A few years ago I watched a BBC program, presented by James May, about toys. There was a whole series in which he looked at various toys including Airfix planes, Meccano, and LEGO. In spite of there being a LEGO program, the one that really stuck with me was the one about model trains.
The reason it stuck? May’s visit to Miniatur Wunderland in Hamburg. Not long after, as we had a train obsessed four-year-old, we headed to Germany in search of tiny wonder. It was every bit as good as I expected.
Six years later, now father of another train obsessed four-year-old, and a trains-are-secretly-cool ten-year-old, (not to mention, a not-that-bothered-but-it’s-better-than-being-left-at-home, seven-year-old) we headed back to see if it was as good as we remembered.
Miniatur Wunderland is the biggest model railway in the world. It’s situated in a old red-brick quayside warehouse in Hamburg’s historic harbor district. The entrance is unassuming. There’s almost nothing to tell you you’re in the right place. Certainly nothing to prepare you for the wonders held on the floors above. You take the elevator or walk the couple of flights to the entrance hall, and find yourself outside a swish looking ticket office.
If you are at all into modelling, your first sight of Miniatur Wunderland is likely to take your breath away. You’re confronted with a vast scale model that stretches off into the distance, both left and right. A model that is several feet deep, and in places reaches well above visitors’ heads.
The scene is teeming with trains, moving around on roughly 60,000 feet of track, across two floors. It’s impossible not to do a double take. This vast model is broken down into sections, most of which represent an area of mainland Europe. Heavily featured, not surprisingly, is Germany, including a replica of the city of Hamburg. A replica which includes the warehouse building that contains Miniatur Wunderland, which if you look very carefully, you’ll see has a tiny Miniatur Wunderland running inside. (This sort of Matryoshka nesting thrills me. My boys looked at me with great patience as I gushed about the “model railway inside the model railway.”)
This level of attention to detail is what makes Miniatur Wunderland a brilliant place to visit, and not just for those who like trains. There are so many little quirks and details to see, like full blown rock concerts, haunted houses complete with ghosts and zombies, and deep underground lairs, with chambers that depict scenes from classic sci-fi movies. And it just goes on and on. There’s a multi-level Swiss Alpine Railway, and Scandinavia, with a huge model ship that floats across a tank filled with water. In the U.S. section there’s a beautifully sculpted Monument Valley, a neon-lit Vegas, and the streets of art deco Miami.
Throughout Miniatur Wunderland, day turns through night roughly every fifteen minutes. If things looked good with the lights on, the dark is possibly even more special. Countless lights twinkle as house and streetlights come on and lit trains hurtle through the night bringing tired commuters home late in the evening.
There’s lots of interactive buttons to press too, which my children loved. You can send flying saucers into space, set fairground rides running, and, best of all, make a chocolate bar. In the Switzerland section there is a mini Lindt and Sprungli factory. Pressing the button sends a block of chocolate down a conveyor, wraps it, and out one pops through a slot at the bottom. Nom nom.
But it’s not all about the trains. Miniatur Wunderland has many modes of transport. Cars move, apparently freely, over some of the roads. Police cars whizz to the scenes of accidents and fire engines race to put out a fire in downtown Miami. These little touches are very impressive and greatly add to the overall experience.
It is perhaps a little ironic that the current most popular exhibit at Miniatur Wunderland is not the trains. It’s the airport. You only have to watch for a few minutes to see why. Impressive though it is, the main exhibit is just a large train set. It’s awesome, but you’ve seen its like before. A fully working model airport, with planes that taxi, take off, and land, is a singular experience. There’s something magical about it.
The airport is almost hypnotic. People stand and watch it mesmerized by its comings and goings. Stay long enough and you might see some very special visitors from a galaxy far, far away.
In addition to the working model railway, there are a few behind scene things that are of interest. It’s possible to view the control boards and the operators of the railway. There is the occasional cut away section of the model, where you can see the reams of track that coil under the displays to bring trains back around, from one side to the other.
You can even see into the workshop, where the newest displays are being built. The team are currently working on Italy, and it was fascinating to watch the artists and model makers painstakingly bringing Rome and its famous architecture to life (there was also an impromptu lesson for my children, that even the professionals occasionally spill paint all over the place!).
For the truly geeky, there’s a huge electronic board, filled with flags of the world, and regions of Germany. Each country/region has a digital display of how many visitors from that particular place have visited. You’re asked where you come from on your arrival and the results are displayed on this awesome ever-counting board.
When you need a break from the trains, take a stop to refuel. There is a very nice cafe, which had been revamped since our last visit. The food is freshly cooked here, and we had a very tasty pasta dish, loaded with fresh vegetables. The seating is arranged like train seats, with comfy ICE chairs for you to relax in. There’s even a small children’s play area, with, you’ve guessed it, some wooden trains.
The whole family enjoyed our trip to Miniatur Wunderland. Train buffs will obviously have an amazing time, but even those who have no interest can’t help but be impressed by modeling skills, thought, and attention to detail that has been put into the exhibition. If you’re in the region, it’s well worth a visit, and there is enough in the area and city of Hamburg to justify an excursion based around the wunderbar Miniatur Wunderland.
Disclosure: My family were given free entry into Miniatur Wunderland in order to write this review. Entry costs €15 ($17) for Adults and €6.50 ($7.50) for children under 15. Tickets can be purchased at the door, or in order to beat the queues, it’s advisable to book online. The first time we visited, we had to return three hours later, or face waiting over an hour in the queue.