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In Germany, Hamburg is known for its beauty and riches, and those traits' frequent companion—a cool attitude. Water plays a defining role in Hamburg, and the distinguishing feature of Downtown is the Alster (Alster lakes).

From its prominent spot on the Elbe River, which narrows and flows for about 298 km (185 mi) to the North Sea, the old city made its mark as a leader of the medieval Hanseatic League, the medieval union of northern German merchant cities that dominated shipping in the Baltic and North seas. Pride in this trade history can be seen in the HH (Hansestadt Hamburg) that is stamped on everything—from the official license plates to T-shirts. For all its pride in the past, however, Hamburg is forward looking. Today Hamburg boasts Europe's second-busiest port and the artificial Alster lakes are major draws.

Once an insignificant tributary, the Alster was dammed in the 13th century. Four hundred years later, the lake was divided into two bodies—the Binnenalster (Inner Alster) and the Aussenalster (Outer Alster). A pair of iconic bridges, the Lombardsbrücke and Kennedybrücke, marks the divide between the two lakes. The Inner Alster is lined with stately hotels, department stores, fine shops, and cafés; the Outer Alster is framed by parks and gardens against a backdrop of private mansions.

Fifteen of the 20 top-selling magazines in Germany are edited in Hamburg. The city is home to several influential publications, such as Die Zeit,Der Spiegel, and Stern. The home of international publishing giant Bauer sits in Downtown Hamburg. Hamburg is also the centre of a new media boom. Not surprisingly, the city of movers and shakers is also the city with most of Germany's millionaires.

But for many Europeans, the port city invariably triggers thoughts of the Reeperbahn, the strip of sex shows and prostitution that helped earn Hamburg its reputation as "Sin City." Today the infamous red-light district is just as much a hip meeting place for young Hamburgers and tourist crowds, who flirt with the bright lights and chic haunts of the not-so-sinful Reeperbahn, especially on warm summer nights.

Hamburg, or "Hammaburg," was founded in 811. For centuries it was a walled city, its gigantic outer fortifications providing a tight little world relatively impervious to invasion.

Napoléon and the Thirty Years' War did not destroy the city but the interruption in commerce hurt Hamburg. Trade was so strong that the city reached the crest of its power by the middle of the 1800s, when the largest shipping fleets on the seas with some of the fastest ships afloat were based here. Its merchants traded with the far corners of the globe. During the four decades leading up to World War I, Hamburg became one of the world's richest cities. Its aura of wealth and power continued right up to the outbreak of World War II. These days, thousands of ships sail up the lower Elbe each year, carrying millions of tons of cargo—from petroleum and locomotives to grain and bananas.

What you see today is the "new" Hamburg. The Great Fire of 1842 all but obliterated the original city; a century later World War II bombing raids destroyed port facilities and leveled more than half of the city proper.

In spite of the 1940-45 raids, Hamburg now stands as a remarkably faithful replica of that glittering prewar city—a place of enormous style, verve, and elegance, with considerable architectural diversity, including Jugendstil buildings, Germany's version of art nouveau, erected at the turn of the 20th century. The Elbe and other waterways flow throughout the city. Hamburg also holds many parks and nature preserves within its borders. The northern Germany metropolis is, literally, a site to behold.