Welcome to the gateway to the world
Vibrant, glamorous, grungy and utterly delightful, Hamburg is the perfect place to escape for a weekend away. The city’s maritime heritage is everywhere you look, from its sweeping harbour, to its old redbrick shipping warehouses, fresh fish bread rolls, circling seagulls and network of canals that rival even Venice. The city lives up to its historic nickname ‘the gateway to the world’ by offering a sense of freedom – in Hamburg you feel like you could jump on a ship, sail away and be anything or anyone, anywhere. Not that you’d want to do that straight away of course, because there is plenty to see, do, eat and drink in Germany's second biggest and perhaps most charming city.
Twelve top things to do in Hamburg:
1. Have brekky with Hamburg’s hispters at Nord Coast
What I didn’t know about Hamburg before I visited, is that it is a bit of a hipster paradise, and Nord Coast café is the perfect example. With it’s scandi design vibes, canal views, delicious coffee and of course avo on toast, Nord Coast café is the best place to start your day in Hamburg.
2. Learn about Hamburg’s past at the Maritime Museum
Hamburg is a maritime city with one of the biggest and busiest ports in the world, so what better place to understand its seafaring history than at its Maritime Museum? The museum has over nine ‘decks’ that cover 3000 years of maritime history around the world. It’s thousands of items, images, paintings and model ships are aptly housed in Hamburg’s oldest preserved warehouse that was once used to store shipped goods. I promise that even if you wouldn’t usually visit this type of museum, you’ll enjoy it.
Amongst the many highlights were the tiny miniature ships on the very top floor where you can view various armed forces, passenger and commercial vessels from the last 100 years.
As you make your way downstairs, you’ll find boats made out of bone, gold and silver – and yes, even Lego.
You’ll also learn a lot about how the shipping industry has changed the world in many ways, via the trading of goods and of course immigration. Plus you’ll get to relive the glamorous heyday of commercial liners.
Tip: a private tour is the best way to enjoy this fabulous museum, but if that's out of your price range I'd highly recommend the audio guide. Find out more about Hamburg's Maritime Museum
3. Head to the top of Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie
For a building that’s only a couple of years old, Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie concert hall has caused more than its fair share of controversy. Considering the striking building opened seven years late and €712 million over budget – it’s easy to understand why. But in my opinion this work of art, which the locals call Elphi (but I have personally nicknamed the Elephant due to its size, colour and my inability to pronounce Elbphilharmonie), was well worth the wait and money. Visitors to Hamburg can enjoy Elphi from afar, thanks to her prominent place in the city’s skyline on the water, but I’d also highly recommend heading inside to checkout its painstakingly designed interior and to see the city from above on its panoramic viewing deck.
A visit to the Elbphilharmonie is free, but you’ll need to wait in line to get a ticket, which helps control crowd numbers. Once inside, you’ll be transported up a set of futuristic and seemingly never ending escalators until you reach the plaza on the roof of the old warehouse, where curved glass curtains reminiscent of waves greet you and lead you outside to the 360 degree balcony, that'll make you feel like you’re strolling around the deck of a cruise ship.
If it’s a nice day, grab a beer or a coffee from the café and sit back on the benches and enjoy watching the world go by for a few minutes before doing a loop to take in the views.
Fun fact: while you can’t see it unless you’re on a guided tour or at a show, the grand hall is suspended from its roof, to create perfect acoustics. Imagine the stress of constructing that...I'm starting to realise why the building was so expensive to build!
4. Go on a Harbour boat tour with Barkassen-Meyer
An hour-long boat ride in Hamburg is a must if you want to see the city from its iconic harbour – including the Elbphilharmonie close up. Grab a German beer (or a radler in my case) and sit up on top of the boat while you learn about Hamburg’s shipping history, its famous Fish Market, its richest seaside suburb and much more.
One thing to note is that the tour is in German. We had a German friend there who was happy to translate but you can also download the company’s English app to help ensure you don't miss out. Find out more about Barkassen-Meyer's harbour tour
5. Eat a delicious Fischbrötchen
Northern Germany is famous for its Fischbrötchen, which are delicious fresh bread rolls packed with fried, baked or cured fish, and Hamburg's proximity to the sea means it can take claim to the tastiest in the country. The best place to try one is at the city's famous Fish Market (more about that below) but if you’re not in Hamburg on a Sunday – there are plenty of places to taste one of these beauties. Keep an eye out, and you'll find them everywhere, especially when you’re down on the floating dock 'Landungsbrücken' where the harbour cruises leave from.
6. Wander around the iconic St. Pauli district
A visit to Hamburg wouldn’t be complete without a stop off at its infamous red-light district and a wander down the St. Pauli’s long boulevard Reeperbahn – known to locals as ‘the most sinful mile’. The area is full of colourful street art and characters, and overflowing with cool cafes and bars.
7. Try the lavender flavoured ice cream at Luicella's
Despite only opening in 2013, Luicella's Ice Cream has become a bit of a Hamburg institution – for good reason. Their homemade ‘Eis’ is 100% natural and comes in a range of quirky and delicious flavours from lavender to peanut with caramel-salt toffee. We went to the St. Pauli location and thanks to the warm weather had to line up for about 10 minutes before we could get our hands on one of these tasty delights.
8. Have Dinner in the Schanzenhöfe Brewery District
I have always had a soft spot for German breweries, so much so that to one of my German friend’s horror at how touristy I was being, I once spent Christmas day at Munich’s famous Hofbräuhaus.
But in Hamburg you can avoid fellow tourists and go to a brewery with a hip twist in the city’s Schanzenhöfe Brewery District. We spent the perfect night enjoying local produce and beer at Altes Mädchen. If it’s a cold night you can snuggle inside by the fire, and if it’s warm, you can sit outside, surrounded by fairy lights and locals and drink craft beer until your heart is content.
9. Head to the famous Fish Market on Sunday morning
Who wants to get up on holiday at 5am on a Sunday morning to go to a fish market? Not me, and to be honest, I didn’t. After power walking from the S-Bahn, we barely made it to Hamburg’s legendary fish market in time, arriving at what was essentially a massive, boisterous party five minutes before it officially closed at 9.30am.
When we arrived, the beers were flowing, the locals were out in force, the sun was shining, and the fruit and fish sellers were bellowing out their last minute bargains. Inside the adjacent beautiful Fish Auction Building, bands played covers of famous rock songs while people of all ages danced along.
But the pinnacle was the fresh Fischbrötchen – or fish bread rolls – that we bought from the Marx u. Sohn stall. The roll was fresh and crunchy and the battered fish with garlic sauce just melted in my mouth. It’s up there in one of my top food moments and I would go back to Hamburg just to have another one.
Tip: Go early! Don’t do what we did and turn up just as it’s beginning to close. Find out more about the Fischmarkt
10. Visit the world’s largest model railway at Miniatur Wunderland
I know what you’re thinking, because I thought the same thing before I visited: ‘A miniature museum is for kids and I am a sophisticated adult who has no interest in such things.’ But an hour-long visit to one of Hamburg’s most popular and eccentric tourist spots is a must. See the tiny trains, cars, planes and people moving through American mountains, German cities, Italian coastlines and Swiss valleys. Find out more about Miniatur Wunderland
11. See an eclectic mix of art along the Kunstmeile
If you love art, you’ve come to the right place. Kunstmeile translates to art mile, thanks to the fact that Hamburg has five renowned art institutions within a short walk of one another in the city centre. We made it to three of the five museums, but next time I’m in Hamburg I’m definitely planning to visit the other two. The three we visited were:
The must-see Hamburger Kunsthalle
This is one of Germany’s most famous and important museums, containing over seven centuries of European art, with a focus on North German art, from medieval to contemporary. Even the building itself is a piece of art as you can see from the above photo.
While making your way through, keep your eye out for:
- Various paintings from one of German’s most renowned artists, Caspar David Friedrich
- Paintings from Edvard Munch, who painted the famous The Scream painting (although none of the four versions of this are housed at the Kunsthalle)
- Paintings by world famous artists Rembrandt, Monet, Manet, Picasso, and Warhol.
Get some photography tips at the Deichtorhallen
Hamburg’s twin Deichtor buildings host the city’s Hall for Contemporary Art and its House of Photography. When we visited, the contemporary hall had a thought provoking and expertly curated exhibition which explored three artists’ interpretations of social, cultural, and political complexities of their times. The photography museum is an absolute gem, full of photos from various eras.
See the young and talented’s art at the Kunstverein
Hamburg’s Kunstverein celebrates young international artists and examines current discourses. While the space is big, it doesn’t take too much time to see, as the designs are quite spaced out. This wasn’t my favourite of the Kunstmeile but it’s definitely worth a look around.
12. Eat a Hamburger in Hamburg
Though its disputed, it's thought that hamburgers were invented in Hamburg. They are at the very least named after the city. So it seems fitting to grab a burger while we were there. We popped into the Better Burger Company at Perle where we got to choose our own toppings and sauces. Plus if you are a condiment fan like I am – the range of sauces available for your chips was spot on.
Helpful hints to get the most out of your trip:
- I’d recommend buying the Hamburg Card, which provides free unlimited travel on public transport (including trains, buses and ferries) and discounts to many of the city’s main attractions and restaurants.
- If you plan to see more than one of the Kunstmeile art museums, the €25 three day pass will give you unlimited access to all five institutions over a 72 hour period.
- As with most German cities, the train network in Hamburg (the S-Bahn and U-Bahn) is extensive, easy to use and safe. I'd highly recommend it as a way to get around quickly and cheaply, including to and from the airport.