Hamburg is one of Germany’s most underrated vacation destinations. Germany’s second-largest urban area has never tried to shake off its industrial image. Instead, Hamburg has embraced its trading and mercantile past to become one of the country’s most unique cities!
Hamburg was once a commercial powerhouse of the medieval Hanseatic League. The city’s location on the banks of the River Elbe – just a short boat ride away from the North Sea – ensured that Hamburg became one of Europe’s most important trading hubs.
Today, you’ll find this history still makes up an incredibly important part of the city’s current image. You can visit the International Maritime Museum, for example, explore Hamburg’s revitalized harbors and dockyards, and cruise along the River Elbe and float out into the North Sea.
Hamburg might be industrial, but it’s also chic. You’ll quickly fall for the UNESCO World Heritage-listed red brick architecture of Speicherstadt (“Warehouse City”), as well as the stunning modern look of the Elbphilharmonie concert hall. With a vast network of canals, alongside the beautiful Alster Lake, we’d go as far as to say that Hamburg is the Venice of Germany!
With so many things to see and do, you might not know where to begin. So we’ve compiled our list of the absolute best things to do in Hamburg for you. Stick to these fun and unique Hamburg bucket list experiences, and there’s no doubt that you’re going to have an exceptional time exploring this amazing German city!
- 15 Fun Things to do in Hamburg
- 1. Take a Walking Tour of Hamburg-Altstadt
- 2. Explore HafenCity and Speicherstadt
- 3. Catch a Concert at the Elbphilharmonie
- 4. Explore Nautical History at the International Maritime Museum
- 5. Shrink Down in Size at Miniatur Wunderland
- 6. Admire Centuries of Art History at Hamburger Kunsthalle
- 7. Stroll around the Picturesque Alster Lakes
- 8. Delve into North Germany’s History at the Altonaer Museum
- 9. Go Shopping at Hamburg’s Famous Fish Market
- 10. Escape the City at Planten un Blomen
- 11. Visit the Sailing Ships at Hafenmuseum Hamburg
- 12. Cycle (or Bike) along the River Elbe
- 13. Take the High-Speed Ferry to Heligoland
- 14. Embrace the Festivities at Hamburg’s Christmas Markets
- 15. Enjoy the Fun Festivities at Dom Festival
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15 Fun Things to do in Hamburg
1. Take a Walking Tour of Hamburg-Altstadt
Hamburg has a long history that really begins in the 8th century AD when a castle (or “burg”) was founded by the River Elbe. That early settlement grew over the centuries into Hamburg, with the city becoming a prominent member of the medieval Hanseatic League and one of the wealthiest harbors in Europe.
You can learn all about the city’s humble roots and explosive expansion on a walking tour of Hamburg-Alstadt (the Old Town), where you’ll find living history in the squares, churches, architecture, and canals.
This is historic Hamburg at its best, and you can join a guided tour or embark on a self-guided walk of the Old Town. Hamburg’s tourism office publishes lovely self-guided walking itineraries. Either way, you need to start by the Rathaus, Hamburg’s impressive City Hall.
You’ll discover that the idea of a German nation is a very recent phenomenon because for many centuries, Hamburg was an independent city-state, and it was all governed from this building in the Old Town.
Next, you can move on to the St. Nikolai Church, which is actually a war memorial. The Gothic church was destroyed during World War II, but the burnt-out spire and shell of this medieval church have been left as a lasting reminder of the conflict.
Stroll through plazas, over bridges, and along historic streets, and you’ll soon find yourself in the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Kontorhausviertel district, which is highly regarded for its notable red-brick architecture.
2. Explore HafenCity and Speicherstadt
Forget Venice – Hamburg’s canals are just as unique! Plus, you’ll find there are just a fraction of the tourists in this European city. Hamburg’s historic port and harbor areas are extensive, and this dense network of waterways and canals has been massively regenerated in recent years.
You can find out more by visiting HafenCity, Hamburg’s exciting modernization project that’s completely turned the city’s image around. Rather than knocking down old warehouses or filling in redundant canals, Hamburg has embraced its maritime past and created Europe’s largest urban regeneration zone.
Visit HafenCity, and you’ll love how heritage mixes beautifully with modernity. The highlight of the area is the Elbphilharmonie building, an old red brick warehouse that’s been transformed into a concert hall and stands proud as a sublime work of modern architecture.
You’ll also love Speicherstadt, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed district that’s found in the HafenCity area. Speicherstadt means “Warehouse City,” and here, you can see how Hamburg’s industrial port area looked in the 19th century. Speicherstadt is famed for red brick and timber-framed buildings, which rise magnificently alongside canals and waterways.
You’ll find some great museums in HafenCity, including the International Maritime Museum, as well as some of Hamburg’s quirkiest boutique hotels and an excellent array of cafes, bars, and restaurants. HafenCity is located on the River Elbe’s islands, just to the south of Hamburg-Altstadt.
3. Catch a Concert at the Elbphilharmonie
One of the most impressive things to see in Hamburg is the magnificent Elbphilharmonie, a modern work of beautiful architecture that seamlessly blends history with the contemporary. You’ll find the Elbphilharmonie overlooking the River Elbe, and it forms the centerpiece of the city’s HafenCity regeneration project.
The Elbphilharmonie is a concert hall and events venue, and you’ll love how the bottom half of the building is built in Hamburg’s classic red brick design, while the top half is a glass superstructure that’s styled like a wave.
The building is a symbol of Hamburg’s past and future, but the project struck different chords with the locals when it went massively over budget and took many more years to complete than planned. It’s very much open for business now, and you can find a packed events schedule featuring everything from classical music concerts to modern art exhibitions.
4. Explore Nautical History at the International Maritime Museum
If you’d love to learn more about the city’s nautical history, then a visit to the International Maritime Museum is one of the top things to do in Hamburg. This is a city that’s literally built on the water, and the museum immerses you in the history of seafaring, maritime trade, and all things sailing as you explore the impressive array of exhibits on display.
There are thousands of exhibits to peruse – everything from ancient navigational devices to miniature ships in glass bottles – and given the vast number of items held by the museum, you’ll be surprised to discover that it’s mostly the work of one man. The museum’s collection was started by Peter Tamm (who passed away in 2016), who spent his entire life amassing an enormous nautically-themed collection.
You’ll find the International Maritime Museum is appropriately located in Speicherstadt, in Hamburg’s historic port and harbor area. The museum has taken over one of the city’s oldest buildings, and you’ll love how it’s spread out over multiple floors within one of Hamburg’s distinctive red-brick warehouses.
5. Shrink Down in Size at Miniatur Wunderland
If you’re looking for fun things to do in Hamburg, you’ll find more than enough fun at Miniatur Wunderland. Perhaps surprisingly, this tiny museum is often voted as one of Germany’s top tourist attractions, and the largest miniature model railway in the world always draws in the crowds!
Miniatur Wunderland is home to tens of thousands of feet of model railway tracks, thousands of model trains, buildings, and miniature figurines, all of which have been painstakingly built by hand.
This is one grand work of art, and to put the scale of effort (and money) into consideration, the exhibition’s most famous addition – Knuffingen Airport – cost over €6 million and took six years to build.
Miniatur Wunderland holds the Guinness World Record for the largest miniature model railway in the world. Even if you’re not a fan of model railways, you’re going to be amazed by the scale of it all. Stroll through the exhibition, and you’ll walk past miniature depictions of the Austrian Alps, Las Vegas, Venice, and of course, Hamburg as you journey through a miniature world of wonder!
6. Admire Centuries of Art History at Hamburger Kunsthalle
If you’re an art lover, one of the best Hamburg attractions to visit is the Hamburger Kunsthalle. This is one of Germany’s most impressive art galleries, and there are hundreds of years worth of art history to explore.
The Hamburger Kunsthalle is located next to Alster Lake, and the exhibitions are found within three separate buildings, the oldest of which dates back to the mid-19th century and the latest of which opened in 1997.
Within the three buildings, you’ll find over 700 permanent exhibits to browse. As you might expect, the primary focus of the Hamburger Kunsthalle is to showcase North German art. Explore the museum, and you’ll find works by famous painters such as Master Bertram, Edvard Munch, and Max Liebermann.
The art on display dates back to the medieval period, and many of the paintings are historic masterpieces that hold an important place in European art history. You’ll also find modern art at the Hamburger Kunsthalle, too, as well as ever-changing temporary exhibitions that showcase the work of artists from around the world.
7. Stroll around the Picturesque Alster Lakes
The Alster Lakes is one of the best sights in Hamburg, and if you’re looking for an active day out, you can walk all the way around this artificial water feature.
The Alster Lakes is located on the edge of the Altstadt, and you’ll love how this beautiful sight merges seamlessly with the urban setting. There are two lakes – an inner and an outer – and they are fed by the waters of the Alster River.
The lakes were first formed many centuries ago, and for hundreds of years, they’ve been a popular place of escape for the city’s residents. You can start in the Altstadt and stroll first around the inner lake and then the outer lake, a distance of some 5 miles or so in total.
You can find lots of public parks and green spaces along the water’s edge, while the lake itself is a popular water sports venue. In the summer, many of the parks are taken over by festivals and events. But Alster Lakes is the perfect place for a stroll any time of the year!
8. Delve into North Germany’s History at the Altonaer Museum
History fans won’t want to miss out on a trip to the Altonaer Museum, which is one of the best things to do in Hamburg. This is one of the city’s largest and most comprehensive museums. Although, you’ll quickly find that the focus isn’t simply on Hamburg but on North Germany as a whole.
The Altonaer Museum was founded in 1863, and it’s located in the Altona suburb of Hamburg, which back then was actually part of Denmark rather than Germany. The museum started life as a botanical collection, but now it’s grown into a vast collection that encompasses everything from plants to art, culture, folklore, and history.
Inside the museum, you’ll learn more about Germany’s North Sea coastline and history, with exhibits focusing on the region’s seafaring and maritime history, alongside rural and countryside life in the region. The latest exhibitions link Hamburg’s position in the world with its history, and you’ll love seeing how the region’s past has shaped the city’s present.
9. Go Shopping at Hamburg’s Famous Fish Market
As a maritime trading hub, there’s no doubt that Hamburg has had a long association with fish and fishing. Head along the River Elbe, and in the Altonaer district of Hamburg, you’ll find the famous Fischmarkt, where fish have been bought and sold since 1703!
Thousands of tons of fish are sold here daily, and you can buy up fresh fish of the day in bulk if you so desire. If you’re on holiday, you might prefer to visit the food hall, though, where you’ll find fresh fish being fried up and turned into local delicacies that you’re going to love.
This is a busy, bustling place to visit, and we recommend trying the fish sandwiches after taking a stroll through the marketplace. Over the years, the marketplace has expanded its reach, and you’ll also find that the Fish Market is a fantastic place to shop for a few souvenirs from your stay in Hamburg.
While the morning trading finishes early, the Fish Market stays open all day and into the night. This is a very unique venue, and come evening time, you’ll find the market plays hosts to live music, and Hamburg party-goers descend on the bars for beers and snacks late into the night!
10. Escape the City at Planten un Blomen
It’s easy to escape the built environment when you’re exploring Hamburg, and one of the best places to reconnect with nature is at Planten un Blomen. This large public park is one of the best outdoor Hamburg attractions, and you’ll love how accessible it is from the city center.
Planten un Blomen (which means “Plants and Flowers”) is located just north of the Altstadt, and it dates back to 1821, when the first plants were planted. The park quickly became a focus for horticulture, and there are now 47 hectares of landscaped gardens and green space for you to explore.
The gardens are spread out around a central lake, which is often the scene of extravagant water and light shows. In the summer, you’ll find that Planten un Blomen hosts concerts and festivals, while all through the year, you can visit the dedicated greenhouses that make up the Botanical Garden section of the park.
11. Visit the Sailing Ships at Hafenmuseum Hamburg
You can’t escape nautical history when you’re in Hamburg, so why not embrace the city’s seafaring past with a visit to the Hafenmuseum Hamburg?
The Hafenmuseum (Harbor Museum) is one of the best sights in Hamburg because this old harbor and living museum is home to a collection of unique sailing and steamships. Take a step back in time as you explore the docks, learning about the history and heritage of Hamburg’s port and the development of ocean-going vessels and trade through the centuries.
You can visit restored sheds and moorings, walk along the historic quays, and even eat and drink in a traditional sailors’ canteen once you’ve worked up an appetite. The centerpiece of the museum is the Peking, a four-masted sailing ship that’s been painstakingly restored to its former glory and is now berthed in the docks outside the Hafenmuseum.
12. Cycle (or Bike) along the River Elbe
If you love an outdoor adventure, we highly recommend cycling (or hiking) along the River Elbe.
Hamburg wouldn’t be much without its river, and the city’s prime position on the banks and islands of the Elbe ensured prosperity through the centuries. You can explore more of this iconic natural feature by following the Elbe Cycle Route, which passes through Hamburg on its way to the North Sea.
The Elbe Cycle Route passes through much more than Hamburg, and if you’re up for a serious, long-distance escapade, you’ll find that it starts far to the south, in Czechia. This is an international cycling route, and it follows the River Elbe from its source in the mountains, all the way north to Cuxhaven, where it empties into the sea.
The total distance of the Elbe Cycle Route is around 750 miles. Although, the distance from Hamburg to Cuxhaven, on the coast, is much more doable if you’re short on time!
The route to Cuxhaven is well signposted and makes for a beautiful excursion when you’re visiting Hamburg. You can cycle all the way to the North Sea (a distance of just under 100 miles), or you can just enjoy the pleasant sections of riverside walkways in the city itself.
13. Take the High-Speed Ferry to Heligoland
Taking the high-speed ferry to Heligoland is one of the coolest things to do in Hamburg. The city has long been a major port, and if you follow the River Elbe to the north coast, you’ll emerge among the windswept waves of the North Sea.
Keep going, and out in the North Sea, you’ll find Heligoland, a rugged archipelago that was the inspiration for Germany’s national anthem. From Hamburg, you can embark on a catamaran voyage to Heligoland, a journey that takes around 3 hours but offers spectacular scenery on the way there and back.
Once you reach Heligoland, you’ll be able to hike around the main island’s rocky but beautiful coastal path, where you’ll see fascinating rock formations, encounter colonies of seals, and spy flocks of North Sea birds. It’s a fantastic day trip, and in our opinion, one of the best things to do in Hamburg!
If you’d prefer to stay on the island longer, though, that can also be arranged! Heligoland is home to a unique spa and resort, and you can take the time to escape the rest of the world, reconnect with nature, and enjoy the splendid isolation of the North Sea.
14. Embrace the Festivities at Hamburg’s Christmas Markets
If you’re visiting the city in December, a visit to the Christmas markets is one of the must-do things in Hamburg. Like any German city, Hamburg hosts extravagant festivities in the run-up to Christmas, and the markets here are some of the best to be found anywhere in Europe!
If you’re in the Altstadt, then you’ll find that one of Hamburg’s most popular Christmas markets takes over the square outside of City Hall. You’ll love browsing for Christmas presents and souvenirs among the traditional market stalls. Plus, you can warm up with some mulled wine while enjoying the carol singers and hymns.
But almost every square and district in Hamburg also hosts a Christmas market, and there are upwards of 30 official markets across the city. Santa Pauli is home to one of the best markets in the city, for example, while there’s even a dedicated Christmas market for dogs!
15. Enjoy the Fun Festivities at Dom Festival
A day out at Dom Festival is always one of the best Hamburg activities. The Dom Festival is one of Germany’s most famous festivals, and it comes to the city three times a year. This huge festival sets up shop in the massive Heiligengeistfeld fairground, and it’s held in the spring, summer, and winter.
The Dom Festival has entertained crowds since the first recorded event was held in 1329, outside the city’s cathedral (where the name Dom, or cathedral, comes from). The festival has expanded year after year, and it’s a unique mix of food, culture, fun, and beer!
You’ll find family-friendly rides and carnival-style games, alongside large German beer tents, food stands serving up bratwurst and currywurst, and much, much more at the Dom Festival.
There you have it! The 15 best things to do in Hamburg. What’s your favorite thing to do in Hamburg?
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