With more bridges than Venice, Amsterdam, and Stockholm combined, Hamburg’s cityscape is ruled by rivers, lakes, and canals. Its high-brow cultural attractions – it’s Germany’s top city for stage musicals, and home to the new Philharmonic and several elegant shopping arcades – are complemented by the Reeperbahn entertainment district, and an alternative, young scene. UNESCO World Heritage sites nestle next to concept stores and superb restaurants, and despite being known for its changeable weather, Hamburg has much to offer during every season.
Hamburg has many distinct neighbourhoods that combine into one of the most diverse cities in Germany. Your first stop should be the Altstadt, the Old Town, right in the heart of the city, between the port and the Binnen Alster (the smaller of the two inner-city lakes). This is where you’ll find the old Town Hall, surrounded by canals frequented by Hamburg’s iconic swans, and, in winter, the square in front of the Town Hall hosts a huge traditional Christmas Market. The Altstadt also has the best places to stay, and is filled with great places to eat.
At the other end of the shopping mile Mönkeberg Strasse, which connects the Town Hall with the main train station, lie two worthwhile museums, top of the list of best things to do in Hamburg: the Museum for Arts and Crafts, one of the most important museums of its kind in Europe. Its 500,000 objects cover 400,000 years of human development.
The Hamburger Kunsthalle, with the city’s best art collection, is close to the beautiful main train station, behind which, for ease of travel connections, you’ll find the Moxy Hamburg City, a trendy lifestyle hotel, as well as the Courtyard by Marriott Hamburg City with the Böckmann’s restaurant, serving local and regional specialities.
The neighbourhood includes the UNESCO-listed Speicherstadt, the historic warehouse district by the port. This area is full of interesting and unique things to do, including the Coffee Museum, the Hamburg Dungeon, and the amazing Miniature World, an incredibly detailed, small-scale copy of Hamburg and the world’s largest miniature railway: a truly unique thing to do in Hamburg. Injecting a jolt of hyper-modernity among the historic architecture, next to the old brick warehouses is a Zaha Hadid-designed set of stylised stairs along the river promenade and the iconic Philharmonic building, which sits right above the harbour. Within the Philharmonic is not only the famous concert hall, but also The Westin Hamburg hotel with its gorgeous BLICK Bar, perfect for a coffee with a view. Both the stairs and the Philharmonic mark the border to the next must-see neighbourhood, St Pauli.
St Pauli is a port neighbourhood dominated by the symbol of Hamburg, the St Michaelis church – locally simply called ‘Michel’. It’s also home to countless piers, the docks from which harbour tours set off, and slightly to the north, the infamous Reeperbahn.
St Pauli is the place to come to ‘get’ Hamburg, full of unique things to do, great places to eat and typical dishes to try: it is all about the bustle of the vast port, the slightly rough-around-the-edges neighbourhood, the old quarter around the Michel – and the food. Grab a Fischbrötchen (fresh fish roll) from one of the stalls, or pop into the Old Commercial Room restaurant, where they serve the best Labskaus. This traditional Hamburger seafaring dish – mashed-up beef, potato and vegetables served with a fried egg and beetroot – might look slightly off-putting, but it’s delicious and makes for perfect comfort food, and when in Hamburg, it is the dish to try. You won’t get it anywhere but Hamburg.
St Pauli is also the place to be very early on a Sunday morning: 5am, to be precise, at the Fischmarkt. This is no ordinary market, but rather a lively mix of stalls and market criers, stages with live music, hearty breakfasts, and a lot of beer or champagne – and also coffee, if need be. Many people simply stay up all Saturday night and finish off here. But even if you instead get up (very) early, it is so worth it. Then there is the Reeperbahn, an entertainment district packed with pubs and bars, one of the city’s top theatres, and plenty of restaurants. Once the first stop for sailors after a long voyage, today it is mostly a tourist hot spot. The Dom, a large funfair, takes place twice a year at the Reeperbahn’s eastern end.
Just west of St Pauli, a short stroll downriver in the Museumshafen Oevelgonne, several historic ships tell some of Hamburg’s history. Alongside the small lane by the river are several great beach bars, making this a perfect stop for a sunny afternoon. There’s also a row of picturesque small houses; these used to belong to retired captains, keeping them close to the water.
The city centre is located around the Binnen Alster, overlapping somewhat with the Altstadt. This is where you’ll find the best shopping: in gorgeous, covered arcades coming off Grosse Bleichen, where you also find the conveniently placed the Renaissance Hamburg Hotel; along the Jungfernstieg, the road following the lower edge of the lake; and around the Gänsemarkt. In the ABC Strasse many high end boutiques can be found, next to the Hamburg Marriott Hotel with its relaxed Cast Iron Grill steak restaurant. These elegant and Instagrammable shops, a mix of luxury labels and high-street stores, are interspersed with canalside cafés and the upmarket lakeside Alsterhaus department store. For the best views, book an indulgent dinner at the Heritage Hamburg in Le Méridien Hamburg on the east side of the lake. From the ninth-floor restaurant, the city stretches out below you, and you have top views of the 60-metre-high fountain in the middle of the lake.
Sternschanze is Hamburg’s young, alternative, politically aware and utterly unconventional neighbourhood. Hemmed by St Pauli to the south, and by the university and the Planten un Blomen botanical gardens to the east, Sternschanze has long attracted the more colourful Hamburgers. The streets are filled with art, independent boutiques and second-hand shops. The many cafés, bars and restaurants are not only comfortable and inviting, but also cater more to vegetarians and vegans than anywhere else in the city.
Essential visits in this neighbourhood include the organic market which takes place every Friday between 2.30pm and 7.30pm on the plaza in front of the Rote Flora, a former theatre that has been a squat since 1989 and is now an autonomous cultural centre. A pub or bar crawl is obligatory to explore the quarter’s vibe. Start at the Schulterblatt around 10pm and aim to end up somewhere around the Schanzenhöfe, former meat halls that now house one of the best beer gardens in town – Altes Mädchen, translated as “Old Girl”.
Hamburg’s richest residential neighbourhood, Blankenese is also its hilliest area. It lies on the western outskirts of the city, reachable either by river ferry from the St Pauli Landungsbrücken, by public transport, or by taxi along the Elbchaussee – arguably the richest street in Hamburg, with some enviable real estate.
The Treppenviertel, steps quarter, of Blankenese is a warren of tiny lanes and (unsurprisingly) plenty of steps, all zigzagging past tiny houses and grand mansions on a hill overlooking the Elbe River, from where you can watch the large ships sailing past. On top of the hill, the shopping is luxurious, but it’s also worth visiting for the superb resale boutiques such as Fifty-Fifty, where the wealthy locals leave their barely worn designer outfits to be sold on at much-reduced prices. At the bottom of the hill, there are sandy beaches and the traditional restaurant Ahrlberg, which serves hearty local dishes and good fresh fish on a terrace with river and beach views.
Start the day with the northern greeting – “Moin”, the short form of Good Morning – and a Franzbrötchen, the local version of a cinnamon bun, available in every bakery.
As Hamburg is a mostly flat city, and a very eco-friendly one, the best way to get around is by bicycle. Bright red StadtRAD rental bikes are dotted throughout the city, and are cheap and easy to hire.
Alternatively, get a Hamburg Card, allowing limitless travel on public transport, plus up to 50 percent off entry fees to sights, harbour cruises, river ferries, tickets to musicals, and even bungee-jumping and go-karting. You can buy a card that lasts from one to five days.
Published: July 25, 2022
Earn points you can redeem for unrivaled experiences and free nights at our extraordinary hotel brands.Join for Free