Edgy, historic, cosmopolitan – these are the three words that come to my mind when thinking of Hamburg. The city’s harbour has been one of Europe’s busiest trade centres for over 800 years, hence Hamburg is known as the Gateway to the World, and its heritage runs deep. In recent post-war decades, the city has been rebuilt with a modern twist of creativity and imagination. All of this makes it a compelling, multifaceted place to visit – and one where you will always be welcome! Here are some of the best things to do in Hamburg to make the most of it.
We spent three memorable days on a workation in Hamburg, getting to know the city in between stop-offs at cafés and coworking spaces. Whether you are looking for intriguing history, great food, vibrant artwork, stunning views or simply beautiful surroundings for an urban walk, you will find it here in abundance.
This site contains links to travel services we love, from which we may make commission at no extra cost to you. We were hosted in Hamburg with assistance from the city’s tourist board, who arranged complementary accommodation and entry to some of the attractions featured here. Our opinions are our own, and we always give honest travel recommendations.
In this article:
Where to stay in Hamburg
Before getting started on activities in Hamburg, maybe you still need to find somewhere to stay in the city. Our accommodation was at Motel One Hamburg Am Michel, which has an absolute perfect location.
The hotel is situated right on the cusp of where the city centre meets the lively district of St Pauli. It’s a quick stroll into either area or down to the harbour waterfront, and the St Pauli metro station is less than five minutes’ walk away for exploring further afield.
Not to mention that our room had a glorious view of the famous clock tower of St Michael’s Church! The hotel lounge and bar is great for daytime working or for a late nightcap before bed. We definitely recommend this hotel if you want to stay somewhere comfortable, affordable and close to attractions.
For more accommodation ideas, look up the best accommodation in Hamburg on booking.com.
Things to do in Hamburg: sightseeing and exploration
1. See the city from the St Nikolai Memorial 75-metre viewing tower
Why not begin your time in Hamburg with a stunning view of the city from 75 metres above? You can do that by riding a lift up to the top of the tower of the St Nikolai memorial.
The lift ride is not for the faint-hearted! I am not great with heights and felt myself clinging to the lift rail as it climbed higher. But the views were just incredible, and made it worth every second. At the top is a 360 viewing platform, from where you can look down on the city and spot all of its landmarks and waterways.
St Nikolai Church was once the largest church in Hamburg, but was mostly destroyed by aerial raids in 1943. It now stands as a monument and memorial, with a museum in the basement, which tells its history. You can access this, along with the lift to the viewing platform, for just €5. Amazing value!
2. Explore the mind-blowing models at Miniatur Wunderland
It’s been a long time since I was blown away by a city experience to the extent I was by Miniatur Wunderland in Hamburg. Located in the Speicherstadt, Hamburg’s warehouse district, it is the world’s largest model railway.
And it is so much more than a model railway! Miniatur Wunderland is a maze of mindblowing city and scenery landscape models, brought to life with public transport running among them. Every now and again, the lights dim simulating sunset, and the models are lit up in the dark. It’s mesmerising.
Trains run through the urban landscapes, a cable car runs up and down a replication of Swiss mountains, and there is even an airport model where plans take off and land. A sprawling Rio de Janeiro model depicts the celebrations of Carnival in between Copacabana beach, Sugarloaf Mountain and the favelas.
On an upstairs floor, a series of models shows the progression of Hamburg from ancient times until the present day, telling the history of the city over the ages.
You could easily spend several hours here exploring the models and marvelling at their intricate features. And when you’re done, there’s a really cool café laid out like a rail carriage.
You can book a Miniatur Wunderland priority ticket in advance for entrance and access to all models, modellers’ workshops and construction areas.
3. Delve into the Hamburg Dungeon
In the basement of the same warehouse building as Miniatur Wunderland, Hamburg Dungeon will take you on a journey into the darker side of Hamburg’s history.
This is a very active experience, with professional actors playing the part of historical characters and transporting you back to events like the 1842 Great Fire of Hamburg and the Christmas Flood of 1717.
Both Hamburg Dungeon and Miniatur Wunderland are very popular attractions, but if you visit on weekdays it will be a bit quieter. Book a Hamburg Dungeon admission ticket in advance to save time on the day.
4. Take a scenic and educational harbour cruise
The waterways of Hamburg are a defining feature of the city, and you can see it from this perspective by taking a harbour cruise.
We went on a relaxing one-hour harbour cruise, which set off about every 30 minutes from Brücke 1 on the waterfront. You can take longer cruises, but we thought an hour was a nice length to see the city waterways around the Elbe, the warehouse district and HafenCity, and learn about the shipping history.
The guide speaks in German, but it’s also possible to download an app for audio commentary in English. We preferred to just enjoy the fresh air and relied upon our rusty German skills to understand the narration, which was fine enough to get by.
There’s a chance to buy a cold beer before you set off for some refreshment. Definitely recommended if the sun is shining! Have your camera at the ready, as there are some great views of the city from the water.
5. Visit the stunning Elbphilharmonie concert hall
One of the most notable buildings that you will pass on a harbour cruise, or see from the waterfront edge, is the Elbphilharmonie concert hall. We were intrigued by this building from the moment we saw it; the unusual architectural style stands out boldly on the city skyline.
Elbphilharmonie opened in just 2017, and is the tallest inhabited building in Hamburg, as well as one of the world’s largest concert halls. Its style is intended to blend the city’s industrial roots with its modern spirit, its curved glass exterior built on the foundation of a 1960s HafenCity warehouse.
It’s free to enter the building and see a panoramic city view from its central plaza. You can book free plaza tickets on the Elbphilharmonie website. For more insights, you can also book a popular guided tour of the Elbphilharmonie Plaza.
6. Walk through the iconic Old Elbe Tunnel
Walking deep under the river through Hamburg’s Old Elbe Tunnel is quite a surreal experience! This tunnel is over a century old and was a celebrated feat of construction at the time it was built. Amazingly, it is still operating today 24 hours a day, including for pedestrians.
Entering and leaving the tunnel is actually pretty fun, too. You step inside a huge lift, which then clanks and grinds its way down into the depths, 24 metres underneath the riverbed. Anybody who has scuba-dived to that depth knows how deep it is!
Inside, the tunnel stretches some 426 metres in length. Its white-tiled walls are illuminated in eerie white lighting, and you pass peculiar sculpted artworks on the wall as you pass through.
Once you’re out the other side, follow the path around to the riverfront and you’ll find a great view of the city looking back across the river. This spot is a bit of a hidden gem. Arrive at dawn to see the sun rising over the city! And later in the day there’s a Brücke 10 truck selling fish sandwiches, which is much less busy than the outlet on the harbour front (more on that below).
7. See the Rathaus and wander the city centre
Hamburg city centre is intersected with quiet side-streets that thread alongside canals, opening out into big public squares flanked by a blend of old mansion houses and modern office buildings. When we first arrived, we enjoyed just wandering around this part of the city and finding our bearings.
Rathausmarkt is the main central square, which takes its name from the Rathaus, Hamburg’s Town Hall. This majestic building overlooking the square dates back to the 19th century and remains the seat of the city’s government.
This is without doubt one of the most impressive buildings in the city. Take a moment to see it while you’re here, even if only passing by. One of the best views of the building is found from the viewing platform at the top of the St Nikolai Memorial.
Tip: if you visit Hamburg during the festive season, the Rathausmarkt is home to one of the best Christmas markets in Germany.
8. Go shopping at the Venetian-style Alsterarkaden
Just a stone’s throw from the Rathaus, you can’t miss the imposing white Venetian arches that line the front of the Alsterarkaden. This walkway and shopping complex looks over the waterfront near the Alster Lakes.
Inside you will find high-end fashion stores and jewellers, as well as stylish restaurants with outdoor seating in view of the Rathaus. There is also a slice of history within – the Mellin Passage, which is the oldest shopping arcade in the city, linking the Alsterarkaden with the road behind.
Even if you don’t want to go shopping, this is a nice spot for an afternoon walk along the waterfront when the weather is nice.
9. Learn about the city at the Museum for Hamburg History
The Museum for Hamburg History is the best place to learn about the city’s roots, from the 7th century through to modern times. It is situated within the leafy surroundings of Große Wallanlagen Park, between the city centre and St Pauli. Luckily for us, that was right next to our hotel!
It’s been at this location since 1922, and the building is a historical icon in itself. Inside you can explore a mixture of permanent exhibitions, charting the city’s maritime, social development and the important role of immigration, as well as a rolling schedule of temporary displays.
There’s a lot to explore, and you could spend at least a couple of hours perusing the exhibits. This is a great indoor activity if you get unlucky with the weather. Check out the museum’s website to see what’s on.
10. See Heinrich Hertz Tower, the tallest structure in Hamburg
Affectionately known as ‘Tele-Michel’, Heinrich Hertz Tower stands as the tallest building in Hamburg at nearly 280 metres high. You can see it from pretty much anywhere around the city looming above.
The building is a radio telecommunication tower and, over half a century old, is also an icon of the city. Standing underneath it will fill you with awe. And from 2023 you will be able to do more than that, as its viewing platform and restaurant are reopening to the public after more than 20 years.
Once reopened, you will be able to ride an elevator to see the views from 124 metres above. The revolving restaurant occupies the slightly higher platform, where you will be able to dine enjoying panoramic views over the city.
Things to do in Hamburg: walks and hanging out
11. Stroll around the harbour front and warehouse district
Hamburg’s waterways are a big part of the city’s identity. The harbour is one of Europe’s biggest, and is the reason why the city flourished and grew. This is where people have come and gone through the city over the centuries.
We loved spending time just walking along the harbour front, taking in the views of the docks and the ships. Further inland, the Speicherstadt is where the water intertwines with urban life, with canals weaving through a sprawling complex of warehouses.
The warehouse district has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is the largest complex of its kind in the world. Many of the city’s attractions are located around here and the harbour, so you can easily build some waterside walking time into your city itinerary. Miniatur Wunderland is set inside one of the old warehouses, and then you can stroll along to the harbour front for a cruise.
12. Chill by the waterside at the Alster Lakes
Two large artificial lakes nestle on the opposite side of the city centre from the harbour. The Inner and Outer Alster are popular for watersports, for example you can rent boats or canoes, but we just enjoyed hanging out here by the water’s edge.
It’s lovely to emerge out from the heart of the city right onto a vast waterfront and feel the fresh air.
If you are looking for a place to go jogging in the city, then you could try the 7.5-kilometre loop of the Outer Alster lake. The route is lined by trees and parklands, with calming waterside views all the way around. Try it at sunrise or sunset for some added beauty.
13. Stroll through the city’s green parks
You are probably getting the picture that Hamburg is a city full of nature and greenery. This is why we found it such a relaxing place to spend a few days. Yes, the harbour front area can get busy, especially at weekends, but you can always escape into a green park or lakeside for some moments of solitude.
We took a long leisurely walk through the 47-hectare Planten un Blomen Park that stretches between the city centre and the Sternschanze district, as well as reaching from Alster Lakes down to the Elbe River. Heinrich Hertz Tower stands over the west side of the park, and it is strewn with flowers, plants, trees and water features.
Look out for wildlife while you walk around the park. We were amazed to see two red squirrels right in front of us! These have become very rare back home in the UK. There is also a botanical garden within the park, where you can see many more types of plant life inside the greenhouses.
14. Hang out in the creative neighbourhood of Sternschanze
If we ever moved to Hamburg, I think we would want to live in Sternschanze. This colourful neighbourhood is full of life, soul and creativity. Its walls are daubed with street art and graffiti, and its broad tree-lined roads are packed with cool cafés, shops and restaurants. It feels like a place where the community comes together.
Walk around Sternschanze in the daytime and evening to see it in different perspectives. In daylight you can appreciate the artistic elements along the roadside. And at night it comes to life, the bars filling with people socialising, spilling out onto the streets.
While Sternschanze is reputed as one of Hamburg’s most creative districts, it doesn’t feel pretentious in the way that bohemian quarters of cities often do. Hanging out here feels totally chilled and effortless.
15. Book a coworking space for a day
The explosion of remote working in recent years has seen Hamburg flourish as a European hotspot for creative entrepreneurs. The city has been at the forefront of the coworking boom, with many imaginative spaces dotted around the city.
Maybe you are spending a workation in Hamburg, combining your exploration with remote work. Or perhaps you just need to find somewhere to get a day’s work done during your trip. Thankfully, many of the coworking spaces in the city now offer single day passes.
BEEHIVE Coworking has three sites around the city and is just €15 to use for a day. Its St Georg location is right next to the train station in a restored century-old building.
These are also places where you can meet people and join in with the social side of the coworking community. It’s a great way to get connected if you are staying in the city a bit longer.
Check out our exploration of coworking spaces in Hamburg to find out more.
16. Walk down the famous Reeperbahn at night
No visit to Hamburg is quite complete without experiencing the Reeperbahn after dark. This is the city’s legendary nightlife road, famed for its red light district, strip bars and raunchy cabaret shows.
At night the Reepeerbahn and its many adjoining side-roads are illuminated in florescent lighting with music streaming out from the bars and clubs, and you will be invited in to see shows with offers of discounted drinks.
This is also the place where the Beatles made their name. The band spent many months playing in venues on and around the Reeperbahn. You can still see live music at the venue where they first performed in the city: Indra Club 64.
The Reeperbahn has changed a lot over the years, and if you scratch beneath the surface you will find a new dimension emerging. In between the neon signs and adverts for erotic shows you will also find a diverse array of musical theatre and a new wave of trendy cocktail and wine bars.
It’s definitely a nightlife spot like no other on earth, and one worth experiencing while you’re in the city – even if just walking around to soak up the atmosphere.
Things to do in Hamburg: food and drink
17. Discover the city’s coffee culture
If you love coffee, then you are guaranteed to enjoy your time in Hamburg whatever the weather. The city is home to a thriving coffee culture, with a plethora of speciality cafés and coffee roasters dotted around its streets.
Germany has Europe’s largest coffee roasting industry, as well as being the largest importer of green coffee beans on the continent. And guess which port most of these coffee beans pass through? That’s right… Hamburg.
Kaffeemuseum Burg is the city’s coffee museum, situated at the heart of the Speicherstadt. Here you can learn all about the role coffee has played in the city’s heritage, sample some delicious blends in the café, and buy some in the shop to take away.
We visited several more of the great coffee houses around the city, which come in many shapes, sizes and styles. Read our review of cafés in Hamburg to find one to suit you.
18. Begin your day with breakfast at Nord Coast Coffee Roasters
Another coffee spot you should definitely visit in Hamburg is Nord Coast Coffee Roasters. Tucked around the corner from the picturesque Nikolaifleet Canal, this rustic café is in a discreet location, but its reputation has spread and it has become a hugely popular hangout place.
We first visited on a Saturday just before midday to find a long queue outside and a 40-minute expected wait, so we decided to come back first thing the next morning for breakfast. And then, at 9am, the queue was huge when the doors opened – we were glad we had turned up ten minutes early to get a spot near the front!
Even if it means queueing for a table, it’s well worth sticking it out. The hype about this place is definitely justified. There is an extensive range of delicious coffees to choose from, and great food to match.
You can eat here throughout the day, but we found the breakfast particularly satisfying. It’s a nice ambient environment to start your day – the tables are nicely spaced out, so it doesn’t feel crammed even when full. And when you’re done, you are right on the threshold of the Speicherstadt and city centre to begin exploring.
19. Eat in a hamburger restaurant
When in Hamburg, it feels obligatory to try a hamburger at least once! The city provided the original inspiration for the worldwide food phenomenon, and also coined its name.
Unsurprisingly, hamburgers are popular around Hamburg. You will see hamburger restaurants wherever you go around the city, hidden on small alleys or heralded in big neon signs. The choice is endless.
We opted for the hipster-ish Otto’s Burgers in Sternschanze. Luckily we managed to get a table quickly after turning up without a reservation at 8pm on a Saturday! There is a laidback vibe inside, with understated decor and rock/pop music playing. It almost reminded us of home.
Most importantly, the burgers are great! I tried the house speciality ‘smash burger’, which is more like a mess of minced beef in a bun than a patty. Lisa had a straight-up cheeseburger and loved it. Our burgers really hit the sweet spot for a Saturday night meal, washed down with some Otto’s Session IPA.
20. Try a fish sandwich on the harbour front
Thanks to the waterside setting, seafood is a major part of the cuisine in Hamburg. Fish sandwiches are an age-old delicacy and even more popular in the city than hamburgers. They’re a must try while you’re here.
Fish sandwiches in Hamburg come in many formats and fillings. You will find a choice of herrings, shrimps, fried white fish or crab crammed into a crusty bread roll.
Brücke 10 is a fish sandwich shack that overlooks the harbour with stunning views from its Landungsbrücken location. You can buy a sandwich to take away, eat inside among the rustic charm of white painted tables and nautical decorations, or perch outside on the water’s edge. The latter is definitely the best when the sun is shining, if you can get a spot!
21. Have a delicious meal in the Portuguese Quarter
Portuguese people have settled in Hamburg since the 16th century. This increased significantly in the 1960s, when an agreement between Germany and Portugal saw tens of thousands more people moving to work in the city.
Many made their homes in an area now known as the city’s Portuguese Quarter, just behind the harbour near Landungsbrücken. Today, you will find dozens of charming Portuguese restaurants clustered here around Ditmar-Koel-Straße.
Having visited Lisbon a few weeks earlier, I was delighted to be able to try some authentic food again. We sat down for a tapas meal and Portuguese wine at Taparia Mar Salgado, set just off the main road. A nice secluded spot, it was no problem to get a table without a reservation on a Friday evening.
Grilled sardines are a particular speciality at this place, so we made sure to order some among our spread and we were not disappointed. It’s nice to indulge in a proper meal out, and we left here fully satisfied.
The Portuguese Quarter is emblematic of the multicultural, multifaceted nature of Hamburg, which is part of what makes the city so special and memorable.
Things to do in Hamburg: map of attractions
You can find the locations of the various sites and activities highlighted in this article on the map below:
Have you spent time exploring this great city? Let us know about any more things to do in Hamburg in the comments below.
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