The history of the Port of Hamburg

It is estimated that between 80% and 90% of the goods exchanged internationally today are transported by sea, namely on ships. These percentages are given based on weight; if one were to consider value, ships would end up transporting around 70% of the world’s traded goods. Indeed, around 100,000 large cargo ships travel the seas and oceans, these being gigantic container ships that move from one country to another. Obviously, the destinations of those continuous trips are the greatest world ports: speaking of Europe, for example, a large proportion of goods pass through Hamburg. But why is this northern German seaport still so important for Germany itself and for the continent today? And what is the history of the Port of Hamburg?

Port of Hamburg’s figures and its importance in Europe

Hamburger Hafen: that is how the Germans call the Port of Hamburg, located on the Elbe river, 110 km away from the North Sea. It is the main port of Germany and the third European port, after the seaports of Rotterdam and Antwerp: because of its importance, it is also called “Tor zur Welt”, or “Gateway to the World”, by the Germans. Looking at the rankings of the world’s ports by volume of goods, the Port of Hamburg ranks between fifteenth and twentieth. According to the consulting firm Alphaliner, for example, the Port of Hamburg ranks 20th in a list dominated by Asian ports.

Overall, the port of Hamburg covers an area of almost 74 square kilometres, 43 of which are dedicated to mooring areas: it was the characteristic ramifications of the Elbe River in this area that allowed for the development of such a port, far from the sea.

The birth and history of the Port of Hamburg

The history of the Port of Hamburg is almost as old as that of the city itself. Indeed, the Port of Hamburg has a very precise date of birth: it is said to be the 7th of May 1189, the day when Frederick I, or Frederick Barbarossa – Emperor of the Romans and King of Italy – identified this area as a strategic location for trade. That was the beginning of the history of a seaport that for a long time was the most important one in Europe, fundamental for the development of Hamburg and Germany.

The Port of Hamburg from the Hanseatic League to the nineteenth century

In the early centuries, the history of the port of Hamburg was inevitably intertwined with that of the Hanseatic League, an alliance through which the Hanseatic cities secured an almost exclusive monopoly of trade in Northern Europe and the Baltic Sea. At that time, and until the 16th century, the port of Hamburg was considered the most important one in Europe after Lübeck, the capital of the Hanseatic League at the time. However, the luck and importance of the port of Hamburg grew more rapidly since the discovery of America, which entailed overseas commercial flows: it was precisely the advent of transoceanic trade that allowed Hamburg to overtake Lübeck. In those years, the German city on the Elbe became the point of reference for both the transport of goods to America and the transport of passengers.

The port’s success continued over the following centuries, up to the nineteenth century. In 1847, the Hamburg America Line (also known as Hamburg-Amerikanische Packetfahrt-Aktien-Gesellschaft, acronym HAPAG) was founded. In 1970, it merged with its “rival” Norddeutscher Lloyd to form the still existing Hapag-Lloyd. In 1888, Hamburg became a free port when the city became part of the Zollverein, i.e., the German Customs Union: such status lasted until 2013. The possibility of shipping goods duty-free was a further success factor for the German port.

The Port of Hamburg in the nineteenth century

The Port of Hamburg suffered severe blows in the 20th century. For instance, the fleets of Hamburg’s shipyards were destroyed during both World War I and World War II. At the end of the Second World War, with the subsequent division of Germany into East and West, the port lost much of its ground, so much so that it bid farewell to many of its vital trade links. It was only with the reunification of Germany that the port managed to gain a position of prominence, which was further increased with the entry into the European Union and later with the increase in the number of Member States. In recent decades, the port of Hamburg has thus regained its importance in European and international logistics and has once again become one of the world’s busiest seaports.


One of Hamburg’s most famous and striking symbols, among the city port’s most characteristic and impressive structures: the Speicherstadt, or “city of warehouses”, consists of a complex of no less than 17 warehouses built along the canals in the city centre, immediately behind the port of Hamburg. These large, tall warehouses – occupying an area of approximately 330,000 square metres – were built to serve the port between 1884 and 1927, based on plans by Hamburg engineer Franz Andreas Meyer. In 1991, the Speicherstadt was added to the lists of monuments protected by cultural heritage institutions, and as of 2015, it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The decision to build these huge warehouses – overall the largest storage complex ever built worldwide – was made following the signing of a customs contract between Hamburg and the German Empire. Many city buildings were demolished in order to build – on oak stilts – warehouses up to 7 and 8 storeys high, using the characteristic red brick. In these warehouses, aesthetically elegant due to the presence of towers and pinnacles, goods such as tea, coffee, tobacco, rum and many others were stored for decades. Nowadays, this part of the Port of Hamburg has lost its main function and now houses museums, record companies, entertainment agencies and offices.