The German city of Hamburg is known for many things, but not for the popular food

Before there was fast food and the Golden Arches, there were Hamburgers. That is what people of the city of Hamburg in Germany call themselves. There is an inside joke about the name. In 1963, President John F Kennedy of the US, during a visit to a divided Berlin at the height of the Cold War, famously declared “Ich bin ein Berliner” (“I am a Berliner”). By using the word “ein” he actually referred to himself as a doughnut called a “Berliner”. President Kennedy obviously meant solidarity with the people of Berlin, rather than referring to himself as a doughnut, so it would have been correct to say “Ich bin Berliner”. In 1987, Prince Charles, The Prince of Wales, visited Hamburg, and residents there waited with bated breath for him to declare “Ich bin ein Hamburger”, but it never happened. What a missed opportunity.

The modern hamburger as we know it only has a tangential link to the city of Hamburg, where minced meat patties were once eaten raw, like steak tartare. The modern hamburger has many claims to its origin, but the city of Hamburg is not one of them, although its name is associated with the fast-food staple. Economically, Hamburg is defined by its port. It is Germany’s largest port, one of the busiest in Europe, and is fittingly called the Gateway to Germany. It houses major shipbuilding facilities, which were extensively bombed in World War II because of their strategic importance — it was here that the dreaded WWII German battleship, the Bismarck, was constructed. The shipyards have since been rebuilt, and Hamburg is once again a shipbuilding centre.

The maritime tradition is evident elsewhere. Hamburg houses the world’s largest contiguous warehouse complex, called the Speicherstadt. The complex is most notable for its architecture. Instead of plain, dull buildings, the warehouses were built with a distinctive design. They are made of brick to resemble palaces, with embellishments and protruding gables and turrets. A series of interlocking canals link the warehouses, allowing barges to travel right up to them for loading or unloading. The complex dates back to the late 19th century, with the buildings constructed on a foundation of oak logs.

Owing to its importance as a trading port, Hamburg also emerged as a centre for oriental carpets, with the warehouse district being the focal point for the trade. The Speicherstadt has been a Unesco World Heritage site since 2015, and is a big tourist attraction in the city.

Associated with the warehouses and part of the Unesco listing is the contiguous Kontorhaus district, which has commercial buildings housing port-related businesses. Built in the 1920s, the most recognisable of these buildings is the Chilihaus, which was designed with a maritime motif. Its architectural cues include, notably, a pointed end recalling the prow of a ship.

Given its maritime and trading history, it is no coincidence that Hamburg has a thriving and rowdy red light district. Called the Reeperbahn, it is one of Europe’s largest red light districts. The area, with its brothels, sex shops, bars, restaurants, clubs and nightly entertainment, is a major tourist draw. One of its side streets is barricaded by a metal gate, discouraging juveniles and women from entering, as glass storefronts are used as showcases for ladies of the night, who, it is said, do not take kindly to women visitors whom they see as competition to their business.

The most famous police station in Germany, the Davidwache, is found at a corner of the Reeperbahn. The police personnel stationed here are charged with the onerous task of keeping the peace in the red light district.

In the 1960s, a then-little known band comprising four musicians called The Beatles performed in the Reeperbahn. Various artistes, including Chubby Checker, Little Richard, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Brenda Lee and Elton John have also played here, but there is a special association with The Beatles. A metal sculpture, a silhouette of the Fab Four, has been placed on the Beatles- Platz. Of that period, John Lennon declared, “I might have been born in Liverpool, but I grew up in Hamburg.”

In a tacit nod to the district, the Dancing Towers, a modern building at the edge of the Reeperbahn, is said to symbolise a couple dancing the tango. By way of spiritual balance, there are many churches and religious institutions in Hamburg. The best known of the churches is St Michael’s, which was originally constructed in the 17th century. The current building, with its landmark tall steeple, dates back to the late 18th century and was built as a Protestant church. The architecture differs from the typical Roman Catholic church, which is apparent within. Although it is richly adorned, it is of a more human scale. A statue of Martin Luther, the German theologian and priest who led the Reformation, stands outside the church.

Opposite is a relic of the past, the last authentic example of how a residential area in Hamburg would have looked a few centuries ago. This is the Kramerwitwen-Wohnungen, constructed by the affluent Grocers’ Institute of the day for the widows of shopkeepers. The 20 apartments have been preserved intact. They served their original purpose until 1968. Today, they are let out, although one unit is furnished in the style of the past as a museum. The apartments can be seen by walking into a narrow cul-de-sac surrounded by the apartments on all sides. One of the notable features of the houses is the twisted chimneys, which were designed to prevent cold winter winds from finding their way into the houses.

Outside the port area and its activities, the central point of Hamburg is the Rathaus, the City Hall, the seat of the city’s government and where visiting dignitaries are received. The building’s neo-Renaissance architecture suggests a heritage older than its late 19th century completion date. Within its vaulted main hall, which is open to the public, are ornate drinking fountains, a relic of the cholera outbreak in the last decade of the 19th century.

The Rathaus fronts an open square where public events are sometimes held. On the other side is the Inner Alster Lake, a quiet oasis fringed by trees. A single- jet fountain spouts from the centre of the lake. Families and pedestrians take pause in the tranquility in the middle of the city, with its busy roads around the lake. Swans and ducks glide in the waters, quickly converging near the lakeside when someone approaches with bread in hand to feed them. During winter, the lake sometimes freezes over, and an appointed swan master musters the swans for safekeeping in ice-free waters until the lake thaws in the spring and they can be returned to their habitat.

The Inner Alster Lake is an artificial lake created by damming the Alster River as early as in the 13th century and it is very much a part of the city’s landscape. It is connected by a channel to the much large Outer Alster Lake, where city residents can pursue water activities in the great outdoors. There are cafés and swanky residences around the lake, and quiet, contemplative places from which to view the city skyline reflected in its tranquil waters. The lake is more than just a sanctuary for wild fowl and water activities, though; it is is a green lung in suburbia. Cyclists and runners describe a circular path around the lake, while couples and families lounge on benches looking out over the water, where sailing and rowing take place.

Visiting Hamburg, it is difficult to imagine the large-scale destruction wrought on the city by concentrated Allied bombing in World War II. In 1943, the bombing of Hamburg was, at the time, the most severe aerial bombardment ever, with civilian casualties numbering in the tens of thousands. A firestorm swept through the city, destroying large swaths of it. Much of Hamburg today is relatively new. There are broad, tree-lined boulevards, modern infrastructure, streets bustling with people and traffic, graceful buildings (many buildings that look old are reconstructions that faithfully capture the original architecture), the busiest port in Germany and a robust, thriving economy.

Yet, to its credit, Hamburg does not feel like a modern city. There are no towering glass and steel skyscrapers or ultra-modern architecture. It is a city of open spaces and human proportions; of low brick buildings that retain a certain musty charm rooted in the past; and of culture, tradition, a trading economy and a respect for heritage.

Lee Yu Kit took along his running shoes for an early morning run around the Outer Alster Lake while visiting Hamburg

This article appeared in Issue 778 (May 8) of The Edge Singapore.