This time last year I joined my husband in Hamburg, Germany for a week while he was at a work conference.
It was my fourth time in Germany but only the second time I’ve ever traveled with him for work, and the first time I was really exploring the Schleswig-Holstein region of the country.
I’ve loved all my trips to Germany. When Scott and I traveled to Munich, Augsburg, Cologne and Berlin, it was late May and starting to feel like summer. Ryan and I stopped in Munich in September and loved riding through Bavaria in the fall. A few years later Brian and I went for New Years and absolutely loved exploring everything in the clockwise loop from Berlin to Frankfurt in the beautiful winter snow.
Throughout all of those previous trips, I missed the Schleswig-Holstein region entirely so I was thrilled to spend the entire week of Brian’s conference in that area. Not only was I rounding out my tour around Germany, I was rounding out visiting the country in my fourth season—springtime.
The conference was in Hamburg so that was our base for the week. We spent several days exploring the city, and I also used it as a jumping off point for some incredible day-trips on the days Brian was at work.
Given how many things I wanted to see and do throughout the region, I only ended up spending a few days exploring Hamburg. Despite the limited amount of time, I really loved the city and was able to see and do quite a bit.
Headed to Hamburg soon? Whether it’s for a weekend or a couple of weeks, here are my recommendations for what you have to see and do while you’re in town.
Top 10 Things to Do in Hamburg
Harbor Tour/Boat Ride
I’ve found that the more I travel, the more I ascribe to the approach of taking time to orient myself to a new place shortly after arrival in order to get my bearings and have a deeper appreciation for what I’m about to experience.
This can be accomplished in a variety of ways—sometimes it’s a guided walking tour, other times it’s climbing to the top of an observatory and looking out over a city, and other times it’s reading a guidebook to understand the historical and modern-day impact of whatever you’re about to experience.
By far, my husband’s favorite way to orient to a new place is by a narrated boat tour. Obviously this isn’t possible many places, but it’s a great option in Hamburg, which sits on the river and has a fascinating history as a dynamic regional port.
We decided on the boat tour somewhat last-minute and ended up on a boat where the narration was in German. They discounted our fare since we didn’t understand much of what was being explained, but I have since found several harbor tours offered in a variety of languages and highly recommend a narrated tour at the beginning of your stay.
It’s a great way to learn about the city’s history, see some of the site from a different perspective out on the water, and enjoy a unique mode of transportation!
St. Pauli Elbtunnel
While you’re down by the harbor checking out the various waterside restaurants and shops, be sure to explore the St. Pauli Elbtunnel. You can’t miss the rotunda along the water, and it’s well worth taking time to read about the tunnel’s history. I won’t spoil anything by mentioning that the tunnel was necessary as a commute solution in the early 1900s and is still used daily for commuters, pedestrians, bicyclists, tourists and more.
I would recommend walking down the winding stairs to the tunnel, checking out the interesting statues along your walk, and spending some time admiring the skyline from across the water once you reach the other bank. When you return, you can take one of the amazing freight elevators back up to the rotunda and continue on your way.
There’s nothing like a local festival or market to help you catch the flavor of the local culture. Hamburg’s Fischmarkt is no exception! While obviously dependent upon when you’re in town, I highly recommend carving out some time on your Sunday morning to walk down to the harbor and weave through the market stalls along the river bank.
You could buy anything from coffee to fish sandwiches to candies to produce to tchotkes and more. While the crowds can be a little overwhelming, our battles were rewarded when we arrived at an incredible building in the midst of the market and there was a live band rocking and rolling amid a morning beer garden! We enjoyed the music and walked out to some of the floating platforms to enjoy the market from the water as well.
Church of St. Michael
People joke that if you’ve seen one church in Europe, you’ve seen them all, but I violently disagree! I love exploring churches of various faiths, architectural styles, historical significance, etc.—they are all so different.
It was a quick walk from the river to The Church of St. Michael by way of a lovely tree-lined park that extends out in front of the church. The inside was beautiful and white—very different from other European churches I’ve visited, and I could have sat and stared at the incredible pipe organ for hours.
We also spent some time down in the crypt, reading the handouts we were given upon entry to better understand the history, and up to the belfry, taking in some wonderful views of the surrounding area. You can spend as much or as little time as you like here, but it’s not to be missed.
One of our favorite neighborhoods in downtown Hamburg is the Speicherstadt, which is an incredible old warehouse district intersected by various canals winding around and back to the Alster river. We were able to experience it from the canals during our harbor cruise as well as from the ground as we walked along the cobblestone streets.
From watching people raise carpets into fourth story windows via rope and pulley, to discovering some amazing Gothic figures on the corners of the buildings, to popping in some of the shops to sample coffee or chocolate, take some time to cross over the various bridges and discover what’s around each red brick bend.
One of the more touristy but incredible museums in Hamburg is the Minatur Wunderland exhibit in the Speicherstandt. I came across this gem years ago and was thrilled to be reunited with its existence as I was preparing for our time in Hamburg. Minatur Wunderland is a multi-story, expansive model train museum, but unlike anything you are presently calling to mind.
For those of you interested in model trains, this exhibit features hundreds of working trains and thousands of feet of track. My grandpa loves trains and I took as many pictures as possible so he could see this incredible display. For me, the even more interesting and impressive aspect of this display was the scenery through which the trains run. Each floor has areas dedicated to different countries, with scaled replicas of well-known landmarks and lifelike buildings, people, a working airport, and much, much more. No matter your age, you must stop and experience this exhibit—it’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, and we could have easily spent half a day wandering from floor to floor trying to take it all in.
Coffee Roastery and Museum
If you or your travel companion enjoy coffee, I highly recommend stopping in the coffee roastery and museum tucked away in the Speicherstandt. Brian and I spotted it when we were exploring the district, but it was closed at the time. I decided to revisit it later in the week while Brian was at the conference, and it was fantastic. There were several small groups and couples seated around the café, and an overall pleasing atmosphere that made me feel at home.
I ordered a coffee at the bar and enjoyed looking around while savoring my drink. I walked over to the roastery area to learn more about the different beans and their roasting process, and I also went downstairs to the museum. Near the entry is a gift shop full of coffee-related items where you can buy some of their roasted beans for your own brewing pleasure.
Town Hall and Binnenalster
Churches aren’t the only city staples that tend to have tons of character—I also love seeing a city’s town hall!
It’s an easy walk from the Speicherstandt to the Hamburg Town Hall, and I recommend viewing it from all sides. Many people visit the paved square in front of the hall, which is populated with street performers, commuters, and residents, but we also wandered into the courtyard on the other side for a different perspective.
The nearby Binnenalster is also beautiful and lined with cafes and restaurants. The perfect spot for people watching.
Planten um Blumen
Although Brian and I are not huge horticulture fans, we both appreciated the beauty, diversity, and sheer size of Planten um Blumen. We happened to be there in the late afternoon and early evening, which was a beautiful time to see everything in the changing light. We walked the path through the trees, admiring all the spring flowers and water features.
There were smaller gardens within that we didn’t have a chance to explore, and of course it would be the perfect place to explore in the morning, coffee in hand, or mid-day, where you could simply people-watching from one of the many benches. If we return, I will spend a little more time seeing what else it has to offer.
I don’t know about you, but when I think about German food my mind immediately goes to sausage, spaetzle, pretzels, and beer! I quickly learned that the cuisine in the Schleswig-Holstein region is a bit different from that in Bavaria or other areas of Germany. While I expected some variance, I hadn’t anticipated how much Scandinavian influence we would experience!
My list of regional cuisine included lots of sour fish– you have to eat herring at some point, whether pickled in a sandwich with white sauce, creamed over a baked potato, or fried and paired with frites. I also recommend the currywurst, pickled beets, white asparagus (which is in season in the spring!) and marzipan.
Day Trips from Hamburg
If you have more time and are looking for other ideas, I also recommend these easy day-trips from Hamburg: