Together with the Warehouse district, the Kontorhaus quarter has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2015.
It was created from about 1912 where previously thousands of people lived in poor conditions in one of the notorious “Gängeviertel”. An entire neighborhood of rented office buildings was built here – an impressive and globally unique collection of clinker brick buildings with beautiful design elements.
Even today, the Kontorhausviertel walking tour is fascinated by the atmosphere created by this architecture, and small stores, cafes and restaurants invite you to linger.
Don’t forget: a Greet is free of charge.
Cruising in Hamburg’s old town
The Hamburg Kontorhaus
From the merchant’s house to the Kontorhaus
Until the second half of the 19th century, the Hamburg town house combined three functions. The merchant lived in it, stored his goods there and also conducted his business from there. Later, the wealthy merchants moved to the Alster and Elbe rivers, the goods were stored in the Warehouse District, and separate buildings were built for the increasingly complex office activities. From the 1880s, the Kontorhaus thus came into being.
For tenants only the best
The most modern facilities such as paternoster lifts, central heating, telephone connection combined with representative entrance areas were attractive to tenants. Since only the exterior walls have load-bearing functions, flexible floor plans were made possible. Typically, shipping or foreign trade companies had the Kontorhaus built for them, and companies with which they cooperated moved in as tenants. Short distances were an advantage at a time when many documents were still transported in the original and not by mail.
Once just an office building – nowadays a tourist attraction
Today, a good 240 Kontorhäuser are still preserved, they are located throughout the centre of Hamburg. Behind many a door, imposing entrance areas and staircases are hidden – sometimes even a paternoster still runs. Only when walking through the Kontorhausviertel, however, does one feel the uniqueness of this ensemble of brick expressionism, which is also internationally unparalleled.
Domplatz and Hamburg's beginnings
The fortification, the cathedral, the school
Here on this elevated site, on an old trade route, lay the nucleus of Hamburg, the Hammaburg. About 1,200 years ago, the city still could still fit on this square, hardly imaginable. One was protected from high water and could see who was approaching the settlement.
The city was burned down and rebuilt many times. The plastic „corner stones“ that can be seen in the square today represent the pillars of St. Mary’s Cathedral, built in the Middle Ages. The cathedral was demolished in 1805 and the imposing building of the Johanneum, a Hamburg school for scholars, was subsequently built on the square. After World War II, archaeological excavations were carried out on the square, but only recently was the final evidence found that the nucleus of Hamburg was located here.
Around the Domplatz today
If you look around the Domplatz today while walking through the Kontorhaus District, the first thing that catches your eye is the Petrikirche, (St. Peter’s Church) the oldest of Hamburg’s five main churches. In the basement of the bakery further to the right, one finds excavations from the 12th century. Here you can have a coffee amidst the remains of the old walls. Opposite is the building of the ZEIT, where Helmut Schmidt had his office as editor until his death.
Brick and clinker
Brick shapes Hamburg’s face
From the 1890s, the brick façade became established, a material that still characterizes the Hanseatic city today. Not only the different colour of the bricks used makes each building appear different, the architects also made use of various design patterns to make the buildings real eye-catchers to this day. For example, bricks were turned 45 degrees, as in the Chilehaus, or gilded, as in the Sprinkenhof. Many buildings were decorated with sculptures, some showing professions of the time. Other buildings bear symbolic ceramic elements as ornaments, as individual pieces or applied to the entire façade. There is the Andean bird on the facade of the Chilehaus or the terracotta reliefs on the Sprinkenhof, which show symbols of trade and crafts.
Clinker is a special type of brick. Bricks, which are fired at particularly high temperatures, have a particular ring to them when they are knocked together. From this derives the term clinker. The colour can be influenced by adding different materials. Not all clinkers are smooth and even. The unevenness of the clinker bricks of the Chilehaus gives its facade a unique expression. The builder had inadvertently purchased rejects. From today’s perspective, a stroke of luck.
Before the construction of the Kontorhäuser, people lived in this area under the poorest of conditions. Here was one of the notorious Hamburg Gängeviertel („alley districts). They were created in the 17th and 18th centuries, when the gardens behind the houses were built on more and more densely due to the strong population growth. These alleys (“Gänge”) were so narrow that in many cases hardly any light penetrated them and they could not be entered by any vehicle. The narrow and damp dwellings were breeding grounds for disease and they were shadowy and non-transparent to the authorities. It was feared that political unrest might emanate from them, and they were no advertisement for the thriving commercial city that had just spruced itself up with the construction of the main railway station and the town hall.
Offices instead of apartments
At the end of the 19th century, the demolition of the Gängeviertel began – the area remaining on the site of today’s Kontorhausviertel was the last to come down. Initially, new apartments were also to be built here, but it was quickly realized that these would be too expensive for the existing population and that more money could be earned with offices. At the beginning of the 1920s, about 3,900 people still lived in today’s Kontorhausviertel, who then had to move to other districts, some of which were newly built.
Today in the Kontorhausviertel - not only offices
Shopping very individually
Only a few people still live in the Kontorhausviertel. But it seems very lively. Few areas in the city centre have so many individual stores and gastronomic offerings. Small, owner-operated stores, some with a long tradition, invite you to stroll around and discover unusual souvenirs. A cap from the place where Helmut Schmidt used to buy his headgear, or would you prefer a tea from one of Hamburg’s oldest speciality stores? On the Burchardplatz a beautiful weekly market is held on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and you can find one or the other culinary souvenir from local vendors here.
Eating and drinking – something for everyone
For those who would like to eat something, a wide variety of inexpensive ways to satisfy hunger are to be found on the market, but also elsewhere, especially during the day,. From home-style Hamburg cuisine to authentic pasta to the hip Kurdish-Turkish restaurant, everything is there. And a coffee roastery can be found as well as the cocktail bar to ring in the evening.
If you’d rather have something cultural, there exhibitions or galleries located throughout the district to look at.
Discovery tour through the neighborhood
It’s no secret that there are many beautiful staircases in the Kontorhaus district. If you want to look at them, you should always remember that these are not museums, but offices and builldings where people go about their work. If a tour is allowed, visitors should take care not to disturb the running of the business.
In addition to the very well-known flagships of the Kontorhausviertel, such as the Chilehaus, the Sprinkenhof or the Messberghof, there are numerous smaller buildings that deserve a closer look inside or outside.
Wikingerhof (Viking House) (Schopenstehl 22)
Here it is best to have a look at the stairwell and discover unusual, very beautiful wood panelling with numerous decorative elements.
Afrikahaus (Große Reichenstr. 27)
The figures in front of the house and in the courtyard testify to the history of the Woermann company and the German colonial period. Those who are interested in the history of the building should go to the right staircase, where pictures from earlier times and building plans hang .
Altstädter Hof (Altstädter Straße, Steinstraße, Mohlenhofstraße)
The figures on the facade represent professions. Sometimes more, sometimes less easy to recognize and one figure is even said to show the architect of this block. It is one of the few buildings in this area where there are apartments.
Our Kontorhausviertel walking tour usually ends after two to three hours.
All about "Greets"
- Duration: two to three hours and absolutely free
- Max. 6 people, no combination of different requests
- Meeting point and exact route: by agreement between guest and Greeter
- Request: please at least two weeks before desired date
- More about Greets