Hamburg Travel Guide

This beautiful northern German port city is nearly running over with old-school charm and picturesque romance (with a few raunchy winks to boot!). And with the opening of its new philharmonic hall, Hamburg launched itself into the cultural consciousness, being swiftly named to both NatGeo’s and the New York Times’ lists of Places to Visit this year. After living there for a year and a half, here are my recommendations for your visit to Hamburg.

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Quick Facts

  • Hamburg’s official name is the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg
  • It is the 2nd-largest city in Germany, and 2nd-largest port in Europe
  • The Beatles got their start playing in clubs in Hamburg’s Reeperbahn neighborhood
  • Hamburg is built around two lakes, the Außenalster(Outer Alster) and the smaller Binnenalster (Inner Alster)

How to get to Hamburg

Hamburg is located at the top of Germany, close to Scandinavia. It’s a lovely stop in a head-to-toe tour of Germany (think Hamburg > Berlin > Munich) or a multi-city tour of Nordic countries (I myself first stopped in Hamburg after a visit to Copenhagen).

  • Plane: Hamburg’s airport is Hamburg Airport Helmut Schmidt, and goes by the airport code HAM. It is located an easy 20-minute train ride from the core of the city.
  • Train: The main train station in Hamburg is Hamburg Hauptbahnhof.
  • Bus: The main bus station shares a space with the Hauptbahnhof, and is called ZOB Hamburg.

How to Get Around Hamburg

Hamburg is a small city and entirely walk-able. Most of the main sights are centered around the harbor or the city’s two lakes. There are buses, two train options (the U-bahn and the S-bahn), and a bikesharing program called StadtRad. You can also make use of Hamburg’s waterbus, which offers stops around both lakes for commuters and tourists alike.

Transport signage is predominantly in German, but English is offered whenever you are buying tickets from the kiosks. And the main tourist stops have English voiceovers to remind you to hop off.

The U3 U-Bahn line or #6 bus line are good markers to base yourself close to, if you are planning to use public transportation to move around the city.

Top Sights in Hamburg

Where to Stay in Hamburg

I recommend choosing your lodging close to the harbor or the lakes to save time exploring. Hamburg’s Radisson Blu is centrally located near the trendy Sternschanze district (with lots of cafés and bars) and features a rooftop winebar with some of the best views in Hamburg. The neighborhoods of Winterhude, St. Pauli, or St. Georg are also top spots based on their proximity to the lakes and sights. Hotels near the harbor (Landungsbrücke or Hafencity) offer beautiful water views, but either offer too much to do (ahem, noisy) in the evenings, or not enough.

Where to Eat in Hamburg

Hamburg has a wealth of restaurant options to choose from. That said, the most reliably delicious options are typically German and Italian cuisine. And of course, as a port city, Hamburg offers top-rate seafood.

  • Most romantic: Wasserschloss. Perched on an island in the Speicherstadt, it’s featured prominently in Hamburg postcards, and is not half as pricey as you might guess.
  • Most laid-back: Strand Pauli. Located at the very end of the Reeperbahn, this self-made beach has a fun, boho vibe and fantastic views of the harbor.
  • “Typisch Hamburg”: Fischmarkt Hamburg. Visit this classic post-party stop for fish brötchen (fish sandwich) after a night of partying. It’s also a charming weekend market if you are up and about between the hours of 5:30-9:30 am.
  • Cutest Coffee Stop: Alsterarkaden. Around the core of the city, you’ll find cafés galore offering the perfect place to relax and sip an espresso or a glass of wine. I love the options in canal-side Alsterarkaden. Germans take cake pretty seriously—you’ll thank yourself for indulging in an afternoon slice.

Five Things to Do

  1. Visit the Plaza at the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg’s beautiful new orchestral hall, for 360-degree views of the harbor and city. Make reservations in advance to skip the line. Cost: Free
  2. Head to the top of St. Nicolai for spectacular views of the inner city, and then descend to the basement museum to learn more about Hamburg during WWII.
  3. Grab some snacks and a bottle of wine and picnic on the Alster—whether you’re sitting on the stone steps at Jungfernstein, or camped around the wide grassy banks of the outer Alster.
  4. Take a harbor cruise to see Hamburg’s historic warehouse district and get up close and personal to the huge cruise ships that come down the Elbe.
  5. Head to the Reeperbahn for people watching/gawking in Hamburg’s “red-light”/party district. Take a Beatles tour, grab some gin tonics, have a snack at the rotating foodtrucks at Spielbudenplatz, and dance the night away in one of any number of bars and clubs.

Don’t Forget

An umbrella, for the inevitable port city drizzle.

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