Sometimes the decision to visit a place can be based on something quite small. In the case of my and hubby’s recent trip to Hamburg, however, that something small turned out to be something quite huge. As a bit of surprise to myself, I ended up having a great few hours in Miniatur Wunderland, the world’s largest model railway or, as I like to put it, an enormous miniature world where tiny people can get up to all kinds of mischief! This world of wonders is located in the port of Hamburg in one of the old multi-storey buildings that stand on timber-pile foundations in Speicherstadt, the largest warehouse district in the world. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Neo-Gothic buildings with their ornamental red-brick facade, steel bridges, and interconnecting loading canals form an architectural haven, which in the evening is beautifully lit up.
Model railways are not something I’d usually look for but as Miniatur Wunderland was so HUGE both in size and reputation, I was curious to see this exhibition with my own eyes. Being a popular visitor attraction, it can get incredibly crowded but luckily you can buy tickets in advance (the current adult ticket price is 13 euros) and book a slot for your visit to avoid queuing. The website also gives you estimated waiting times on the coming days, which helps you avoid the crowds. Therefore, hubby and I were at the door as soon as it opened on Monday morning.
To give you an idea of the size of this ever-expanding project, which started in December 2000, the current layout covers 1,490 m², the track length is 15,400 meters, and 260,000 figurines are dotted around the different theme worlds. At the moment there are 9 completed model layouts: Austria, Knuffingen, Middle Germany, Hamburg, USA, Scandinavia, Switzerland, Knuffingen Airport and Italy. France, Monaco, Great Britain, and the Benelux countries are some of the new places in the pipeline. Although the countries are easily recognisable by their buildings and landscape, they are not true replicas, nor are their landmarks located exactly in right places. Therefore the Vatican is just behind the Colosseum in Rome, and the Grand Canyon is only separated by a highway from Mount Rushmore and Yosemite Park.
Entering the first room that accommodates both the USA and Hamburg was an ‘oh wow!’ experience, and that was just the first of many. It’s not only the size of the set but also the intricate details in the buildings and activities that can take you by surprise. You will find an amorous couple in the middle of a field of sunflowers, a man being arrested by two police officers outside the football stadium, people reading newspapers in wheelbarrows in a garden, monks and cardinals playing football outside the Vatican, a crab snapping at a diver, a band playing in a pickup truck… Of course, the model of Hamburg would not be complete without Speicherstadt and Miniatur Wunderland itself, or the nearby Elbphilharmonie concert hall, where you can see the orchestra performing. Look closely and you see the hands of the conductor and the violinists move.
In this miniature world, something is always happening; it’s definitely not a static display. (You can also watch the model builders in action in their workshops.) The railway operations in all countries are completely computer-operated, the airport is fully functioning with regular take-offs and landings according to the schedule on the screen, streets have moving cars and buses as well as fire trucks with sirens on, and the regular nightfall every 15 minutes allows you to focus on different aspects, such as the colourful, brightly lit Las Vegas casino strip. By using the activity buttons you can see the flames go up in a burning house, hear the roar of the football match at the stadium, watch a whole roast slowly spinning above an open fire at a village festival, see an UFO flying at nightfall, and – how great is this?! – get a real chocolate at the Lindt chocolate factory. Unsurprisingly, that was a big hit amongst all the kids!
No matter how hard you try, you can’t see everything at once. After wandering around, pressing buttons, photographing, and admiring the handiwork and technology for about 2.5h, we had a coffee break in the spacious and very reasonably priced restaurant, which uses old train seats as seating. It was surprisingly quiet there, whereas the rest of the place was now really busy. The caffeine kick enabled us to have another quick look, this time working our way backwards. We didn’t get another chocolate though! That can wait till the next visit when the world may have expanded yet again.
(For more facts and figures, please check out http://www.miniatur-wunderland.com/.)