The River Elbe

Today, we are sailing into the historic German port of Hamburg. The port dates back to the staggering year 1189. It is Germany’s largest port for freight and cruise passengers and is 110km inland from the North Sea. Ships of all sizes navigate the River Elbe with the help of local pilots and if you look on the left-hand side before you arrive in the port area you’ll see a mini-terminal just for all the tugboats that they need!


We were up early to take some photos of ships arriving into the port, here is AIDAperla arriving just after sunrise.

AIDAperla arriving in Hamburg

AIDAperla arriving in Hamburg

Today is going to be an extra-special day as it is the 829th Port of Hamburg anniversary this weekend. The anniversary this year is running from the 10-13th May and is attended by approximately 1.5 million people. There will be all sorts of boats and ships present during the weekend and we expect to see some interesting sights during our one-day visit to the port.

Port of Hamburg 829th Anniversary sign

Port of Hamburg 829th Anniversary sign

Thankfully, we are in port from 8am until around 9pm as it is a large turnaround day for MSC Magnifica and therefore we should get a good opportunity to explore all the festivities on hand. Unfortunately, we won’t be venturing into Hamburg’s city centre itself as this event is so large and unique we want to truly enjoy it – there is only so much we can do in a day!

Port of Hamburg Altona Cruise Center viewing area

Port of Hamburg Altona Cruise Center viewing area

Breakfast was fresh pastries and coffee ordered to the cabin, followed by some work on our laptops out on Deck 13 – it is cloudy currently, but the sun will be out later we’re assured!


By mid-morning we have finished our work and got our equipment ready to head ashore. First, a quick shot of the delicious gelatos available at the La Barchetta bar on Deck 13 – they are included in the inclusive beverages package and are amazing. Keep checking daily – some different flavours appear. For me, the pistachio flavour was my favourite!

MSC Magnifica La Barchetta Bar gelato selection

MSC Magnifica La Barchetta Bar gelato selection

Restocking MSC Magnifica

Whilst leaving we noticed the busy port-side work on the quayside. Hamburg is one of the ports that passengers embark (or disembark) MSC Magnifica, but also it is a port where a lot of fresh supplies are taken on. What you see here is generally a top-up of the fresh fruit, meats and everything else consumed on the cruise – so don’t be alarmed if you see only four boxes of oranges – they are just making sure they have plenty of everything! Fun fact: Did you know that bananas are loaded onto cruise ships in three different stages of ripeness? That way you can always have a fresh ready-to-eat banana throughout your cruise!

MSC Magnifica receiving new supplies

MSC Magnifica receiving new supplies

MSC Magnifica receiving new supplies via crane

MSC Magnifica receiving new supplies via crane

MSC Magnifica receiving new supplies of water in Hamburg

MSC Magnifica receiving new supplies of water in Hamburg

After gazing at the busy forklifts for a little while and looking at the complexity of getting the cargo onto the ship (due to the tide, the entrance to the ship is lower than the quayside – so a crane has to lower a large cage with the goods down between the ship and the quayside) we finally set off to the port anniversary.

MSC Magnifica cargo loading operations

MSC Magnifica cargo loading operations

829th Port of Hamburg anniversary

After exiting the ship via the gangway on Deck 6 and a brief walk out of the Altona Cruise Center terminal we headed right and past the Fischmarkt Markets. They usually only open on Sundays – they sell fish, fruits, clothing and souvenirs and they have existed in one form or another since 1703. They open very early throughout the year (5am) and if you are ever in Hamburg on a Sunday you should pay a visit. The market stalls are fascinating to browse and the owners, in a bid to attract customers, outscream each other with numerous offers!

Port of Hamburg 829th Anniversary - Fischmarkt Markets

Port of Hamburg 829th Anniversary – Fischmarkt Markets

The buildings next to the Fishmarkt Markets are the Fischauktionshalle (Fish auction hall) these now house stages and have live bands playing in them and popup bars and eateries selling street food. Today, they are open for the harbour anniversary, but they do still have performers on most Sundays too.

Port of Hamburg 829th Anniversary - Live stage

Port of Hamburg 829th Anniversary – Live stage

Port of Hamburg 829th Anniversary - Fischmarkt Markets with live bands

Port of Hamburg 829th Anniversary – Fischmarkt Markets with live bands

As we continued past the busy stages it was impossible to turn without seeing another street food or popup bar. Everything you can think of was for sale – from locally brewed German beers to German vodka shots, cocktails and huge urns of sangria. Food-wise there was of course bratwursts, freshly cooked crisps, sandwiches and smoked seafood, chips, waffles, crepes, pretzels, burgers and more. There really was something for everyone here.

Port of Hamburg 829th Anniversary smoked fish

Port of Hamburg 829th Anniversary smoked fish

We continued walking down the waterfront which is the Elbe Promenade and we noticed it is actually split into three distinct lanes, one was the waterfront restaurants and bars (which are here all year round), then the pop-up restaurants and bars and then finally, on the main road (that has been closed for the anniversary) there were smaller street market goods and foods available.

Port of Hamburg 829th Anniversary street market

Port of Hamburg 829th Anniversary street market

Port of Hamburg 829th Anniversary popup bars

Port of Hamburg 829th Anniversary popup bars

Many tour boats that operate all-year round are very busy today and in addition, some large tall-ships are here for River Elbe cruises. There is no shortage of people wishing to visit the many ships or take a pleasure cruise on them. For us, the queues are too large and we want to walk the entire length of the festival. (Note: This was over 3km long!).

Port of Hamburg 829th Anniversary - Crowds on Elbe Promenade

Port of Hamburg 829th Anniversary – Crowds on Elbe Promenade

We did see this replica paddle-steamer Louisana Star that is actually based on the River Elbe and operates during the tourist season (sorry for the shaky video, we didn’t take a tripod with us and it was windy!)

As we head down the waterfront there are many street performers entertaining the crowds, from jugglers to live music and magicians. Occasionally, we pass police who are smiling and having photos with people in the crowd – the atmosphere is really good and there is no trouble from what we can see – amazing considering over 1.5 million people will visit this area over the three days.

Port of Hamburg 829th Anniversary - Crowds walk amongst popup street stalls and entertainment

Port of Hamburg 829th Anniversary – Crowds walk amongst popup street stalls and entertainment

Port of Hamburg 829th Anniversary - Crowds walk amongst popup street stalls and entertainment

Port of Hamburg 829th Anniversary – Crowds walk amongst popup street stalls and entertainment

Walkways to ships from the Port of Hamburg

Walkways to ships from the Port of Hamburg

Tall ship at Port of Hamburg 829th Anniversary

Tall ship at Port of Hamburg 829th Anniversary

Port of Hamburg 829th Anniversary ships

Port of Hamburg 829th Anniversary ships

As we head further along we come across the AIDA Cruises popup stand. They have AIDA deckchairs out for people to take a little break and rest their feet and are giving out brochures and gifts. Part of the popup stand has a balcony cabin scale model that you could walk around from their new AIDAprima ship!

Port of Hamburg 829th anniversary AIDAcruises popup stand

Port of Hamburg 829th anniversary AIDAcruises popup stand

AIDAprima ship model in AIDAcruises popup stand

AIDAprima ship model in AIDAcruises popup stand

After we pass this area we head to the Unilever Building (which has onsite shop and it has a huge queue snaking outside people are buying the discount Magnum ice-creams it seems!) – as we exit via another doorway we see a familiar bow, that of Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth she is on a Baltic cruise and this is her first port of call. The ship is tied up at the Hafencity Cruise Terminal – an area that is full of tall office and residential buildings and the actual cruise terminal is made of shipping containers! (In an artistic way of course!)

Port of Hamburg 829th Anniversary - Queen Elizabeth at Hafencity

Port of Hamburg 829th Anniversary – Queen Elizabeth at Hafencity

After visiting a quieter cafe on a side street for a little refreshment we decide we want to head back to the ship as it is now 5pm. There are several events on today, including Tugboat Ballet, but unfortunately, we won’t be able to see them from MSC Magnifica and we want to get set up for the sailaway of Queen Elizabeth and of course, our ship!


We get a taxi back to the Altona Cruise Center (Approx 14 EUR from Hafencity) and dodge the massive crowds we snaked through en route here. Back at the terminal, there are people boarding the ship for the first time and queuing to show their passports. A quick flash of our MSC Magnifica cruise card and through security and we are back on board in no time, perfect!

MSC Magnifica at Altona Cruise Center, Hamburg

MSC Magnifica at Altona Cruise Center, Hamburg

Departing Hamburg

We set up on the Deck 11 Bow and the wind is picking up a little now. There is a constant stream of small boats and ships sailing past us, usually in groups of 5-10 with a police escort boat with them. The port might be celebrating its 829th anniversary today, but it is still very open and active with shipping traffic. Occasionally, a large tanker or container ship glides past amongst all the pleasure boats – a stressful day for any captain we expect!

Mobile crane sails down River Elbe, Hamburg

Mobile crane sails down River Elbe, Hamburg

In the distance, we can see the distinctive red funnel of Queen Elizabeth. She is now departing and slowly making her way around one of the bends in the River Elbe towards us. She sounds her distinctive whistle several times and in response, lots of small boats and ships signal back to her. As the sun is starting to set now, the lights of all the fairground rides, market stalls, popup bars and street food stands are all starting to glow in the distance. It is still very busy as the festival runs until midnight each day. Queen Elizabeth makes her way down the river and as she approaches us we can see a small flotilla of boats accompanying her journey – each sounding their whistle repeatedly and carrying excited passengers, waving at other boats and people on the Elbe Promenade.

Port of Hamburg 829th Anniversary Queen Elizabeth departure

Port of Hamburg 829th Anniversary Queen Elizabeth departure

As she passes us, her whistle is sounded again four times and the tugboats accompanying her release their lines and move aside. We can see many passengers on her open decks and balconies waving and cheering as they pass us and the passengers on MSC Magnifica respond with the same enthusiasm.

We then watch as AIDAperla relocates from her current berth further into Hamburg and towards the Hafencity terminal. Later tonight at around 10pm she will sit in the middle of the river, bathed in floodlights and a huge event of music and fireworks will celebrate the port anniversary. Unfortunately, we will have set sail an hour earlier so will miss it!

AIDAperla arriving for the Port of Hamburg 829th anniversary

AIDAperla arriving for the Port of Hamburg 829th anniversary

A short while later, we start letting our lines go and we move sideways away from our berth. We move into the middle of the river and go forward about one ship’s length – we then perform a 180-degree turn on the spot as crowds everywhere watch in amazement at how nimble the ship performs the manoeuvre. Once facing the opposite way to where we started, we start slowly sailing out of the port and down the River Elbe. Boats and ships along the way sound their whistle to say goodbye to us and people on the riverbank are waving and cheering – the atmosphere is fantastic and the outer decks of MSC Magnifica are full of passengers enjoying the event.

MSC Magnifica sailaway from Hamburg dusk

MSC Magnifica sailaway from Hamburg dusk

We visit the Sahara buffet for some fresh pizza and head to sit on the terrace to see the last glimpses of Hamburg – it is standing room only currently as everyone else has the same idea – thankfully there is plenty room on the decks above and we stand to face the rear of the ship enjoying the warm breeze as darkness sets.

MSC Magnifica Welcome Onboard cake in Sahara buffet

MSC Magnifica Welcome Onboard cake in Sahara buffet

MSC Magnifica Deck 15 dusk view leaving Hamburg

MSC Magnifica Deck 15 dusk view leaving Hamburg

Oh and the mini-terminal for the tugboats? Here it is!

Port of Hamburg tugboat berthing area

Port of Hamburg tugboat berthing area

We are now heading down the River Elbe and will exit the mouth of the river at around 1am. We retired to our cabin and after setting everything up to backup, charge and rest, we sat on our balcony for thirty minutes, enjoying the warm breeze and witnessing many large passing ships. Tomorrow is a full day at sea before we arrive in Southampton the morning afterwards and we have 422 nautical miles to sail. We have a lot still to cover on the ship, so we are going to be up very early we suspect!

MSC Magnifica Daily Program for 12th May 2018

MSC Magnifica Daily Program for 12th May 2018 (click to view)

That’s all for now! Don’t forget you can follow us on our social media channels too:

About Author

Chris Hughes

Chris is an ex-Royal Navy Reservist. During his time in the Royal Navy, Chris served in the Maritime Trade Operations Branch. A now seasoned cruiser, the first ship for Chris was Cunard Lines' Queen Victoria. Chris enjoys nothing more than relaxing on a balcony during a sea day, gazing out to sea and enjoying the cruise lifestyle!

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