How did a warehouse district manage to get UNESCO Status? Well, the Speicherstadt Hamburg is incredibly photogenic… rows of neo-Gothic brick warehouses tower over the water connected by bridges (fun fact, Hamburg has more bridges than Venice). But it’s more than just looks. Think of the Speicherstadt Hamburg as a city within a city. An customs free-zone that not too long ago contained 260,000 square meters of storage space! Ships from around the world would unload products that would be distributed and sold across Europe. Today, the buildings that housed coffee, spices, tea, and other goods are finding new life as museums and even residences.
A little History of the History of the Speicherstadt Hamburg
In 1189 Hamburg was granted the charter of Free City by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick 1. In exchange for helping him out on his Crusade to the Holy Land, the city was granted fishing rights, forestry rights, freedom from military service, and (most importantly) tax-free access to the North Sea from the Elbe. Almost 100 years later, they became one of the charter members of the Hanseatic League, a confederation of merchant guilds and cities working together to further commercial interests. For hundreds of years as an independent city-state, and Hanseatic League member, Hamburg made money on importing goods, and any custom taxes that were collected stayed in the city.
Spices from around the world came through Hamburg
Then in 1871, the Unification of Germany and the Birth of the German Empire changed things. All cities and states formed together to create one nation under one constitution, Germany. Now taxes would be collected by the government. Luckily, Hamburg negotiated an exception… one port was declared a free zone and exempted from sales tax. The leaders of Hamburg come up with a plan to make the customs free-zone a little bit bigger, and fast, before the final annexation of Hamburg to Germany in 1888. Starting in 1883, they created islands by driving oak pilons into the soil under the waters of the Elba. And on those supports… warehouses. Essentially, the Speicherstadt Hamburg, wasn’t in Hamburg. It was its own storage city. An economic free zone in the middle of a river…
(This “ingenious river solution” came up before. The Rathaus in Bamberg was built on an artificial island in the river, because the people weren’t allowed land within the city.) By 1888, the first phase was open, but building continued… interrupted by WWI. The project, all 260,000 square meters of warehouses on wooden islands, was completed in 1927.
Finally, on January 1, 2013, the Free Economic Zone came to an end. And just 2 years later, the area was named a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Today the old warehouses have found new life. There are museums, cafes and restaurants, little shops, and housing…all anchored by the amazing Elbphilharmonie.
Some of the warehouses have been converted to residences
The Speicherstadt Hamburg
My favorite part about the Speicherstadt? Even though it looks like row upon row of brick buildings, you find surprises around every corner! I wandered into the Speicherstadt after spending a day and a half in trains, planes and automobiles getting to Hamburg. Our hotel was just around the corner, and I wanted to move my legs before collapsing into bed. And I’m so glad I did.
First stop… Miniature Wonderland.
This Wonderland is more than just an elaborate Train Set, and it’s not just for children. A whole world recreated in tiny spreads over several floors of a warehouse. Mountains, buildings, people, an airport… everywhere you look there is something to see and discover. (Yes, there is a unicorn under Schloß Neuschwanstein… and yes, that’s a guy parachuting from a crashed plane). And just when you think you’ve seen it all… day becomes night, and the models light up! Be sure to make a reservation for your time slot to go in (It saves standing in line). Once you are in, you can stay as long as you like. And yes, there is a cafe.
Read more about Miniature Wonderland here… Visit Miniature Wonderland
In 2017, the Elbphilharmonie opened with great fanfare. This massive structure that looks like a sail, or an iceberg, was built on top of a warehouse. Inside you’ll find 3 concert stages, a hotel, a restaurant, and 45 luxury apartments (although, you probably won’t get to see one of those). I thought for certain I would just get to stand outside and look… but no!
With a free ticket, you can go up the MASSIVE escalator, so have a look around! Please do. (The escalator ride alone make it worthwhile). From the beautiful lobby, you can walk out around the building just below the glass portion to enjoy the amazing views 360 degree views of the city and the port.
And the VIEW!!!
Spicey’s Spice Museum
Those of you who have been with me for a while know just how much I enjoy a small museum, so it should come as no surprise that I was lured up a few flights of stairs into Spicey’s Spice Museum by their chili pepper mascot, Spicey. In today’s world, I can reach into my spice cabinet and pull out cumin, white pepper, nutmeg, and cinnamon, without thinking about it. But not too long ago spices were a valuable trade good. In the museum you see how they were brought in, where they came from, and what happened next. I love that there are spice samples to smell and touch. Plus, a little packet of peppercorns is your entry ticket. Fun stuff!
International Maritime Museum
I’ve been to Maritime Museums in the past, but this one is different. Peter Tamm spent a lifetime collecting anything and everything related to ships. EVERYTHING! The 11 floor warehouse holds “around 26,000 ship models, 50,000 construction plans, 5,000 paintings and graphics, more than 2,000 films, 1.5 million photos, 120,000 books and numerous nautical devices, historic uniforms, militaria and maritime objects” from over 3000 years of seafaring. Plus there is a Lego model of the Queen Mary 2. If you have a boat fan in your world who needs to be occupied for a few hours… this is where you drop them off. International Maritime Museum
Hamburg Zollmuseum (Customs Museum)
Another “small museum” the Hamburg Zollmuseum is packed with everything you ever wanted to know about customs. Ok, that doesn’t sound exciting, but it is really interesting. The museum looks though the whole history of Germany… beginning with the Romans! Then it stops in at the Franks, Imperial Germany, the creation of currency, the DDR and more. Economics was never my strong point in school, so it’s nice to see the exhibits explain things in a way that make sense.
(Fair warning… visiting this AND Spicey’s in one day may cause mutiny with some of your fellow travelers. I suggest spreading it out, or bribing with Eis, lots of Eis) Hamburg Zollmuseum
If you have car fanatics traveling with you, take them to the Automuseum Prototyp. (It should keep them satisfied until you get to BMW in Munich or Porsche in Stuttgart). Instead of being based on one kind of car, this museum shows off the collection from two men who just love cars. Everything from simple VW Bulli to the Cisitalia D46 racing car. Race cars, one of a kind models, old-timers, and modern prototypes. Over 80 years of automotive history. See more here.. Automuseum Prototype
For those of you with a stomach for being frightened… immediately next to the Miniature Wonderland, you’ll find the Hamburg Dungeon. This isn’t your standard wax museum, and it’s not just items and artifacts like the Medieval Crime and Justice Museum in Rothenburg. It’s a year-round scare factory. As I am a big fraidy cat…I will leave you to it. There are live interactive shows, 2 rides, and a lot of scary stuff. Learn more here… Hamburg Dungeon
Take a Boat Tour of the Speicherstadt!
Time to Eat and Sleep
One of the most picturesque photos of the Speicherstadt is of this little castle at the end of the warehouses. At one time the Wasserschloss cafe was the only residence in Speicherstadt… today, it houses a lovely cafe. The perfect rest stop for your weary feet. Wasserschloß Cafe
We stumbled into this wonderful cafe after walking all morning and LOVED IT. Excellent food, comfortable place. And if you are lucky, you can eat in the ski gondola! Wildes Fräulein
HafenCity Holiday Inn
Looking for a place to stay? The HafenCity Holiday Inn is an easy walk to the Speicherstadt. The hotel is comfortable, has a wonderful attentive staff, an on-site restaurant… and has PARKING! Check it out here… Holiday Inn