Get us in your inbox

Photograph: Marnie Pix/Flickr

The best attractions in Hamburg

Navigate your way through the canal-dotted city for a strong dose of culture, history and no-holds-barred nightlife

Written by
Eliza Apperly

At various points in its history, Hamburg’s been known as many things. A harbour city, media capital, millionaire’s metropolis and anarchist hub – and occasionally all at once. Germany’s second-largest city offers an intoxicating mix of blustery North Sea winds, rollicking nightlife, rich Hanseatic history and radical politics.

Hamburg’s got more bridges than Venice and basks in a crisp northern light. It’s a city defined by its proximity to water, from its Sunday morning Fischmarkt and the picturesque Strandperle beach through to the Schanzenviertel, the traditional – if now much gentrified – heart of Hamburg counter-culture.

It’s a city of contrasts: of the red light thrill of the Reeperbahn and world-class cultural institutions like the Elbphilharmonie and the Hamburger Kunsthalle. As you can no doubt already guess, Hamburg is a pretty darn difficult place to sum-up in a couple of paragraphs. So read on for our top 10 best attractions in this gloriously diverse, multifaceted, un-pin-downable city.

This article includes affiliate links. These links have no influence on our editorial content. For more information, click here.

The best attractions in Hamburg

Hamburg Rathaus
  • Attractions
  • Parliament and civic buildings

The handsome sandstone marvel that is Hamburg’s Town Hall has been the centrepiece of Altstadt since 1897. Dominating its surroundings thanks to its towering spire and vast platz, the Rathaus is a functioning government building and houses the city’s government. It also contains heaps of history in its exhibitions – members of the public can visit daily, either through guided tours or on their own.

  • Bars and pubs
  • Café bars

Just because you're in the city, doesn't mean you can't visit the beach. Strandperle is a stalwart in Hamburg's sandy stretch along the Elbe river, which is dotted with sunbathers and swimmers in the warmer months. With a large deck of tables, chairs and umbrellas, a bar, kitchen and the harbor in the backdrop, Strandperle is favourite place to hang out for locals and tourists alike. Open all day Friday to Sunday, you can enjoy beer and a burger here on a visit, catch-up with cocktails and friends, or hire out the 'upper deck' for an intimate dinner party.

  • Things to do
  • Concerts

You can spot this magnificent modernist masterpiece from miles around. Even if you don’t get much further than staring at the glass waves and red brick plinths of the outside of the Elbphilharmonie, you’ll come away feeling like you’ve seen something truly special. If you do manage to venture inside, you’ll find some of Hamburg’s most exciting cultural and entertainment events. There are three concert halls in the Elbphilharmonie, as well as several restaurants, bars and even a hotel. Our tip? Try and get up to the Plaza viewing platform. There are very few better views of the harbour, Elbe and the Hamburg skyline.

  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens

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.

Photograph: Hannes Jähnert/Flickr

5. Schanzenviertel

The traditional beating heart of Hamburg counter-culture and center of the much-publicized violent protests during the G20 summit, the neighbourhood of Schanzenviertel holds on hard to its alternative credentials. In reality, despite the smashed-up stores of summer 2017, the neighbourhood is more characterized by third-wave coffee shops and vintage lamp stores than hubs of anarchic dissent. High-consuming hipsters and media professionals have long moved into the “Schanze” and, as the story always goes, priced out the anarchists and students that originally gave the district its interest and edge. Only the run-down Rote Flora, a former neighbourhood theatre (now long-contested squat and cultural space), remains a real center of activism and protest. Nevertheless, Schanzenviertel remains a lively and charismatic district, with a thriving bar scene, several good and reasonably priced eateries, and many independent retailers, as well as the Saturday Flohschanze flea market.

  • Things to do
  • Markets and fairs
  • price 2 of 4

Depending on how late last night was, or whether you went to bed at all, an early morning visit to the Sunday Fischmarkt is a legendary Hamburg experience. It’s been doing brisk, fishy business since 1703, with raucous criers promising all the bargains and bawdy banter you could wish for. Of course, there’s fish in abundance—smoked, fresh, pickled—alongside plenty of flowers, fruit, vegetables, second-hand fare and even livestock. For the unwearied Reeperbahn reveller, the neighbouring Fischauktionshalle promises to keep the party flowing with beer and live rock bands. For those looking for a more restorative breakfast, there are plenty of nearby cafés. The Fischmarkt is open from 5am in summer, 7am in winter, and closes at 9:30am throughout the year.

Hamburger Kunsthalle
  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • price 2 of 4
The Kunsthalle is one of the most important museums in Germany, with astonishing holdings through 700 years of European art history. There are star turns from the Elders Cranach and Holbein, Baroque big-hitters Tiepolo and Canaletto, and a lustrous line-up of Dutch Golden Age artists such as Rembrandt, Pieter de Hooch, and Anthony van Dyck. The 19th-century French and German collection is also particularly strong, featuring Paul Gauguin, Paul Cézanne, Éduouard Manet, modernist pioneer Max Liebermann, and Caspar David Friedrich in all his Wanderer above the Sea of Fog glory. The Kunsthalle’s contemporary gallery features leading examples of Pop art, Arte povera, minimalism and conceptualism, as well as specially commissioned pieces, such as Jenny Holzer’s LED Ceiling Snake, a ticker-tape of characteristic truisms between the Kunsthalle’s old building and new wing. Alongside the permanent collection, the Kunsthalle’s exhibition program is excellent, with thematic as well as period- and artist-specific shows, and a strong run in exhibitions of women artists to offset all those Old Masters.
Photograph: Marnie Pix/Flickr

8. Speicherstadt

The remarkable red-brick Speicherstadt is the largest warehouse district in the world. Built between 1883 and 1927, it spans some 26 hectares in a grid of canals, bridges and multi-story buildings providing both land and water access. Tons of coffee, tea, cocoa, tobacco, spices and textiles all passed along these channels, and though today the Speicherstadt is less bustling hub of global trade than UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s still infinitely evocative of Hamburg’s trading repute—and of a time when far-flung fabrics and flavors were still a thing of luxurious thrill. The area’s architecture does a whole lot more than portside pragmatism, with a stylish run of Neo-Gothic gables, towers, alcoves and glazed terracotta elements, all particularly atmospheric when illuminated at night.

Photograph: IK's World Trip/Flickr

9. Reeperbahn

Hamburg is a harbour city, and has all the nightlife provisions to prove it. The Reeperbahn is its most renowned party–and prostitution–thoroughfare, where motley hordes of punks, pimps, bachelorette parties and posh law students looking to let their hair down roam along the fluorescent strip of fast food chains, late night pharmacies, sex shops and sweat-steamed clubs where everyone’s woozily dancing to Stevie Wonder. This is Hamburg in rough, ready and garish glory—and a must-see for a complete impression of the city. You’d do well to keep an eye on your valuables, but the vibe is far more upfront than uneasy seedy, with more people leering towards you for a drunken sing-along than anything malicious. True kneipe classics in the area include Alt Hamburger and Zum Silbersack, while the Beatles famously played in various clubs along the Große Freiheit.

Ferry 62
Photograph: Paul Robertson/Flickr

10. Ferry 62

It’s well worth seeing Hamburg from the water to get a sense of the vast harbour infrastructure (the third-largest in Europe) and the aquatic network that runs throughout the city. Unless you really want running (mostly German) commentary, the regular public ferry 62 is just as good—and much cheaper—than the official harbour tours. A round trip will start and end at Landungsbrücken, and takes in stops including Altona, the Fischmarkt, Fischereihafen and Neumühlen, where you’ll find the famous Strandperle. Other highlights en route include the Dockland office building, a prow-like beauty of a structure, and the Oevelgönne Museum Harbour, where some 20 vintage boats are anchored. The ferry is yours to ride with a standard HVV (Hamburg public transport) ticket, and you’re free to hop on and off anywhere along the route.

Looking for more things to do?

    You may also like