When people think of Germany, they tend to think of mountains with castles clinging to them, cows grazing on high-altitude meadows, and lederhosen-clad men swigging beer. Yet, the north of the country, where I am from, has none of the above.
The two German cities of Hamburg and Munich might lie at opposite ends of the country, some 375 miles apart, and have very differing surroundings, languages, food, and attitudes, but both are beautiful cities full of history, art, and plenty of things to do and see. Both very much represent a slice of the country, with 16 very distinct states, that would not be Germany without the differences and similarities.
So, if you want to really get to know Germany, don’t just head to the iconic and somewhat stereotypical south, but have a look at the north, too.
Here are some ideas of what makes the cities so different, and why you should put both on your itinerary.
1. Size And Getting Around
After Berlin, Hamburg is Germany’s second-largest city with around 1.8 million people. Munich is the third largest with roughly 1.5 million. There is not much of a difference in population, really. Both have a major river, the Isar in Munich and the Elbe in Hamburg, but where water is concerned, Hamburg wins every time. It has three rivers, two lakes, an enormous port, and countless canals, all crossed by more bridges than Venice, Amsterdam, and London combined. That said, in Munich, you can go surfing right in the center of the city.
Both cities are served by a superb network of public transportation, making it easy and cheap to get around, with no need for a car. In both cities, an all-day pass for use within the city center, valid for all modes of public transportation, costs at most 8.20 euros — roughly $8.30.
The airports differ in that Munich is Germany’s second largest and busiest airport, whereas Hamburg is a much smaller and quieter affair, with far fewer international long-distance flights. When you want to visit Hamburg, chances are you will have to travel through London, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, or indeed Munich, which would allow you to catch two birds with one stone, as they say.
2. Language And People
German is German, right? Not so. At my school, we had to speak high German, an accent-free, pure version of the language. The best style of high German is reportedly spoken in Hanover, just south of Hamburg. But step outside of school and Germans speak with often thick regional accents very distinctive to their states, or even cities.
In Hamburg, there used to be Plattdeutsch, a local quasi-language that is now nearly forgotten. In Munich, they speak Bavarian. Watch TV in Hamburg when a Bavarian is interviewed, you often get subtitles on the screen to help the poor northerners to understand better. So, while the locals may well understand you, whether you will understand the response or not is another matter altogether. Your chances are infinitely better in Hamburg.
The people are another matter. We northerners are famously reserved and quiet, not as loud and welcoming as the Bavarians. When you are on public transportation in Hamburg, you will probably see that if there are single travelers on the train or bus, each one will sit in their own compartment or at least away from others. In Munich, the chances are much higher that people will sit next to each other and start a conversation. But don’t let that put you off, we Hamburgers are not arrogant, just a little shy and more introverted than those sociable Bavarians.
3. The Weather
The climate is officially the same in both cities; after all, 375 miles is not such a long distance. While the overall temperatures vary little between the cities, Hamburg has far fewer sunshine hours than Munich — 210 fewer hours in fact. In Hamburg, we talk about Schmuddelwetter, which is something like grubby, dirty weather that’s grey, damp, if not downright wet. It’s the weather where you’re a bit miserable and you end up probably wanting to change your clothes once you get home.
In Munich, on the other hand, they have the Föhn, a local phenomenon bringing dry, warm air across the Alps. The Föhn brings a static-charged atmosphere that seems to cause headaches or dizziness to locals, but also brings very clear air and great views.
4. Things To Do
When it comes to touristy things to do, both cities are again quite different. Munich has world-class museums, including places such as the Pinakothek and the Deutsche Museum. Hamburg is all about the port area where a myriad of boats bustle along the famous Philharmonic sitting on top of the UNESCO-rated warehouse district and the old tunnel that takes you under the river. Where Munich has the beer-drinking attractions such as the annual Oktoberfest, Hamburg has become Germany’s top musical and theater city.
There are plenty of parks, art galleries, and superb shopping and eating in Hamburg and Munich. Both cities also have examples of wonderful churches and architecture, each lending itself to a city break that lasts at least a long weekend. As for the winter season, both cities are superb during Christmas time, with markets all across each city, on every square, and done properly, the traditional German way.
5. Outside Of The City Limits
It is outside of the city limits that you notice the biggest differences between each city. Around Hamburg, the land is flat, so flat, indeed, that I had to learn about hill-starts during my driving lessons in a multi-story car park. In Munich, you have the Alps on the horizon. Hamburg has two seas within an hour’s drive, the North Sea to the northwest, and the Baltic Sea to the northeast. Both seas are dotted with superb islands that are worth a side trip, from Rügen in the Baltic to numerous North Sea islands not far at all from Hamburg.
Bavaria, the German state where Munich is located, has long been a favorite with travelers from around the world. There is much to see and do, magical castles to explore, and an entire huge mountain range to discover here.
6. Eating And Drinking
While there are many similarities in restaurants and dishes served across the two cities, there are also distinct differences. For example, we Germans are famous for our love of sausages, but a sausage in Hamburg is very different from a typical sausage you get in Munich, or even Nuremberg, for that matter. Germany has very distinct and typical food items and dishes and discovering the local specialties is what makes travel so interesting. Well, not only, but food always plays a big role in my travel experiences. In Hamburg, you absolutely need to start the day with a franzbrötchen, a cinnamon roll only available in Hamburg. Head to the harbor and enjoy a fischbrötchen, a fish filet roll, and then, try the local labskaus, admittedly, not an appealing-looking dish, but pure comfort food.
In Munich, on the other hand, the first thing to accompany some typical food, like a gigantic salty pretzel, is a stein of beer. A weisswurst sausage and leberkäse, a meatloaf, are a must. To round off the meat-heavy local delicacies, try your hand at a schweinshaxe, a pork knuckle that is, quite honestly, something of an acquired taste. It’s just like labskaus, but the locals love it. Guten Appetit!
7. Further Afield Day Trips
There are so many ways to extend a city break from either of these cities. Hamburg is roughly an hour’s drive away from the Danish border, with the capital Copenhagen closer than Munich, a mere 4.35 hours by train. The German capital of Berlin is even closer. One experience not to miss is the seal sanctuary on the North Sea Coast, where they nurse orphaned baby seals before releasing them back into the sea. It’s cuteness overload. Hamburg is also a great setting-off point for a trip across former East Germany with its amber-strewn Baltic coastline and cities such as Leipzig and Dresden.
In Munich, on the other hand, you have Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Czechia, and Austria practically on the doorstep, making it a perfect starting point for an alpine road trip. These getaways are perfect for taking in some truly stunning sights along the way, maybe toward Italy. Bavaria itself is beautiful and the castles alone can keep you busy.
So, which city wins? Neither. Because they truly are so different, in such polar opposite settings, you just have to put both on your to-visit list. It’s a great excuse to look a little deeper at what Germany has to offer.
Pro Tip: To connect these two cities and traverse the length of Germany while you are at it, hop on a train that, in under 7 hours, takes you from the north of Germany to the south, with spectacular views along the way.