The best attractions in Hamburg
The ornate, neo-Renaissance Town Hall of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg is a good place to get your bearings and a grip on the city’s proud, prosperous identity. At the heart of the Altstadt, the elaborate, towering building is a vast sandstone statement of wealth, sovereignty and Hamburg’s historic membership in the Hanseatic League, a confederation of independent city states which dominated Baltic maritime trade for some three centuries. The building is fronted by a mosaic of Hamburg’s patron goddess, Hammonia, as well as the city’s coat of arms and the Latin city motto: Libertatem quam peperere maiores digne studeat servare posteritas, “The descendants shall seek worthily to maintain the freedom achieved by their forebears.” The Rathaus is one of the few historic buildings in Hamburg to have survived Allied air raids during World War II, including the infamous “Operation Gomorrah,” which killed 42,600 Hamburg citizens.
Don’t forget to pack your swimwear; Strandperle is Hamburg’s beloved city beach location. This sun-kissed spot directly on the Elbe boasts deck chairs, umbrellas and a laid-back bar serving beer, wine, cocktails and simple food, from a fish sandwich to a hearty dish of chilli con carne. Unsurprisingly, it’s particularly popular on warm weekends and evenings, but it’s open throughout the year (in winter with a heated marquee), and a perennial favorite for Hamburgers young and old. The views across the harbour, with its giant cranes and container terminals, may not be everyone’s idea of picturesque, but they’re certainly pure Hamburg; for some locals it’s even the perfect backdrop for an engagement or wedding. Service at Strandperle is friendly, if sometimes slow, but this isn’t a place to rush through anyway: Sit back, relax and watch the ships go by.
It was several years late on completion and ran ten times over budget, but strains to patience and purse strings are largely forgiven now that Hamburgers can swoon up at the “ElPhi.” On a peninsula of the Elbe river, the Herzog & de Meuron-designed building combines the red-brick Kaispeicher, formerly Hamburg’s biggest warehouse, with a soaring, new, glass-fronted structure on top. As well as its three concert venues, the building accommodates a hotel, residential apartments and various eateries, and is the unquestionable showpiece of a broader rejuvenation plan for the “HafenCity” district, not to mention the new star of Hamburg’s skyline. There’s still fierce competition for concert tickets, but the public access “Plaza” viewing platform allows for both an impression of the building’s interior and 360-degree view of the city and harbour. There are also guided tours outside of performance hours, available to book online or at the ticket office. If you want to keep things more spontaneous, just swing by and admire from the outside; with its roof contoured like wave crests and its façade of 1,000 curving window panels reflecting the sky, sunlight and water, much of ElPhi’s impact is exterior; as hefty as an Atlantic liner, as aqueous and shimmering as the sea.
There’s a distinct English country flair to Jenischpark, with its rolling green acres, woodland paths and stately Jenisch House. The oldest landscaped park in Hamburg, it’s a particularly popular spot for summer picnics, but a beautiful place throughout the year, not least of all at autumn or winter twilight, when the sturdy oak trees turn to silhouettes against the fading sun. Originally the country seat of a wealthy Hamburg merchant, Jenisch House is now a museum specializing in Northern German art and culture, especially of the 19th century, with a ground floor of original Empire and Biedermeier furnishings. For those more inclined towards the 20th century, the low-rise Ernst Barlach Museum down the slope is a serene modernist enclave showcasing the work of sculptor Ernst Barlach, best known for his expressionist, anti-war works. The museum café, with ground to ceiling windows looking out onto the park, is a lovely spot for a reflective coffee.
The best Hamburg restaurants
Right by the impressive Rathaus, Café Paris is Hamburg’s answer to the classic French brasserie and an unfailingly popular spot for lunch, dinner or an aperitif. It’s been delivering a fine line in French cuisine since 1882 and has stuck to what it does best; hearty servings of steak tartare, bouillabaisse, Merguez sausage and chips, with just one sauerkraut concession to its German environs. True to many a French eatery, it’s a resoundingly meat-led menu; vegetarian diners are limited to two main course options, though if you eat cheese, the platter makes for a hearty meal in itself. The restaurant now has three dining areas, but the most coveted tables are for sure in the principal ground floor “Saal”, an evocative Art Deco interior where bow-tied waiters move between simple wooden tables and the beautifully arched and tiled ceiling bears busty personifications of Hamburg’s prosperous enterprises: industry, trade, agriculture and shipping. For after-dinner drinks, Le Lion directly across the road is one of the most sought-after cocktail spots in town. Leave your name at the door before you dine for a better chance of getting in later.
Henssler & Henssler
Booking is a must at this talk-of-the-town Japanese restaurant, which many credit with the best sushi in all of Germany. From the spicy salmon tempura to caramelized sashimi and green duck rolls, the dishes look and taste exquisite, often bringing a surprising twist to classic flavors and textures. The black, white and red décor is a little blunt and underwhelming and some find the whole place a bit too packed and noisy for the prices, but most is forgiven with the first taste of impeccable, tender nigiri. The Henssler & Henssler Mix is a good option for two diners or more, while a selection of meat and fish courses cater to those less sure about sushi. If you want to see the sushi art in action, request seats at the bar.
[m]eatery adjoins the boutique SIDE Design Hotel and serves up its cooked-to-perfection dishes in comparable style. Clearly not one for vegetarians, this place is steak and tartare heaven, leaving guests from near and far in fully ironed-up raptures. It’s not just the juicy rib-eye or the succulent sirloin that leaves them swooning; the wines are excellent, too, and the staff both knowledgeable and attentive. The restaurant dry ages its beef on site and on display at the entrance—a raw butcher’s touch to the otherwise incongruously green and brown décor, which seems more fitting for an organic smoothie stall than this lavish fête de carnivores. If you’re a bit too full after your meal, the Binnenalster lake is just down the road and makes for a lovely postprandial waterside stroll, especially at night.
For old-school Hamburg class and outstanding seafood, you can choose no better than the Fischereihafen. Run by the same family since the 1980s, it combines formal elegance with warm hospitality and counts Prince and Princess of Wales among its more eminent guests. It may be plain from the brick façade but feels like the first-class dining room of a transatlantic liner as soon as you’ve stepped through the door, with candlelight, carpeted floors, white linen tablecloths and nautical scenes on the wall. Unchanged over the years, it’s by no means a hip joint, rather the kind of place you want to play a little vintage dapper and order a glass of champagne. The oysters, lobster soup, turbot and tiger prawns come particularly recommended, but everything here is first-class and supremely fresh. The views across the harbor are great by day or night, and service is impeccable. If it’s warm enough, book a table on the terrace.
This is next level falafel. Booking ahead is a must at L’Orient, an excellent Lebanese restaurant on Hamburg’s northern Osterstraße thoroughfare. It’s an ordinary street largely made up of banks, hairdressers, tanning salons and copy shops, but the food inside is quite something. Things kick off with the spectacular Mazza, delivering phenomenal flavors in individually-dished delights; for many, a bountiful meal in itself. Mains include meat, fish and vegetarian options, each beautifully aromatic, from duck breast on fig carpaccio with walnut-anise sauce to the spicy eggplant casserole with dates, almonds, raisins and pomegranate. Even when super busy, service is warm, gracious and very accommodating of any dietary needs.
The best Hamburg bars
Clockers isn't easy to find, but it's well worth it when you do. Look out for the discrete doorbell and buzz through to an interior of Narnia forest charm—all mossy walls and piled wood and fairy-lights twinkling from tree branches above. Head to the bar and you’ll be met with an expert staff, all too happy to recommend something from the creative, extensive menu or to concoct something new. Rest assured, this place knows how to mix a drink; it even has its own house-distilled Clockers Gin. Upstairs, you’ll leave the woodland for a library ambiance; think soft lamps, bookshelves and heavy leather Chesterfields. It’s perfect for a more earnest, or intimate, conversation, though many prefer to stay downstairs where there’s a little space for dancing later in the night. If you're especially into gin, book one of Clockers' two-hour tastings hosted every Thursday.
It’s rowdy, packed to the rafters and a Reeperbahn institution. Since 1949, cult locale Zum Silbersack has been delivering cheap drinks and power ballads until the early hours, counting Hans Albers and Hildegard Knef among its devoted clientele. With smoky air, sticky floors and no-nonsense service, this is by no means a glamorous venue, but everything you could ask for from an authentic kneipe. It’s a place of boisterous banter, warm hearts and proud tradition; when Zum Silbersack’s former landlady died after 63 years behind the bar, regulars mourned as if for a surrogate mother. Like a roadside diner from the facade, it’s all jostling tavern indoors, with wooden furnishings, check curtains and nautical scenes on the wall. You’ll be drinking shots or Astra beer out the bottle, and most likely swaying along to 1950s German schlager before you know it.
It’s vinyl and strictly vinyl at Le Fonque, one of the longer-standing survivors of the fast-gentrifying Sternschanze. Behind its black and red façade on the Juliusstraße, it’s a small, smoky place, where the low soft seats and red-tinged lighting lend a suggestive shimmer to the nightly bliss of funk, soul, boogie and ice-cold Astra. Seven nights a week, live DJs play at the bar beside a bountiful bouquet of fresh lilies. With its great tunes, reasonably priced drinks and stalwart neighbourhood vibes, Le Fonque is a popular hang-out for Hamburg locals, both young and young at heart. For late-night munchies, locals love Ericka’s Eck around the corner.
Le Lion has quickly claimed a reputation as one of the best cocktail bars in Hamburg, if not Germany. Behind its door-belled entrance, the two-floor venue channels Mad Men-style glamour, with textured wallpaper, wooden sheen and a palette of amber, gold and an appropriately whiskey brown. Though the clientele is mixed and informal, the place exudes an elegant poise; the music is sultry and smooth, the lighting golden soft, and the capacity carefully monitored to allow enough expert attention for each cocktail creation. Le Lion’s signature drink is the Basil Smash, which is basically a liquid dose of Italian summer, no matter how cold or wet Hamburg is outdoors.