According to a local saying, Hamburg is where every German wants to live. And with an infectious maritime spirit, international outlook and diverse cultural offerings, this incredibly liveable city also has much to offer visitors on a pre- or post-cruise stay.
Hamburg has been in high demand for centuries and its enduring appeal can be put down to its port. Nicknamed the ‘gateway to the world’, the city was a prime player in the Hanseatic League back in the Middle Ages and its legacy as a centre of international trade lives on today.
Yet despite the port being the largest in Germany and the backbone of the city’s wealth, Hamburg has much more to offer, from a vibrant food scene to buzzing nightlife to eclectic architecture. Find out all you need to know in this Hamburg City Guide.
Must-sees in Hamburg
Given Hamburg’s seafaring sensibilities, the port is a fitting place to start your visit. Here you’ll find Europe’s largest inner-city development, HafenCity. An expanse of derelict docks just two decades ago, this ever-evolving quarter is now a sleek, modern hive of offices, restaurants and residences.
It’s also home to Hamburg’s newest landmark, the impossible-to-miss Elbphilharmonie. With a wave-like rooftop, curvaceous glass façade and red brick base, the concert hall has an 82m-long, curved escalator which takes visitors (for free) up to its wrap-around viewing platform.
In contrast to this contemporary architecture is nearby Speicherstadt, the world’s largest historical warehouse complex built along a series of narrow canals and bridges.
A canal tour around these picturesque waterways is a relaxing way to immerse yourself in the city’s maritime heritage, but you can learn even more at the new multi-sensory attraction Discovery Dock, as well as the International Maritime Museum of Hamburg (IMMH), spread across 10 floors of an old shipping warehouse.
A kilometre away from here is Miniatur Wunderland – an expansive model railway that charms even the most cynical with its painstaking attention to detail. Proof is in the numbers – it’s the second most visited attraction in the whole of Germany.
Meanwhile, in the compact city centre everything is within walking distance. In Altstadt (the Old Town), there’s the town hall with its elaborate neo-Renaissance façade, the Hamburg Stock Exchange – the oldest of its kind in Germany – and Mahnmal St-Nikolai, a church left with just its spire intact after WWII.
In Neustadt (the New Town), designer shops and galleries line elegant promenades. One of the finest is Jungfernsteig on the banks of the Inner Alster Lake. When the sun comes out, rowing boats, kayaks and small sailboats take to the waters while a 7km-long tree-lined pathway around the Outer Alster Lake is a lovely place for a stroll.
Much more edgy in feel is Schanzenviertel, a former working-class area that has nurtured the city’s alternative scene. By day you can browse the independent boutiques, records stores and cosy cafés. There’s a flea market around the old cattle slaughterhouse on Saturdays too, while by night, the multicultural restaurants and hip bars are the main attractions.
Hamburg’s predominantly flat terrain, well-developed cycling infrastructure and large green spaces make the city and its surrounds perfect to explore by bike. One popular route is along the River Elbe where from Övelgonne, you can follow the riverside promenade lined with pretty cottages owned by wealthy Hamburgers.
The Hamburg CARD also makes it easy to get around the city, as you’re entitled to unlimited U/S-Bahn, bus and ferry rides, as well as up to 50% discounts on a number of attractions.
Where to eat in Hamburg
Thanks to its rich maritime history, Hamburg is home to more than 180 nationalities and this multiculturalism is reflected in the city’s vibrant, forward-thinking food scene. But it also holds onto its traditions, meaning there’s lots of Schnitzel and seafood too.
A mix of Mediterranean fare – think tapas, pizza, pasta and seafood – and traditional Hanseatic dishes are served in modern eatery Strauchs Falco. Flame-grilled meat is the speciality here, but its position along the pretty canals of HafenCity is another major draw.
MUTTERLAND Cölln’s has been trading fish and seafood since 1760, making it Germany’s oldest oyster bar. The serapes (private eating areas) and 30,000 hand-painted tiles are listed, and modern classics of German cuisine can be enjoyed all day, from breakfast to dinner, in these vintage surrounds.
Beer lovers should make a beeline for Blockbräu, where you can sample freshly hand-brewed pints alongside northern German specialities and delicious pretzels. Located right on Hamburg’s Harbour, the restaurant offers gorgeous views over the river, especially from its large terrace.
From its quirky setting inside a houseboat, Dübelsbrücker Kajut delights with its traditional fish and seafood dishes and other homecooked German cuisine. Old maps, ship models and real figureheads adorn the interior making it feel like you’re actually dining on the seven seas.
Hamburg’s nightlife and events
All flashing neon lights, pumping music and elated party-goers, the Reeperbahn in St Pauli is a 1km stretch of road also known as ‘the sinful mile’. But don’t let this put you off – it’s an electrifying mix of nightlife in all it guises, from cocktail bars to cabaret shows to clubs where big name DJs headline.
It’s also where The Beatles (now immortalised in life-sized silhouettes on the main drag in front of Große Freiheit) got some of their first gigs and many of the venues where the iconic band performed in the 1960s continue to inspire audiences with live music today.
The morning after Revellers can often be spotted a few minutes away with a fish sandwich and coffee in hand at Hamburg’s 300-year-old fish market. Anything and everything is sold here in the shadow of the historic fish auction hall, and it’s truly not to be missed (open on Sunday mornings only).
The Reeperbahn also welcomes a live music festival every September, and this is just one of the exciting events Hamburg has become renowned for hosting. Others include the biennial Cruise Days festival, city celebration Hafengeburtstag and cultural street festival Altonale. There’s also not-to-be-missed Christmas Markets and, of course, Oktoberfest.
Where to stay
With contemporary classic décor, comfortable rooms equipped with all the mod cons and a location close to most of the top sights, Motel One Hamburg Am Michel is a great place to stay during a Hamburg city break.
Styled with dark woods, chocolate brown leather sofas and pops of teals, the open-plan communal area points to the city’s seafaring past with model ships, ship lights and pendant lights made from old pulleys, as well as design tributes to the Beatles.
There’s a large bar and, at the weekend, the buzzy atmosphere invites you to end your evening with a drink here. There’s lots of choice at the buffet breakfast, too, and sandwiches are served during the day.