Ever since the emperor Friedrich Barbarossa issued an edict granting free-trading privileges to Hamburg in 1189, the city has earned fame and riches from its busy harbor, one of the largest in the world. Hamburg commemorates Frederic’s gesture in early May with 3 days of windjammer parades, fireworks, and other celebrations, and these days most of the maritime activity takes place in a vast swath of riverside docks and warehouses just southwest of the city, where the Elbe splits into two arms as it nears the North Sea. The only real way to see the docklands is on a harbor cruise that departs from the city’s main passenger landing stage, St. Pauli-Landungsbrücken. Don’t board the 19th-century clipper ship Rickmer Rickmers and expect to get anywhere; docked just east of the landing at Pier 1, the magnificent vessel is now a museum of maritime history ([tel] 040/319-5959; daily 10am–5:30pm; 3€/$4 for adults, 2.50€/$3.50 for children ages 4–12).
You can also join the cadre of old salts who regularly make the trip out to Willkomm-Höft (Welcome Point) in outlying Wedel, where each day more than 50 arriving and 50 departing ships pass a maritime station that stands on the tip of the peninsula off which crews first catch sight of the cranes and slipways of the Port of Hamburg. From sunrise to sunset (8am–8pm in summer) arriving ships are greeted with the national anthem of the country where the vessel is registered. The station master lowers the Hamburg flag in salute, and the passing ship dips its flag in response. You can get to Wedel by S-Bahn; the point is a 15-minute walk from the stop. While in Wedel, you might want to step into the cellars of Schulauer Fährhaus, a restaurant at Parnastrasse 29 ([tel] 04103/92000; www.schulauer-faehrhaus.de), and pay a visit to the Buddelschiff-Museum ([tel] 04103/920016; www.buddel.de), where more than 200 little vessels are carefully preserved in bottles. The museum is open March to October, daily 10am to 6pm; November to February, hours are Saturday and Sunday only 10am to 6pm. Admission is 3€ for adults and free for children.