Two rivers shape the face of Hamburg. One wakens a yearning for the sea, the other for home: with its port that never sleeps, the Elbe is the city’s main artery leading out into the North Sea; and the Alster, which forms the lake in the city centre, represents the heart of Hamburg. These two waterways are in slight competition with each other, and thus “Alster or Elbe?” is almost a question of faith among residents of Hamburg, and literally everyone has their own answer.
Alster or Elbe, this is, first of all, a question of social milieu: the rough Elbe with its tireless port, and the busy operations of heavy cranes, barges and ferries, have always been the domain of the working classes. Gigantic container ships from China or returning cruise liners from Scandinavia can be seen making their way down the River Elbe. At night, the port is illuminated by its countless cranes, and their hollow humming provides the city’s soundtrack.
While the port denies the Elbe a moment’s peace, the Alster creates Hamburg’s idyllic centre. Quiet and beautiful, the Alster provides you with a far-reaching view in the heart of the city centre – a view of Hamburg’s magnificent Kontorhaus buildings and luxury hotels on the banks of the Inner Alster Lake, and a view of tree-lined parks and promenades on the banks of the larger Outer Alster Lakes. The exclusive residential areas close to the Outer Alster are home to many of Hamburg’s affluent citizens. On a sunny afternoon, you can see them in the club houses of the time-honoured rowing clubs, and on their sailing boats on the water.
While these stereotypes are familiar and may be true in essence, the truth is of course more complex than that: as an urban recreational area and Hamburg’s most popular jogging route, the Alster belongs to everyone. During the summer, the restaurants and cafés along the banks of the Alster, such as the Alsterperle, are a popular place to meet, have a drink, and enjoy the view – for all age groups and for all social milieus. And Hamburg’s most expensive residential areas in the suburb of Blankenese with a view over the Elbe are anything but working class. At the end of the day, a stretch of water can be claimed by nobody – and isn’t life perfect that way?
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