In the Czech Republic
The Elbe rises at an elevation of about 1,400 metres (4,593 ft) in the Krkonoše (also known as Giant Mountains or in German as Riesengebirge) on the northwest borders of the Czech Republic near Labská bouda. Of the numerous small streams whose waters compose the infant river, the most important is the
Bílé Labe, or White Elbe. After plunging down the 60 metres (197 ft) of the
Labský vodopád, or Elbe Falls, the latter stream unites with the steeply torrential
Malé Labe, and thereafter the united stream of the Elbe pursues a southerly course, emerging from the mountain glens at Jaroměř, where it receives Úpa and Metuje.
Here the Elbe enters the vast vale named Polabí (meaning "land along the Elbe"), and continues on southwards through Hradec Králové (where Orlice flows in) and then to Pardubice, where it turns sharply to the west. At Kolín some 43 kilometres (27 mi) further on, it bends gradually towards the north-west. At the village of Káraný, a little above Brandýs nad Labem, it picks up the Jizera.
At Mělník its stream is more than doubled in volume by the Vltava, or Moldau, a major river which winds northwards through Bohemia. Upstream from the confluence the Vltava is in fact much longer (434 kilometres (270 mi) against 294 kilometres (183 mi) of the Elbe so far), and has a greater discharge and a larger drainage basin. Nonetheless, for historical reasons the river retains the name Elbe, also because at the confluence point it is the Elbe that flows through the main, wider valley while the Vltava flows into the valley to meet the Elbe at almost a right angle, and thus appears to be the tributary river.
Some distance lower down, at Litoměřice, the waters of the Elbe are tinted by the reddish Ohře (Eger). Thus augmented, and swollen into a stream 140 metres (459 ft) wide, the Elbe carves a path through the basaltic mass of the České Středohoří, churning its way through a picturesque, deep, narrow and curved rocky gorge.
Shortly after crossing the Czech-German frontier, and passing through the sandstone defiles of the Elbe Sandstone Mountains, the stream assumes a north-westerly direction, which on the whole it preserves right to the North Sea.
The river rolls through Dresden and finally, beyond Meißen, enters on its long journey across the North German Plain passing along the former border of East Germany, touching Torgau, Wittenberg, Dessau, Magdeburg, Wittenberge, and Hamburg on the way, and taking on the waters of the Mulde and Saale from the west, and those of the Schwarze Elster, Havel and Elde from the east. In its northern section both banks of the Elbe are characterised by flat, very fertile marshlands (Elbe Marshes), former flood plains of the Elbe now diked.
At Magdeburg there is a viaduct, the Magdeburg Water Bridge, that carries a canal and its shipping traffic over the Elbe and its banks, allowing shipping traffic to pass under it unhindered.
From the sluice of Geesthacht (at kilometre 586) on downstream the Elbe is subject to the tides, the tidal Elbe section is called the Low Elbe (Unterelbe). Soon the Elbe reaches Hamburg. Within the city-state the Unterelbe has a number of branch streams, such as Dove Elbe, Gose Elbe, Köhlbrand, Northern Elbe (Norderelbe), Reiherstieg, Southern Elbe (Süderelbe). Some of which have been disconnected for vessels from the main stream by dikes. In 1390 the Gose Elbe (literally in English: shallow Elbe) was separated from the main stream by a dike connecting the two then-islands of Kirchwerder and Neuengamme. The Dove Elbe (literally in English: deaf Elbe) was diked off in 1437/38 at Gammer Ort. These hydraulic engineering works were carried out to protect marshlands from inundation, and to improve the water supply of the Port of Hamburg. After the heavy inundation by the North Sea flood of 1962 the western section of the Southern Elbe was separated, becoming the Old Southern Elbe, while the waters of the eastern Southern Elbe now merge into the Köhlbrand, which is bridged by the Köhlbrandbrücke, the last bridge over the Elbe before the North Sea.
The Northern Elbe passes the Elbe Philharmonic Hall and is then crossed under by the old Elbe Tunnel (Alter Elbtunnel), both in Hamburg's city centre. A bit more downstream the Low Elbe's two main anabranches Northern Elbe and the Köhlbrand reunite south of Altona-Altstadt, a locality of Hamburg. Right after both anabranches reunited the Low Elbe is passed under by the New Elbe Tunnel (Neuer Elbtunnel), the last structural road link crossing the river before the North Sea. At the bay
Mühlenberger Loch in Hamburg at kilometre 634, the Northern Elbe and the Southern Elbe (here now the cut-off meander Old Southern Elbe) used to reunite, which is why the bay is seen as the starting point of the Lower Elbe (Niederelbe). Leaving the city-state the Lower Elbe then passes between Holstein and the Elbe-Weser Triangle with Stade until it flows into the North Sea at Cuxhaven. Near its mouth it passes the entrance to the Kiel Canal at Brunsbüttel before it debouches into the North Sea.