Historical tour in Nikolai Quartier
Immerse yourself with the historic walkabout in the founding times of the Nikolai District and the merchant city Hamburg!
At 14 stations interesting stories and facts about the new town of Hamburg can be found on information boards. The walkabout is supplemented with audio files that help to bring the history to life! On all information boards there is a qr-code with which the accompanying podcast file can be accessed.
The walkabout starts at the town hall and leads via the Nikolaifleet, the Patriotic Society, the Trostbrücke, the Bohnenstraße, the New Castle, the St. Nikolai Memorial, the Hopfenmarkt, the Grosse Burstah, the Altenwallbrücke, the Mönkedammfleet, the Adolphsplatz and the Alsterfleet all the way to the Alten Wall.
You can enjoy the history of the Nikolai District from home aswell! Just click yourself through the different stations here on our website and enjoy the lively podcasts.
Have fun exploring!
Due to construction sites in the public space some information plates are not on their final location yet. You can find information about the stations 6 and 13 on the plates of the previous stations. Here on our website the map shows the current locations of the information tables.
Station 1: Hamburg Town Hall – Visit of the Emperor
Hamburg’s town hall with its main tower reaching 112 meters high into the sky was constructed upon 4.000 oak piles. The residence of Hamburg’s mayor contains 647 rooms, multiple banquet halls and the plenary of Hamburg’s parliament which meets every 14 days on wednesday.
In the year 1842 the old town hall at the Börsenbrücke was blown up to create a firebreak while the Big Fire was haunting the inner city. Out of financial reasons the planning for a new town hall were delayed until 1854. Many famous architects, among them Gottfried Semper and Alexis de Chateauneuf, handed in drafts. But all 43 drafts got declined by Hamburg’s citizens. In a second competition in 1876 even 128 drafts could not convince a majority. Finally, five years later a collective under the lead of the Hamburg architect Martin Haller presented a neo-renaissance draft that convinced the city of Hamburg. On the 6th of May 1886 the laying of the founding stone took place. But because of economic crises, strikes, warfare and the cholera epidemic the construction work had to be put on hold multiple times. The Hygieia-Fountain in the courtyard of the town hall was placed there as a memorial for the 10.000 Hamburg citizens who died in the last cholera epidemic 1892.
After 13 years of construction work the town hall was inaugurated on the 25th of October 1897. The sandstone façade resembles Hanseatic spirit and the civil virtues – courage, piety, diligence and concord – were put purposely on top of the 20 bronze statues of german emperors and kings (each weighing about 600 kilogramm). This symbolizes the freedom the Hanseatic City of Hamburg got from the crown.
Station 2: Nikolaifleet – The Founding of the Harbor
The Hamburger Neustadt (“new city”) was founded in 1187 by Count Adolf III. von Holstein on the area of the former Neue Burg (“new castle”). The settlers, consisting mainly of merchants and skippers, immediately started building the Alsterhafen – a harbor on the Alster. It was placed at which today would be the far end of the Nikolaifleet. The Nikolaifleet got its name from Saint Nikolai von Myra, the patron of mariners. On the 7th of May 1189 the Roman-German emperor Friedrich Barbarossa signed a charter granting the city of Hamburg many economic privileges. That happened while he was on a crusade heading to Jerusalem with Count Adolf III. This charter is commonly known as the founding document of Hamburg´s harbor, even though it is now known that it was a forgery. Nevertheless, the Nikolaifleet quickly became an economic and political center of the Neustadt, which merged with the Altstadt (“old town”) in 1216. In the Middle Ages merchants started building along the Nikolaifleet and used the buildings as offices, storage facility and accommodation at the same time. Most of the buildings had hoists to directly unload and load trading stocks from and on ships.
The Big Fire of 1842 completely demolished the Alster harbor. But even without it, the days of the Nikolaifleet as a vital part of the harbor were vanishing: freight ships were getting bigger and bigger and the narrow Nikolaifleet could not offer enough space for them so the harbor had to move to the Elbe. In the year 1866 the first artificial harbor basin called “Sandtorhafen” was built and in 1883 the construction of the world-famous Speicherstadt began.
Station 3: The Patriotic Society – An Institution for public welfare
The building of the Patriotic Society, constructed between 1844 and 1847 following the plans of architect Theodor Bülau, is known as one of Hamburg’s most important monuments. Having asphalted ground floors and flushing toilets it was one of the most modern buildings in the city when it opened. Over the years it had to grow: already in 1878 and again in 1924/25 additional floors were constructed. It was built exactly at the same place where for 600 years the town hall was standing until it had to been demolished in the Big Fire of 1842 to create a firebreak. Until the new town hall was finished Hamburg’s parliament held its plenary in the building of the Patriotic Society.
The Patriotic Society was originally founded on the 11th of April 1765 during the time of enlightenment and with the name “Hamburg’s Society for the Promotion of Art and Useful Business”. For the strictly hierarchical class society of that time the society was a novelty: people from different classes and working fields – from craftsmen and merchants to doctors and lawyers - were founding members of the society. What brought all of them together was the spirit of enlightment and the desire to strengthen civil rights and the public welfare. Back then the term “patriotic” was connected with progressive and republican thinking and civil participation instead of absolutism.
Until today the Patriotic Society, the oldest public welfare institution of the german-speaking countries, is home to people who want to promote and engage in the process of public welfare regardless of their diverse religious and political beliefs.
Station 4: Trostbrücke – Hamburg’s Reconstruction
The Trostbrücke, the oldest bridge in Hamburg, was first mentioned in a document in 1266. Where it got its name from is not known. For some time it was called “Wechselbrücke” which translates to exchange bridge and can be traced back to privat moneychangers who worked on the bridge. From the middle of the 16th century on it was called Trostbrücke. One theory is that the name can be traced back to a cross that was standing on the middle of the bridge which should bring consoltation (german: Trost) to moribund criminals who passed the bridge on their way to the lower court. Another theory is that the bridge has its name from a Hamburg merchant called “Trost” who had a house right next to the bridge. The original bridge was built out of wood which got up in flames in the Big Fire of 1842. The reconstruction was again made out of wood and got heavily damaged by floods in 1843 and 1847. Finally in 1882 the city of Hamburg accumulated enough capital to order a reconstruction out of stone. With this reconstruction a statue of the Saint Ansgar was placed on the north side of the bridge. Saint Ansgar was a bishop in Hamburg in the 9th century. Facing him on the south side is a statue of Count Adolf III. von Holstein, who founded the Neustadt in 1187. Those two statues made by the sculptor Engelbert Pfeiffer symbolize the union of the cleric Altstadt on the east-shore of the Nikolaifleet and the secular Neustadt on the west shore.
Station 5: Bohnenstraße – Between bookstore and stock exchange
The Bohnenstraße which meanders along the east shore of the Nikolaifleet is a connecting link for the streets Neue Burg, Trostbrücke and Große Burstah. Since the middle ages thick wooden boards were used on the street to secure it from flooding. Therefore it is assumed that the street was called “Bohlenstraße” for the longest time (the german word “Bohle” is a term for thick wooden boards) until some city official mistakenly misspelled it.
Nowadays almost no one knows that this narrow street was the cultural and economic center that accelerated the city of Hamburg’s development in the 19th century: On the one hand there was the bookstore of Julius Campe, who co-founded the publishing house Hoffmann & Campe Verlag in 1810 with which he signed famous and popular german authors, for example Heinrich Heine. On the other hand the private Hamburg stock exchange was opened in the Bohnenstraße in 1804 by the merchant Gerhard von Hoßtrup. It quickly became a popular hangout spot for Hamburg’s merchants, one factor could have been that in contrast to the public Hamburg stock exchange the new one had a built-in heating system. Both of the stock exchanges were placed in the Nikolai District and emphasized its economic importance for the city but both of them were destroyed in the Big Fire of 1842.
In the early 1970s an office areal was built on top of the Bohnenstraße and the historic link connecting the inner city with the Katharinen District and the Speicherstadt was cut off. A current redevelopment of the area plans to reconstruct and revitalize this historic link..
Station 6: Nikolai Church – St. Nikolai Memorial
In the year 1195, only a few years after the founding of the secular Neustadt, the settlers demanded a church. Therefore Count Adolf III. ordered the construction of a Chappelle which could host 300 people, many of them being merchants and skippers. Therefore the Chappelle got dedicated to Saint Nikolaus who as the bishop of Myra (Asia Minor) saved a lot of sailors in the 4th century.
In the following centuries the Chappelle was constantly expanding: In the year 1659 it already got its third church tower, which should find a strategic end. In the Big Fire of 1842 the tower caught fire, fell down and demolished the whole nave. The planned reconstruction led to fierce debates about architecture styles in the public discourse. In the end the promoters of Gothic Revival succeeded with their preference for “guiding, strict architecture” over “the ease and elegance” of Neo Classicism. The drafts for the reconstruction were drawn by the not-so-famous English architect George Gilbert Scott. When the reconstructed church was finished in 1874 the 147,3 meter tower was the highest church tower worldwide. Today it still ranks 5th on that list.
In the night between the 27th and 28th July in 1943 the whole nave got destroyed again. 101 years after the Big Fire that led to its first destruction. The church tower on the other hand survived the allied fordes air raid “Operation Gomorrha” with barely a scratch. After WWII the church and the city of Hamburg came to the consent that instead of a reconstruction the ruin should from now on function as a memorial site to all the victims of the war and the preceding years of tyranny from 1933 to 1945.
Station 7: Hopfenmarkt – The Core of the New Castle
Am Hopfenmarkt liegen die verschiedenen Epochen der Hamburger Stadtgeschichte deutlich sichtbar übereinander:
At the Hopfenmarkt you can experience urban history with your own eyes. Below debris of homes that were demolished in WWII archealogists of Hamburgs Archeology Museum found in 2017 pieces of the foundation of the Nikolai Chappelle that burned down in 1842. And even further below they found pieces of oak that belonged to the rampart of the New Castle. Inspecting the annual rings of the oaks the archeologists could determine that the New Castle was built in 1024, which puts it at least 40 years older than it was assumed before. Furthermore the archeologist debunked a century old myth: an Alster Castle which supposedly was placed there never existed.
The name of the Hopfenmarkt can be traced back to Hamburg’s beer brewers who purchased their hop (german: Hopfen) here in the 14th century. Over the centuries the market grew bigger and bigger and became Hamburgs first mayor market for food. Starting out with 50-60 market stands it later grew to contain over 900 market stands until it finally had to be relocated to a more spacious location and it moved to the Deichtorplatz.
in 1975 the Vierländer-Fountain was placed on the center of the square as a memorial to the Vierlande – one of the most fruitful agricultural areas in the east of Hamburg.
Station 8: Grosse Burstah – Hamburgs Bottleneck
For the longest time, since the middle ages to be precise, the Grosse Burstah was the main street to get through Hamburg on an east-west axis. Just after WWII the two newly built streets Willy-Brandt-Straße and Ludwig-Erhard-Straße took over this responsibility. As the northern border of the Nikolai District the Grosse Burstah still plays in important role in the infrastructure of the inner city.
Linguistic researchers assume that the name of the street can be traced back to old german words that translate to “farmer shore”, because historically it was the main road for farmers to get into the city to sell their goods. Even though the Grosse Burstah was generously broadened after the Big Fire of 1842 over the course of the next years it got the nickname “bottleneck”. Being flanked by the Rathausmarkt on its east side and the Rödingsmarkt on its west, the Grosse Burstah had to connect two of the bussiest transportation hubs of that time. Almost every single streetcar line had to wind its way through it. At the dawn of the 20th century over 70 streetcars crossed the busy shopping street per hour. This high frequency most likely was one of the reasons why the Berlin merchant Oscar Tietz opened up his first department store at the Grosse Burstah on the 1st of March 1897.
During WWII many buildings along the Grosse Burstah were heavily damaged. At that time it already had lost its function as the main connecting street of the inner city to the Jungfernstieg and the Mönckebergstraße. With that loss of frequency it lost its reputation as one of the busiest shopping streets too, but through redesigning and restauration of the street itself and the buildings alongside it is supposed to catch up again.
Still today it can be called a bottleneck, even though only for bus traffic nowadays: the last streetcar in Hamburg had its run on the 1st of October 1978.
Station 9: Altenwallbrücke – Construction of the Subway
Since 1840 the short Altenwallbrücke (“Brücke” is german for bridge) crosses the Mönkedammfleet and leads to the street Alter Wall. The Alter Wall (“Wall” is german for rampart) was built in 1430 as a part of Hamburgs fortification system. Only to be obsolete 120 years later when the Neue Wall was erected to create more space in the city core. Even though the rampart itself was deconstructed the name stuck. For some times it even was called “Dreckswall” (“Dreck” is german for garbage) supposedly because citizens accustomed themselves to get rid of their garbage and clutter there.
In 1910 the Altenwallbrücke was generously broadened to prepare itself for the construction of a surfaced subway line, which was built between 1906 and 1912. In the year 2002 the whole bridge got a complete renovation. Nowadays the bridge still lies below the silhouette of the impressive subway viaduct. Here you can see the steepest railway track ascend worldwide which at the same time is considered the beginning of the most beautiful track section of the U3 circle line. From the station Rödingsmarkt right next to the Altenwallbrücke it drives alongside the harbor passing by the Elbphilharmonie, the Speicherstadt, the Landungsbrücken and more landmarks on its way. It is not just one of the most beautiful but one of the oldest railway track section in all of Hamburg.
Station 10: Mönkedammfleet – The Last Cholera Epidemic
The word “fleet” is northern-german for canal. Around the year 1830 the Mönkedammfleet was one of 29 trafficable canals in the city. Most of them had their origin as connection link between the three rivers Alster, Bille and Elbe and found their main purpose in drainage and being part of the fortification system. At the same time they were used for the ever increasing trafficking of goods and – illegaly - as waste dump. Many people just left their garbage, feces, animal carcasses and butcher waste in the narrow streets or dumped it straight from their houses into the canals. The sanitary conditions of the city were a catastrophe.
In the 19th century cholera epidemics came and went on a regular basis but the worst – which at the same time was the last one – took place in 1892. In this epidemic more than 10.000 people lost their life. In response to the ongoing littering in the canals the Hamburg parliament created a new profession called “Fleetenkieker”. It was their duty to maintain the canals clean and secure the passing of goods trafficking. Later this term was recycled for people who were searching the canals at low tide for valuable goods among the garbage.
Nowadays the Mönkedammfleet is one of the few canals that was not filled up. On its one side it connects to the Alsterfleet – the last remaining connection between Alster and Elbe that can be used by ships – and on its other side it almost reaches the Adolphsplatz. One of the pillars of the U3 viaduct was embedded in the canal as well.
Station 11: Adolphsplatz – Saving the Stock Exchange
The square was named to honor Count Adolph IV. of Holstein and Schauenburg. After he emerged victorious from a battle against the troops of the Danish King Waldemar on the 22nd of July 1227 in Bornhöved, he donated the Maria-Magdalenen-Monastery to the city of Hamburg. The Saint Maria Magdalena visited him in his dreams before the deciding battle against the Danish King. In this monastery Adolph IV. himself lived for some years as a begging Franciscan but in the post-Reformation years the monastery got a new use as a home for widows. This then was replaced in 1839 by the new construction of the Hamburg stock exchange. The building in the architectural style of late classicism was inaugurated in 1841. Only one year later when the Big Fire of 1842 set the surrounding Gängeviertel up in flames hundreds of people looked for asylum in the new massive stone building that was cut off from the deadly flames by its big surrounding square. But when the copper ceiling started melting in the heat the government of Hamburg ordered the evacuation of the building. Ten merchants, among them Theodor Dill, refused this order and after carrying all inflammable objects out on to the Adolphsplatz they started to fight the fire from within the building. After 24 hours the merchants raised a white flag and started to ring the stock exchange bell: the pride of the Hamburg merchants, the stock exchange, was safe.
Today the Hamburg Chamber of Commerce is residing in the building. On the ground floor the historic official city seal from the 14th is exhibited. It was bought jointly by charity foundations, private individuals and companies at an auction in 2012 for the prize of 450.000€. Until 1811 this seal was used to document every single official city business.
Station 12: Alsterfleet – Between Alster and Elbe
Originally the Alsterfleet was built as a deep moat being part of the fortification system Alter Wall. Over time it was broadened so ships could use it and was integrated in the branched canals system of the city. For some time in the 19th century it was called “Little Alster”. As the whole inner city was reconstructed after the Big Fire of 1842 the Alsterfleet was straightened. On its western rim the architect Alexis de Chateauneuf constructed the Alsterarcades inspired by the Venetian model for canal buildings. The Alstefleet is the only link between Alster and Elbe that can be used by ships. On its north side is the Rathaus water gate and on its south the Schaartor water gate. Those water gates are responsible for the drainage of the Alster. Every day the water level of the Alster is lowered by 10 centimeter. Usually this is done at night time because in the process a fast current is created that can become dangerous for ships. To be able to drain the Alster when the Elbe is at high tide there were three powerful pumps installed at the Schaartor water gate that are capable of pumping 130.000 cubic liters of water per hour from the Alster into the Elbe.
In 2014 two fish ladders on both sides of both water gates were installed to help fish reach the Elbe and Alster.
Station 13: Alte Wall – The New Strolling Promenade
After the Neue Wall was erected and the Alte Wall got obsolete as part of the fortification system, the area was used as a dumpster. At around 1580 Sephardic Jews started settling there who were systematically dispersed from the Iberian peninsula since 1492. In the year 1612 they built their first oratory in Hamburg, more would follow. In the early 19th century many gastronomic and entertainment venues opened here. At that time the Alte Wall was the main hub for private money lenders.
After the Big Fire of 1842 the newly erected Kontorhouse ensemble was a border made out of stone between the Nikolai District and the Neustadt. Between those buildings and the north façade of the opposing town hall was for decades a parking lot. In 2014 plans were made to revive the old buildings with shops, offices and the Bucerius art museum. The parking lot vanished for the creation of a new strolling promenade. The parking lot moved underground and is now below the Alsterfleet. Moreover a new pedestrian bridge was installed that connects the Alte Wall with the Neue Wall and thereby creates a new link to the open courtyard of the town hall. The historic link between Neue Wall and Jungfernstieg with the two other main shopping streets Mönckebergstraße and Spitalerstraße was revived.
Station 14: The New Castle
The Slavic raid of the Hammaburg at the Domplatz in the year 1018 and more attacks of the Slavs in northern German cities led to the decision of the king of Saxony Bernhard II. to fortify his “treasure between Alster and Elbe”. The construction of the new castle was a really ambitious undertaking at those times. Construction started in 1021: the fortress encompassed an area of 0.7 ha, which is about the size of one soccer field. The rampart was up to 36 meters wide and up to 5 meters high, since its purpose was not only the defense against intruders but a precaution against high floods aswell. The new castle was completed roughly 12 years later. Thanks to the experts of the Archeological Museum Hamburg, who started examining the site after the BID Nikolai Quartier found artefacts while working on a construction site, many secrets of the new castle could be lifted. Nowadays we know, that at this very same spot in the year 1188 count Adolf III. founded the “new town”. Aside from archeological research a charter addressing Wirad von Boizenburg signed by 50 Hamburg merchants proves this founding moment. In the year 1195 count Adolf III. constructed the Nikolaikapelle as a gift to the growing merchant city. It was erected upon the rampart which was not in use anymore. The reasons for the doom of the new castle are unknown until today.