The ornate, neo-Renaissance town hall is a good place to start your Hamburg tour, flush as it is with the city’s proud and prosperous history. Built between 1886 and 1897 at the heart of the Altstadt, it’s a vast sandstone statement of wealth, sovereignty and Hamburg’s membership in the Hanseatic League, the strategic alliance of cities—among them also Lübeck, Tallinn, Rostock and Riga—which dominated Northern European and Baltic trade for some 400 years. The Rathaus is fronted by a mosaic of Hamburg’s patron goddess, Hammonia, the city’s coat of arms and the Latin city motto: Libertatem quam peperere maiores digne studeat servare posteritas, “The descendants shall seek worthily to maintain the freedom achieved by their forebears.”
Hamburg architecture—much like its restaurants—draws richly on its maritime tradition. Whether in the UNESCO World Heritage warehouse district of the Speicherstadt or the vivid nautical forms of the Dockland Office Building and the Elbberg Campus, buildings old and new are informed and inspired by a rich history of trade and shipping. Many of the city’s most exciting new buildings, not least the spectacular Elbphilharmonie, center around the rejuvenated HafenCity district, while the Altstadt includes several historic buildings which thankfully survived World War Two air raids, among them the Rathaus, St Michael’s Church and Chilehaus, one of the most outstanding examples of 1920s Brick Expressionism.