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If your travels to Germany have never taken you out of Bavaria and the Rhine, take the next exit off the Romantic Road and venture farther north.

Hanseatic Hamburg
Hanseatic Hamburg

By Nikki Goth Itoi & Lydia Itoi

Stretching across the banks of the Elbe River on the cusp of the North Sea, the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg is a proud, industrious, and surprisingly elegant port town whose considerable charms remain something of a secret from North American leisure travelers.

That means that during the summer months, when sailboats are drifting across the lake and people are strolling under the trees to their favorite outdoor cafés, Hamburg is refreshingly free of the tourist hordes overrunning most of the rest of Europe's great cities.

For centuries, Hamburg has served as a commercial gateway to northern Germany, and it is a fitting place to begin our exploration of Northern Germany and the cities of the Hanseatic League. In the next few issues, we will continue on to Bremen, Lübeck, and Schleswig-Holstein.

Hamburg is a merchant town, and its practical-minded people haven't seen much need to call attention to themselves by constructing splashy palaces or photogenic towers and monuments to put on their tourist brochures. Hamburg's greatest landmarks are its storied harbor and the Baroque church, affectionately known as the "Michel," honoring the city's patron saint. The city was, of course, totally rebuilt after being heavily damaged in World War II and its busy port and the rows of white mansions rising up along the riverbanks bear witness that the city continues to uphold its strong mercantile traditions.