Germany’s second-largest city, Hamburg is an underrated European hub of history, style, food, and culture—all zigzagged by romantic canals. For an idea of just how many waterways make up Hamburg, consider this: It’s home to 2,500 bridges, which is more than Amsterdam and Venice combined.
And while Berlin might be the coolest city in Germany, Hamburg is a close second with its trendy Reeperbahn (red-light district), delectable international eateries, and world-war historic sites turned into art exhibits. Some of the best things to do in Hamburg are little-known hidden gems thanks to the fact that this is an often-overlooked German city for travelers.
10 Best Things to Do in Hamburg
More popular as a business-travel hub, Hamburg has plenty of underrated sites for tourists to uncover. Here are the best things to do in the musical, historic, and trendy city on Deutschland’s northern coastline.
Wander Around Inside the Elbe Philharmonic
If there’s one Hamburg site that embodies the city’s storied past and vibrant present, it’s the Elbe Philharmonic. Visible from most parts of the Old Town, the ultra-modern concert hall built atop a converted warehouse is a striking reminder of the city’s industrious past and artistic present. Music is a major part of Hamburg; the Beatles played some of their first successful shows in Hamburg’s seedy Reeperbahn (more on that below) while they were living there in the years leading up to their first album. One of the world’s largest and sophisticated music halls in the world, the Elbe Philharmonic also houses some of the city’s most expensive luxury apartments.
For travelers, Elbphilharmonie’s main draw is a 360-degree observation deck that costs just a few dollars to enter. But the building’s unique interior design is also a must-see, including the series of cavernous escalators (although elevators are also available) that access exhibits and open-air viewpoints. The Elbe Philharmonic also offers both free and affordable concerts and events so you can get inside the massive concert hall without paying the usual hefty fee for a symphony performance.
To get free entry to the Elbe Philharmonic in addition to free public transit and discounted rates on dozens of things to do in Hamburg, consider buying a Hamburg Card.
Cruise the Canals of Speicherstadt
Waterfront Hamburg affords many opportunities to take a scenic cruise, whether it’s on the River Elbe, the Alster Lakes, or the Hafen (Port of Hamburg). But perhaps the most scenic option is to take to the UNESCO-designated Speicherstadt (or warehouse district) canals. The Speicherstadt dates back to the 1880s when brick warehouses were built on narrow islands in the River Elbe. Today, it’s the largest complex of historic port warehouses in the world, and makes for Instagram-worthy photos of brick-facade designs dotted with sculptures, ivy, and metalwork.
Stroll the Bridges of Hamburg Port
As quintessential as the Speicherstadt, the Port of Hamburg is a good example of the many footbridges that cross the city’s seemingly endless channels and canals. And it’s a mecca of some of the best things to do in Hamburg; from the port area you can easily hop off a river cruise, visit the world-famous Hamburg fish market, and take advantage of vendors, food trucks, and live music acts that assemble here in the warm months as well as around Oktoberfest and Christmas. The entire area is a grand convergence of bridges and neighborhoods that comes alive with seasonal things to do.
Check Out Reeperbahn
Even if you know nothing about Hamburg, you’ve probably heard of Reeperbahn, its red-light district. Much more than just that, though, the Reeperbahn is a popular nightlife area for Hamburg’s younger crowd thanks to its surprisingly eclectic array of restaurants and bars. It draws plenty of tourists too, not just for its raunchy reputation but also for its history as the neighborhood the Beatles constantly played early in the career. Some of the first bars and theaters to host the Beatles still remain (the most famous being Indra Club 64), and the Reeperbahn now has its own Beatles-Platz, with silhouette statues of the bandmembers marking the main square.
Walk Saint Pauli’s Underground Tunnel
In Saint Pauli, the neighborhood that’s home to the Reeperbahn, lies one of the most hidden things to do in Hamburg: the Old Elbe River Tunnel, which was built to connect central Hamburg to its massive shipyards on the other side of the river. A quarter-mile-long technological feat when it opened in 1911, it’s now a walk through the past that’s still used by locals (often cyclists), but also sometimes to host exhibitions. It’s worth a stroll for the view of Hamburg’s skyline from the other side, and you can get a boat shuttle back across to the port area.
It’s not all beer gardens and schnitzel in Hamburg. Like Berlin, the city is home to plenty of international locals, and therefore slings some of Europe’s most delicious food. Turkish doner kebab spots are popular among locals and visitors alike, and you might be surprised to find many modern Middle Eastern, Mexican, Greek, and Italian restaurants enticing you. And then there’s the fresh local seafood, of course.
Near the Reeperbahn head to Underdocks for fast-casual seafood like lobster rolls, or Mexiko Strasse Taqueria for colorful tacos and margaritas. In the Saint George neighborhood don’t miss out on the many Mediterranean spots, but especially the Syrian specialties at L’Amira.
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Stay in Saint George
If you’re seeking a comfortable hotel that showcases a locally beloved neighborhood, try Courtyard Marriott’s Hamburg City property in Saint George—a culturally diverse neighborhood with a vast array of food and nightlife options. It’s walking distance or a short train ride from all the sights: Nearby activities include the Kunsthalle art museum, Markthalle Hamburg music venue, Chocoversum chocolate museum, St. Peter’s Church, and Hamburg Town Hall. Slightly farther are the city center’s canals and Hamburg Port, easily accessible on the U- or S-bahn trains via nearby stations.
Check Prices for Courtyard Hamburg City in Hamburg
Mistake Hamburg Town Hall for Venice
At the center of Altstadt (or Old Town) is Rathaus Hamburg—or Hamburg’s Town Hall. Dating back to the 1880s, the landmark’s tower is climb-worthy for its view of the city and the Alster Lakes. The canal area around town hall is modeled after Venice’s St. Mark’s Square (head to the back of Town Hall to feel like you’ve been transported to Italy). It hosts outdoor events year-round and transforms into the Rathausmarkt, the city’s biggest Christmas market, in winter.
Climb a Historic Church for the Best View
Apart from being historic and cultural sites, Hamburg’s massive churches are also perfect viewpoints of the city; St. Michaelis, St. Petri, and St. Nikolai date as far back as the 11th century, and all have accessible towers with sprawling vistas.
Perhaps the most unique of these three famous churches is the St. Nikolai Gothic-style cathedral, which was bombed to a shell in the second world war and never rebuilt. St. Nikolai’s bell tower remains, however, and is accessible for a small fee. The remnants of the rest of the cathedral also still stand as an open-air art exhibit and monument to the cost of war—especially in Hamburg, which was heavily bombed in the final days of World War II.
Appreciate Miniature Wonderland
A mind-boggling indoor activity that’s perfect for a rainy day, Miniatur Wunderland is a sprawling exhibit featuring replicas of world destinations—and is also among the can’t-miss Hamburg things to do. Located in the heart of the Speicherstadt, kids and adults alike love the maze of models for hyper-detailed re-creations of places like the Swiss Alps, Las Vegas, Venice, and of course Hamburg—all making up a total of 10 miles of mini train tracks that wind through the space’s 16,000 square feet. Interactive elements make it even more interesting; you can push buttons on the exhibits to trigger events like sunrises, sunsets, avalanches, and train departures in the tiny settings.
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SmarterTravel’s Shannon McMahon writes about all things travel, and stayed at the Courtyard Marriott Hamburg City as a guest of the property for the hotel opening. Follow her adventures on Instagram @shanmcmahon.