With its 1.8 million inhabitants, Hamburg is one of the few major German cities that can be considered major even by international standards. An independent city state, Hamburg is completely self-governing and also has the distinction of being the only urban center in Germany with a long and nearly continuous history of being a self-ruled civil society that has never been the capital or seat of a ruler. Therefore, the city's cultural institutions are situated in a context that is very much influenced by civil and civic involvement and a system of patronage. No other German city is home to as many private foundations.

Mainly because of the harbor and the fact that global trade has been the most important economic sector for centuries, migrants from different world regions have been a part of the city landscape city for a long time. Yet, the social structure is very stratified and there great (spacial) polarization between poorer and more bourgeois neighborhoods, between neighborhoods with a long history of diversity and those that even today seem mainly “white” and middle-class. As a result, the percentage of people with a “migration background” ranges from around 10 percent to over 70 percent in the various city neighborhoods. All in all, the average of slightly over 30 percent is rather low when compared with other major German cities.

Hamburg is home to a number of large cultural institutions with far-ranging, more than regional importance. This pertains in particular to the two city theaters, Thalia Theater and Deutsches Schauspielhaus and the Hamburg State Opera. In addition, in more recent times the Elbphilharmonie as well as the Internationale Kulturfabrik Kampnagel are worthy of mention. The former for its role as concert hall, the latter because it is one of the premier open stages for all kinds of cultural productions in Germany and a flagship institution of the major and vibrant independent culture scene in the city. The high density of mainly city-funded sociocultural centers in city neighborhoods can be considered a part of this scene as well.