Cool things to do in Hamburg: the city on the water
Seagulls are singing overhead as freight vessels and ferries harmoniously glide through the port. People are drinking beers in the streets as The Beatles’ song “Let It Be” blares through the speakers of a Volkswagen. There’s an edgy and almost promiscuous feel to this place, but it soothes the soul with its endless canals and cosmopolitan vibe. Welcome to Hamburg, one of the coolest cities in northern Germany. Hamburg is a bastion of industry, culture, and personality. There’s so many cool things to do in Hamburg, it’s pretty overwhelming to hit them all in a short visit. In this travel guide, I’ll touch on the highlights and sights you can’t miss in Hamburg, Germany.
Before diving into the article, check out my YouTube video of Hamburg below!
Table of Contents
What makes Hamburg so cool?
It’s a bold statement to say that Hamburg is one of the coolest cities in Germany. But it is. From music and entertainment to its canals and cuisine, Hamburg has a long-held reputation for being unique and interesting. The city turned The Beatles from just another teenage band into a famous international sensation. It was a cool and edgy place then, and it’s even better now.
Hamburg is often overshadowed by cities like Munich and Berlin, but it definitely deserves a spot in the limelight. There’s so much to experience here in the realm of sightseeing, gastronomy, shopping, and nightlife, that it’s impossible to visit and not have a great time.
Hamburg is called the “gateway to the world,” due to its bustling port and trove of canals. As Germany’s second largest city, it’s also home to many cultural attractions that I’ll touch upon shortly. Though Hamburg is a bit on the pricey side, you get what you pay for – a unique and unforgettable cultural experience.
Unlike most other German cities, Hamburg doesn’t have a medieval old town or castle plucked from the pages of a fairytale. But what it lacks in old architecture, it makes up for with its modern, maritime, and industrial core. Here’s what to do in Germany’s cool port city!
Cool things to see and do in Hamburg, Germany
Walk inside the world’s largest warehouse district
If you’re visiting as a day trip and only have time to see one thing in Hamburg, make sure it’s the Speicherstadt. This is the world’s largest warehouse district, and undoubtedly one of the coolest things to see and do in Hamburg.
Built on timber-pile foundations, these red-brick buildings are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. The neo-gothic architecture, paired with canals and bridges, make for a warm and welcoming scene. The Speicherstadt is especially brilliant right after sunset, when the lights in all the windows are switched on and golden hues illuminate the water and brick buildings around it. It’s such a spectacular sight!
The Speicherstadt: A UNESCO World Heritage Site
Not only is the Speicherstadt incredibly photogenic, it’s also fascinating to learn about. This complex of brick buildings was constructed between 1883 and 1927. At the time, Hamburg was a thriving international port, and needed warehouses to store goods, such as coffee and spices. It was built as a free zone, where people could trade things freely without having to pay taxes.
The Speicherstadt is so unique that it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015, along with the adjacent Kontorhaus district.
In addition to exploring the Speicherstadt on foot, you can also do a Hamburg canal tour to see these remarkable buildings up close.
Though visiting an old warehouse district may not sound like the most exciting idea, I promise you…it is!
Tip: If you’re a photographer or videographer, and you’re striving to capture that iconic shot of the Speicherstadt after dark, be sure to plan ahead! I recommend getting to the Poggenmühlen-Brücke at least 30 minutes before sunset to grab a spot amongst many other photographers. By the time sunset rolled around, there were at least 50 people with heavy duty photography equipment monopolizing the bridge. The early bird catches the worm!
Discover Hamburg’s new urban district, HafenCity
Looking for cool things to do in Hamburg by the water? Check out HafenCity.
Hamburg’s HafenCity, which encompasses the Speicherstadt, is one of the largest and most impressive urban development projects. It’s situated on the site of old port warehouses, many of which have been converted into modern high-rises, cafés, museums, and urban spaces.
The HafenCity is a great place to walk around, relax, and have a drink or two. There’s a harmonious blend between old and new here, and the surrounding waterfront is just a bonus!
HafenCity also has a metro stop, HafenCity Universität, that looks like it belongs on another planet.
The coolest thing to see and do in this district of Hamburg is the Elbphilharmonie, read below!
Visit Hamburg’s state-of-the-art concert venue with sweeping views
The Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg city’s latest cultural landmark, opened to the public in 2017. This concert hall towers 354 feet (108 m) above the Elbe River, and it’s the tallest inhabited building in the city.
Made from glass and brick, the Elbphilharmonie was designed to resemble an ocean-liner docked in the harbor. It also closely resembles a wave or a quartz crystal. This unusually-shaped building is said to be one of the largest and most acoustically advanced concert halls in the world. As such, it’s definitely worth attending a concert if one coincides with the dates of your visit. Otherwise, there’s a 360-degree viewing platform at the top with sweeping views of the city (and it’s free!).
The ride up to the top is also an experience. There’s an arched escalator that runs 262 feet (80 m), the longest in all of Europe. It’s very futuristic-looking, and gives you the feeling that you’re on an endless escalator.
Tip: It’s free to enter the viewing platform if you get the ticket onsite. However, if you’re visiting on a weekend, be sure to get your ticket for the viewing platform online in advance. It costs €2 to do this, but you’ll avoid long lines at the ticket counter.
From classical music to The Beatles, Hamburg has always had a reputation for being a musical city. The Elbphilharmonie further bolsters that reputation and is a must on your Hamburg itinerary.
Feed your imagination inside Miniatur Wunderland
One of Hamburg’s top attractions, which lies inside the Speicherstadt, is Miniatur Wunderland (“Miniature Wonderland”). This is definitely among the top cool things to do in Hamburg.
Miniatur Wunderland is the largest model train exhibit in the world, made up of more than 100,000 moving vehicles, 130,000 trees, and 400,000 human figurines.
Inside Miniatur Wunderland, you’ll see some of your favorite cities and towns in miniature form, including Venice, the Swiss Alps, and Las Vegas. There’s also a miniature airport, where planes take off and tugs roll across the runway. There are so many cool exhibits here that you could easily spend hours to admire the wonder of it all.
Though you’d expect such an exhibit to mostly cater to kids, Miniatur Wunderland is definitely for all ages. The attention to detail is staggering!
Here’s a video I took of Miniatur Wunderland:
Admire Hamburg’s magnificent Rathaus (City Hall)
If you’re looking for cool things to do in Hamburg in the heart of the city, this is it.
Contrasting to Hamburg’s miniature wonderland is the city’s magnificent Rathaus, or City Hall. This grandiose building, built in the neo-Renaissance style, has nearly 650 rooms and is 367 feet (112 m) tall. It houses the city’s parliament, senate, and mayor, and is a top tourist attraction in Hamburg. You can enter the building for free, and take a guided tour to learn more about the exhibitions inside.
The Hamburg Rathaus is surrounded by a lively square (Rathausmarkt), street food stalls, shops, and a beautiful lake. Wie schön!
During my last night in Hamburg, I heard loud music coming from the Rathaus. I walked over, and it looked like a concert was going on. It turned out Hamburg was hosting an Ironman Triathlon (2.4 mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26-mile run), and I was about to catch the tail end of it. The finish line was directly in front of the city hall. It was epic! Check out my IG stories here!
Every city in Europe is proud of their city hall, and I truly believe that Hamburg’s is one of the finest.
Shop ‘til you drop on the Mönckebergstrasse
If shopping is your thing (or you forgot to pack some stuff), then don’t miss the Mönckebergstrasse. This is the main shopping street in Hamburg, just around the corner from the Rathaus and Hauptbahnhof (Central Train Station). It’s lined with department stores and boutiques, restaurants and cafés, and oak and plane trees. You will also find big retailers like H&M, Karstadt, Kaufhof, and Zara there.
Note: just like in most places in Germany (and Europe in general), stores are closed on Sundays. So if you’re an avid shopper, be sure to plan accordingly!
From luxury designers to McDonalds, there’s something for everybody here.
Take a tour of Hamburg with a local guide
I always recommend taking a tour with a local guide to get your bearings. Given that it’s such a massive city, Hamburg is a place where it’s particularly helpful to do so.
I took a guided tour with Jörn Löding through the Schanzenviertel and Karolinenviertel neighborhoods of town. He’s incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about Hamburg. Jörn is essentially a walking encyclopedia, who I think could break Ted Cruz’s 21-hour filibuster just by talking about Hamburg. Super impressive!
It was interesting to learn about these two quarters, which are more contemporary, gentrified, and alternative compared to other parts of Hamburg. They’re also off the beaten path, where you’ll find hidden gems and get the best bang for your buck. The best local beer, too!
The Schanzenviertel is a hip neighborhood with working class roots. It’s a great place to hang out and enjoy a beer or two in one of Hamburg’s most lively areas. Many of the buildings here are covered in graffiti, complementing the cafés, bars, and boutiques dotting its streets. Schulterblatt is the soul of this neighborhood, but there are also many side streets with shops and cafés worth checking out.
The Schanzenviertel is essentially a toned-down nightlife spot for those who don’t want to put up with the craziness of St. Pauli and the Reeperbahn. Later in this article, I’ll touch upon why.
Just a short walk from the Schanzenviertel is the Karolinenviertel, the artsy side of town. It’s enclosed by exhibition grounds and the FC St. Pauli soccer stadium. The Karolinenviertel is best known for the Marktstraße, a street with designer shops, second-hand stores, and trendy cafés. The neighborhood is also popular for its off-scene venues, including the Hinterconti art gallery and Vorwerkstift artist house.
Exploring the Karolinenviertel is definitely one of the top cool things to do in Hamburg, Germany.
Even if you’re not into street art and hipster neighborhoods, it’s still worth taking a quick stroll through the Schanzenviertel and Karolinenviertel. Especially if you have an awesome local guide like Jörn (here’s his website).
Wander through plants and flowers (Planten un Blomen)
Planten un Blomen is a botanical garden in Hamburg’s city center. It’s more than 116 acres (450,000 sq. m) in size, connecting the Elbe River with the Outer Alster Lake.
Inside these gardens, you’ll find an array of plant life, lakes, and fountains. There’s also a Japanese garden and kids playground. In the summer, fountain lightshows and concerts are the main draw during the evening, which are free just like everything else in the garden.
Planten un Blomen is a stark contrast from the industrial city that surrounds it, an oasis from the hustle and bustle of Hamburg.
As they say, the best things in life are free. Planten un Blomen is one of those things!
Take a boat tour around the port, lakes, and canals
A boat tour is a great way to discover Hamburg’s maritime heritage.
The Hamburg harbor cruises depart from Landungsbrücken pier, gliding around the port, down the Elbe River, and through the canals. I did a harbor cruise with Barkassen-Meyer, a great sightseeing opportunity with informative commentary. The boat circled around the port, HafenCity, and the Elbphilharmonie, sailing past cargo ships and container terminals along the way.
If you’re interested in seeing Hamburg’s rich and residential side, take a cruise on the Inner and Outer Alster Lakes (Binnenalster and Außenalster, respectively). This is one of the top cool things to do in Hamburg on the waterfront. Boats leave from Jungfernstieg wharf, sailing past the beautiful homes and villas nestled around these lakes.
Hamburg is also known for its bridges and canals, of which there are thousands. In fact, there are more bridges here than in Amsterdam and Venice combined. That’s why this city claims the “Venice of the North” title (along with several other cities). As such, the best way to see these canals is by boat.
If you’re not keen on spending money on a boat cruise, your best bet is to get the Hamburg Card, providing free access to public transportation (including ferries). Refer to the “Getting around Hamburg” section below for more details.
Hit the beach (yes, Hamburg has a beach)
Though Hamburg is 70 miles (110 km) from the North Sea, the city still has its own beach. It’s not your conventional beach, but as you’ve probably gathered by now, Hamburg is unconventional.
My first sub-conscious reaction when seeing this beach was how ugly it was. Cranes and container ships aren’t typically what I look for in a beach. However, after reflecting for a bit, I found that this beach is actually one of a kind. The people of Hamburg are lucky to have a beach, as other big cities in Germany (i.e. Munich and Berlin) do not.
At the Elbstrand, there’s a lively and fun alfresco scene, and the industrial vibes are very Hamburgian. It may not be the best place to go swimming, but it’s definitely a fun spot to spend time with family and friends. On a sunny summer day, you’ll find locals grilling, drinking beer, and sunbathing here. There’s also a promenade right next to the beach with nice restaurants and cafés.
After lots of walking around the city, it’s soothing to walk barefoot on the sand while watching boats pass by.
Even if you’re not interested in visiting a beach on your trip to Hamburg, the ferry ride alone makes it worth the trip. The ferry leaves from Landungsbrücken, offering a unique perspective of the city’s architecture and bustling port that skirts around it.
Take a peek inside St. Michael’s Church
Colloquially called “Michel,” St. Michael’s Church is the largest and most impressive church in Hamburg. With its tall copper dome and bell tower, this church is very recognizable amid the city’s vast skyline.
Despite Michel’s grandiose size and height, it’s your typical austere Protestant church. Unlike many churches in Germany that were Catholic before becoming Protestant, St. Michael’s has a simple façade. However, on the inside, the designs are beautiful – particularly the organs. There’s also a crypt that you can visit for a small fee.
St. Michael’s Church was built in the 17th century, before being demolished by lightning and fires in subsequent centuries. Like many important landmarks in the city, it was heavily damaged during World War II. Since then, it’s been restored to its former baroque glory.
For €5, you can take an elevator to the viewing platform which is 347 feet (106 m) off the ground. From there, you’ll have sweeping views of the city and its port.
Walk down the Reeperbahn (if you so dare)
When many think of Hamburg, this seedy street is one of the first places that comes to mind. Located in St. Pauli, the Reeperbahn is the pulse of the city’s nightlife, notoriously known as Hamburg’s Red Light District (similar to that of Amsterdam). It’s not a place where I would hang out, but it’s still a spot worth mentioning.
Aside from the rated-X reputation, there’s plenty to see just off the Reeperbahn. The rest of the St. Pauli district is home to many non-explicit nightlife spots, bars, and restaurants. It’s also brimming with cool music venues and art galleries. I had lunch and a cocktail at the StrandPauli, a beach bar with a cool vibe and cozy atmosphere. It’s not far away from the pier, and serves tasty food and drinks, along with a nice view of the waterfront.
Visiting on a Sunday? Wake up early to catch the Hamburg fish market!
The Hamburg Fish Market starts at 5:30AM every Sunday. Depending on the time of year, this coincides with sunrise – so you’ll get to see both in one fell swoop! This market has been around since 1703, providing locals and visitors alike with a lively and entertaining alfresco scene.
This market attracts a diverse clientele: night owls in search of late-night food and drinks, and early birds who are there for the ambiance. Though it’s called a fish market, you won’t just find fish here. Other fresh produce is sold on the cheap, as are clothing, flowers, and souvenirs. There’s also a fish auction hall where a live band performs to keep the Saturday night party going. When I walked inside, the band was playing ‘70s and ‘80s hits, and I found them to be really talented. However, the stench of people sweating beer from the night before was potent enough to send me back outside after 5 minutes.
Personally, I’m not into eating fish in the morning, nor am I attracted to loud markets with vendors shouting over one another. Nevertheless, Hamburg Fish Market’s immense history and sunrise setting along the harbor (with views of cranes – lol) made it worthwhile.
Watch the sunset on the Inner Alster (Binnenalster) lake
In addition to the other places mentioned in this Hamburg travel guide, the Inner Alster Lake is a wonderful place to spend an afternoon or evening. There’s a promenade that runs along the lake, called the Jungfernstieg, where you can stroll, shop, and eat with stunning waterfront views. It’s a scenic part of the city, especially when sunset rolls around and the reflections of the skyline illuminate the lake’s calm water.
On the lake, there’s also a water fountain that’s basically a miniature version of the Jet d’eau in Geneva, Switzerland. It’s significantly smaller than its Swiss counterpart, but it still adds a special flavor to this idyllic lakeside setting.
How to get to Hamburg
As Germany’s second largest city, getting here is a breeze. If you’re planning to visit Hamburg from somewhere else in Germany, two great options are taking an Intercity Express Train (ICE) or a bus (I always use FlixBus to get the best deals). The city is also connected by train or bus from other major cities across Europe. I recommend checking Omio to see what’s available.
If you’re coming from somewhere further away, your best bet is to fly into Hamburg Airport (HAM). From the terminal, you can easily hop on the S-Bahn S1 commuter train to the Hauptbahnhof (Central Train Station). The journey takes about 30 minutes.
Getting around Hamburg
Many of the top sights in Hamburg are within walking distance of each other. However, to gain more than just a high-level glimpse of the city, you’ll want to take public transportation.
Hamburg has a very robust public transportation system, comprised of buses, trains, and harbor ferries. I was pleasantly surprised how well connected the city was, given its sheer size and complexity with all the canals.
I highly recommend getting the Hamburg Card, which gives you free public transportation access and discounts on attractions. There’s also a free Hamburg Card app that gives you information on activities, excursions, and public transportation. Travel apps are a great way to for tourism boards to assist visitors with logistics, and I found this one to be among the most comprehensive and helpful (check out this article for my favorite travel apps recommendations).
If the weather’s decent during your visit, then consider riding bikes around Hamburg. There are many cheap bike rental shops scattered around the city, providing a reliable and exhilarating alternative to public transportation.
Where to stay in Hamburg
As one of Germany’s wealthier cities, Hamburg has plenty of elegant and chic hotels. At the same time, Hamburg’s working class side is also well-represented by its budget-friendly accommodations. To get a taste of both worlds, I stayed in an accommodation that serves as both a hotel and hostel, called the Superbude Hotel St. Pauli.
Located in the heart of the Schanzenviertel district, the Superbude has cool and trendy vibes to it. The reception and kitchen area are colorful and cozy, as are the rooms.
What I liked most about the Superbude St. Pauli was its commitment to being sustainable and eco-friendly. This figure really jumped out to me: 100% of the electric energy used by the hotel is generated by renewable sources, including water, wind, and solar energy. Additionally, much of the furniture comes from recycled materials and the coffee served at breakfast is fair trade. For a budget accommodation, Superbude is doing everything right to act responsibly and leave a minimal footprint on the environment.
As a travel blogger, I always seek to stay at places that embody the local landscape. I felt that Superbude—which straddles the hipster end of the hotel spectrum—perfectly aligns with the surrounding Schanzenviertel neighborhood.
In addition to staying in the Schanzenviertel, there are many other neighborhoods that are ideal for an overnight stay. If I had a layover, or simply a day or two to spend in Hamburg, I would choose an accommodation between the Altstadt and HafenCity quarters. Though it’s pricier than staying in the Schanzenviertel, it’s worthwhile to be in the center of all the action.
Top things to see and do in Hamburg, Germany
I hope you found my travel guide of Hamburg, Germany to be an interesting and helpful resource! I’ve traveled extensively throughout Germany, but this was my first time visiting Hamburg. It’s very unique, and offers a totally different experience than you get in cities like Munich, Heidelberg, and Berlin. There are so many cool things to see and do in Hamburg, and it was a pleasure sharing them with you!
Dankeschön for reading this article and following my journey! I hope your trip to Hamburg, like mine, will be an unforgettable one! If you didn’t catch my IG stories and posts yet from the trip, click here.
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