The “Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg”, the second largest city in Germany, has an historic seafaring tradition that extends from Medieval times to the present: hundreds of cruise ships dock here.

This year, it celebrates the 825th birthday of its harbor from May 9 through 11, 2014.

Touted as the world’s biggest harbor celebration, the “Hafengeburtstag” continues a tradition going back to 1189, when Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa granted the people of Hamburg exemption from customs duties for ships on the Elbe river. The imperial charter, along with Hamburg’s proximity to the main trade routes of the North Sea and Baltic Sea, quickly made it a major port in Northern Europe. Its trade alliance with Lübeck in 1241 marks the origin and core of the powerful Hanseatic League of trading cities.

Centered around the Landungsbrücken (landing docks), the four-day birthday bash is expected to draw some 1.5 million visitors who come to witness the parade of the world’s most impressive cruise liners, a tug boat ballet, dragon boat races and more.

It’s said that the idea of pleasure cruises originated in Hamburg — in response to the fall off in bookings for transatlantic passage during winter. Albert Ballin, the former Director General of the Hamburg HAPAG, organized “educational and enjoyment trips” in the Mediterranean Sea – which quickly became popular.

The “Auguste Viktoria” set off on her first cruise in 1891.

(Photo of the Queen Mary 2 courtesy of Port of Hamburg Marketing)

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