U-434 submarine, Hamburg

  - darkometer rating:  3 -
Hamburg U-434A Russian submarine, used by the Soviet navy during the Cold War on spying missions, now permanently moored as a floating museum in the harbour of Hamburg

>More background info

>What there is to see


>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations


More background info: Current tourist brochures in Hamburg advertise the U-434 as "one of the largest submarines in the world" – which is only true, though, if you add: of those that are/were conventionally powered, whereas nuclear powered submarines are usually much, much bigger. The U-434 is nowhere near the huge size of, say, the "Kursk" or the "Le Redoutable".
It belongs to a type of submarine code-named "Tango Class" by NATO during the Cold War. Its total length of 300 feet / 90m sounds like a lot, but inside it's still as typically cramped and claustrophobic as you'd expect, e.g. from having seen movies like "Das Boot" ('the boat'). The vessel was built in the mid 1970s and only decommissioned in 2002, when it was bought by a German enthusiast. Before it could be turned into the private museum it is today, it had to be 'de-militarized' by the Russian navy, i.e. significant portions of (presumably sensitive) electronic gear were removed, weaponry disarmed and so on. Still, much of the interior of the submarine is in its original state.
But why is it listed here as part of dark tourism? Well, the 'dark' attraction lies in the fact that the U-434 allows you to glimpse into a formerly secret world, a glimpse behind the former Iron Curtain, as it were. After all, this vessel was an active participant in the Cold War, and a highly secretive one at that: spying missions included forays right up the coast of the USA.
In addition, the visitor today gets the 'thrill' of the kind of claustrophobia that the inside of such a submarine generates – esp. in the knowledge of the fact that its crews back in its active days not only had to endure the intensely cramped living conditions but also risked their lives (remember the "Kursk" …). The emergency escape hatches were only usable up to a certain diving depth, which was frequently exceeded by a wide margin when on missions.
Today, the U-434 could not be reactivated, in particular due to the addition of entrance and exit cut-aways into which spiral staircases have been built to allow for easier visitor access – so diving would now be an impossibility.   
What there is to see: Note: when I visited the U-434 (in May 2008) it was still in its previous location in the Baakenhafen, before it was moved to its present more central location. The interior of the boat should still be the same, but outside exhibits as well as the locations of the shop and the entrance/exit to/from boat may have changed.
You entered the submarine at the entrance at the bow, which takes you straight into the torpedo room. Several torpedoes are still in situ (unarmed, obviously). Even though the torpedo room is actually one of the largest single sections of the submarine, you already get a pretty good impression of the cramped living conditions: sleeping bunks hanging right over the torpedoes. The bunks were used 'in rotation' – there were only half as many as there were crew members, so they had to take turns sleeping in them.
The next section you enter is the officers' mess and living quarters. The special 'treat' here is the communal dining table for eight or so people – which had to double up as an emergency operating theatre. Obviously, on a mission far from home, possibly even in enemy waters, there wouldn't have been any alternative to operating on board. The lamps over the table indicate this double function.
Next are the captain's quarters, officers' sleeping bunks, the galley (the ship's cook was regarded as the most important man on board!), and the 'bridge' under the turret, and finally equipment and engine rooms with diesel, electric engine and a special alternate engine for 'silent running'. Again, the cramped conditions even in the officers' living quarters are impressive.
To illustrate this further, a few 'display dummies' in original uniforms have been placed inside the cabins – which, however, creates quite a museum effect. The same cannot be said about the lavatories – only two (for 86 crew!), and they had to double up as shower rooms too. Overall, the impression created here feels pretty close to authentic, including the Cyrillic labels from the old Soviet days.
The lack of space really gets to you – it certainly isn't something for people who suffer from claustrophobia. At least visitors today don't have to endure the 'climatic conditions' that must have made things much worse for the crews back in the vessel's active days (think heat and stench – of everything mixed … after all, airing the boat was possible only on few occasions). While on mission, the boat only rarely went to the surface, but rather stayed submerged most of the time. Today, with the boat permanently at the surface and well aired, the only smells a vistor has to cope with is a mild aroma of tar and oil.
One artefact on display drives home the life-risking nature of the submariners' missions: it's a rather crude wooden plug, or peg, to be called into action if the boat ever sprung a leak. You really don't want to imagine having to rely on such crude aids for survival …
At the stern another spiral staircase leads back out to a gangway connecting the exit with the quayside. Back on land, another torpedo was on display (popular with children clambering around on it). A small shop sells, apart from tickets, all kinds of maritime and Soviet memorabilia as well as books, brochures, videos, postcards, etc.
Location: now near the centre of Hamburg's harbour, at the northern bank of the river Elbe, i.e. the one facing the city, between the touristy areas of the Fischmarkt and Landungsbrücken; official address: St Pauli Fischmarkt 28.
Google maps locator:[53.545,9.955]
Access and costs: now quite easy; neither cheap nor excessive price-wise.
Details: Quite easily walkable from either Landunsgbrücken (where there is both a metro (U-Bahn) and regional metro train (S-Bahn) station) or Reeperbahn (S-Bahn). From the former walk west along the river embankment towards Fischmarkt, for about two thirds of a mile (1 km). From S-Bahn Reeperbahn take the western exit and turn left into Pepermölenbek street, which leads down to the Fischmarkt, at the bottom of the street turn left and cross the road (St Pauli Fischmarkt) to get to the waterfront, where you should already see the sub (about half a mile/700m walk). This is a far more accessible location than the previous mooring out in the eastern end of the Baakenhafen (in what is being developed as the new "HafenCity").  
In theory you can explore the submarine on your own just fine – but here a guided tour really does make sense. Only on guided tours are you are allowed access to the 'bridge' section of the boat, moreover the explanations by the guides really bring the place to life as you learn things that you would otherwise mostly miss out on, for instance that operation-theatre-cum-dining table story.
Admission to the submarine museum is 9 EUR (children 6 EUR). For 4 EUR on top of that you can join a guided tour, lasting 45 minutes and taking place half-hourly (reductions are offered for pre-registered groups from 15 persons).
Opening times: daily all year round, from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m Monday to Saturday, Sundays from 11 a.m. (changes due to weather or special events can occur, better check ahead).
Note: not only can the atmosphere in the cramped interior of the submarine be psychologically taxing – serious claustrophobes better stay away! – but moving around can also be physically difficult, esp. if you're of a larger build. None of the crew were ever taller than 5' 4'' – and that restriction was in place for good reasons! In particular you have to take care not to slip or bang your head on a handle when getting from one section to the next through those round hatches.
Time required: Guided tours take about 45 minutes – and that's perfectly sufficient too when exploring the boat on your own. In fact, you'd probably get through it and back out quicker if you visit as an individual, i.e. if you don't have the guide's commentary.
Combinations with other dark destinations: in general see Hamburg – closest to the new mooring location of the sub is the Bismarck monument. And a bit further to the east just north of the Speicherstadt is the Nikolaikirche memorial.
Closer to the Reeperbahn S-Bahn station, and possibly worth the small detour, is the old Jewish cemetery on Königstraße, the western continuation of the Reeperbahn. The cemetery is on the northern side of the street, just a few hundred yards from the Reeperbahn – if it's not open you can at least have a good look through the fence.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: the new location of the sub is now very handy for some of Hamburg's prime tourist areas, the Fischmarkt and the Landungsbrücken. The former literally means 'fish market', though today the actual Sunday market hardly revolves around fish any more but is rather a purely touristy spectacle, and a rather tacky one these days. The whole area has been developed into an ensemble of shops, exhibitions and restaurants.
Landungsbrücken is the most touristically developed section of Hamburg's waterfront – including the actual landing stages where most of the ever popular harbour boat trips ('große Hafenrundfahrt') sail from. Tip: if you want to go on such a tour, avoid the really big boats and rather pick one of the smaller, lower ones ('launches' – "Barkasse" in German), moored on the inside between the main Landungsbrücken pontoons and the embankment, and especially further upstream towards the Speicherstadt. These much more manoeuverable boats get to parts of the harbour that the big ones cannot access … and they often have more "character" too, in the form of cheeky tour guides.
If that is too "touristified" for you, you can alternatively also get one of the regular Elbe ferry boats to explore the harbour independently. These ferries are even part of the public transport network of Hamburg, the HVV, and largely use the same ticket system. Their primary function is to cart employees of the various businesses in the harbour to their workplace and back, but they can be used by anyone. Especially interesting are the lines 73, 61 and 62 (but note that some only operate weekdays). In order to get your bearings in those parts of the harbour it is useful to have a proper map covering them – most tourist city maps end at the shores of the Elbe and thus do not cover the southern areas of the "real" harbour at all – as opposed to the "tourist" harbour parts at the Landungsbrücken, Speicherstadt and Fischmarkt.
A compromise is the useful (independently, commercially operated) Maritime Circle Line, a slightly more touristy outfit, but also going into parts of the real harbour, with stops at the Harbour Museum as well as the BallinStadt. Boats leave Landungsbrücken 10 five times a day (every two hours, on the hour between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.; only three times between 12 noon and 4 p.m. in winter) for a flat rate of 8 EUR independently of how often you get off and reboard – which makes it a good deal if you get out at various points.
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