A few miles downstream from Hamburg, on the river Elbe, is the Willkomm-Höft ship-greeting station, which hails vessels entering the city’s harbour by playing a few bars of their national anthem while dipping a flag. Hamburg, as a trading hub for spices and exotic goods, has been Germany’s gateway to the world for centuries. This jaunty spectacle, which began in 1952, is testament to the port city’s openness to outsiders, a quality that still draws international investors today.
Following the UK’s Brexit vote, Hamburg is one of several European cities hoping to capitalise, as London-based international companies consider an alternative European city to call home. While Germany’s financial hub, Frankfurt, and its capital, Berlin, might be more obvious contenders, Hamburg combines a high quality of life and strong infrastructure with a rich cultural offering and the buzz of a big city, according to expatriate residents.
“Hamburg is sometimes overshadowed by Berlin. But it is much more beautiful and architecturally exciting. In Germany there is a lot that’s quaint and very German, but Hamburg is international in its soul,” says Alex Ahom, a Briton who founded Shhared, one of a growing number of co-working spaces in the city
The city is “a hidden gem”, says freelance copywriter and translator John Heaven, who moved there six years ago from Birmingham in the UK. Last year, Hamburg emerged as the most attractive city in a survey of 5,000 Germans by brand consultancy Brandmeyer. Yet while the city attracts a considerable number of migrants from within Germany, internationally it is often undersold, Heaven says. “It’s got green parks, gastronomy, nightlife, festivals and good public transport. But you can get around on bike as well.”
Many of Hamburg’s expats work for multinationals Unilever and Airbus, which have large bases in the city, while residents in the technology sector are growing in number. Facebook has its German headquarters in Hamburg and holiday property provider Airbnb set up its first European office in the city. “Hamburg is the real centre in Germany for media, design and tech,” says Ahom, who reports an increase in international inquiries over the past 18 months. “It’s affluent, it’s got access to talent and investors, and the most millionaires in Germany.” Some of these are Ahom’s neighbours in affluent Eppendorf, north of the city, where Engel & Völkers is selling a five-bedroom house for €1.89m.
The city has a “vibrant” start-up scene, says Sina Gritzuhn, founder of Hamburg Startups, which helps new businesses with networking and promotion. More than 500 have been founded in Hamburg over the past four years. They include Jimdo, which enables non-professionals to build websites, and Xing, a business-networking platform. Fintech start-up Deposit Solutions received funding from Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal. The start-up community is smaller than Berlin’s, admits Gritzuhn, but “people know and help each other more, and there is more access to established industry”.
Any international companies relocating senior staff will find Hamburg an efficient place, says Ahom. There is a good international school, a fair-sized airport and good transport links to northern Europe. The Fehmarnbelt undersea road-rail tunnel between the German island of Fehmarn and Denmark, set to be completed in 2024, will slash travel times to Scandinavia.
In the 2016 Emerging Trends in Real Estate report published by PwC and the Urban Land Institute, Hamburg was the second-best European city in which to invest after Berlin and well ahead of London. Property prices have risen 50 per cent since the global downturn, says Philip Bonhoeffer of estate agents Engel & Völkers. The rises have been even greater for high-end properties, he says, as investors have moved money out of the stock market and into real estate. Falling interest rates this year have sent prices even higher.
There is a shortage of space in the city centre but an ambitious urban renewal project will add almost 40 per cent over the next decade. The 157-hectare HafenCity harbour redevelopment is a “milestone project”, says Bonhoeffer.
The city’s newest landmark — the Elbphilharmonie, a wave-shaped concert hall with a five-star hotel — has 45 apartments on sale for up to €25,000 a sq metre, or €10m, through Engel & Völkers. “It’s comparable to the Sydney Opera House,” says Bonhoeffer. “But you can’t live in the Opera House.”
Families might prefer a home farther out on the Alster river where Günther & Günther is selling a villa with two guesthouses and a total of 10 bedrooms for €1.79m. Large villas are also available in smart western suburbs such as Nienstedten, where Meissler & Co is selling a four-bedroom home with 4,133 sq metres of park-like grounds for €3.95m.
A downside to the city is its high business costs, such as office space and rates for professionals such as IT consultants and engineers. It also needs to do more to offer tax incentives and grants for business angels. Yet while Berlin may be the first stop for the young and less well-resourced, open-minded Hamburg should not be ruled out.
Accessibility Hamburg airport has direct flights to London, Brussels and New York. The city is one hour and 40 minutes from Berlin by train
Regulation In aWorld Bank report on the ease of doing business in 2016, Germany was ranked 15th out of 189 countries
Existing infrastructure A shortage of land in the city centre is being tackled by a 157-hectare urban regeneration project
Residential property Demand exceeds supply because of the refugee crisis and low interest rates. Prices are rising
Other incentives Germany offers a three-year entrepreneur visa to those who establish a business and create jobs, with citizenship on offer after five years
● Property transaction costs, including fees and taxes, are usually about 10 per cent
● Capital gains tax of 25 per cent applies to any property owned for less than 10 years
What you can buy for . . .
€1m A two-bedroom flat in HafenCity
€2m A detached house west of the city
€5m A period townhouse in Eppendorf
More listings at propertylistings.ft.com
Photographs: Arnt Haug/Getty Images; Herbert Ohge Photographie