A tour of the world’s great port cities

‘Join the Navy, see the world’ so goes the famous Second World War recruitment slogan. In the 1940s the navy really was a ticket to adventure, one that more often than not would focus on the world’s great port cities. Centres for trade and exchange, ports have long been teeming sites of humanity. Marco Polo famously wrote extensively on his travels to the great trading ports of the 13th century, and the passion that they ignite is still resolute. Often rough and ready the world’s great cities are there to be lived in and enjoyed, not simply observed. From Marseilles to Malta, Hamburg to Hong Kong we look at some of those great trading cities that will bring joy to any traveller.


The city of Hamburg is known as Germany’s ‘Gateway to the World.’ It is the country’s biggest port and the second busiest in Europe, despite being some 100km south of the North Sea. A ‘free city’, Hamburg shares the same status as a province, something that has helped to engender a forthright sense of independence amongst Hamburgers.

Hamburg’s maritime heritage runs through every inch of the city. From Landungsbrucken tourists can enjoy boat tours of the great harbour, after which it is only a short walk to St. Pauli Fischmarkt. This bustling market is a perennial favourite with locals and guests alike, not least due to its many stalls serving up pickled and smoke fish. It is often said that the market’s hawkers can be heard in the nearby Reeperbahn, sometimes described as die sündigste Meile (the most sinful mile). Although historically associated with prostitution, the area is now the centre for the cities night life with clubs and bars catering to all tastes. The Reeperbahn was also a temporary home for the Beatles, who played various venues here between 1960 and 1962. They’re immortalised with a sculpture at the corner of Grosse Freiheit, popularly known as ‘Beatles-platz.’


In 2010 Shanghai overtook Singapore to become the world’s busiest container port: a key piece in the global supply chain that has enabled China to rise from a secretive and insular state to an economy of epic proportions. It was not always this way. In 1842, when the city became a British treaty port following the Opium War, it was dwarfed by rivals like Ningbo and Nanking. Trade, however, saw it rise to prominence. In 1991, having been granted permission to initiate unilateral economic reform, the city developed at a remarkable pace and it is today one of the world’s most dynamic.

Nowhere is the contrast between the old and new more clear than between the Bund, on the eastern bank of the Hangpu River and Lujiazui on the west. The former was once referred to as “the museum of buildings” and is home to Customs House, an eight storey clock tower dating back to 1927 and the neo-classical HSBC building, once the largest bank building outside Europe. The latter meanwhile is Shanghai’s new financial district, a jungle of glass, concrete and steel. Currently there are over 30 buildings that have in excess of 25 storeys, including the 121 storey Shanghai Tower. The contrast between the two can be observed from the Hangpu, with a number of ferries offering one, two and three hour cruises. An alternative is to take in the freneticism of Lujiazui, before enjoying a stroll through the more leisurely paced streets of the Bund.

Cape Town

The port of Cape Town is situated along one of the world’s busiest trade routes, handling everything from fresh produce to West African oil. The first harbour dates from 1654, with the city growing alongside it. Today its heritage as a centre for trade is reflected in its diversity, something that has helped it to become one of Africa’s most vibrant cities.

From Table Mountain visitors can enjoy one of Africa’s most spectacular vistas. It is easily accessible via cable car, or alternatively by walking from Platteklip Gorge. Although steep this route is extremely popular and requires limited experience. Cape Town benefits from a temperate climate and its beaches are central to the city’s laid back culture. False Bay is particularly popular with swimmers, and also for surfers. For thrill seekers, shark spotting and deep sea fishing are both on offer and back on dry land be sure to get to grips with a Gatsby: a foot long sandwich typically filled with meat, fish or curry and a perennial favourite.


Okay, not technically a city, but the Mediterranean island of Malta had to be on this list. The Malta Freeport is one of Europe’s busiest and though it only dates back to 1988, it sits on the site formerly occupied by RAF Kalafrana, which later became a Royal Navy hub. Malta is inextricably linked to the sea, especially in the capital Valletta, a harbour city that was one of the first sites to gain UNESCO World Heritage status.

St. John’s Cathedral is a must see. Although rather plain outside, its interior features a remarkable fresco painted by Mattia Preti and a marble floor that is amongst Europe’s most stunning. Visitors can also observe the city’s splendour by walking along the city walls, offering magnificent views of Marsamxetto Harbour. On a hot day there is little better than wiling away the afternoon in one of the many shaded cafes or tavernas, or perhaps enjoying a plate of fresh klamari mimlija – stuffed Calarmari – served with a wedge of lemon and cold glass of white wine. 

Buenos Aires

The golden age of Buenos Aires’ ports was the early 20th century when immigrants from across the world arrived through them during the city’s economic and population boom. This period was immortalised in the work of Quinquela Martin, a highly-respected Realist painter. Today, the Port of Buenos Aires and Sud Port handle some 28 million metric tons of cargo per annum and serve upwards of 100,000 ferry passengers setting sail on Atlantic cruises.

The historic centre of Buenos Aires’ docklands is Puerto Madero, a dynamic barrio where old meets new. Here warehouses rub up against newly-built financial institutions, creating a buzzing urban atmosphere. From here it is a short walk to San Telmo, a neighbourhood known for its thriving nightlife, bustling markets and gourmet street food. Next along is La Boca, a working class district famed for its street art, tango bars and, of course, Boca Juniors, one of the cities two passionately supported football clubs.

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