Hamburg might not attract as many tourists as Berlin or Munich, but it has plenty to offer visitors. Its rich history is fascinating and there is something for everyone to enjoy – from culture vulture to foodie to party animal. Here’s my guide to 72 hours in Germany’s second largest city.
Hamburg was founded in the 9th century and prospered as a key Northern Europe trading post as part of the Hanseatic League. Hamburg has seen its fair share of action over the years, having been ravaged by The Great Fire of 1842 and devastated by Allied bombings in WWII. So, while the Old Town has witnessed plenty of destruction , it’s been rebuilt numerous times and is a fascinating part of any visit to Hamburg.
Rathaus (Town Hall)
The Rathaus towers above the Markt (Market Square) and still serves as the seat of local government. It was built in the late 19th century after the old city hall was burnt down in the Great Fire. The large clock adorns the tower while figures from Hamburg’s long history line the façade of the building. Check out the hidden courtyard at the back of the building with a Hygieia fountain and its neo-renaissance statues. You can even explore inside the building on a guided tour. On the edge of the square there stone monument stands to commemorate the dead of the First World War.
Alsterarkaden Shopping Arcades
The historic Alsterarkaden date back to the post-fire resurrection of Hamburg and today are home to designer shops, jewellers and cool cafes . The shopping galleries also lead to the Mellin Passage – Hamburg’s oldest shopping arcade. Alsterarkaden provide a great alternative to the modern chains located just around the corner.
Also Try: Neuer Wall, one street up from the Alsterarkaden deals in luxury brands and is one of the most expensive shopping streets in Europe. Mönckebergstraße or “Mö” as it’s known to locals, is the main shopping street of the city and home to big department stores including a massive Saturn electronics megastore (biggest in Europe apparently).
Binnenalster and Außenalster
This pair of manmade lakes are formed by the Alster River and have been a feature of the city for centuries. The smaller Binnenalster (Inner Alster) is a popular meeting place for locals and tourists alike and is just a stone’s throw from the Rathaus. The bigger Außenalster (Outer Lake) is a haven for water sports fans and joggers who make use of the track snaking its way around the lake. Apparently the water is clean enough for swimming, but when I visited it was way too cold for me to even consider going for a dip!
The Elbe has played a huge role in Hamburg’s history as a major port and trading hub throughout the ages and is almost synonymous with the city. Today, the port provides a great backdrop to strolls along the river lined with floating restaurants, outdoor bars and street food stalls. Ferries and tour boats drift past blowing their horns. At night the river is bathed in neon lights from the Theater im Hafen (Theater in the Port) across the water and the passing ships. The just-opened Elbphilharmonie concert hall dominates a peninsula in HafenCity and is an impressive sight (even if locals’ opinions of the new landmark are divided).
After enjoying the views, it might be time to try some traditional Hamburg food. Fischbrötchen (fish sandwiches) are hugely popular in Hamburg and Northern Germany, and come in many varieties including herring, salmon and even prawns. I recommend the smoked mackerel – it was delicious! Fresh fish and tasty German bread make for a great combination especially when they are washed down by a cold locally-brewed Astra beer.
After a stroll along the waterfront, climb the steps to Davidstraße. At the top continue past bars, liquor stores and the hidden entrance to the short Herbertstraße, infamous for its prostitution and serving as a mini red light district. You will soon reach one of Hamburg’s most famous locations, the Reeperbahn. An iconic nightlife destination, Reeperbahn is a hub of clubs, restaurants and sex shops. We walked down the street and watched groups of young men drinking beer outside bars and musicians setting up their equipment in Spielbudenplatz next to the street. The cowboy bars, throngs of tourists and almost enough neon to rival Vegas, Reeperbahn of today is very different to the road that got its name in the 17th century when it was used as a ropewalk, producing rope for dockyards in Hamburg.
If you time your visit to include a Sunday, the historic Fischmarkt should be at the top of your list! The fish market has been going strong since 1703 and is popular with tourists and locals alike. You can walk along countless stalls selling fruit, vegetables, souvenirs and, of course, fresh fish. Stall holders shout over each other promoting their wares and crowds gather to grab bargains. Early risers mingle with revellers going strong after a night on the Reeperbahn, enjoying coffee and Franzbrötchen (warm cinnamon pastries) while looking out over the Elbe.
Walk around, taking in the sights and smells before heading inside the Fischauktionshalle (fish market hall) to experience its festive atmosphere. Even early on the Sunday morning, the place is full of locals enjoying a breakfast of Fischbrötchen washed down with cold beers, while bands perform upbeat numbers on stage and even on the long communal tables. It’s a bit of a surreal experience but one of my all time favourites. Embracing it is key – singing along to Sweet Child O’ Mine while enjoying a Bratwurst sausage and a cold Erdinger at 8am will soon feel normal! When in Hamburg…
Hours: Open every Sunday. In winter (November to March) 7.00 a.m. – 9.30 a.m. In summer (April to October) 5.00 a.m. – 9.30 a.m.
History buffs will enjoy the Russian U-434 submarine right next to the Fischmarkt which now serves as a museum. It was in active use by the Russian Navy as recently as 2002.
Hours: Mon – Sat: 09:00 a.m. – 08:00 p.m, Sun: 11:00 a.m. – 08:00 p.m.
Price: Adults €9, children €6
Harbour Boat Tours
To get a unique perspective of Hamburg and its lifeblood river, a boat trip is essential. The Landungsbrücken area has plenty of tour companies offering harbour tours , ranging from hop-on-hop-off barges and dinner cruises to speedboat experiences. Canal tours are also popular and there are plenty of options depending on available time and budget.
From Landungsbrücken, it’s a short stroll to the recently UNESCO-listed Speicherstadt, the warehouse district of Hamburg. Construction of the area started in 1883 and the area was intended to be a customs free zone for companies who wanted to store goods in the area. Wander around, crossing the loading canals and checking out the impressive red-brick facades of the warehouses themselves. The district is still used for storage and has one of the world’s largest stores of carpets. A boat tour along its canals will get you up close to the beautiful buildings and visiting at night is a special experience, due to the area being illuminated by hundreds of spotlights.
A locals tip! Catch the ferry to Elbe Beach – situated on the banks of the Elbe, overlooking the cranes in the port of Hamburg. A couple of busy cafes serve beer and light meals while people relax in deckchairs, watching the ships drift by. It’s full of activity in the summer as locals sunbathe, paddle in the river and play volleyball before enjoying drinks in cool bars and restaurants along the beach. Impressive mansions overlook the beach and it’s possible to enjoy some walking trails in the area before catching the bus back to the city.
Historic City Centre – Free Walking Tour
I really enjoy free walking tours and always look out for them when I visit a new city, as they can be very informative and fun. For those unfamiliar with the concept, there is no upfront fee for the tour – you just pay the tour guide whatever you feel it was worth at the end. I decided to do the Historic City Centre tour but there are quite a few different ones available. Check out all the tours at http://www.robinandthetourguides.de/en/. I definitely recommend these guys!
The tour started at the Rathaus and continued to the site of the Old Town Hall which burned down in the Great Fire of 1842 before continuing to Deichstraße, the street where the Great Fire itself started. We wandered through cobbled alleyways and stuck our head into office buildings with open paternoster elevators, learnt how goods were winched through warehouse windows in Speicherstadt and what effect World War II had on the city. The tour guide, Matej, was funny and very knowledgeable and we were sad when it was time to end the tour at St Michael’s Church, one of the most famous sights in the city.
How: The tour starts at 11:00 am every day at the main entrance of Rathaus (town hall). Look out for the yellow umbrella. Tour length: 2 hours
St. Michael’s Church
The church is one of Hamburg’s main sites and its most famous church. It has a rich history and was built in 1641 but has been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times since. It’s worth checking out its beautiful pulpit and marble altar as well as the ornate organs inside. The more adventurous can also climb the 450 steps to the tower with fantastic panorama views around Hamburg – it can get very windy up there but it’s definitely worth the trek! On the way up, you can check out a multimedia exhibition about Hamburg’s history and see the church bells at the top! If you don’t fancy the walk, you can take the lift up. There is also a crypt on site but I somehow managed to miss it on my visit!
Hours: May to October: every day 9.00 a.m. – 8.00 p.m. (last admission: 7.30 p.m.)
November to April: every day 10.00 a.m. – 6.00 p.m. (last admission: 5.30 p.m.)
Price: Tower: Adults €5.00, owners of Hamburg CARD € 4.00
Children €3.50, owners of Hamburg CARD € 2.50
Crypt: Adults €4.00, owners of Hamburg CARD € 3.00
Children €2.50, owners of Hamburg CARD € 1.50
If you are interested in Hamburg’s rich history, this museum is the one to visit. Located just a few minutes’ walk from St. Michael’s Church it’s right next to the Planten un Blomen park. The museum houses exhibitions that give an interesting insight into the history of the city and its prominent role in Europe over the ages. I learnt about the city’s maritime past and present, how the city expanded over the centuries and explored a replica of a steamship’s bridge. The museum isn’t huge and I was able to explore it in a couple of hours – and I would definitely recommend a visit if you wanted to learn more about history of Hamburg. Click here to find out more about its collections and exhibitions.
Hours: Tue – Sat 10.00 a.m. – 05.00 p.m, Sun 10.00 a.m. – 06.00 p.m. Closed Mondays
Price: Adults: 9,00 €, owners of HamburgCARD: 5,00 €, Children Under 18: Free
More Info: Hamburg Museum Official Website
Planten un Blomen
Dubbed the “green heart of Hamburg”, Planten un Blomen park is the city’s most popular park and is frequented by locals and tourists alike. It has lakes, multiple gardens (including the largest Japanese Garden in Europe), playgrounds and even a greenhouse complex. In the summer, there is loads going on – from concerts for adults and fun events for children to a nightly water and light show. Skateboarders enjoy the roller and in-line skating rink which turns into a huge ice rink in the winter. It’s a great place to escape the city and spend time with a good book or people watch.
Hours: May – September 7.00am – 11.00pm, October – March 7.00am – 8.00pm, April 7.00am – 10.00pm
Enjoy farewell drinks at Zoe 2 (Sofabar/Su*B)
Spend your last night in Hamburg by enjoying a drink in this cool St. Pauli hangout. It’s stylish with vintage furniture, comfortable sofas and worn walls. The drinks menu is great with many classic cocktails and beers available. This is where locals go and you won’t see many tourists as it’s outside of the city centre – definitely a great place to chill out and people watch. If you get hungry, there are some good restaurants in the area.
What: Hamburg is Germany’s second largest city. It’s located on the banks of the river Elbe.
Where: Hamburg is located in the north of Germany. It’s 179 miles/288km away from capital, Berlin.
Getting There: There are regular flights to Hamburg from many European airports. In the UK, Ryanair and EasyJet fly from various cities, including London, Manchester and Newcastle (from around £30 return, flight time around 1.5 hours). Hamburg International airport is clean and spacious and has won numerous awards, including Best Regional Airport in Europe and is a breeze to get through.
Getting Around: Take the S-Bahn train (route S1) from the airport to Hauptbahnof (Central Station) – around 25 minutes one way/€2.50. For more info, click here.
It’s easy to get around by public transport – it’s possible to buy single, daily and weekly tickets to save money and time. See here for info.
Hamburg CARD: The Hamburg CARD provides good value for visitors, offering free public transport and discounted entry into many attractions and museums as well as various special offers.