Things to do in Hamburg: The ultimate Hamburg city guide

by Jun 13, 2019Hamburg

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Wondering what to do in Hamburg? Hamburg was always a bit of a stepchild when it came to German cities. Known for its financial and business prowess, but also for its flat terrain and rather chilly weather, the harbor city in the far north couldn’t keep up with the attention given to what to do in the likes of Munich with its Oktoberfest and dirndls, or Heidelberg with its quaint center and castle.

I know this personally, having been a Rotary fellow in Hamburg many years ago, long before Hamburg – the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg, thank you — was fashionista cool or named the best city for nightlife, as it was in December 2017. My relationship with Hamburg has been personal and deep. I admired the city for what it was but saw it back then as a bit of an over-officious gray-suited businessman, not smiling, bustling along, with his chin tucked down into a collar as protection from the chill wind. Munich on the other hand was all oom-pah, foaming beer, colorful dirndls and cheeriness. While Heidelberg managed to get LOOOOVE into everything it did with the dramatic castle on the hill.

Then came the Elbphilharmonie (Elbe Philharmonic Hall), opened in January 2017, and suddenly with this glamorous building shaping the city’s flat silhouette, everybody including travelers sat up and took notice. The Philharmonic building, which we visited for its first anniversary in January 2018, is in fact spectacular, a true city icon of city icons the likes of Sydney’s Opera House. Don’t make the mistake, however, of underrating what Hamburg has to offer and dash through on your travels with just a day to tour the Philharmonic Hall. You will need several days – perhaps three to five – and even then you may leave frustrated about how much you missed.

Hamburg Rathaus City Hall

After I lived there, I would tell people who asked that Hamburg is a city that sparkles like an expensive diamond when the sun shines. There is water everywhere – of course, as a port city, water has defined what it was and still is. Nevertheless, one must recognize Hamburg is a city in the far north with an oceanic climate (and the Baltic and North seas within spitting distance practically). Thus, it has quite a temperate climate, rarely getting all too hot and rarely snowing enough for a white wonderland. It can be gray and drizzly in the winter, and the wind can cut through you. If you like cool, foggy climates, you will love Hamburg in the winter! Otherwise, you may want to stick to spring, summer or fall for a trip to visit Hamburg.

No matter when you go or how long you choose to travel to Hamburg, the best way to find out what to do in Hamburg is right here. Our resource guide and links, map, and personal insider travel information with tips and insights can help clue you in to some great sights to see, including some lesser known, on your trip to Hamburg.

Hamburg has also done a fantastic job making sure key websites and sights for travelers visiting Hamburg are also in English!

Guided Tours of Hamburg

Like most large cities (and Hamburg’s population is upwards of 1.8 million), you could spend a lifetime seeing neighborhoods, visiting museums, or touring parks and other attractions, not to mention just strolling around to enjoy the city sights and sounds.

Hamburg Alster And Steeples

Alster Lakes / Jungfernstieg – A showpiece for Hamburg, these lakes used to be part of the Alster River until a dam in medieval times transformed them into landlocked lakes in the city center. Greenways edge much of the Inner Alster (closest to town) and Outer Alster (larger and the one farther from the Jungfernstieg. Walk, bike, kayak, run, stroll, picnic…. The “Jungfernstieg” is the elegant shopping promenade that edges the southernmost edge of the Inner Alster. (Of note: “Jungfer” means “virgin” and “Stieg” could be loosely translated as a walkway; the name stems from the wealthy young women who used to stroll along the banks there.) This is also where the cruises on the Alster and through the canals embark – worth the time! As a side note, when you are admiring the swans, remember they are protected and cared for by the city and have been since the 13th century. Don’t dare hurt or even insult one!

Elbphilharmonie inside the hall looking a musician's stands

Elbphilharmonie – This is now THE icon for Hamburg since its opening in January 2017. For all of the inside scoop on the Elbe Philharmonic Hall building and touring it, see our story, “Hamburg Elbphilharmonie, a new city icon.”

Hamburg Speicherstadt Wasserschloss

Speicherstadt / Kontorhausviertel – Both UNESCO World Heritage sites since 2015, the Speicherstadt (or “Warehouse City”) is filled with historic port warehouses now gentrified into trendy lofts, offices, restaurants and cafes, while the Kontorhause District also houses historically significant architecture. A couple of our favorites there: Stop to inhale the rich scent of roasting beans at the Kaffeerösterei before you order a warm brew there.  Don’t short your time at the Miniatur Wunderland (Miniature Wonderland), a nearly 16,000-square-foot attraction with unsurpassed detail of trains, planes, landscapes and cities in nine so-called “theme worlds.” We know one adult who can easily spend an entire day there. Try to book in advance or you’ll have verrrrrry long waits.

St. Pauli – Everybody seems to want to go party in this loud and flamboyant area of the city, renowned for the red-light-district called the Reeperbahn. There, on Herbertstrasse lined with brothels, women sit in windows to attract patrons – no men under 18 or women allowed. OK, go if you must….

Elbe Tunnel – Today, you can walk under the water from one shore to the other of the Elbe River when in Hamburg. The 1,400-foot tunnel, originally opened in 1911, is still open for transit from shore to shore, as well as for curious tourists, including cyclists and pedestrians (free). A little spooky, a lot history.

Churches and towers – Something every traveler in every European city must do is visit a church or two or three. Same in Hamburg. There is St. Michael’s, and its baroque style, one of the best known with the dome’s copper roof, but not the tallest. The tallest is St.Nikolai, which today is a moving memorial and museum. (See our story, “St. Nikolai Church Memorial.”) Destroyed in World War II, St. Nikolai in 1874 was actually the tallest building in the world. Visit the ruins and climb the tower for a view of the city. And don’t miss the City Hall or Rathaus (see photo above) where there are tours nearly daily.

 

Deichstrasse – For an overdose of cute and a good helping of history with a touch of Venician feel, head for the Deichstrasse where some of the oldest buildings in the city line the “Nikolaifleet” canal. Buildings here date back to the 14th century. Look for restaurants and coffee houses there today. Nearest underground is the U3 Rödingsmarkt station.

Planten Un Blomen fountains in Hamburg

Planten un Blomen garden – We like to take the time to visit gardens in different cities. Sometimes the greenspace is a great break, but they also say something about a city. Hamburg’s Planten un Blomen garden is no exception – a real urban treat. Read our story and photographers diary, “Busy bee in Hamburg’s Planten un Blomen garden.

Övelgönne / Historic harbor — Since the river and the harbor and what they represent run deep in Hamburg’s blood, a trip to the quaint Historic Harbor area with its historic ships is a delightful way to explore beyond town center. This strip is an extremely popular walk for locals too, taking you from historic ships, to beaches to winding cobblestone paths in the former fishing village. We consider this a must every time in Hamburg.

Treppenviertel (Blankenese) – In what is today a rather well-to-do area, Blankenese offers a neighborhood called the “Treppenviertel,” or “stairs neighborhood,” with winding stairs dotted with historic mansions and offering nice views  If you have more time or like exploring neighborhoods, the area is worth a little of your time.

Sternschanze Street Art in HamburgSternschanze – On the opposite end of the spectrum from chic Blankenese is the counter-cultural area of Sternschanze or Schanzenviertel not far from the Hamburg Congress Center. Like street art? More buildings are decorated here than are not. Looking for organic restaurants, hip cafes or alternative cuisine? This could be for you. We frankly love it. If street art is your thing – as it has become ours in seeking it out around the world – you could opt for a Street Art Tour in Hamburg too, such as Alternative Hamburg.


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Where to eat in Hamburg

Like any metropolitan center, restaurants and cafes are everywhere. Searching for something specific? Try the Hamburg Tourist Office’s search engine.

For good eating in a bright, historic building near the center of town, try the Gasthaus an der Alster. Warm, lots of wood paneling, solid German food.

Seeking something nicer? Head around the southwest corner of the Outer Alster to Ristorante Porto Novo with great views of the water. Don’t miss sunset and get a window view! The finer end of Italian that includes a few Hamburg fish specialties too.

Carls an der Elbphilharmonie is precisely where its name says: Right at the Philharmonic. Choose from a finer brasserie restaurant with views of the port or a simpler bistro. French flair.

Wandering historic Övelgönne? If it’s spring or summer, drop into the Strandperle on the beach, a spot popular with locals for its basic grill food, including sausages … of course.

Then there is the food court in the main train station. No, not fine fare but good Asian and other cuisines. Places to sit although pretty noisy, but great take-out for those days when you need a picnic or just want a quiet meal in your hotel room after a busy day.

Where to stay in Hamburg

Like with restaurants, you can choose from fancy to simple, town center or far neighborhoods, chains or tiny B & Bs. One superior option is to use our easy Booking.com map, below, ready for you to find your perfect night’s sleep. Using Booking.com costs you no extra, and we get a small commission for every booking you make which helps us keep the lights on at HITravelTales.com.

Near the Alster and business districts we can offer two choices we’ve personally stayed in: The Henri Hotel, a hip and trendy yet casual place with a business orientation but feels homey too. Unless you can snag a special, prices are on the higher side, but location can’t be beat. The Reichshof Hotel is a historic boutique hotel that is part of the Hilton chain but you’d never really know that. Across the street from the main train station, this hotel is also a fashionable after-work meeting place, but breakfast is amazing and rooms very nice.



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22 Comments

  1. really its a great place hamburg there are a lot of places and things to do while you are travelling to hamburg thanks great information provided by you i think it will help alot In next time

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  2. Hamburg is such a lovely town, but then all of German towns are! There’s so many places we have to visit in our next trip to Germany (whenever that happens). And Hamburg will certainly be one of them.

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  3. Hamburg is really awesome with so many beautiful things to do but I missed it due to lack of time during my Germany visit. The street art of Sternschanze is very colorful and it is really a photogenic place. I have heard that most of the European cities we have to tip some cents for using WC which is very uncommon in Dubai as there are very well maintained toilets with all accessories without any charges or tips.

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    • One problem of course is that everybody wants to go south — Heidelberg, Munich, etc, so Hamburg gets left out way up in the north. one thing to remember is it’s only a less-than-2-hour train from Berlin!

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  4. Michael, I had no idea you lived in Germany! As an amateur violin and viola player, I’d absolutely check out the Elbphilharmonie. However, I can see exactly what you mean when you say that a day trip to Hamburg to see only the concert hall and nothing else would be unfortunate. That must be very cool to have the perspective of what the city was look before it was such a popular destination with a lot of nightlife. It can be hard to boil down a city you know so well into a single post, but you did it and it’s a great read. Thanks for sharing!

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    • Hey there, Michael of course loves Germany and spends time there. But I (Therese) am the one who went to school and live there (and wrote this!). all that aside, though, do get to the Philharmonic! if you want tickets to a performance, do plan in advance. thanks for reading and for your comment too.

      Reply
  5. Great tips. I was in Germany for the first time last year. I’d like to get back and visit Hamburg next time.

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    • yes, most non-Europeans end up in Heidelberg, Munich, maybe the Romantic Road (Rothenburg) and Neuschwanstein…. There is SO much more.

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  6. Hamburg is a beautiful place, I am surely going to visit there soon. Thanks for the tips on what to see, where to eat, where to stay, and how to get around. This makes easy for travelers like us who haven’t been there before.

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  7. Your description of Hamburg is so poetic! ‘An expensive diamond when the sun shines’. I will definitely put Hamburg on my list for my next European adventure.

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  8. Your post makes us want to explore Hamburg. Actually, we’ve been talking about that for many many years (Hamburg is not that far from our home after all), but we still haven’t made it there! Hopefully next year then! It’s funny that you mention that it’s not easy to find a WC in the city. It’s the case in most European cities, but it’s true that in Germany (and Belgium and the Netherlands) they usually ask you to pay in public toilets. 50c sounds fair enough though.

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    • well, we have this issue with paying for toilets all day long…. Universities are one “secret” of course as mentioned in other stories. McDonalds are also often easy free targets. but do enjoy Hamburg!

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  9. I haven’t been to Hamburg yet but always thought of it as an industrial port city. Your post makes it look much more human and cultural. If I was to pick three things out of list, I would go for the Elbphilharmonie (Germans are always very good with classical music), the underground tunnel (what an interesting way to cross the city) and the Tea Museum… Living in Australia, it’s all about the coffee, so I notice places where tea is celebrated…

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    • Interestingly, coffee is also quite a deal there — with coffee roasters in the Speicherstadt too. Making the Tea Museum just something a bit unusual to experience.

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  10. Hamburg looks like a lovely city to visit. Churches and parks are always on my list of places to visit too. The City Hall building looks magnificent, the water views too and street art always fascinates me. The mild climate would definitely suit me. Putting Hamburg on my list.

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    • The city is so diverse, from “Wall Street” like financial areas, to its prized church steeples, to waterways and more “alternative” areas with fantastic street art too. have fun!

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  11. Wow Great post this place is in my Bucket list shortly i will plan a trip to there thanks for sharing this information its really helps me alot

    Reply
    • you are so welcome. Hamburg has always been a great place but it is now even greater.

      Reply
      • ok thanks alot shortly i will be there and also i will share my experience

        Reply

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