My first visit to Hamburg was at a time when it was part of Western Germany. That was a while ago, and my next visit was much later when Germany had been reunited. Over that period of time, I felt that, although my original stay was very interesting and enjoyable, on my subsequent visit, I was experiencing an even more vital and vibrant city. Let’s look at some of the major attractions of Hamburg to convince you to add it to your list of cities for your next trip to Germany.
The first thing that comes to mind regarding my first time in Hamburg is the two lakes which take up a chunk of the centre of the city. These delightful and extremely attractive lakes are called the Aussenalster (the Outer Alster), the larger of the two, and the Binnenalster (Inner Alster), and are connected by the Kennedy Bridge. Incidentally, it is said that Hamburg has more bridges than London, Amsterdam, and Venice combined. Basically, the lakes act as a park as you can walk around the perimeters of them together with the locals who enjoy this venue. The Outer Alster is 7 kilometres/4.3 miles around – a great place for both runners and walkers. On your visit, you will encounter forested areas as well as places to rent a bike, take a boat tour, sit at a café, or have a meal at one of the restaurants.
One of the most prominent buildings in Hamburg is its City Hall (Rathaus), built in the late 19th century and which houses the city’s parliament. Along with much of the city centre of Hamburg, it was heavily damaged during World War II but was faithfully restored to its original beauty afterwards and is now one of the most photographed sights in Hamburg. It has 647 rooms, an imposing clock tower open to the public, and offers guided tours. The exterior is decorated with a total of 20 statues of emperors and in the entrance hall are 16 sandstone pillars painted with 68 portraits of notable Hamburg citizens.
St. Michael’s Church is one of Hamburg’s five Lutheran churches and the most famous. It is considered to be one of the finest of Hanseatic Protestant baroque churches, with its distinctive green copper dome which is part of the city’s skyline. This 18th-Century church can accommodate over 2,500 people. A good time to visit is at noon when an organist demonstrates the church’s superb acoustics during free recitals. You can go up to the observation deck for a great view of Hamburg’s harbour.
Another outstanding building is the Elbphilharmonie, a futuristic complex structure of glass and a prestigious landmark. It comprises two concert halls and a hotel, and officially opened in 2017. It is one of the most acoustically advanced musical venues ever built. The new glassy construction resembles a hoisted sail, or water wave, and sits on top of an old warehouse building and features around one thousand curved glass windows. While on your Germany vacation, you can enjoy some spectacular views of Hamburg from the rooftop.
The Fischmarkt is the city’s legendary fish market, doing business since 1703. It can be compared to Seattle’s Pike Place Market where you can find almost anything including fish, fruit, flowers, clothing, and souvenirs. A special day is on Sundays when the action starts at around 5am and when merchants shout out about their product with some jocularity. This goes on until 9:30am when the “show” is then over. You can buy a fish sandwich to be eaten while enjoying beautiful views of the harbour. If you don’t think this is a popular venue, just know that the number of visitors each Sunday is around 70,000.
Almost everyone has heard of the Reeperbahn, a street and entertainment district in Hamburg’s St. Pauli district. This is largely due to the Beatles, who, in the early 1960s before they became famous, played in several clubs in this neighbourhood. To commemorate their contribution to the reputation of the Reeperbahn, The Beatles-Platz (Beatles Square/Plaza) has been made to look like a vinyl record and is surrounded by five statues representing The Beatles, each of whom played at times during their time in Hamburg. There are two clubs still functioning where the group played, namely the Indra Club and the Kaiserkeller. It is also the city’s Red Light district (one of Europe’s biggest) but it is safe and everyone is welcome here. It is also known for its many bars, restaurants, and clubs. The Reeperbahn district is the second most popular Hamburg attraction after the harbour. The Spielbudenplatz is the core of this historic entertainment district, with its acrobats, jugglers, and magicians holding forth.
I mentioned the fact that Hamburg’s harbour is the number one attraction in the city on Germany tours. One part responsible for this is HafenCity, once a derelict port area, now turned into a showcase of modern architecture. This includes the Elbphilharmonie Concert Hall. The Kesselhaus InfoCenter is where you can get an overview of the district and also join a free guided tour of the area. It is also a popular place for locals to live and work. To give you an idea of its size, it increased the city’s area by 40 percent! Ten, sometimes very different, quarters make up HafenCity. I quote the official website, “HafenCity itself serves as a blueprint for the development of the European city of the 21st century. It is already regarded as a model for major international urban development projects.”
What else is there to see and do in HafenCity on your Germany vacation? From the top of HafenCity Viewpoint, up to 25 people at the same time can view HafenCity. A display chart helps you to understand the layout of the city and with the telescope, it’s even better. The nearby Speicherstadt historic district (which translates as the City of Warehouses) is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Some of the warehouses have been turned into apartments, others are visitor attractions. It is the largest warehouse complex in the world where narrow cobblestone streets and small waterways are lined with 100-year old warehouses which store items such as cocoa, silk, and Oriental carpets.
If you can imagine, Hamburg has more than 60 museums and art galleries altogether and there are some excellent museums in HafenCity. Miniatur Wunderland is an enormous miniature railway system housing the world’s largest model railway, with fire engines and steam trains whizzing past against backdrops of places like Las Vegas, the Swiss Alps, Rome’s Coliseum, and St. Peter’s Basilica. The exhibit includes 1,040 trains made up of over 10,000 carriages and 260,000 human figurines. It also houses an airport with planes that actually take off. Visitors can flick a total of 200 switches to control things like windmills, a helicopter, or a space shuttle. Another museum is the Hamburg Dungeon, which offers a scary trip through Hamburg’s history. You can experience Hamburg’s Great Fire of 1842, its Flood of 1717, and of historic torture methods. It gives a “tongue-in-cheek” account of the actual events.
The International Maritime Museum is a private museum covering 10 floors of a brick shipping warehouse and is considered the world’s largest private collection of maritime treasures with model ships, construction plans, uniforms, and maritime art. It contains more than 40,000 items and more than one million photographs. These include Admiral Nelson’s letters, a reproduction of Ernest Shackleton’s lifeboat, and a 3,000-year-old canoe discovered in Hamburg’s harbour.
The Planten un Blomen translated as “plants and flowers.” This is the name of a park which is well worth visiting with its gardens, ponds, greenhouses, and botanical plantations. It contains a rose garden, a Japanese garden, a tropical greenhouse, and a cactus building. There is also a stunning display of fountains “dancing” to soundtracks from jazz to classical music. It is recognized as one of Europe’s top urban parks. Every night in the summer, the lake at the Planten un Blomen is lit up with amazing colours, accompanied by classical music.
The Kunsthalle is one of the largest art galleries in Germany with one of the few art collections in the country that covers seven centuries of European art from the Middle Ages to the present day. It has enough to occupy you for a whole day. Artists whose works are exhibited here include Goya, Rembrandt, Rubens, Canaletto, Manet, Degas, Gauguin, Klee, Picasso, and Andy Warhol. That’s quite the line-up.
The Alter Elbetunnel, considered a masterpiece of engineering when it opened in 1911, is visited via an elevator which takes you underground into a 425 metre/1380 feet long fascinating tunnel festooned with water-themed Art Deco ornamentation as well as vintage signage, maritime motifs, and glazed tiles. This is a fun experience on a trip to Germany and certainly unique.
I always like to seek out unusual things to see and do in the places I visit. It seems to me that to get behind the scenes and discover more than the usual touristy attractions adds a different dimension to the character of the place. Something different and unusual in Hamburg is to make your own chocolate at the Chocoversum Chocolate Museum. It has guided tours that last about 90 minutes with interesting facts about chocolate, some history about the subject, and then a tasting of the chocolate. You are, at the end of the tour, given the ingredients and then it is up to you to be creative. Another very unusual place to visit is the German Food Additives Museum. This interesting museum is dedicated to the thousands of different chemical substances which lie in the daily food we eat. The museum’s intention is to be informative, but it also explains the history of these additives in a non-preachy way. It could well change your eating habits!
Some interesting neighbourhoods in Hamburg include Schanzenviertel, a charming district teeming with eclectic boutiques, galleries, cafes, bars, and places to eat. Here, you can browse through independent record stores and boutiques, enjoy cozy cafés, lively pubs, and bars. The area is especially popular among young locals, who enjoy this alternative neighbourhood. On Saturdays, you can search for treasures at the Flohschanze flea market, considered to be the city’s best flea market where hundreds of vendors offer everything from vintage clothes to books, paintings, and used bicycles.
For serious and exclusive shopping, you should head for the elegant Alsterarkaden. This is a series of historic arcades inspired by Venetian architecture, with old lanterns, iron railings, and arches. It is lit by wrought iron lamps at night. Not only is it a shopping experience to enjoy on a Germany vacation, but it also has a Mediterranean atmosphere and is a great place to enjoy a coffee and a pastry.
One other way to go sightseeing in Hamburg is to take one of the local boat cruises which will give you a different perspective of some of the highlights such as HafenCity, the Elbphilharmonie, the fish market, and the warehouse district. Almost all the cruises will take you through Hamburg’s many canals as well as Alster Lake. There are many kinds of cruises ranging from 1 to 3 hours in length.
Well, that wraps up my list of places to visit in Hamburg. There is much more to this city which is just waiting to be discovered on your Germany vacation.