Hamburg Travel Guide – Top 10 Vacation Highlights

For many, Hamburg is one of Germany’s most beautiful cities. Its bustling port offers a unique international atmosphere, while its Hanseatic charm makes any stay here a truly unique experience. A modern and dynamic city, Hamburg is “the green city on the water”, Germany’ second largest city and largest port city that boasts numerous attractions.
Hamburg Travel Guide
Table of Contents

Hamburg is a harbor city and its port is the third largest in the world after New York and London. There are numerous ways to enjoy the Port of Hamburg which dates from 800 years ago. You can go on a boat tour, stroll along its waterfront or enjoy an excellent seafood dinner as you take in commanding views of the port.

Speicherstadt is Hamburg’s famous historical warehouse district and the largest warehouse complex in the world. Situated adjacent to the Hamburg harbor, Speicherstadt is characterized by narrow cobblestone streets and little waterways lined with 100 year-old warehouses. Visit in the evening to watch light projections create a magical atmosphere on the canals, bridges and buildings.

Your visit to Hamburg is not complete without a stop at the Fischmarkt in Altona, where you can make some purchases or sample a wide variety of tasty fish dishes at local restaurants as you enjoy great views of the neighborhood.

Still in Altona, be sure to visit the Rote Flora, a former theater that dates back to 1888, which is today a cultural center for Germany’s political left. Over the years, the Rote Flora has developed a rich life of its own, organizing parties, concerts and flea markets and hosting political events and art exhibitions.

Rathaus is Hamburg’s city hall which makes for a wonderful sight to behold, inside out. The building serves as the perfect representation of the importance of Hamburg. Built in the neo-Renaissance style, the Rathaus is an impressive monument that’s certainly worth a peek.

The Planten Un Blomen botanical garden offers an ideal spot to relax and while away a quiet afternoon, taking in its vast array of flowers and plants. The park has been well designed to integrate nature, and offers plenty of beautiful sights with all sorts of gardens, sculptures, a conservatory and food venues.

Hamburg has a personality all of its own that makes it well worth a stop during your trip around Germany. A fascinating, multicultural and thriving port city, Hamburg boasts a vibrant cultural life with a great nightlife, interesting landmarks and many sights that make it a great tourist destination. With regards to attractions, the city of Hamburg does not disappoint. So go on and give it a try.

1. Rathaus

Rathaus is the city hall or town hall in Hamburg, the seat of government that’s situated within the Altstadt quarter of the city center. Since it was established, the Rathaus has continued to serve its original governmental functions, hosting the office of Hamburg’s First Mayor and meeting rooms for the senate and parliament of Hamburg.

After the old city hall was destroyed during the Great Fire of 1842, it took Hamburg close to 44 years to build a new one. Construction began in 1886 and the new city hall was inaugurated in 1897. Since inception, the Rathaus has taken center stage in many of Hamburg’s historical moments.

The architectural style of the exterior is neo-Renaissance, which is not used inside, save for a number of historical elements. This is one of the few completely preserved buildings of historicism in Hamburg. Constructed during a period of prosperity and wealth, the look of the Hamburg Rathaus expresses this wealth, as well as the independence of the Hamburg state and its republican traditions.

The new city hall stands over 4,000 oak piles. In striking contrast to the conservative hanseatic style, the town hall is conspicuous for its elaborately decorated façade that’s flanked by 20 statues of former emperors.

The city hall has a total area of 17,000 meters square, not including the Ratsweinkeller restaurant. Its tower rises to 112 meters and has 436 steps. The city hall has 647 rooms. In 1971, a room inside the tower was discovered accidentally during a search for a document that had fallen behind a filing cabinet. Therefore there are probably even more rooms in the Rathaus than the currently counted 647.

The main entrance features an ornate wrought iron gate leading to the entrance hall, which is supported by sixteen sandstone pillars painted with 68 portraits of some of Hamburg’s most famous citizens. The staircase is made of Sardinian marble and depicts the course of human life.

The Kaisersaal is the imperial hall which features a striking ceiling painting that depicts merchant shipping. The walls display decorations of wall coverings made from pressed leather. On special occasions, the Tower Hall hosts celebrations and receptions.

The Mayor’s Hall features an enormous fireplace and the Golden Book in which visitors can make entries. There’s a painting hanging in here which depicts the Town Hall’s inauguration in 1897.

The Phoenix Hall derives its name from the phoenix depicted above the fireplace, which symbolizes the renaissance of Hamburg following the Great Fire of 1842. Inside the Senate Chamber, the only light that passes through comes in via the big glass roof. This design was intended to symbolize the ancient Germanic custom of the council meeting in the open air.

The Grand Ballroom measures 46m in length, 18 meters in width and 15 meters in height. Decorating its walls are 5 big paintings that depict Hamburg’s history from 800 to 1900, as well as the 62 city coats of arms for the old Hanseatic League. Another highlight of the Grand Ballroom is its 3 chandeliers featuring 278 lights each, and weighing a whopping 1,500 kilograms.

The Rathaus balcony features a mosaic of Hammonia, Hamburg’s patron goddess. The courtyard has been decorated with a Hygeia fountain in honor of Hygeia, the Greek goddess of health, while surrounding figures represent the purity and power of the water. The fountain was built in remembrance of the 1892 cholera epidemic, as well as to serve the technical purpose of air cooling inside the city hall.

The Rathaus lobby is a public area that hosts exhibitions and concerts. On the first floor is the Emperor’s Hall, which serves as a room for official presentations. At the front of the city hall is the Rathausmarkt which hosts festivals and events. Another architectural landmark close by is St. Peter’s Church.

2. Deichstrasse

Dating from the 14th century, Deichstrasse is the oldest street of Hamburg. Situated close to Speicherstadt, Deichstrasse along with the surrounding warehouse district and harbor played a huge role in the shaping of Hamburg as a modern city. Visiting here will reveal a glimpse into this history of the city.

Along this road are many pubs and restaurants. Music lovers can visit the Johannes Brahms Museum which is the former home of the composer, situated at number 39. Also found in this neighborhood is the Telemann Museum, another great spot for lovers of music. Around the corner at the Peterstrasse 35-39 you will find a replica of the Baroque Beylingstift complex, a building dating from 1751.

Because many of the Deichstrasse’s original 14th century buildings were destroyed during the Great Fire of 1842, most of what you see today is restored 17th to 19th century buildings. The tall, narrow, half-timbered houses you will come across here are representative of the typical architecture of this region several centuries ago.

The 1842 Great Fire actually broke out in Deichstrasse no. 38, destroying some buildings but sparing the southern end of the street.

3. Hamburg Altstadt

The Altstadt is Hamburg’s old town, and one of its inner city districts. The Hamburg Altstadt makes for a fine area for taking a walk with its bridges that cross canals, busy streets, statues, parklands, grandiose old buildings, and some of Europe’s tallest churches to explore.

The Hamburg Altstadt stretches from Hauptbahnhof to the Rathaus, down to the Speicherstadt and Elbe canals. The harbor-bound hub is situated opposite the new town on the right bank of the Alsterfleet canal.

Although heavily bombed during the Second World War, much of the Altstadt’s splendor was restored during the postwar city reconstruction. Sprinkled among its office blocks and modern department stores are several handsome museums, majestic churches and stately government buildings.

The city’s handsome Old Town is in fact a former medieval settlement that’s bordered by the harbor and a string of roads that follow the line of old fortifications. Visitors can stroll through the historic quarter and imagine what the city must have looked like before the fires, demolitions and destructive bombings of the Second World War. Today the Old Town of Hamburg boasts a new face with its grandiose buildings, towering churches, busy streets and inviting parks and canals.

The best way to explore the historic heart of Hamburg is by foot. Beginning at St. Michael’s Church, visitors can enjoy a leisurely stroll along the history-steeped streets to Alt Hamburger Aalspeicher, the Rathaus and historical buildings that surround the Deichstrasse.

The St. Michael’s Church or Michaeliskirche is a sight to marvel at in itself. The remarkable church is built in a beautiful Baroque style and features a massive clock that is the largest of its kind in Germany. The church tower offers excellent views of the city and its port. There are also some other lovely old churches in the neighborhood including St. Katherine, St. Nikolai, St. Jakobi and St. Petri.

Gaze out over the Deichstrasse, the oldest street in Hamburg, and admire the old houses, waterways and canals that line it. Take a stroll along the Deichstrasse where you can marvel at restored 18th century homes. Here you will also find some of Hamburg’s oldest buildings still standing, some of which date back to the 14th century.

Check out the old apartments of grocers, as well as the Alt Hamburger Aalspeicher, a 400-year old house on the canal. Although the main focus here is the Rathaus that’s situated on the old market square. Also within this old market square you will find restaurants, museums and a host of remarkable Renaissance buildings.

Streets lead off the square heading into the stock exchange’s classical arcades, as well as the old red-brick warehouses of the Speicherstadt that line the River Elbe. Farther from the river is the Alsterarkaden with its sophisticated shopping arcades that are lined with cafés.

This fascinating walking tour through the historic city center will give you a glimpse into the 1,000 year old history of Hamburg. Lastly, head over to a local café standing close to enchanting 12th century ruins where you can sit down for a traditional franzbrotchen or sweet pastry and a cup of coffee to finish off your tour.

4. Speicherstadt

The Speicherstadt is a collection of brick warehouses situated in Freihafen, adjacent to the main port area of Hamburg. The world’s largest warehouse complex, Speicherstadt stretches at least 1.5km and is connected by canals that lap against the foundations of large buildings on either side. One of the key attractions on the great Hamburg harbor tour, the Speicherstadt was built in 1883.

An idyllic setting that one would never have imagined finding in a global port awaits you at the Speicherstadt. Gothic brick buildings in the Wilheminian-style dating from the 19th century, with strange turrets and gables that reflect the barges inside the canals are dotted along this old Hamburg landmark.

The century-old Speicherstadt houses 17 warehouses in total, each about 7-8 storeys high, which were built about 100 years ago. Although many were damaged during World War II, they were restored to their original style after the war.

Some of the buildings in Speicherstadt have been converted into museums. But the real highlight is the buildings themselves. Together they form an impressive block of history. Take your time to look carefully through for artistic flairs on otherwise functional facades. The windows, turrets and eaves all feature decorative elements that are not immediately obvious but become visible upon further inspection.

The warehouses stand on oak piles, while the district is crossed by fleets or canals flooded depending on the tide, which can also be traveled via ship. When the tide is right, visitors can cruise the narrow canals inside a small barge to savor the architectural details of the warehouse district. A canal tour from St. Pauli on a historic barge makes for a most memorable experience here.

At nightfall, the Speicherstadt is enveloped in an aura of mystery. At this time of day, its red brick buildings and steel bridges are artistically illuminated with 800 spotlights. Visit the Speicherstadt at this time to enjoy the fairytale atmosphere of its illuminated facades that cause reflections in the water, as well as the spicy aromas of goods from all around the world.

The warehouses were still in use until just a couple of years ago. About a decade back, Speicherstadt was handling one third of the world’s carpet trade, along with goods such as tea, spices, cocoa, coffee and electronics. Although storage has now moved further away from the city center, the Port of Hamburg continues to be a very busy one.

Despite all the development that’s going on around here with the construction of HafenCity, Hamburg authorities long decided to protect the historic Speicherstadt district.

5. Planten und Blomen

Planten und Blomen is a park in central Hamburg that offers a wonderful destination for visitors seeking a bit of relaxation in the bustle of the city. The park makes for a lovely break during your hanseatic city tour.

Planten und Blomen is a botanical garden with a tropical greenhouse, as well as the largest Japanese garden in Europe. The park gardens also include a tea pavilion and a romantic rose garden with more than 300 different rose varieties. With its tropical green houses, the botanical garden is an attraction for lovers of plants, just as the alpine garden is with its mountain flowers, lichens and mosses.

Planten un Blomen is an ideal spot to rest and enjoy a diversity of plants, flowers and cultural events. The park is popular both among locals and visitors who come here to take a walk, relax and be fascinated by the beauty of nature. It houses the old Botanical Garden of Hamburg which features various Botanical Theme Parks.

The Rose Garden is one such theme park which features over 300 rose species, while the Mediterranean Terraces are home to different southern originating plants. The Apothecary Garden displays numerous medicinal plants, while the Greenhouses offer a variety of plants from different climate zones. And of course there’s the largest Japanese garden in Europe to be enjoyed here as well.

The Japanese Garden was designed in 1988 in accordance with strict guidelines. At its center lie a lake and a rustic Japanese tea house that has stood on the lakeshore since 1990. Visit between May and September to join in celebrations of classic tea ceremonies. Visitors can also participate in Japanese calligraphy workshops, attend taiko drum workshops and learn about Japanese incense ceremonies.

Visitors can enjoy a tea ceremony inside the Japanese garden, with its clipped hedges, that will leave them feeling as if everyday life is far away from here.

The Rose Garden is laid out in the classical style. Approximately 300 rose varieties are planted here, including historic roses, wild and shrub roses, climbing roses and hybrid teas. There are several arches and corners at which visitors can sit around this ensemble. At the center is a pavilion from where you can learn about the different rose varieties, as well as their care during the summer months.

There’s a tropical Greenhouse complex at the center of the park that is divided into 5 areas by plant groups and habitats. Adjacent to this are the Mediterranean Terraces.

Where Danish cannon balls once flew centuries ago, a marvelous green recreational area today extends from St. Pauli to the Alster. This green ring surrounding Hamburg traces its origins to ramparts demolished at the start of the 19th century. At first, a zoological garden stood here, but the park was gradually converted into a freely accessible public recreation area during the Thirties. The park’s Low German name, which translates to “plants and flowers”, is derived from this period.

More than just a traditional park with lawn and barbecue area – although these are also available, Planten und Blomen features a summer program for the old and young, as well as water light shows with music by the lake that are a popular highlight.

If visiting during the summer months, you can attend the water fountain shows and the atmospheric water-light concerts that are performed on the lake inside the park.

It is recommended that you attend the water light concerts in the evening as it is much more impressive when the fountains shine as they are illuminated colorfully in the dark. The concerts are performed live by 2 artists navigating the water fountains and the 762 colorful spotlights in time with the music.

This light show lasts half an hour and features colored fountains and a music program that changes regularly. The show is held at 10pm each night from May to September. All you need for the right amount of romance is a bottle of wine and a cozy blanket. In addition to these events, visitors can also enjoy free jazz or classical music concerts, among other cultural performances within the park.

6. Hamburger Kunsthalle

The Hamburger Kunsthalle is one of Germany’s most important and largest art museums. It boasts an excellent permanent collection that takes visitors on a journey through 7 centuries of great art history, from the medieval altars of Master Bertram through to the greats of the contemporary German art scene. The museum is situated between the Alster Lakes and the main railway station in Hamburg.

Among the museum collection’s highlights are 17th century Dutch paintings, including artworks by Rembrandt; German paintings from the Romantic period; and an outstanding collection of classical modernist art by Edvard Munch among others.

In addition to the permanent collection, the Hamburger Kunsthalle has also received international acclaim for its quality of special exhibitions that attract thousands to the city each year.

One of Hamburg’s architectural highlights, the museum comprises 3 striking buildings: an 1869 brick building with ornamental façade; a 1919 neo-Classical extension building made out of light-colored shell limestone; and the white cube of the Galerie der Gegenwart that was opened in 1997.

In addition to offering a splendid environment for the appreciation of art, the Hamburger Kunsthalle also has 2 museum shops that stock a wide range of international art books, postcards, posters and design objects for sale.

There’s a Bistro in the Galerie der Gegenwart from which visitors can take in some of the finest city views. Two other cafés situated inside the museum’s historical section and in the rotunda respectively offer a relaxed dining experience.

7. Hamburg Museum

Founded in 1908, Hamburg Museum is the premier museum in the city of Hamburg, whose mission is the promotion of awareness about the history of the city amongst the people of Hamburg.

The current building that houses the Hamburg Museum was built from 1914-1922. The Museum building was erected on the site of the former Bastion Henricus, a section of Baroque fortifications built between 1616 and 1625 to render the city impregnable.

During construction of the museum building, its facades were decorated using preserved architectural fragments from townhouses in Hamburg, as well as statues of German emperors from the old town hall.

Also incorporated into the Museum exhibition hall and courtyard structures were fragments of buildings destroyed during the Great Fire of 1842 or by development projects such as the erection of the Speicherstadt.

These fragments were the original holdings in the Hamburg History Association’s collection and comprised the founding stock of the Museum. Founded in 1839, the Hamburg History Association built up its “Collection of Hamburg Antiquities”, which along with architectural fragments also included guild artifacts, uniforms, armor, flags and arms.

Over the last century, the Museum collection has been supplemented and its presentation concept continuously innovated. Topics such as everyday life and culture, urban development and the harbor have been comprehensively presented and illustrated using large installations, elaborate models and a broad spectrum of historical objects, along with text and pictorial documents.

8. Port of Hamburg

Hamburg is a harbor city. Its port, which is Europe’s second busiest, was founded during the 12th century on the River Elbe.

Begin your visit by taking a stroll down the pier known as St. Pauli Landungsbrucken from where you can view big cruise ships and container ships, and explore historical museums dating from the 19th century. You can also go on a harbor boat tour which a great way of experiencing one of the largest working harbors in the world.

The Speicherstadt is the historical wharf area in Hamburg, which is also the largest warehouse complex in the world. At over one hundred and twenty years old, the warehouses with their signature red brick stones and steeped gables store silk, cocoa and spices. Visit early in the evening to enjoy the colorful light projections that create a magical atmosphere on the canals, bridges and buildings.

Foodies cannot afford to miss out on the Fischmarkt, Hamburg’s famous fish market. The 300-year-old open-air market takes place on Sunday mornings and offers a unique bustling atmosphere for both shoppers and onlookers.

Next, take a walk through the 100-year-old Elb-Tunnel that’s situated underground at the pier’s western end. Opened in 1911, the historic landmark stretches 0.3 miles, bringing you to a little island from which you can enjoy spectacular views of the cityscape of Hamburg.

At Hafencity, you can have a peek into Hamburg’s future. Hafencity is Europe’s largest urban building project of the 21st century. Spanning 155 hectares, the harbor city within a city is expected to double downtown Hamburg’s population via thousands of new waterfront apartments, gleaming high rise buildings, restaurants, stores and a new symphony. While this ambitious project is set to be finished in 2025, visitors to the site can already get a glimpse of some of the most visionary architecture in Europe.

The International Maritime Museum is set inside a historical warehouse at Hafencity and was established to celebrate the maritime heritage of the city, while bringing its 3,000-year-old naval history to life. Displayed on ten sprawling floors, this Museum is a showcase of 50,000 construction plans, 26,000 ship models, 5,000 paintings and graphics as well as numerous nautical devices.

Between the years 1850 and 1939, over 5 million people from all over Europe emigrated from places like Hamburg to the “New World.” Ballinstadt is a museum complex that recreates this life-changing journey on historic grounds, as well as in the original emigration halls. It is possible to trace your own family’s journey by studying the original passenger lists, as well as the world’s largest genealogical database.

If fine dining is your thing, book a table at the Restaurant Rive where you can enjoy the freshest fish in town, Michelin-starred seafood cuisine, as well as excellent harbor views.

9. Fischmarkt

The Fischmarkt in Hamburg is a must for every foodie. The fish market stocks fresh seafood, flowers, fruit, teas and nuts from all over the world. This open-air market is situated right next to the historic fish auction hall at the Hamburg harbor.

The fish market is open on Sundays from 5am to 9am, but despite the early hours, it is always packed with a mix of tourists, locals and night owls who drag themselves in after a night partying at the Reeperbahn.

For the best buys just off the boat, get up early. The 300-year-old market has a unique bustling atmosphere with treats that are worth waking up at the crack of dawn for. To crown your visit, go to the historic fish auction hall for a scrumptious brunch of local delicacies and live music. Go here for an early morning fish sandwich by the river, some chitchat or to enjoy the beautiful views over the harbor.

Every Sunday the fish market attracts around 70,000 people to its Elbe River location. The market stalls of the Altona fish markets line an open space by the river and sell just about everything. Whether its fresh fish, tropical flowers or a fruit basket you wish to find, you will get it down by the harbor. There is also some early morning live music to be enjoyed at the market hall.

A lot of haggling over all sorts of goods goes on here, and the loud verbose crescendo makes for good entertainment even for those who just come to have a look.

While in Altona, also stop by Blankenese, Hamburg’s stairs district of 5,000 steps that’s characterized by narrow winding alleys, beautiful mansions and terraces on the slopes along the River Elbe. This tranquil beauty spot in the westernmost section of Hamburg stands in glaring contrast to the bustle of the inner-city.

A picture-perfect postcard image, Blankenese’s houses are often painted white, which gives a Mediterranean feel to the place. Go on a walking tour around Blankenese along the Wilhelminian-style houses and the church by the market square, through parks and of course up and down the many staircases.

Climb to the top of Sullberg to enjoy dreamlike views over the Elbe riverbed, as you watch container ships enter and leave the harbor. There are terraces here with beer gardens that make for a perfect break. After descending back down again, head to the Elbe beach which offers a wonderful backdrop for taking a stroll along the waterfront.

On the beach you can visit the Unterfeuer lighthouse which serves as leading lights for ships that go upstream. There is also the Uwe shipwreck to have a look at. In addition to exploring the area on foot, you can also enjoy its idyllic scenery from the water on the many ferries that leave the piers of St. Pauli.

From the highest point of the Blankenese, visitors can enjoy beautiful views of the River Elbe and its beaches that are inviting for a walk. This former fishing village also boasts a fascinating history, having once been Prussian, Austrian and Danish at a certain point in history.

Still in Altona, check out Rote Flora an autonomous cultural center where political meetings, unconventional concerts and dance events are held. As a hotbed of leftist protest, this contentious squat has for decades withstood fire, violence and government interference.

Situated in a building that once housed the Tivoli Theater, Rote Flora has been occupied by radical leftists, the homeless and squatters since 1989 when locals started holding demonstrations in protest of plans to convert the building into a theater and popular music nightclub.

Constructed in 1888, the Rote Flora building operated as a theater for more than a century. Since 1989, it has served as a nexus for Hamburg’s revolutionary and radical culture. The building has survived multiple fires, plans by the city to demolish the entire structure and frequent and often bloody clashes with the police.

Rote Flora’s graffiti-covered façade has become a symbol of Germany’s radical left. Every time the city of Hamburg has attempted to take back the space from the radicals occupying it, either through police action or property lawyering, the youngsters who live and work in the space have won out by simply refusing to abandon the aging building.

Rote Flora was one of the few theaters that were not damaged during the Second World War bombings. During the war, the theater was closed and used for storage but reopened in 1949 for renovation.

Today, Rote Flora continues to serve as a cultural center and events venue, hosting concerts, art exhibitions, parties, as well as political and social conferences and talks. Even with its increased focus on music and art, the radical spirit of rebellion continues to permeate the walls of the historic structure.

The social center has faced off multiple attempts to get rid of its autonomous project and end the occupation of the building. Each time, the occupiers of Rote Flora and their supporters have fought this battle – and won.

10. Reeperbahn

Your visit to Hamburg is incomplete without stopping by the Reeperbahn, the legendary nightlife mile of Hamburg, which is also home to one of the biggest red light districts in Europe. Situated in St. Pauli, the Reeperbahn is Hamburg’s nightlife hub, the most famous street in Hamburg featuring numerous great bars, restaurants, clubs and theatres, alongside sex shops, sex museums, strip clubs and erotic theaters.

With such an eclectic mix, it’s no wonder that the Reeperbahn makes for a fascinating and interesting place to visit for locals and travelers alike. The district attracts all sorts of visitors, from tourists and students, to theater-goers and night owls.

While the lively Reeperbahn is the main thoroughfare of the entertainment district in Hamburg, there are certain interesting side streets that are also worth a visit.

Spielbudenplatz is the historic core of the entertainment district of Hamburg, which began during the 17th century with magicians, acrobats, jugglers and wooden stalls selling refreshments to sailors. This street is today home to numerous great theaters, as well as one of Germany’s oldest wax figure museums.

Street prostitution is legal at certain times of the day on Davidstrasse, so you are likely to see the “ladies of the night” awaiting their customers here.

Herbertstrasse is the most exclusive and notorious street in the red light district. Here you will encounter prostitutes sitting in windows, their charm on full display for passing customers.

Herbertstrasse is closed off by a wall for minors and female visitors. While it is not prohibited officially for women to enter this street, it is strongly discouraged by the police as the prostitutes can be hostile to visitors who just go to “have a look.”

The Reeperbahn does not come to life until the evening hours. Therefore the best time to visit is around 8 or 9pm.