Hamburg is a city of superlatives. Set between the North Sea and the Baltic Sea, the city is not only Germany’s largest port, but it also has more bridges than Amsterdam, Stockholm, and Venice combined, with more than 2,500 of them spanning the city’s three rivers, countless canals, and two lakes.
The city boasts more millionaires than any other in Germany, making for some seriously nice real estate to look at, and it plays host to an annual influx of more than a million visitors who come to see the city’s excellent musicals, operas, plays, and dance shows.
In the northern style of understatement, Hamburg modestly calls itself “the most beautiful city of them all,” and while I might be slightly biased, being a Hamburger myself, I tend to agree that the city ought to be counted among the 10 most beautiful on Earth.
Let me introduce you to my hometown.
What To Do In Hamburg
Walk The Landungsbrucken
Hamburg is a truly watery city, so it’s fitting to start at the port. Landungsbrucken translates to “landing bridges” or “piers,” and all the harbor tours begin there. From the Landungsbrucken, you can catch the commuter ferries that connect to various suburbs -- or you could just walk along, stopping for coffee, lunch, or souvenirs while marveling at the bustling port. The port covers 28 square miles, accounting for 10 percent of Hamburg's area, and it’s still a working shipbuilding and container port.
Pro Tip: Take the commuter ferry to Blankenese, a lovely suburb on a steep hill overlooking the river. It’s a cheaper way to see the river than a tour, and you’ll love the beautiful houses along the way.
Explore The Alter Elbtunnel
Just steps away from the piers, walking downriver, you’ll find a tunnel crossing below the River Elbe. Dating to 1911, just a few years after the first railway and road bridges were constructed across the Elbe, the Alter Elbtunnel was dug to relieve the ferry traffic. With sturdy stone entrances and elevators large enough to accommodate a car, the tiled tunnel is today closed to most motorized traffic.
At 1,397 feet long and 78 feet below the river, the tunnel is still a commuters' shortcut and makes for an atmospheric way to cross the river. Along the way, look for the many historic tiles depicting some of the animals that used to be found in the river.
Pro Tip: The tunnel is really photogenic -- don’t forget your camera!
Marvel At The Hamburg Philharmonic
Walking from the Landungsbrucken upriver, you will see the super-modern architecture of the Hamburg Philharmonic. Estimated initially to take six years of building and a budget of 80 million euros, this amazing addition to an old canal warehouse was eventually opened after a seven-year delay and at a cost of 790 million euros. A concert hall where anything from pop concerts to operas to chamber music to piano concertos are scheduled, it boasts incredible acoustics and equally stellar views of the old harbor.
Pro Tip: Visitors are allowed upstairs to the plaza for the views, and there are guided tours, but the best way to experience the hall is to take in an event. All tickets include return travel on public transportation.
Discover Historic Speicherstadt
Just behind the Hamburg Philharmonic is the historic Speicherstadt, with its canals and old warehouses. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and an absolute must-see, and it’s worth the time to simply walk around.
But for the nerds you might be traveling with, there is also a miniature model of the area between Scandinavia and Switzerland, including Hamburg in its entirety. It’s the largest miniature railway in the world! The details are incredible, and even if you are not normally a fan of miniature displays or model railways, this one is utterly amazing. Try and spot the police arresting someone -- and the aliens!
Climb The Tower Of Saint Michael’s Church
Colloquially known as “Michel,” Saint Michael’s Church is an emblem of Hamburg. A fine example of baroque architecture with a green copper roof, the church accommodates 2,500 people and has five organs. The church tower, which holds Germany’s largest church bell, offers great views and a challenge: You can climb the 452 steps up, or you can climb a mere 52 steps and take the lift. It all depends on quite how many sausages you’ve had…
Pro Tip: On weekdays at 10 a.m. and 9 p.m., and on Sundays at 12 p.m., a trumpet is blown from the top of the tower. A 300-year-old tradition, it used to signify the opening and closing of the city gates.
Head To The Lakes From The Hamburg City Hall
The neo-Renaissance city hall set on a large square full of buskers is a great starting point from which to explore the city and the lakes. You can take a tour of the inside, but, quite honestly, it’s fine to just use the building as a starting point.
From the hall, walk along the canal to the Jungfernstieg, one of the main shopping drags, and watch the swans. They have a dedicated keeper in Hamburg who takes them to a winter camp each autumn and releases them again in the spring. Then start walking along the smaller of the two lakes, the Binnenalster, with its 197-foot cascade.
Hop on a ferry to get to the larger of the two lakes, the Aussenalster. Get off at any of the stops that interest you just to walk around and take in the wonderful villas, parklands, and sailboats. You can make a loop around the lake; it's a 4.6-mile round trip with plenty of cafes and restaurants to stop at along the way. Buy yourself a return ticket, and then you can hop back onto the ferry at any stop along the round trip.
Where To Eat In Hamburg
Hamburg is and always has been an international city, and this is reflected in its cuisine. That said, there are a few local specialties you’ll need to try, since you won’t find them elsewhere.
One is Franzbrotchen, a cinnamon roll that’s perfect for breakfast and available at all the bakeries in town. Another is labskaus, an uninviting-looking mash made from corned beef and vegetables; it was invented on sailing ships and is served with beetroot and fried eggs. Fischbrotchen, a fish filet in a bun, is a must-try, as are the local sausages.
Here are the best places to try these specialties.
Old Commercial Room
The Old Commercial Room is the place to try labskaus. Right below Saint Michael’s Church, it is a traditional, very atmospheric restaurant.
Mo Grill is my favorite sausage stand in Hamburg. It’s right by the subway station Jungfernstieg by the smaller lake. Order a Mo Griller with fries -- heavenly!
When in Germany, try the cake. The Petit Cafe offers the best baking-tray cake made with seasonal fruit.
The Hamburg fish market is a Sunday-morning institution, and it starts bright and early at 5 a.m. (7 a.m. in winter) and closes at 9:30 a.m. It is a traditional market where you can not only shop for fresh fish and fruit and vegetables, but also for large plants, pet rabbits, souvenirs, and even woven baskets to carry your items home in. Market vendors try to outdo each other in gaining your attention, shouting at the top of their voices, and even singing songs.
But that's not the main attraction. Enter the old market halls, and you will find two stages with live bands. On each side, there are plenty of food stalls where you’ll find traditional fischbrotchen, or something heartier like pan-fried potatoes with mushrooms and onions. Wash it all down with a glass of champagne or beer -- you might even find a coffee stand somewhere. People breakfast, people shop, and people dance. The atmosphere is amazing and worth getting up early for.
Where To Shop In Hamburg
Hamburg is famous for its covered shopping arcades. Most are located between the old houses and canals, often with glass roofs and full of individual boutiques rather than department stores.
Go to the Jungfernstieg and walk down the Grosse Bleichen, where most of the arcades are situated. Continue through the Hanse Viertel and then the Gansemarkt Passage, which leads to the ABC Quarter, packed full of select designer shops.
For the big department stores and globally known brands, walk down Monckebergstrasse, which stretches from the city hall toward the main train station.
Where To Stay In Hamburg
For old-fashioned luxury and James Bond-esque flair, stay at the Hotel Atlantic directly by the lake.
If you want something out of the ordinary, stay at the Gastwerk Hotel, an old gas factory that’s been converted into an unusual and modern hotel brimming with industrial chic.
Fritz Im Pyjama Hotel
Cute, young at heart, and fun, this quirky boutique hotel lies in the heart of the trendy Sternschanze quarter full of cafes, bars, and hangouts.
For more to see and do in Germany, see this page.