At a promontory on the Elbe River in Hamburg, Germany, the glistening Elbphilharmonie has held court since its opening in January 2017. A towering edifice of brick, glass, curves, swoops and angles, albeit not without some controversy, the Philharmonic concert hall has helped catapult Hamburg onto umpteen lists of must-see places for travelers and tourists.
With its visionary architecture, world-class acoustics and inspired programs and events, the Elbe Philharmonic Hall (locally referred to now by the endearing nickname “Elphie”) practically teeters at the edge of land and water in a location so eye-catching seeing it for the first time can take your breath away. Suddenly Hamburg is hip, in and trendy – a place travelers must-see and experience. Of course, it’s been a long time coming, and the Philharmonic is not the only reason Hamburg is a great city worthy of a visit. Still, the Elbphilharmonie has made people sit up and take notice of the city, as city icons tend to do — think landmarks such as the Sydney Opera House, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, or the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge.
I had a chance to tour the Elbphilharmonie building almost exactly one year after its official opening in Hamburg. On a cold winter day, the wind whipped and twisted the flags on their poles standing guard on the front plaza. I tilted my head back to look up at the glass façade of this ghost ship seemingly run aground on a brick building with its prow still bearing west toward the open seas. I couldn’t wait to get inside.
Towering above the city with river views
Hamburg is a rather flat city, and the Elba Philharmonic seems to tower over it. But look again. You’ll notice that at 110 meters (360 ft.) it is still not as tall as any of the city’s five church towers or the City Hall tower which all spike above the skyline. Turns out the Hamburg skyline is a bit of a sacred cow. An unwritten rule prohibits buildings from marring the silhouette with its historic church towers jutting above other structures. Nevertheless, from the Elbphilharmonie’s public viewing platform you can still see up and down the Elbe River and into the city, including the iconic towers poking above the metro area. And since the viewing platform (37 meters/121 ft.) is open 9 a.m. to midnight, you can also watch sunset or the city lights at night if you want. Rather unfortunately, this could be the only way into the structure for travelers or residents, since landing a much sought-after ticket to a concert is still nearly impossible (A lottery system decides who gets tickets for many concerts with one concert in October 2017 earning 53,000 requests for 2,200 tickets!) Want to get up close and personal with the beauty and grace of the Hamburg Elbphilharmonie building? Then the viewing platform is it.
When I wandered over to the river beside the Philharmonic, still buffeted by coastal winds, I cranked my head back again to look upwards at the edifice. From any angle, it leaves you awestruck, but even that did not preclude the Elbphilharmonie from controversy, cost overruns and building delays that see all too common with many grand public works (read about that in the HITT Tip, below). Now, however, it appears the building has become the beloved new child of the Free and Hanseatic port city of Hamburg.
Next to the UNESCO World Heritage Speicherstadt and Kontorhausviertel
Location, location, location for the Elbphilharmonie. Situated at the western edge of Hamburg’s so-called Speicherstadt and Kontorhaus District, its site multiples the area’s attraction for both travelers and residents. Both areas were declared World Heritage sites by UNESCO in 2015. (The “Speicherstadt” is the historic port warehouse area turned trendy, and the Kontorhaus District houses architecturally historic port-related office buildings.)
But enough of admiring the area, it’s time to enter the Elbphilharmonie. Whether heading toward the viewing platform, a concert, or restaurant, you head up a curved 80-meter (262 ft.) escalator called The Tube where the walls are glittering with 8,000 “glass chips.” The escalator drops you over its summit where you are immediately smacked in the face with a sweeping view of the river and port. Yessir, that’s quite an entrance. Then another shorter escalator takes you to the Plaza viewing platform. There, you can walk around the entire building at a height of 37 meters (121 ft.) to your heart’s content. Of course, there are bars, coffee shops and bistros, as well as the mandatory gift shop.
For those lucky enough to find their way into the bowels of the building (either with a concert ticket, a reservation at the hotel inside, or on a public tour), you will for example see the large concert hall, its magnificent organ, hear about the award-winning acoustics, see the pod-like structure of the inner cladding called the “White Skin,” and hear about the “suspended” construction of the concert halls.
Concert halls and the White Skin at Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie
The large concert hall with its vineyard-like terraced seating and approximately 2,100 seats (depending on the configuration) also holds the acclaimed organ. In partnership with the Klais organ maker in Bonn, architects designed an organ with 4,765 pipes located, in, around, next to and behind audience seats. This hall is “suspended” inside the overall structure to keep vibrations from outside penetrating in, and to keep vibrations produced from music inside from “contaminating” other concert halls or the hotel or apartments in the philharmonic building.
Inside the large hall is where you find the “White Skin,” which covers the walls with 10,000 individually shaped gypsum fiber panels. I couldn’t help but reach out to touch it with its pocked structure. Other halls in Elphie include the small hall with 550 seats, and the studio with 150 seats.
The thought invested into achieving seeming perfection of the tiniest element of this building was endless – no wonder it cost so much more and took so long to complete. For example, on the viewing platform, knowing how windy the area can be, you do not simply open doors to go from the center foyer to the exterior viewing area, instead you walk through curved entrance walkways, like short glass tubes, curved slightly to keep out any wind.
I was given a tour of one of three private lounges for sponsors or other VIPs. From there, when the weather cooperates, you can step outside onto an open-air terrace above the roofline, giving you (literally) a bird’s-eye view of the top of the swooping roof. There, too, you can see permanent railings around the edge used by window washers to clip in when they belay off the side to clean the 16,000-square-meter (172,223-square feet) glass façade.
Tour over, I spend another hour circling the viewing platform, watching the sun drop and the lights twinkle over the river, harbor and city before I head back down The Tube and into the Speicherstadt.
Want to try your hand at getting a ticket? Then check out this information about how to book or try to book a ticket.
Getting there: Here is how you get to the Philharmonic. My advice is to avoid any kind of automobile, either private or a taxi, before or after a concert time. The turnabout in front gets jammed with cars, and patience is genuinely tested. Best is to take a underground line or bus or, if the weather cooperates, grab a city bike rental!
Hamburg Elbe Philharmonic fun facts
- What’s inside: 3 concert halls, viewing platform, 45 private apartments, 244-room hotel, parking garage, conference facility, lounges, restaurants, bars, foyers…
- Number of concerts, 2017: 600
- Total number of attendees, 2017: 850,000
- Number of viewing platform visitors, as of Feb. 1, 2018: 5 million
- Number of exterior glass panels: 2,200 (flat, 1,605; curved, 595)
- Supporting structure: 1,700 reinforced concrete piles
- Weight of building: 200,000 tons
- How often the glass is cleaned: Three times a year by a team of window washers who belay off the roof, taking three weeks each time – be sure to watch the video below (Courtesy of the Elbphilharmonie)!
*Cover image provided courtesy of Elbphilharmonie © Thies Raetzke