Whenever I hear a city mentioned with glowing enthusiasm, I get a bit skeptical. I’ve learned that having expectations about a place often leads to disappointment. Places get built up so much in your head that reality can often not live up to your imagination. And so whenever people told me how amazingly wonderful Hamburg, Germany, was, I heard them out and then promptly changed the subject.
When I finally arrived in Hamburg, I wondered if it would be as good as everyone says it is. Even the Germans I had met told me it was a great city.
Well, I can tell you that the rumors and hype are true — Hamburg is pretty wonderful.
I may have only spent a few very quick days in this city, but that was long enough to see that Hamburg is an energetic city with a lot of hustle and bustle. People are on the move and things are happening here. Sitting in the main town square watching people go to and fro made me want to come back here. The energy, the sense of purpose in people’s walk, and the calmness of the street cafés amidst the bustle alluded to an eclectic and vibrant city.
While I only had a few days in Hamburg (not enough time to even scratch the surface), I did manage to find some interesting things worth doing:
Hamburg Harbor – Hamburg is a harbor city and the third largest port in the world. Not surprisingly, Hamburg’s history and growth has been tied to its shipping and transportation industry. This place is the best way to see the huge shipyards, stroll along the waterfront, and have an excellent seafood dinner. You can also take boat trips along the Elbe River. If you take the water taxi, you can travel the same route the private tours take, but at a fraction of the price.
The Reeperbahn – Hamburg’s most famous street is the Reeperbahn, which is home to Hamburg’s red light district. The eclectic mix of bars and restaurants along with strip clubs and erotic museums means you’ll be seeing a diverse group of people here. This makes people-watching at night on Reeperbahn interesting, to say the least. Most of the pub tours include this area.
Hamburg Fish Market – This open-air market, right next to the historic fish auction hall, is open Sundays between 5 a.m. and 9 a.m., so you will have to get up early to see it. But despite its early hours, it’s still buzzing with activity. Here, you’ll be able to get some amazing regional seafood, do a few taste tests, watch the fishmongers at work, and purchase some other types of food for the delicious meal you are going to want to cook later.
Hamburger Kunsthalle – With over 700 years of European art history inside, this is an impressive art museum. It has pieces from medieval altars to modern paintings, and highlights include masterpieces by Rembrandt, Caspar David Friedrich, and Edvard Munch.
Church St. Michaelis – This baroque church is the signature landmark of Hamburg. The church was originally built between 1648 and 1661, but has been destroyed several times since and was rebuilt after being bombed during WWII. The interior was redone in the original elegant baroque style. I would highly advise climbing the tower for good views of the city. Skip the vaults though, as they aren’t worth the entrance fee. Simply read the church’s history before the ticket gate.
Alster Arcade – Hamburg is famous for shopping, and the elegant Alster Arcade is one of the fanciest shopping areas around. The historic arcade is inspired by Venetian architecture and lit by wrought-iron lamps at night. Most of the shops here are high-end retailers, but the setting is pretty, even if the prices aren’t.
Take a lake cruise – Alster Lake sits in the middle of Hamburg and is where boat tours through the city’s canals begin. Most tours last a few hours and take you around the lake and along the canals that criss-cross the city. I found the tours informative, but after 2 hours on a boat, I was ready to get off. In the future, I’d opt for the quicker 50-minute tour instead.
Take a walking tour – There are a number of good walking tours in the city. There are a few led by New Europe that leave from the town hall each day at 11 a.m. and give you basic information about the city. There are also some quirky walking tours, like the red light tour led by an 18th century prostitute, that teach you about the history of the area.
Hang out in the student area of Schanze – The hip place to be in Hamburg has many of the city’s best restaurants, shops, and bars. It’s one of the major nightlife spots in the city and is also home to some amazing restaurants. I especially love the one dedicated to baked potatoes.
The Hamburg History Museum – This museum was gigantic, and the 90 minutes I was there was certainly not enough to see the whole thing. I would plan to spend at least 2 hours here if you ever go. And you should go, because this museum provides a detailed history of Hamburg, its early inhabitants, and its place in German history. I learned a lot, and as a museum snob, I walked away very impressed.
Planten un Blomen Park – Next to the museum is a park that is beautiful to walk through, with lots of little gardens, a stream, fields to relax in, and pretty flowers. It’s actually part of Hamburg’s largest park, called “Plants and Flowers,” that goes from St. Pauli Street all the way up through the center of the city. It’s a large park, and walking from one end to the other can take up a good part of an afternoon. It’s easy to get away from the hustle of the city here and relax for a bit. There’s also a world-class Japanese garden.
I will certainly go back to Hamburg. I owe the city a lot more time, and I promised my Couchsurfing hosts I would go out and see the famous Hamburg nightlife with them. The hype of Hamburg is real and well earned. While the city for the most part isn’t as beautiful as other European cities, it is the fun, energetic, diverse, and foodie city people told me it would be.