Hamburg may not be as shabbily sexy as Berlin, nor as quintessentially German as Munich, but Germany’s second largest city is smirking at the rest of the world. I spent a whirlwind 54 hours in exploring, uncovering, and walking as much as possible, gathering intel on the best things to do in Hamburg.
The weather in Hamburg when I arrived was rather merciful, albeit wintery. The skies barely cracked to show any traces of sun all day but the clouds didn’t waste a single drop of water or snow that is common come wintertime in the Hanseatic city.
On the quick train ride from the Hamburg airport to the city centre, the entire train car collectively suppressed giggles: the weekend had not yet ended for a fellow leaning heavily into his middle age days rocking a pair of daringly skinny jeans. Strutting from side to side and belting out some rather scandalous George Michael (RIP) lyrics while slapping his own bottom, this fellow had clearly not lost any of his lust for life, even that early on Monday morning. I disembarked at the Hauptbahnhof (main station) on a chilly January morning with a grin slapped on my face.
A surprisingly unsurprising start to this quirky city. Read about my adventures below in this friendly Hamburg city guide.
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The Hotel Reichshof Hamburg
From the central station, I walked 135 steps over to the Reichshof Hotel. This pearl of Hamburg is one of the most historic hotels in the city. Running my fingers over the staircase bannister of the Reichshof and the marble panelling in the lobby, it filled me with chills knowing countless other guests had done the same over the last century.
The hotel was opened in 1910 by Anton-Emil Langer, the kitchen director of the HAPAG ocean liners, next to the newly-built Schauspielhaus (theatre) and central train station. It was built in this fantastic reformation style with baroque influences and its facade is as iconic today as it was then. I particularly loved the bold Reichshof lettering that decorates the upper floors of the facade, alerting the entire neighbourhood to this grand hotel, once the largest in all of Europe.
The hotel has always stayed one step ahead of the current standard which, back in the day, meant running water, electricity and telephone connections in every room, well before it was the expected norm. A night would have cost you 3,50 German marks per person with breakfast, effectively less than $1.
In 2015 the hotel was reopened as part of the CURIO Collection by Hilton. It’s very much part of Hamburg city with their special monthly parties (including an upcoming masked event!) that bring in locals to mix among those coming to enjoy a trip to Hamburg.
The hotel is exceptionally classy. My room was succinct in size but with enough space for an in-room workout. The European-style bedding (two separate comforters so no one hogs all the warmth) was crisp and the mattress wasn’t too soft or bouncy (the bane of my existence). I particularly adored the lighting details which were refined and practical.
When I opened the door of the integrated wardrobe there was suddenly a surprise party all for me! The lighting inside the wardrobe – which is just the kind of detail that makes me jump for joy- made it much easier to tell what was what among my mostly black clothing. Brilliant. My room also had tall massive windows- not much of a view but I appreciated the bountiful natural light.
One thing I love to do is respect the environmental guidelines of the hotel. Here, my towel never touched the floor as this signals to housekeeping that I want fresh towels every day. I was only here for two nights, so it hardly merited the excess energy and water, plus cleaning products used to launder extra towels.
I enjoyed the hotel breakfast which was served buffet style in the hotel restaurant. That setting! Beautiful modern velvet chairs, marble tabletops and historic wood panels that were designed by ship outfitters Friese back when the hotel first opened. The wood, copper and marble decor may be a throwback to its roaring 20’s past but felt as updated as the hotel.
My stay at the Reichshof was fantastic. I couldn’t find a single thing to complain about, even at my grumpiest. The hotel staff were lovely although admittedly, I am a low-maintenance kind of guest, so I hardly spoke to them but their smiles were appreciated! The central location whisked me into all corners of Hamburg in a heartbeat and the presence of a very fashionable Chanel event made it seem all the more stylish. It’s definitely one of the best hotels in Hamburg.
The First 24 Hours
I took off walking to the Speicherstadt, bundled in layers. The Speicherstadt is the largest and most elegant warehouse district in the world. UNESCO thought these red brick warehouses standing on oak log foundations in the water were good enough to declare them a World Heritage Site in 2015 and I’m inclined to applaud them for the designation. While some of the buildings have been converted into pricey designer lofts, these hallowed waterways are still part of global industry and trade. I was delighted to uncover that everything from carpet companies to maritime equipment manufacturers and spice merchants still hold on to a good portion of the buildings.
The New Jewel of Hamburg: The Elbphilharmonie
I ambled further out to the tip of one of these massive docks to see the Elbphilharmonie. This impressive concert hall took over 10 years to complete and was opening just days after I departed…woe is me. Each of its 21 floors stretches the size of a soccer field and looms near the edge of the Elbe River.
A colleague visited more recently for a Fado concert and could not stop talking about the crisp acoustics in the Großer Saal. Though translating to the Grand Hall, the venue is surprisingly intimate with seats arranged in a “vineyard” formation. Textured walls and ceilings mimic the curves of coral or perhaps an ode to the vibrations of a seashell.
Months after opening, tickets for performances in the Grand Hall are still hard to come by. Once you have Hamburg set in your trip itinerary, check the concert listings and reserve your tickets — you won’t regret it!
The complex isn’t only home to the city’s philharmonic orchestra, but also a craft brewery, private apartments, and an accessible public lookout. If you’re into a daytime linger, sip your coffee at the Westin Hamburg’s Bridge Bar which faces the harbour. Heck, when the views are this good, you may even want to stay the night!
One of the things I was looking forward to the most in Hamburg was visiting Miniatur Wunderland. Located in the Speicherstadt, this museum comprises of miles of model railway scenes, including vast tiny landscapes, scenes from life and people and thus everything CUTE! It would surely top most lists of things to do in Hamburg for kids and adults alike.
I began with a view of America. They focused on dusty Western towns, the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas and the Hawaiian islands which gave insight into how classical America is perceived from the outside. I wasn’t complaining while I delighted in the 18-wheeler trucks barreling down tiny highways, cargo trains and fingernail-sized rodeos. The lights dimmed every so often to mimic nighttime and the cities came alight with thousands of tiny lights. I felt like I was on a plane circling above and could barely hold myself from squealing in delight.
I saw the lights of Vegas like I was there myself, before circling the rest of the complex. I spent almost four hours touring, finding everything from skinny-dippers bathing in a river, a man riding a giraffe to lovers in a cornfield. Half the fun is looking for these unusual scenes. Minatur Wunderland is family-friendly Hamburg at its best, but even as a lone traveller I loved it.
Leaving the Speicherstadt, I crossed bridge after bridge, getting lost along the way. It hardly mattered as I snapped photos of reflections in the canals. There are around 2500 bridges in Hamburg and more canals than Amsterdam and Venice combined. I trotted over to the Jungernstieg area to do some window shopping and take in the last of the enchanting Christmas lights.
A hamburger in Hamburg
I stopped in for dinner at Better Burger Company because guess what, Hamburgers did actually originate in Hamburg. Here burger buns are provided by a well-established Hamburg bakery and are perfectly crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside. I can’t speak for the burger patties being a vegetarian but they are prepared fresh every day from royal Danish cattle and I’m told they were very yummy- I wasn’t tempted though because I absolutely devoured my veggie burger, comprised of Halloumi cheese. You get a wide choice of toppings to pick from and the house-made lemonade has free refills. Sehr lecker!
The Second 24 Hours
Day Two, I headed towards St. Pauli and the Reeperbahn. This neighbourhood is best known as Hamburg’s Red Light district. While the streets may be lined with sex shops, strip clubs, and some interesting characters, it’s also home to many families, locally owned businesses, and Hamburg’s nightlife. If you’re a soccer fan, I would highly recommend catching one of the spirited FC St. Pauli games at the Millerntorstadion– it’s got to be one of the best things to do in Hamburg.
As an electronic music fan, I bee-lined for the Smallville Record store to spend some time digging for treasure. I resisted the urge to spend half my salary and left with one prized record.
I ambled the streets, snapping photos of cute buildings and dreaming about what it must be like to live in one of Hamburg’s coolest neighbourhoods.
Getting Hungry in Hamburg
Before I knew it, I was ravaged by hunger and headed to the Schanzenviertel, a short walk away. I got a veggie burrito at Jim’s Burrito Cantina and a Spezi (Coca-Cola mixed with orange pop), took a seat at the window bar and people watched.
The Schanze is dotted with fantastic boutiques and was my favourite place for shopping in Hamburg. I peeked inside the Selekta Record and bookstore, tried on a million things at the Nordic- and Berlin-inspired Kauf Dich Glücklich store as well as the brick and mortar shop of online retailer Edited. I stopped into the sadly deserted and dead Botanical Gardens–during the other seasons, it’s a glorious place to spend some time and boasts the largest Japanese garden in Europe. Alas, winter is harsh.
I grabbed a bahn mi sandwich to eat in the comfort of my hotel bed (one of my favourite hotel stay activities) following my first-ever taste of a touristic rite of passage: the hop-on-hop-off double-decker bus tour.
I had my reservations about this kind of tour, but my embarrassment quickly evaporated and I can say that it was a 1.5 hours well-spent. First of all, I got to sit and relax instead of marching around on my own two feet, plus it was warm. Second, I got some background on the city while I was in relevant areas. It was chill and I got to see a good chunk of places I might have ignored. I finished the day exhausted and with two comforters to keep me cozy at the Reichshof Hotel, I fell asleep even quicker than I anticipated with a book in hand.
The Last Six Hours
The following day I had an afternoon flight to catch. I returned to the incredible breakfast buffet at the hotel at least three times to pile up my plate and have no shame in admitting that I had two large bowls of their incredible bircher muesli. It was as soft as clouds, perfectly sweetened with the addition of raisins and the mountain of fresh fruit I topped it off with. The staff at the hotel graciously let me store my luggage post-checkout while I trotted over to the nearby Kunsthalle Hamburg. This grand art gallery is spread over two buildings, one modern and one classical holding their corresponding art collections. I managed to breeze through the majority of their permanent collections as well as an amazing exhibit on Surrealist art.
I boarded the same train back to the airport on which I arrived, full of warm, fuzzy memories of my time in the majestic Hanseatic city. With an energy and soul all of its own, I was left wishing that I had more time to spend crossing bridges, raiding vintage stores and returning to Miniatur Wunderland. Until next time!
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* All photos by the author unless otherwise noted. This article originally appeared on trivago magazine US.