The HAMBURG WASSER World Triathlon is a massive race in one of Europe’s finest cities—but that’s not the only reason to add it to your bucket list.
by Brad Culp
My first visit to the HAMBURG WASSER World Triathlon was six years ago and all I heard about beforehand was that I should prepare myself for the greatest spectacle in triathlon: "There are a half-million crazy fans lining the streets," one person said. "You’ve never seen anything like it—it’s the biggest party in triathlon," another added. This information was coming from a couple of Hamburg locals, so I figured there was a bit of hyperbole. A half-million spectators at a triathlon? No chance, right?
Turns out the locals weren’t full of it. By the time I first saw the event in 2010, the Hamburg Wasser ITU World Triathlon had grown to the largest participation triathlon in the world, with close to 10,000 age-group athletes taking part in the sprint, Olympic and relay events. And the fans turned out in much greater numbers—especially for the elite races—where rows of spectators five or six people deep lined nearly the entire course. So yeah, this race is a big deal, but what makes Hamburg such a special destination for so many European triathletes?
Why visit Hamburg?
While it’s not often thought of as one of Europe’s "big" cities, Hamburg is actually the second largest city in Germany and eight largest in the European Union. It’s also one of the most affluent cities in Europe, thanks in large part to having one of the busiest ports in the entire world. One of the biggest draws for athletes to visit during the summer months is the weather. Thanks to its proximity to the North and Baltic Seas, Hamburg has one of the mildest climates in Germany, with summer highs generally between 70-75 Fahrenheit (21-25 Celsius).
While longer bike rides within the city limits are somewhat difficult, Hamburg is an absolute running paradise. It’s really divided into two cities, which are further divided into seven boroughs. Much like New York or Chicago, it’s truly a city of distinct neighborhoods. There are two lakes within the city center: The Binnenalster (or Inner Alster) and Außenalster (or Outer Alster), which are both man-made lakes that were formed by damming off the Alster River. Whether you’re just in town to train, or you’re there to race, it’s around these two lakes that you’ll be spending most of your time. There is a running and cycling path along the western side of the both lakes that offers an incredible view of the Old City and Hamburg’s famous Town Hall, which is truly one of the most spectacular buildings in all of Europe and serves as a dramatic finish-line backdrop on race day.
See and do
Hamburg Rathaus: Located in the heart of the city center (and only a few feet from the race start and finish) the Hamburg Rathaus (or Town Hall) is worth a stop for a photo opp. Built in 1897, the neo-Renaissance Town Hall was designed to be a symbol of Hamburg’s wealth and independence. It still serves as the seat of Hamburg’s government today, but the lobby area is open to the public and often hosts concerts and opera throughout the year.
Fischmarkt: With its location on two seas and three rivers, it’s no wonder Hamburg boasts one of the world’s best fish markets. Located in the St. Pauli neighborhood, the Fischmarkt has and endless array of local seafood in addition to a huge farmers market with unique fruits and vegetables. The catch is that it’s only open on Sundays from 5 am until 9:30 am. Do it like a local and stay out all Saturday night to hit the Fischmarkt before going to bed on Sunday morning.
Hamburger Kunsthalle: Located on the banks of the Außenalster is Hamburg’s finest art museum, which showcases an impressive collection spanning from the Renaissance to present day. The cost is 12 Euro for adults and it’s free for children.
Mahnmal St-Nikolai: St. Nikolai Church got a two-year run as the world’s tallest building from 1874-1876 and is still the second tallest building in Hamburg. You can take a glass lift up 250 feet to the top of the spires to get an incomparable view of the city center. The basement of the church serves as a museum demonstrating some of the horrors of World War II, including when the church was almost completely destroyed in 1943. Admission is 5 Euro for adults and 3 for children.
Eat and drink
Strandperle: Thanks to plenty of posterity and the fact that it’s in Germany, Hamburg has a reputation as being a bit of a party city. There’s no better way to start-off a night of post-race or post-training drinking than the Strandperle on the banks of the Elbe River. Dip your toes in the sand and sip on fine German beers while mammoth freighters float on by. Get there by taking ferry 62 from Landungsbrücken or bus 112 from Altona station to Neumühlen/Oevelgönne.
Le Canard Nouveau: If fine dining is more your things, Michelin-starred chef Ali Güngörmüs’ Le Canard Nouveau is located just a few feet from Strandperle on the banks of the Elbe. Güngörmüs blends French tenchinques with his Turkish heritage and local German ingredients for a unique dining experience. Prices are surprisingly reasonable for a one-star Michelin restaurant, with most main courses running about 35 Euro.
Konditorei Holger Rönnfeld: Visiting a proper German bakery is a must while in Hamburg and there’s no better one in town than Konditorei Holger Rönnfeld, located in the St. Pauli neighborhood. The bakery can barely fit three people at a time, so expect to stand in line for a few minutes outside while you decide what kind of pastries, tarts or cake you’re in the mood for.
Getting to Hamburg is incredibly easy from anywhere in Europe, with plenty of daily direct flights from just about every major airport on the continent. There are also direct flights from Newark on United and Dubai on Emirates. The airport is located just nine kilometers north of the city and the S1 S-Bahn train will have you to the city center in less than 20 minutes.
Where to stay
The Marriot Hamburg is the official race hotel and is located just a few blocks from the race start and finish. Average room rates are around $170 (USD) per night. For a an even more upscale option, check out the nearby Radisson Blu, or to save a few bucks, try the Hotel Ibis Alster Centrum.