Since the days of the medieval Hanseatic League Hamburg has been a Free City and port of international status. Hamburg still has the second busiest harbour in Europe, and stands as a City-State in Germany’s Federal Republic. A constant ebb and flow of seafarers has given Hamburg a rakish reputation, which is half the fun of St Pauli and the infamous Reeperbahn.
There are many other sides to the city, whether it’s the peace of its canals and the Alster lake in summer, or the many first-class visitor attractions. If you haven’t been to Hamburg for a few years, now is time to come again. The city is changing as we speak, as the new HafenCity revitalises the waterfront and adds new, ultra-modern reference points like the mesmerising Elbphilharmonie concert hall.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Hamburg:
When Hamburg finally joined the German customs zone in 1888, work began on a new warehouse district for its free port.
Residential quarters on the Zollkanal were removed and storage facilities were constructed on oak piles and with Gothic Revival architecture.
Now protected as a World Heritage Site, the Speicherstadt or City of Warehouses has an atmosphere all its own, and it’s enough just to walk through these red-brick canyons, crossing the canals and admiring the glazed decoration on the gabled facades.
Some of the warehouses have recently been turned into apartments, others are visitor attractions, while a few still fill their original purpose, storing spices, tea, coffee and electronics.
Suggested (guided) tour: Elbphilharmonie, Speicherstadt & HafenCity
Encompassing the Speicherstadt, HafenCity is a new waterside quarter that was made official in 2008. Partly on reclaimed land in the Elbe, HafenCity will continue to grow over the next 15 years, creating homes for 12,000 people and jobs for up to 40,000. Already a large chunk of the free port has been regenerated, and outside the heritage quarter the architecture is creative and cutting-edge.
Think glossy office blocks, apartment complexes and leisure amenities, all designed with real panache and sensitivity for their waterfront location.
So far the main sight to see is the Elbphilharmonie concert hall, which deserves its own entry.
Officially unveiled in 2017, the Elbphilharmonie is Hamburg’s tallest inhabited building at more than 100 metres.
Despite its considerable size, this project by Herzog & de Meuron still has a light, ethereal quality, and its enigmatic profile has been compared to waves, the sails of a ship or a quartz crystal.
On that shimmering facade are around 1,000 curved windows, and at the very top is the Plaza, an observation deck and sleek cafe both open to the public.
The Great Concert Hall has space for 2,100 spectators and if you love music you owe it to yourself to hear the Elbphilharmonie Orchestra play in one of the most acoustically advanced venues ever built.
4. Planten un Blomen
If you had to make a list of Europe’s best urban parks, Planten un Blomen, 47 hectares of gardens, lawns, ponds, greenhouses and botanical plantations will be near the top.
In the park’s green folds is the Old Botanical Garden, which was planted on the site of the city wall in 1821. Allow some time to poke around the five inter-connected greenhouses: The largest, the Schaugewächshaus has plants from Mediterranean climes and contains laurels, olive trees, palms and eucalyptus.
Just as captivating is the Kakteenhaus, replete with succulent plants from desert climates.
Outside the park really shines in summer, when the rose garden is in bloom, the apothecary is most fragrant and the colourful musical fountain injects more magic into the scene.
5. International Maritime Museum
Kaispeicher B, the oldest warehouse in the Speicherstadt, is 11 storeys high and has an arresting gabled facade.
As you’ll know from the monumental propeller out front, it houses Hamburg’s maritime museum, which opened in 2008. The core of the collection began with Peter Tamm, the chairman of Europe’s largest publishing house Axel Spriner AG, who was an avid hoarder of model ships and naval memorabilia.
Anyone seduced by the romance of the open sea will be won over the by the museums’ cache of maritime artefacts: There are whole sailboats and engrossing curios like Admiral Nelson’s letters, a reproduction of Ernest Shackleton’s lifeboat and a 3,000-year-old canoe discovered in Hamburg’s harbour.
6. Kunsthalle Hamburg
A brief walk from the Hauptbahnhof, between the Binnenalster and Außenalster is one of Germany’s largest and richest museums.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the Kunsthalle has enough to keep you under its spell for a whole day: There are old masters like Goya, Rembrandt, Rubens, Lucas Cranach the Younger and Canaletto.
Then Caspar David Friedrich, Max Liebermann, Manet, Degas and Gauguin are some of the many luminaries in the 19th-cetury gallery.
Moving into the modern gallery and contemporary art the illustrious names keep coming, like Paul Klee, Kirchner, Franz Marc, Picasso, Francis Bacon, moving on to Warhol, Tracey Emin and Joseph Beuys.
7. St Pauli
If you arrive expecting a sanitised, corporate district, St Pauli will be a rude awakening.
The quarter, just east of the centre and descending to the Elbe is rough around the edges and daubed in graffiti and neon.
The Reeperbahn is notorious, and its porn shops, parade of prostitutes and strip clubs hardly need mention here.
But you may never have more fun on a night out around this street, whatever your taste in music, and St Pauli’s rebellious and creative ambience makes it a great place to live if you’re young.
Beatles fans can take a self-guided tour.
Three of the clubs Fab Four played at in the early 60s are still open in some form: Kaiserkeller/Große Freiheit 36, Indra and Moondoo, while Paul McCartney ran up a big tab at the bar Gretel & Alfons, which he never paid off.
8. Miniatur Wunderland
The Speicherstadt’s blockbuster attraction is a moving miniature world filling a whole warehouse.
A bit like HafenCity itself, Minatur Wunderland is has been rolled out in phases since the early 2000s.
It all began with a miniature railway rattling through 1:87 scale models of Austria, Central Germany and an amalgam known as Knuffingen.
But over the last 16 years scale models of Italy, Hamburg, the United, States, Switzerland and Knuffingen’s airport have been added, while many more are in the pipeline for the 2020s.
All these places have thousands of automated moving parts, from people to traffic, controlled by a sophisticated computer.
As of 2017 there are 15.4 kilometres of railway track, while the world flits from day to night in 15-minute cycles, and visitors can flick a total of 200 switches to control things like windmills, a helicopter or space shuttle.
Skip-the-line-Tickets: Priority Entrance: Miniatur Wunderland
9. Harbour Boat Tour
Boat trips aren’t just another thing to do in Hamburg; They’re the best way to see the harbour and waterside districts.
These trips can also be done on the cheap (or free on your Hamburg CARD), as a line-up of public HADAG ferries depart the floating jetties at Landungsbrücken and make round trips.
So say you want a whirlwind trip past the hulking cranes of Europe’s second-busiest container port, you can catch the 61 boat, which sails to Neuhof and back.
Or if you’d like to marvel at the HafenCity and the Elbphilharmonie from the water step aboard number 72.
Suggested cruise: Evening Illumination Cruise through Harbor
At the dynamic and commercial heart of Hamburg, Jungfernstieg is a waterfront promenade on the Binnenlaster.
The name comes from a historic tradition of wealthy Hanseaten families parading their unwed daughters (Jungfern) for eligible bachelors.
Landward there are flagship shops and department stores like the storied Alsterhaus in tall Neoclassical and Historicist buildings.
Also, see the refined white arcade that lines the Kleine Alster off to the side, built in the middle of the 19th century.
Fronting the Binnenlaster is a terrace where you can bask in the sun in summer check out the water jet, or tuck into a coffee and pastry (Kopenhagener or Franzbrötchen) at the glass Alsterpavilion.
11. Elbe Tunnel
Nobody had ever seen anything like the 426-metre Elbe Tunnel when it opened in 1911. At 24 metres below the river, it transformed the lives of Hamburg’s harbour workers commuting from the right to the left bank.
The northern entrance is hard to miss at Landungsbrücken for its vivid green dome, and that Jugendstil architecture is half the tunnel’s charm.
There are two parallel tunnels for cars and pedestrians/cyclists.
If you go on foot take the steps to gauge the size of this project and take your time to enjoy the vintage signage, maritime motifs and glazed tiles.
A neat piece of trivia about Hamburg is that this one city has more bridges than London, Amsterdam and Venice combined.
Many of these cross the tangle of canals and rivers that feed in to the upper end of the lake at the centre of the city.
The shores of the Außenalster, separated from the smaller Binnenalster by the Kennedy Bridge, are one large park.
Joggers come to squeeze in their early morning exercise and friends meet up for coffee at one of the many kiosks and bars on the tree-lined banks.
Those canals and slow-flowing rivers in the upper parts of the lake weave through Hamburg’s most affluent quarters.
When the weather’s warm you’ll be able to hire a canoe or rowboat at Osterbekkanal for instance to navigate the city in a less conventional way.
13. St Michael’s Church
Northern Germany’s most famous Baroque church has seen a lot of drama in its time.
The design is from the 17th century, and that 132-metre dark cupola at the top of the tower is visible from almost any part of the city.
In 1750 it came tumbling down after a lightning strike, and was razed again by fire in 1906 to be totally reconstructed in 1912. Ironically St Michael’s Church managed to escape extensive damage in the Second World War and was already repaired by the early 1950s.
You can go up to the observation deck at 106 metres for a complete view of the harbour, and just be wowed by the building’s spectacular proportions: There’s room for 2,500 worshippers inside, while the vast 17th-century crypt holds the remains of 2,425 people including composer Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (second son of Joseph Sebastian).
For those brave partygoers who have the stamina, a Hamburg tradition requires you to stagger down from the Reeperbahn to the fish market on the harbour to continue the party into Sunday morning.
From March to November the market opens at 05:00 and the 19th-century Fischauktionhalle has live bands and djs.
There’s a strange mix of early-risers and people who haven’t even been to bed hovering around the stalls, which sell flowers, fruit and fresh fish (the fish traders are pretty entertaining). You can also soak up some of that alcohol with a Fischbrötchen, Hamburg’s answer to Berlin’s Currywurst.
It’s a roll stuffed with mackerel, herring, pollock, salmon or shrimp, fresh from the North Sea.
15. Hamburg Rathaus
Hamburg’s city hall is as stirring as they come, and reflects the prosperity and optimism of a newly united Germany at the end of the 19th century.
The architecture on the 133-metre-wide facade is Neo-Renaissance, and the tower in the centre soars to 112 metres.
There are short-term exhibitions inside, which are free to view and you can go through to the courtyard, which has a fountain crowned with a statue of the goddess Hygieia.
Or you can pay a small fee and take an hour-long tour.
The interior has more of a Historicist design and one of its talking points is the amazing number of rooms inside: 647 at the last count, because oddly enough a whole new room was discovered in the tower in 1971.
16. Tierpark Hagenbeck
If you’re really fond of animals you may be tentative about visiting a zoo, but Hamburg’s has always placed a lot of importance in the welfare of its inhabitants.
Carl Hagenbeck and his son who established the zoo initiated the “Panorama Exhibit”, in which animals’ natural habitats were recreated using moats as natural barriers, all allowing clearer views for visitors.
The zoo is in 24 hectares of Planten un Blomen, and the walking trail adds up to more than six kilometres.
Among the park’s 510 species are Asian elephants, Rothschild giraffes, impalas, leopards, orangutans, zebras, ostriches, lions, porcupine and alpacas.
The aquarium holds more than half of the park’s species, from spiders to sharks, all in terrariums and 29 separate freshwater and seawater tanks.
Head a couple of stops north of the Reeperbahn for a walk on Hamburg’s grubby but independent side.
To the naked eye Sternschanze is a bit intimidating for its walls coated in graffiti and some of the interesting characters that roam its streets.
You’ll come across anarchist communes mingling with hipster bars and unusual shops.
If there’s a demonstration happening in Hamburg you can put money on it going down in Sternschanze.
But because of the neighbourhood’s DIY ethic some of the best parties also take place in this quarter.
They’re organised by university students or local art scenesters but open to everyone in the loop.
Just do a bit of digging online and see what you can find.
Suggested tour: Downtown, Alster & Alternative Areas Bike Tour
18. Dialogue in the Dark
Also in the Speicherstadt is one of the few museums that will genuinely change your outlook on the world.
Dialogue in the Dark was the first in an international network of attractions that puts you in shoes of a blind person, requiring you to use your other senses to get through.
You’ll be blindfolded in a small group led by a blind or visually impaired guide.
The museum’s power lies in its sense of role reversal, as you’ll be vulnerable and dependent on you guide for help.
That instant hit of empathy bleeds into other spheres of course, which was what its founder Andreas Heinecke intended.
He created the museum while processing the knowledge that members of his family had been killed in the holocaust.
19. Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe
Within touching distance of the Hauptbahnhof is a decorative arts museum par excellence.
The scope of the galleries is dizzying and if your idea of a perfect day is spent adoring masterfully made porcelain, tapestry, sculpture, weapons and musical instruments there’s nowhere better.
A brief summary of the best bits has to include an Art Nouveau/Jugendstil ensemble of jewellery, poster art, furniture, glassware from the 1900 Paris World Exposition, 650 classical artefacts, high fashion from the 18th century to today and a 1728 harpsichord crafted by Christian Zell.
Between the Hauptbahnhof and Hafencity is an exhibition centre for art and photography in glass, brick and steel market halls erected in the 1910s.
The Deichtorhallen are a sight to behold from the outside, in an Industrial style in the period between Jugendstil and post-First World War styles like Bauhaus and Art Deco.
They also constitute one of the largest exhibition spaces in Europe that has put on landmark shows for Nobuyoshi Araki, Gilbert & George, Sarah Moon and Antony Gormley in the last few years alone.
21. Treppenviertel Blankenese
Grab the S-Bahn or ferry to this quaint old neighbourhood ten kilometres from the city centre above the right bank of the Elbe.
Treppenviertel literally means “Stairs Quarter” and that’s where this neighbourhood’s allure comes from.
Untouched by the war, the Treppenviertel is a chaos of sharp, twisting alleys, walled by beautiful whitewashed houses and interlinked by stairways.
These add up to more than 5,000 steps, and don’t be surprised if curiosity leads you to walk them all, before you have to stop next to the Elbe for much-needed refreshment.
At Easter the Blankenese is one of the places on the river where large bonfires are held.
Two streets in from the Speicherstadt is an eye-catching building inscribed in the same World Heritage Site and lauded by architects for 90 years.
The Chilehaus was built in early 1920s in a style known as Brick Expressionism: The frame is made from reinforced concrete, and is overlaid with 4.8 million grey bricks.
For photos the best angle is on east side where the wavelike facades of this nine-storey wonder convene at a sharp point on the corner of Burchardstraße and Pumpen like the bow of a colossal ship.
The man behind the design was Johann Friedrich Höger, and it was constructed for the banker Henry Brarens Sloman who made his fortune shipping saltpetre from Chile.
23. FC St Pauli
You just know that a sports team based St Pauli will have a unique identity.
FC St Pauli operates according to rules that anchor it to its location, imprinting a philosophy of tolerance and social responsibility into its makeup.
The club plays its home games at the29,500-capacity Millerntor Stadium on the west side of Planten un Blomen.
The stadium is in the shadow of the Hamburger Flaktürme, a literally indestructible Nazi fortress, now a renewable energy centre with a cafe on its roof.
The stadium has just been updated, and the match-day experience is claimed to be one of the best in Europe.
Rock music by AC-DC and Blur soundtracks the match and there’s visible support for the city’s gay community and ethnic minorities.
Hamburg is awash with entertainment arts venues in unexpected places, but none are as large or surprising as Kampnagel on the Osterbekkanal.
The venue’s hangar-like halls used to contain a crane factory and has become the largest centre for contemporary performing arts in Europe.
It almost doesn’t matter what’s on; you should just come down to experience Kampnagel’s size, at a play, concert, exhibition, talk, movie screening, symposium or intimate gig.
It’s all the base for the International Summer Festival in August, putting on more than 50 productions in disciplines like dance, film, visual arts and theatre.
25. Hamburger Dom
Heiligengeistfeld in St Pauli is the stage for a humungous funfair and market three times a year.
The Hamburger Dom is 30 days long each time and happens roughly in November (Winterdom), April (Frühlingsdom) and August (Summerdom). There are classic carousels, state-of-the-art roller coasters and sideshows aplenty, while the food is always a big factor.
More than 100 stalls trade at the fair, most selling Hamburg’s beloved herring sandwiches, Currywurst or more international fare.
The air is filled with the fragrance of roasted almonds, and other sweet treats like Schmalzkuchen (mini donuts) and candyfloss.
The oldest of the three fairs is the Winterdom, which goes back to the 1000s and found its present location at Heiligengeistfeld in 1893. Be there on Friday nights for the fireworks display at 22:30 to kick off a night out on the Reeperbahn.