Significance for Hamburg


Left and water level

125th Anniversary of the Kiel Canal

    The Kiel Canal (German: Nord-Ostsee-Kanal; NOK) is the world’s most frequented artificial waterway. As the direct route between North Sea and Baltic Sea, it is of great importance to the Port of Hamburg: every third container handled here passes through the canal.

  • Nord-Ostsee-Kanal Ein 125-jähriger macht sich flott

HHM / Jochen Wischhusen

Statistics and map

  • Types of goods 2018 in percent

  • On average, passing the Kiel Canal saves 260 nautical miles – in other words, it takes about 14 to 18 hours less time than alternative routes

HHM / Jochen Wischhusen


  • The Kiel Canal: a project of the century

    Today, the Kiel Canal is one of the most important artificial waterways in the world. Around 30.000 vessels pass it every year, including many feeder and cruise ships as well as barges. The canal has also become a popular destination for tourists and pleasure crafts. All of this was unimaginable just 125 years ago, when the so-called “Eider Canal” was still a labyrinth of various rivers and streams, making it unnavigable. In order to enable the imperial fleet to sail between North Sea and Baltic Sea without having to cross Danish territorial waters, German Emperor Wilhelm I and Imperial Chancellor Otto von Bismarck first decided to break through the isthmus between Brunsbüttel and Kiel-Holtenau and finally gave the go-ahead for the construction of a canal on June 3, 1887.

    As many as 9.000 workers from all over Europe completed construction within eight years, so that the canal could be opened on June 21, 1895. Emperor Wilhelm II, who was in office at the time, initially named it "Kaiser-Wilhelm-Kanal" in honor of his grandfather. A good 10 years after completion, however, the vessels of the Imperial Navy had become too large for the canal that was only 67 meters wide. Consequently, the width of the fairway was adjusted between 1907 and 1914. After the Second World War, the canal quickly developed into a major international transport artery. In 1948 it was finally renamed “Kiel Canal”.

    However, due to the increasing size of cargo and cruise ships, in 1966 the Kiel Canal faced the same problem as it had almost 50 years earlier - it was too small. The following second adjustment ultimately led to the canal we know now. The fairway was widened to 90 meters and the canal itself to 162 meters, making it about three times bigger than the original “Kaiser-Wilhelm-Kanal” 125 years prior.

    Over the years, the Kiel Canal has adapted to changing circumstances and demands. This is one reason why – even 125 years after its construction – the Kiel Canal is still Germany’s most important artificial waterway and indispensable to the Port of Hamburg.

  • Photo gallery history

    Levensau high bridge

HHM / Jochen Wischhusen

The Kiel Canal is indispensable to the Port of Hamburg

  • Given its position as a major international hub, the Port of Hamburg is called at by many large ships from all over the world. The import and export cargo is then regionally distributed by feeder ships via the Kiel Canal, which is the shortest and thus fastest route to the Baltic Sea region – for which Hamburg is the most important trading and transhipment center. About 32.6 million tons were moved here in 2019 alone. Of this, around 20 million tons are accounted for by container transport, which is mainly transhipment transport - i.e. both a feeder ship and a large vessel are involved.

    The Federal Waterways and Shipping Administration (WSV) responsible for the Kiel Canal reports that around 20 percent of all shipping traffic passing through the locks at Brunsbüttel (link Elbe-Kiel Canal) is from or for Hamburg.

  • Feeder ship "Frederik" in the Kiel Canal with the destination port Hamburg

Future of the canal

  • Investments and Future Projects


    Both the North Sea and the Elbe river are tidal waters, meaning water levels vary depending on high and low tide. The mean tidal range, i.e. the average difference between water levels, is 3.66 meters. Here you can find current water level data for Brunsbüttel Mole.