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.

Cross-sectional view of the Hamburg Elbphilharmonie

An illustrated cross section of the building shows its inner configuration. Note angled, white swath of The Tube escalator, lower front, the large concert hall in the middle, with the hotel on the far right. The viewing platform is the level between the brick and the upper glass. © Herzog & De Meuron/Bloom Images

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.

Viewing platform at the Hamburg Philharmonic

A couple takes a sunset stroll of the the Elbphilharmonie viewing platform with views up and down Hamburg’s Elbe River and harbor.

HITT Tip: The 9th-floor viewing platform, or Plaza, is free of charge if you walk up to gain entrance the same day. However, capacity is limited so if you want to confirm a visit at a particular time – especially during a high season or holiday period – it may be best to book in advance. That will cost you EUR 2, either online or at the visitor center if farther ahead. They can be reserved up to 18 weeks in advance. Once up there, you can stay as long as you like!

 

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.

HITT Tip: The first foundation stone was laid in April 2007, with an expected completion date in 2010 and an estimated cost of EUR 241 million. Cost estimates went up in 2008 to EUR 450 million. Between November 2011 and June 2013, construction came to a total standstill due to controversies about the unusual construction and some safety issues of the concert hall construction methods, as well as disputes between the property developers and the city. Discussions flew, advisors advised, consultants consulted, a few changes were made, and finally after about 19 months of dust gathering, construction restarted. During that time the cost estimate went up to EUR 500 million, which eventually turned into nearly EUR 800 million (or approximately USD $295 million in 2007 to USD $980 million in the end). Of course, opponents protested the investment of (mostly) public money which they felt could be better spent elsewhere.

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.)

Hamburg Philharmonic tube tunnel

An escalator called “The Tube” whisks visitors and concert-goers alike up into the Elbe Philharmonic in an appropriately opulent manner.

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.

HITT Tip: Unless you have a concert ticket, you will pay for a bathroom so either don’t dawdle too long or be sure to have “made yourself comfortable” before heading up.

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.

HITT TIP: If you would like to take part in a guided tour so you can also learn more about the building, public tours are offered several times daily for travelers and residents. They do sell out and should be booked as far in advance as possible. They are available in German or English, with more limited availability in English. Regular tours cost EUR 15. Do watch for summer breaks without tours. If you want to find out more about plaza visits, tours or the Elbphilharmonie in general, there is a visitor center across the square at Am Kaiserkai 62, which is open daily from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Hamburg Elbphilharmonie organ

The Klais organ with 4,765 pipes located, in, around, next to and behind audience seats. Note the pocked acoustic cladding called the “White Skin” on the walls. © Michael Zapf

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.

Hamburg Elbphilharmonie Roof

A view of the roof that few get to see. Note the city’s churck towers jutting slightly above the edge.

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: Every three weeks by a team of window washers who belay off the roof – be sure to watch the video below (Courtesy of the Elbphilharmonie)!

*Cover image provided courtesy of Elbphilharmonie © Thies Raetzke

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Therese Iknoian

Writer | Photographer at HI Travel Tales
Little did her parents know that a short trip to Europe in high school would launch a lifetime love of travel, languages and cultures. Trained as a news journalist, Therese Iknoian spent a decade as a daily newspaper journalist before launching a freelance writing career specializing in outdoor, fitness and training. All the while trotting the globe, her focus finally turned to travel. Fluent in German, Therese runs a translation business (www.ThereseTranslates.com) working primarily with companies in the outdoor/sports/retail industry. Also a French speaker, she loves to learn a bit of the language wherever she goes -- gdje je kupaonica? Мне нужна помощь! -- often embarrassing herself in the quest for cross-cultural communication and the search for great travel discoveries.
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