self-consciousness is dangerous’, ‘Even your family can betray you’).

The Gallery of Contemporary Art, the ‘Cube’

The passageway seems to act as a time machine, as visitors leave a rather sombre fin de siecle atmosphere and emerge into the bright, minimalist environment of one of the largest buildings for contemporary art in Germany. The collection traces international developments from 1960 onwards in media such as painting (Gerhard Richter, Georg Baselitz, Neo Rauch), Pop Art (Andy Warhol, David Hockney), conceptual art (Sol LeWitt, Robert Mangold, Richard Long) and photography (Jeff Wall, Cindy Sherman). There are also hundreds of video and digital works.

With half a million objects spanning 4,000 years of world cultures, the Museum of Arts and Crafts (known by its German acronym, MKG) is the biggest of its kind in Europe. Highlights include furniture, a unique art nouveau collection, original keyboard instruments, porcelain and faience ware from Meissen, Nymphenburg and other manufacturers and product design from the Bauhaus period. Exhibition subjects have included the changing uses of clay, Japanese tea ceramics, Chinese glassware, female designers and posters from the period around the collapse of the GDR. Don’t miss the beautiful music room, with its parquet flooring, statuary, gilded plasterwork and sky-painted ceiling.

Museum of Arts and Crafts

In two facing, hangar-like buildings which formerly housed a covered market complex, the Deichtorhallen (Dyke Gate Halls) make up one of Europe’s biggest centres for contemporary art and photography. Divided into the House of Photography and the Exhibition Hall of Contemporary Art (with a 3,000 square metre footprint, making it Europe’s largest contemporary art space), the airy, glass and steel interiors host a series of changing exhibitions.

Deichtorhallen/House of Photography

Over the years solo exhibitions in the two buildings have been devoted to work by the likes of Annie Leibovitz, Antony Gormley, Helmut Newton, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Keith Haring, Roy Lichtenstein, Joan Miro, Marc Chagall, Gilbert & George, Cindy Sherman, Andy Warhol, Louise Bourgeois and many others.

Deichtorhallen/Exhibition Hall of Contemporary Art

Established in 1817 and now located in a former market hall, the Kunstverein (Art Society) is one of the oldest contemporary art societies in Germany. It shows both emerging and established international artists and gave early exhibitions to now world famous names such as Caspar David Friedrich, Jackson Pollock and Francis Bacon. With no permanent collection of its own, the changing exhibitions react to current trends and socially relevant subject matter.

Kunstverein (Art Society)

Founded by the late owner of Die Zeit newspaper, Gerd Bucerius, the Bucerius Kunst Forum moved into new premises next to the Rathaus in 2019 after outgrowing its former home around the corner. Depending on the scale of the exhibitions, the single-floor gallery can be used as a single space or divided into several more intimate rooms. Exhibition themes range from antiquity to modern art.

From a David Hockney exhibition in the Bucerius Kunst Forum

Other attractions

Over the last decade Hamburg has acquired a brand new district. Europe’s largest regeneration project, HafenCity (‘Hafen’ is German for harbour) is revitalising a former port area with hotels, shops, office buildings and apartments. When completely developed sometime between 2025 and 2030, the new ‘downtown on the waterfront’ will increase the footprint of the inner city by 40 per cent.

HafenCity will be Hamburg’s new ‘downtown on the waterfront’

Buzzing with commercial activity for over 125 years, the Speicherstadt (Warehouse Town) is the world’s largest connected warehouse district and a UNESCO World Heritage site, There are boat tours through its network of canals lined by soaring, red brick warehouses stuffed with commodities such as coffee, cocoa, spices, tobacco and Oriental carpets (the world’s largest store) ready to be distributed to their final destinations.

Speicherstadt (Warehouse Town)

Named after the River Elbe, the landmark building is the Elbphilharmonie, with its spectacular, 110-metre high glass facade rising like a giant wave (or it it a sail?) above its red brick base, a former warehouse. (See top image) Visitors enter by way of The Tube, an 82-metre long escalator, to be met by a magnificent view over the port through a floor to ceiling picture window. A second escalator leads to the free to visit Plaza, where a viewing deck offers a sweeping, 360-degree panorama over the city and harbour. Inside, curved staircases, walls and ceilings and wave-like glass doors and windows create the feeling of being on board a cruise liner.

The spectacular interior of the Elbphilharmonie

Designed by the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron (London’s Royal College of Art, Konzerthaus Munich, Vancouver Art Gallery, etc.), the building’s centrepiece is the 2,100-capacity Grand Hall, where the seats rise in a steep incline to encircle the stage, resulting in unprecedented closeness between performers and audience. No seat is more than 30 metres from the conductor’s podium.