Located a two-hour train ride from Berlin, Hamburg sits on the Elbe River, close to the North Sea. This beautiful northern German port city is 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. If you’re looking for things to do in Hamburg, you’ll find a healthy mix of art, culture, and nature awaiting you—but don’t forget your umbrella!
The Top 10 Things to Do in Hamburg
Hamburg Hafen and Speicherstadt
There’s no better place to start exploring Hamburg than the Speicherstadt, the old warehouse district fronting the Hamburg harbor. You can do this two ways—by trolling the waters or strolling the streets. Book an evening harbor cruise, which takes you first out into the Elbe to view Hamburg from the water. You’ll see the impossible-to-miss Elbphilharmonie, the famous old Hamburg fischmarkt, and, if you’re lucky, the Queen Mary 2 when she docks through northern Germany). You’ll then go through the canals and steep red warehouses of the Speicherstadt. These historically housed cocoa, coffee, tea, spices, and rugs. Fun fact: the sloped back of the Elbphilharmonie is meant to mimic the trays that shake coffee beans after they’re roasted.
If you’re walking, don’t worry—the Speicherstadt is very safe and extremely well-lit. The lights actually make for a gorgeous stroll, playing up the architectural details and throwing reflections onto the churning water. At the end of the Speicherstadt is the postcard-perfect Wasserschloss, a tiny castle restaurant perched at the Y-break of two canals. I highly recommend stopping there for a plate of delicious German food, especially if you can get an outdoor table.
The once-controversial new addition to the Hamburg waterfront has swiftly become an icon. Unfortunately, you’re unlikely to be able to catch a show at the philharmonic hall due to sold out performances. But don’t miss the Elbphilharonie Plaza, a must on your list of things to do in Hamburg! It’s open daily from 9am-midnight for spectacular 360 views. It’s free to visit, or 2eur if you want to skip the line with a reservation. The escalators that takes you up to the viewing platform is the world’s first curved escalators, and at 80-meters, the longest in Europe.
Nestled into one of the Speicherstadt warehouses is a tiny world all its own—and I do mean tiny. Miniatur Wunderland is the world’s largest model railway, an elaborate construction that spans three floors. It’s a marvel of innovation and creativity, with intricate details and superb engineering. If you think it’s just for kids, guess again—adults will find plenty of fun Easter eggs hidden throughout the exhibits. My favorite is the conspiracy theory one, tucked under the stairs. You can check their detailed opening times and reserve tickets in advance (recommended) on their website.
The Elbe Tunnel
Just past the St. Pauli Landungsbrücken—a string of landing bridges for boats and ferries—is a small rotunda. Inside of the rotunda is the entrance to the Elbe Tunnel, an old vehicle and pedestrian tunnel built to connect both sides of the harbor underwater. On either side are huge elevators that take cars, carriages, humans, and bicycles down 80ft to the tunnel’s road. You can then ride or walk the 426-meter length to the other side. It’s fun bit of history that wraps in nicely with a harbor tour, and occasionally, the tunnel hosts art exhibitions!
Hauptkirche St. Nikolai
St. Nikolai was largely destroyed by British bombings during WWII, but what remains is a striking tower. The tower was the tallest in the world from 1874 to 1876, and is the second-tallest building standing today in Hamburg. Take the elevator up to the top for glorious views over the city (and especially the Rathaus). Then take the elevator down to the basement for detailed exhibits (in English and German) about Hamburg during the Second World War.
Not far from the St. Nikolai is the Hamburg city hall, or Rathaus. It’s a beautiful old building with a signature mint-green roof and towering spire in the center. Used for both government and public space, the Rathaus interior often has exhibits and gallery showings inside. Out front, the square serves as a home for rotating concerts and festivals—including a magical Christmas market in Hamburg (featuring a real Santa’s sleigh ziplining across the sky). Next to the Rathaus is the Alsterarkaden, a collection of shops and cafés perfect for sipping a coffee or Aperol Spritz.
Amsterdam’s got nothing on the red lights of the Reeperbahn, nicknamed die sündigste Meile, or “the most sinful mile” in German. While visiting a district famous for sordid parties and the erotic arts might seem like an odd tip, the Reeperbahn is famous for another reason as well. To quote John Lennon, “I might have been born in Liverpool, but Hamburg is where I grew up.” The Beatles got their start playing the rock clubs in the Reeperbahn, most notably the Star Club, which has since burned down. You can still see plaques commemorating the Fab Four on different venues in the city. Or attend a Beatles tour that shares the detailed history and crazy stories of early rock n’ roll.
Running down the center of the Reeperbahn is the local-favorite Spielbudenplatz, which regularly hosts food truck evenings, theme nights, outdoor concerts and movies, and biergartens. Or slide down to Strand Pauli, a self-made beach with a fun, boho vibe and fantastic views of the harbor. If street-level starts to feel too grimy, escape to the nearby 20Up penthouse bar, enjoying a cocktail and a luxurious view over the city.
Art aficiados looking for things to do in Hamburg have come to the right place. Hamburg offers a 5-for-1 museum pass, which lets you into the top five art museums in the Pearl. You can either purchase it as a 3-day pass or a 12-month pass, if you live in Hamburg or visit it often. My favorite art museum is the Deichtorhalle, which has rotating large-scale exhibits. But the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe (Museum for Art and History) is a close second. They’ve got troves of fun things to see, including furniture, musical instruments, foreign/ancient art, and funky collections.
Planten und Blomen
This long string of themed gardens is absolutely stunning in spring and summer, and makes for a perfect stroll as you head from one part of the city to the next. There’s a landscaped Japanese garden (the largest in Europe!), roller-skating and ice-skating (in winter), and plenty of water gardens and fountains. The jewel, however, are the water-light concerts hosted in summer. Live music accompanies dancing jets of water and beams of bouncing light. If you visit between May and September, be sure to check them out!
Hamburg is built around two lakes, the Außenalster (Outer Alster) and the smaller Binnenalster (Inner Alster). The best way to visit them is, of course, by boat! You can pick up a boat tour from Jungfernstein. Half tour, half ferry, you’ll skirt the inner ring of both lakes while drinking a cold beer or wine from the onboard café. If you prefer to row yourself around the lakes, you can easily rent canoes, kayaks, and stand-up paddleboards.
If you don’t have time to go out onto the lakes, you can easily walk around them. The Binnenalster takes between 30-45 minutes to circumvent, and is best done with a cold Astra in hand. With more time to spare, head up to the AlsterPerle, an enchanting little biergarten on the right side of Außenalster. Sitting at the AlsterPerle with a beer and watching the sailboats glide past is absolutely my favorite thing to do in Hamburg.