Germany, Hamburg: Free city tour takes in some of the more unusual sights

I have no real plans for Hamburg. Germany's second city is meant to be a side dish, not a main course. A stopover, not a destination. I leave the hotel to simply take a stroll and enjoy what is a beautiful 6 degree October blue-sky morning. I makee my way to the Rathaus, the city hall, in the Altstadt quarter when I notice a man holding a yellow umbrella with a Union Jack flag attached and a sign that reads: "free walking tour".

His colleagues, with German, Spanish and French flags, have nearly 30 people each surrounding them. He has 10 ... 11 when I join guide Matej for his Historic City Centre tour which promises to trace the rise, fall, rise, fall and rise again of Hamburg, in the northern region of Germany.

Matej, a Slovakian with a masters in urban planning, starts by explaining that about a third of Hamburg's Altstadt buildings were destroyed by the Great Fire of 1842. The fire burned, unable to be controlled, for three days tearing apart most of the city's timber buildings.

Hamburg, a crucial trading port, was rebuilt bigger and much stronger. The timber buildings were replaced with stone. They lasted well and Hamburg prospered until the early hours of July 25, 1943 when nearly 800 RAF Halifaxes and Lancasters launched a 50-minute raid on the city using the imposing neo-gothic spire of St Nikolai's church as their target. Some 1500 people died that night.

Three nights later Hamburg felt the full force of Operation Gomorrah and by the time it had finished 40,000 people had perished. According to Matej, up until that point the people of Hamburg, believing Hitler's propaganda, had thought Germany was winning the war.

The spire of St Nikolai's still stands but not much else survived. In the church's crypt there is a museum well worth visiting, that tells the brutal story of the 10-day assault on Hamburg from the German perspective. You can ride the spire's glass elevator up 76 metres to take in the city and its intricate waterways of rivers and canals.

Matej tells us that after the war the inner city was re-built again, this time as mostly offices. Few people lived in the centre of Hamburg but that is now changing, slowly. Like Dallas, in America, the city centre is a work hub and falls silent at night.

The city's decision makers have realised that to attract tourists it needs a vibrant centre with hotels, restaurants and residents. Matej, perhaps with his urban planning hat on, predicts that in two decades Hamburg's city centre will be alive with people 24 hours a day.

According to Matej, Hamburg is a strange mix of rich and poor residents. "One in every 43 people living here is a millionaire," he says and follows it with this. "Every fourth adult, though, receives a government benefit."

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His Robin and the Tourguides tour is anything but pedestrian or a meaningless string of historical facts. Matej is a born storyteller. We walk for almost two hours and he entertains by pointing out cultural oddities as we wade through the city's history.

It is the first time for me that a tour guide has walked me into an office block to show off one of Hamburg's most unusual attractions. A lift. Not just any lift, but a paternoster, a small nonstop doorless elevator that runs in a loop and was used to move workers around European offices early last century. These elevators are almost extinct, but Hamburg has 23. Walk into an old building and you might find one. If the door opens, go in. The German government banned the paternoster in 1974. A furious backlash followed and now Germany is one of the few places in the world where you can still ride these nostalgic yet dangerous contraptions where it would be easy to lose a limb with just one wrong move.

They would never pass a workplace healthy and safety test in Australia.

Walking is such a good way to discover a city. Too often these days we either catch a cab, or the tube, and miss the backstreets. It is the backstreets, even office blocks, where Matej tells his best stories.

Robin and the Tourguides run three different tours – Historic City Centre Tour; Harbour, St Pauli and Reeperbahn Tour (includes The Beatles and their time in Hamburg in the early '60s); and Hamburg Craft Beer Tasting Tour. We all know that nothing in life is really free. So you are expected to tip at the end of the tour.

People on my tour give coins, others notes but Matej never looks at the money when people hand him a tip, he just thanks them for listening.

TRIP NOTES

Brian Crisp was a guest of Norwegian Cruise Lines for the launch of its ship, Norwegian Encore.

MORE

traveller.com.asu/hamburg

www.germany.travel

Emirates has daily direct flights from Dubai to Hamburg. See emirates.com/au 

TOUR

Robin and the Tourguides run free Hambur tours daily. See robinandthetourguides.de/en/

STAY

The five-star, centrally located, Sofitel Hamburg Alter Wall Hotel has 223 rooms and 18 suites. Rooms from €160 a night. See accorhotels.com

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