The Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg has been Germany's second-largest city since Vienna no longer belongs to Germany (i. e. 1866). This position was cemented when Hamburg (north of the Elbe river, built around the Alster river), Altona (west of Hamburg), Wandsbek (east of Hamburg) and Harburg (south of the Elbe river and Hamburg) were united by the Groß-Hamburg-Gesetz (Greater Hamburg Law) of 1938. Hamburg also is the second largest city in Europe (behind St. Petersburg) that is not a national capital. Although it is technically not a coastal city and a good 60 miles away from the North Sea, it has a quite maritime flair, also due to being a traditional Merchant City and former part of the Hanseatic League, and Europe's second-largest seaport because big sea-faring ships can sail up the Elbe river.
Hamburg was founded early in the 9th century as the seat of a bishop to bring Christianity to the territories to the Slavic people in the east and the Scandinavians to the north; the most famous among the bishops of Hamburg was St. Ansgar, the "Apostle of the North". However, this did not make the town popular, and it was burned down a few times during the following years by Vikings coming up the Elbe and by Obodrites from Mecklenburg, and the seat of the bishop was moved west to Bremen. During the Middle Ages Hamburg gradually achieved de facto independence from the bishop and the count of Holstein, and it has been a self-governed state of its own ever since, with a few minor interruptions (from 1811 to 1814 it was officially part of France, for instance). As a small state, it was not able to "make history" of its own, so the big events in the city's history tend to be its major disasters, notably the Great Fire of 1842 (which destroyed over a third of the inner city), the Firestorm of 1943 ("Operation Gomorrha", which after World War 2 led to a macabre rivalry with Dresden over which city had suffered more), and the storm flood of 1962 (which first brought Helmut Schmidt and his competence for managing a crisis to national attention).
As Hamburg is proud of its status as an old Free City and thus one of the two oldest republics in modern Germany (along with rival sister Bremen), it uses special historic names for the parts of its government. The executive is called "Senat" after the old city council (German: Rat, Latin: Senatus) and is headed by the "Erste Bürgermeister" (first burgomaster or first mayor). A Hamburg "Senator" is the equivalent of a minister in other German states. The state parliament is called the "Bürgerschaft" (citizenry) after the citizens' assembly of the pre-1860 political system. As a traditional merchant city Hamburg has a bit of a image of being prosaic and hostile to culture, but it actually has a rich cultural history. Part of the reason for Hamburg's negative image is that Hamburgers have always been unsentimental about old buildings and rarely hesitated to tear down entire neighborhoods if they felt it was necessary e. g. to make room to expand the harbour. Despite this image, Hamburg generally is considered one of Germany's most beautiful cities.
Foreigners and fiction often reduce Hamburg to its Red Light District which is referred to as "Reeperbahn" (the main street that goes through it) everywhere outside Hamburg and "Kiez" by Hamburg's citizens; justified in that sailors who used to be the largest group of foreigners to come to Hamburg went there straight from the nearby seaport and actually didn't see much more of the city in the first place. Unlike certain rumors, prostitutes and brothels don't line up along the Reeperbahn anymore — it's the Herbertstraße where they do. Also, it's there (although not on the actual Reeperbahn, but in the Große Freiheit) where The Beatles started their career in 1960.
However, there's a lot more to Hamburg.
The baroque Hauptkirche (main church) St. Michaelis with its early classicist clock tower, nicknamed "Michel", is Hamburg's most famous landmark. Fiction sometimes uses it for the Eiffel Tower Effect.
On the same street but more to the east, the church of St. Nikolai of which only the tower remains after the World War II bombings. It was another one of the five main churches and the tallest building in the world from 1874 to 1876.
Further famous landmarks around the harbor area include the Elbphilharmonie (under construction), the St. Pauli Landungsbrücken, the Lion King musical tent and a few times every year the Queen Mary 2. Landungsbrücken and Queen Mary 2 are often used for the Eiffel Tower Effect on picture postcards. An entire new residential district is also under construction, imaginatively called the HafenCity.
The building of the Hochbahn (what Hamburg calls its Underground, Subway or El, whatever you're used to) and the demolition of part of the Altstadt (Old Town) to make way for the Kontorhausviertel (office building quarter) at the beginning of the 20th century among other things established one of Europe's most famous shopping streets, the Mönckebergstraße. This stretches from the Hauptbahnhof (main station) at its eastern end to the Rathausmarkt (town hall market) at its western end. Another one, the Spitalerstraße, branches from it.
The Rathaus (city hall), a huge, sumptuously decorated neo-renaissance building that houses the Senat and Bürgerschaft, is hated by modern architects but loved by everybody else. If you take a guided tour, expect them to tell you how many more rooms than Buckingham Palace it contains. It was built after the old Rathaus was destroyed in the fire of 1842 and its clock tower fills the gap left in the city's skyline after the demolition of the cathedral ca. 1804.
In the Kontorhausviertel and elsewhere there are many office buildings built in the then modern styles of the 1920s and 1930s. The most famous among them (and yet another city landmark) is the expressionist, sharp-prowed Chilehaus, which was originally built for a shipping line trading with South America.
Parts of Hamburg seem like a City of Canals. All buildings in the Speicherstadt (Storage Town) have one canal side and one street side. The Alster river is mostly a canal or system of canals in Hamburg except for the artificial lakes Binnenalster and Außenalster. Further canals extend from the Außenalster. It's no wonder that Hamburg has more bridges than Venice, Amsterdam (two rightful Cities of Canals) and London combined.
Hamburg's biggest bridge, the Köhlbrandbrücke, is a famous landmark itself and the only bridge under which sea-faring ships up to a certain size can pass. Actually, crossing the Elbe river is difficult due to the large ships which have to be able to go everywhere. There are two tunnels, one with elevators connecting the Landungsbrücken with the harbor itself, and one as part of the Autobahn A 7, there are bridges in the east where no sea ships go anymore, and Hamburg's public transit includes several passenger ferry lines.
The Heiligengeistfeld (Holy Ghost Field) is a large free area to the east of the Reeperbahn. That is, 25% of the time, it is not free but occupied by northern Germany's largest fairgroundwhich is called Dom. "Dom" translates to "cathedral" and tends to confuse foreigners and even other Germans who sometimes expect a large church. Then again, the Dom was named after a cathedral which used to stand in the Altstadt (next to the Hauptkirche St. Petri), but was demolished at the beginning of the 19th century. North of the Heiligengeistfeld stands a humongous bunker, a Flakturm, which now contains studios, a music club and a big musical instruments store.
Soccer is Serious Business in Hamburg—in all of Germany, actually, but even more so in Hamburg. You support either the Hamburger Sportverein (HSV) or the FC St. Pauli, but never both, even if they rarely play in the same league. The more successful HSV is the only club in Germany that has never been below the First Federal League, but St. Pauli has a worldwide following due to the alternative culture it represents.
Residential areas in Hamburg range from concrete ghettos (Steilshoop, Mümmelmannsberg, Kirchdorf-Süd etc.) to luxury quarters (Blankenese, the Elbchaussee, but also the areas around the Außenalster). That said, housing in Hamburg is always expensive. Not Lower Manhattan-expensive, not City of London-expensive, but expensive. Constant gentrification of attractive and formerly comparatively cheap cult quarters with old, unmodernized houses (Schanze, St. Georg) doesn't help, nor does the construction of new residential zones which almost always end up in the premium class. At the same time, Hamburg has 1.4 million square meters of vacant offices, and new office buildings keep popping up everywhere.
There are numerous green recreational areas in Hamburg. Among the biggest is the world's largest park cemetery in Ohlsdorf which is twice the size of Monaco. The Stadtpark in Winterhude and the interconnected parks on the former city ramparts (the Große and Kleine Wallanlagen, the old botanical garden and Planten un Blomen) between the Neustadt and St. Pauli aren't small either.
Hamburg speaks its own German dialect named Missingsch which is described as "when a native Low German speaker tries to climb up to High German/Standard German but keeps sliding down into Low German." The latter (a.k.a. Plattdeutsch) is known in Hamburg, too, with a variety of subdialects. In fact, the Ohnsorg Theater has its own Plattdeutsch dialect.
By the way, the Hamburger is actually named after the city of Hamburg. It was invented by an emigrant from Hamburg who modified and refined something called "Rundstück warm" in Hamburg: a bun with a slice of roast and gravy.
Hamburg has been considered (one of) Germany's most cosmopolitan city since the 17th century at least and saw the influx of sizeable groups of foreign immigrants over the years - people from the Netherlands from the middle ages to the beginning of the Eighty Years' War, later Portuguese Jews, French Huguenots etc. etc. There has been Englishmen living in Hamburg since Elizabethan times (the street Englische Planke near St. Michaelis commemorates their original settlement) and for a long time Hamburg was jokingly called "the most English town on the continent". Currently Hamburg is home to large Chinese and Japanese communities and a neighborhood near the harbour has fairly recently acquired the name "Little Portugal".
Hamburg has long been an important media centre in Germany, at the time of the French Revolution the Hamburgischer Correspondent (full name: State and learned newspaper of the impartial Hamburg Correspondent) was considered one of the most important newspapers in Europe because it was not subject to as much censorship as those of most other states (at least until the French occupied the city in 1806). Current important print publications include the weekly Die Zeit and news magazines Der Spiegel and Stern. The Spiegel is famous for the "Spiegel Affair" of 1962, when an attempt by the federal government to silence it led to the resignation of minister of defence Franz Josef Strauß, which earned it the nickname "das Sturmgeschütz der Demokratie" (democracy's self-propelled gun). Stern became an international laughing stock for paying millions for the forged Hitler diaries. Hamburg is also home to the Norddeutscher Rundfunk (television and radio) and Studio Hamburg (film and television).
German films produced in Hamburg often tend to be more or less about Hamburg and/or showcase the city the best they can (see below).
The late medieval Störtebekerlied celebrates the defeat of the pirate leader Klaus Störtebeker by the seamen of Hamburg.
Hamburg crops up a bit in the works of Heinrich Heine, most notably in Deutschland, ein Wintermärchen, which describes a journey through northwestern Germany (starting in Aachen on the western border) to Hamburg not long after more than a third of the inner city was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1842 and which ends with a tête-à-tête between the author and Hammonia, the female personification of the city. Heine lived in Hamburg for a time in his youth near his rich uncle, the banker and philanthropist Salomon Heine (who later also financially supported his nephew). Because Hamburg had a more lenient censorship than most other German states of the era, this was where most of Heine's works were published during his lifetime.
Hamburg is also very much in the focus of the grim post-war writings of Wolfgang Borchert (1921-1947, see Theatre). One of his short stories, Bill Brook is about a Canadian soldier of the British occupation forces who goes on an outing to Billbrook, a neighborhood in the east of the city, because it is called just like him. He is shocked to discover just how much it is still devastated even though it is some years after the 1943 firestorm.
Schtonk, the 1992 satire of the Hitler diaries affair is naturally set in Hamburg, as in real life it concerned the Hamburg-based magazine Stern.
Dollars. In this Hamburg-based heist comedy starring Warren Beatty, Goldie Hawn and Gert Fröbe, the foyer of the Kunsthalle (city art gallery) is used to represent a bank.
Some scenes from Bend It Like Beckham is set in Hamburg (basically for the film to be able to receive part of its funding from Hamburg's Filmförderung).
The Hamburger Hafenkonzert (Hamburg Harbour Concert) is the oldest German radio show still being broadcast. It was started in 1929 by the Norag, precursor of the current Norddeutsche Rundfunk. It is broadcast every Sunday at 6 a.m. Central European Time, and always begins with the bells of the Michel and the signature tune "Anchors Aweigh".
Tatort has had a whole number of Hamburg-based investigators.
The prolific Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) became director of Hamburg's church music in 1721 and spent the rest of his life there. For a time he also doubled as director of the city's opera house. A number of his works were written for civic occasion, and among his suites there are Hamburger Ebb' und Flut (Hamburg Ebb and Flow, TWV 55:C3) and the delightful Alster-Ouverture (TWV 55:F11).
There are a number of popular songs that celebrate or favourably mention Hamburg, including
Stadt Hamburg in der Elbe Auen (City of Hamburg in the Vale of the Elbe), the state anthem.
Auf der Reeperbahn nachts um Halb Eins (On the Reeperbahn Half Past Midnight)
Nimm' mich mit, Kapitän, auf die Reise (Take Me With You, Captain, On the Voyage)
Hamburg, meine Perle (Hamburg, My Pearl), sung by the fans of the Hamburger Sportverein before every home game.
"Hamburg" by Die Lassie Singers, a really charming song whose meaning is mostly lost on this non-German troper.
Hamburg has been one of the most important theatrical locations since the 18th century, when Gotthold Ephraim Lessing worked at the theatre on the Gänsemarkt (his Minna von Barnhelm was first performed there) and wrote his Hamburgische Dramaturgie, which combined criticism with drama theory. Quite a number of William Shakespeare's plays were first performed in German in Hamburg during and shortly after Lessing's stay.
The best-known play set in Hamburg is probably Draußen vor der Tür, Wolfgang Borchert's grim, partly symbolistic story of a man returning to ruined Hamburg from a prisoner-of-war camp three years after the battle of Stalingrad. It was first performed on radio in 1947, then on stage at the Hamburg Kammerspiele, and later was adapted into the film Liebe 47.
The Ohnsorg Theater, where actors perform speaking Low German, is well-known all over Germany for its light comedies - often set in Hamburg - which have been shown on German television since the 1960s. However, for the television performances the plays are translated into High German. Some tourists are surprised to find that the Ohnsorg Theater also performs "serious" plays.