The Revolutionary Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg

Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg

The anchor of Hamburg’s new allure is a concert hall on the water that juts out into the River Elbe. Opened in 2017, it’s already creating the kind of “Bilbao Effect” that happened after Frank Gehry’s dramatic new museum changed the future of the sleepy port city of Bilbao, Spain.

Hamburg’s harbour is over 900 years old. But the city is not tough and scruffy anymore. In fact, its HafenCity is Europe’s largest inner-city redevelopment project. Some 2.2 square kilometres of old docks and warehouses have been transformed into housing for tens of thousands of sleek urbanites and offices for hundreds of companies.

Today, thousands of tourists who have no interest at all in opera and classical music flock to the Elbphilharmonie just to touch the building, to walk around its amazing perimeter, to eat and drink in its many restaurants, to live in one of its luxury condos, or to stay in its hotel, as we did for three nights.

Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg
Photo Courtesy of Iwan Baan

In addition to 3 concert halls – a hotel, 45 private apartments and the Plaza, a public viewing area with a 360° view of the city. The centrepiece of the Elbphilharmonie is also currently one of the most exciting structural projects in Europe: a world-class concert hall that is detached from the rest of the building for soundproofing reasons.

The Elbphilharmonie used to be a giant brick warehouse. That look and feel have been kept by Herzog & de Meuron, the Swiss architects who created it. At least the bottom half of it. The top part is all glass, not straight up and down glass, like you see in condos and offices, but wavy glass befitting the waves of the sea. The glass is lit up at night, creating a lighthouse effect visible for many miles.

We don’t just walk into its concert halls or take an elevator. We ride up Europe’s longest escalator through walls sculpted like seashells. The big concert hall holds 2,100 people in a theatre-in-the-round style, which is a bit disconcerting if you’re used to the stage at one end and the seats at the other. Here, there is no ‘end’.

For us, the most amazing part of the Elbphilharmonie wasn’t the New Year’s Eve performance of My Fair Lady with the Hamburg Philharmonic, though it was an odd delight to hear this American musical set in London and sung in German with the entire musical happening all around us. The highlight of the Elb is not an event. It is the structure itself.

Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg
Photo Courtesy of Michael Zapf

Everyone can walk outside the Elb’s entire perimeter – strolling and peering into the hotel lobby, the hall’s souvenir shop, its many restaurants. We dined at Fang und Feld (“Catch and Field”) which features Hanseatic cuisine. Because this tends to be heavier than what North Americans are used to, I was able to fill up on an exotic appetizer called “Tatar of the Willow Ox”.

Since the Elb’s promenade is on the 14th floor, we get a sensational view of the entire city and region – all 360 degrees of it. Even on some of the shortest and coldest days of the year, the outside walkways are packed at sunset with Instagrammers shooting up to the Elb from below.

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Given the Elb’s location, it also offers prime viewing for the New Year’s fireworks which are set off just one block away, creating not only an eye-popping experience but an ear-popping one as well.

What brought us to Hamburg on New Year’s Eve? My wife and I love classical music, European capitals and quick trips to new places. What we don’t like is celebrating New Year’s Eve – until we decided to put them all together. So, for the past five years, we’ve flown to the music capitals of Europe to hear their great New Year’s concerts. Where to New Year’s Eve 2021? Oslo, Norway. They too have a new opera house built out onto the harbor.

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