Best things to do in Hamburg
Find out more about those top places in Hamburg
Hamburg is a city of two contrasting halves. For many tourists, Germany’s second city is a radical place defined by anarchist squats, avant-garde art and sleazy, if kitsch, red light district, known as the Reeperbahn. For Germans, on the other hand, Hamburg is a main business hub with the highest count of millionaires per head in the country. Of course, Hamburg is both things and is all the most captivating for it. The sleek department stores and upscale restaurants of the city’s lakeside Aussenalster district give way seamlessly to the distinctive redbrick Hanseatic architecture of the historic port side Altstadt; the politically charged bohemian neighborhoods of St. Pauli and Sternschanze melt comfortably into former Jewish district Altona; and the chic waterside regeneration HafenCity, dominated by the futuristic Elbphilharmonie, now runs into the neon-lit Reeperbahn, which nurtured the Beetles during their early years. In short, Hamburg is an exhilarating city constantly in flux.
One of Europe’s most (in)famous streets, the Reeperbahn is illuminated in a hazy neon glow 24 hours a day. Equal parts seedy and über-cool, the street forms the heart of vibrant St Pauli where nightclubs that once played host to the Beatles still open their doors every night. For the best experience of this gloriously grungy neighborhood, hit the streets with a local guide who can take you on a Beatles tour and show you the best the neighborhood has to offer.
Towering over Hamburg’s mammoth port side regeneration project, known as HafenCity, the Elbphilharmonie is one of Europe’s most enthralling pieces of modern architecture. Designed by Herzog and de Meuron, the sleekly curving iceberg of a concert hall sits atop Wilhelmine warehouses and is open for daily tours and orchestra performances.
With its thrilling contemporary art, buzzing nightlife and brand-new waterfront, it is easy to forget that Hamburg is one of Germany’s most historic cities. There is no better place to immerse yourself in the past than that Mahnmal Saint Nikolai. Once the world’s tallest building, the former church was bombed out in World War Two and today stands as a haunting memorial to the horrors of Nazism. For the best experience, make sure to climb to the top of the spire for breathtaking views over the city.
Straddling the banks of the Elbe and somewhat dwarfed by the massive container ships passing by, the Fischmarkt is an iconic Hamburg institution. Opening its doors in 1703, the market today is home to one of Europe’s most vibrant culinary spectacles with over 70 000 locals descending on the place per day to buy and sell fresh fish. To make the most of the experience, make sure to get there early in the morning.
One of Europe’s most grandiose townhalls, Hamburg’s Rathaus is testament to the city’s maritime wealth. Towering over much of the downtown area, the baroque building is the city’s most iconic with nearly 700 rooms, a gravity defying vaulted ceiling and an atmospheric inner courtyard. To get a glimpse inside, regular tours depart throughout the day.
With a collection spanning from the Middle Ages to groundbreaking contemporary art movements, Hamburg’s Kunsthalle has something for everyone. Comprised of two spectacular buildings linked by an underground passageway, the gallery is one of Europe’s most renowned.
For anyone interested in architecture, a tour of the Kontorhaus district and its star attraction, the ship-like Chilehaus, is a highlight of any trip to Hamburg. Comprised of six vast blocks that once housed Germany’s most powerful shipping companies, the district oozes history and interwar political intrigue and has recently made it onto the UNESCO World Heritage list for its avant-garde architecture.
Just a short hop on a train from Hamburg, the Hanseatic city of Lübeck gives you a taste of what Hamburg’s Altstadt would have looked like before World War Two. Boasting more than 1000 listed historic buildings, the city rose to prominence in the 12th century and has changed little since. To make the most of a day trip to this hidden gem take a tour of the UNESCO World Heritage listed Altstadt with an expert local guide.