The first chapel dedicated to Saint Nicholas, patron saint of sailors, was erected in the 12th century on the banks of the Alster river. Later, the wooden chapel became a sizeable brick and stone church which remained in place until the mid-19th century, when, in the Great Fire of 1842, the St. Nikolai Church was the first large public building to burn.
Soon after the fire, citizens of Hamburg started a fundraising campaign to rebuild the church. After an architectural competition, the new church was designed in the neo-Gothic style by the English architect George Gilbert Scott. Construction started in 1846 and ended in 1874 with the completion of the 147.4-metre spire. At that time, the St. Nikolai Church was the tallest building in the world, though the cathedral of Rouen took its place in 1876.
During the last week of July in 1943, in the midst of World War II, the British Royal Air Force and the US Air Force took part in a series of air raids on Hamburg known as Operation Gomorrah, leaving most of the city centre and the surrounding residential areas in ruin. The original church building was destroyed, but the spire — still the tallest in Hamburg — remained relatively unscathed.
WWII museum in the crypt
Today, the ruins of the St. Nikolai Church make for an impressive memorial, and the church crypt hosts a newly renovated museum dedicated to World War II, the disastrous air war over Europe, and its victims. It contemplates the impact of wars both past and present through interactive image, audio and video displays. The permanent exhibition Gomorrah 1943: Hamburg’s Destruction through Aerial Warfare provides an impressive overview of the historical context leading up to the air raids on Hamburg, the firestorm itself and the years of reconstruction that followed.
Viewing platform on the spire
A glass elevator takes visitors up the spire of the St. Nikolai Church — the fifth highest church steeple in the world. At a height of 76 metres, the viewing platform overlooks the port, the Alster lakes and Hamburg’s city centre. Historical photos of Hamburg after the 1943 air raids add to the experience.