This is the fifth in a series covering my extended Labor Day weekend trip to Hamburg. You can check out an overview here.
Although Hamburg is the second-largest city in Germany, and the fourteenth-largest in Europe, you don’t hear about a lot of Americans heading there for tourism. I am very glad I did, and had a really enjoyable four days there. The city is easily navigable, and has a lot of very different areas to explore. The harbor, lakes, varying architecture, and parks make for a really pretty city – and the fact that the weather was generally lovely when I was there helped. At first, I thought I’d do a day trip outside Hamburg to Lubeck or Bremen or something, but I’m glad I just focused on seeing the city at a leisurely pace.
My first day happened to be the only gray weather, and I ended up using it mostly as an orientation day. I started by taking the U-bahn to the Rathaus (Town Hall), which unfortunately had no tours that day. From there, I took a 20-minute walk away from the center city to St. Michael’s Church, which is probably the biggest landmark church in Hamburg. I was tired so I didn’t go in and head up to the top.
I then took the U-bahn to BallinStadt, a museum built at the former emigration station. As a descendant of emigrants that passed through this part of Europe, I was excited, but the museum was expensive and had very little English, so a bit disappointing. Some of the exhibits were cool, though. It’s also kind of in the middle of nowhere and probably not worth the trip.
After dinner at the Crowne Plaza, I walked down to the St. Georg district, where I explored a number of gay bars and clubs and had a fun night.
Day 2, Saturday, was more of a success, and I really got to take advantage of the sunshine. I started out heading to St. Pauli and its street Reeperbahn– the Red Light District of Hamburg. It’s seedy and touristy during the day, and the even at 11am the streets smelled like beer. There are pubs and bars everywhere, and some were already hopping with football matches. Otherwise, there were a lot of homeless people, sex shops, and peep shows.
I visited the Beatles-platz, basically a plaque in the ground commemorating the time the Beatles spent living in Hamburg, and now next to some peep shows.
I also wandered past the famed Albertstrasse – a walled-off street where women and minors are not allowed, as it is where the prostitutes are.
From there I took a bus to HafenCity, a newly-developed area at the former Port of Hamburg. The big attraction there is the new music hall, the Elbphilarmonie. It just opened in January 2017, and is really cool looking, with a glass top half of the building shaped like waves, and a brick lower half off the building. There’s a Westin hotel in the building, and the concert hall itself is supposed to have amazing acoustics. I actually had entered a lottery for tickets for a concert a few months before my trip, but didn’t win. I had hoped to go into the hall itself and look out from its observation deck, but the lines, even in shoulder season, were insane. I got several views of it from the water throughout my trip though.
Since the weather was nice, walking along the water (Dalmannkai) in HafenCity was a lovely experience. There was lots of seating, and a few places you could get ice cream and beer. Lots of locals were out taking advantage of a sunny Saturday. I found a pretty decent restaurant, Wandrham, where I sat outside, had some very fresh fried fish nuggets and chips for 10 EUR, and got some reading and people watching done.
I had gotten the Hamburg Card for 2 days, which included unlimited transport and some discounts at attractions. So, after lunch, I headed to the Speicherstadt- which is basically an area in HafenCity that is the largest warehouse district in the world- which looks like just rows and rows of brick warehouses, built in the 19th century, taking advantage of Hamburg’s important placement on the water. A lot of the warehouse space now has been turned into museums. First, I went to the Speicherstadt Museum, which cost 3,20 with the Hamburg Card. It was like a smaller version of the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis, and had a few interesting exhibits, including one on the history of coffee, but I was able to do the whole thing in about ten minutes.
Then I headed to the Prototyp museum (8 EUR with Hamburg Card), which is dedicate to post-WWII German sports cars. There are a lot of cars on display, and plenty of English displays, but probably skippable if you’re not a car buff. There was a Porsche driving simulator, which was fun.
I ended up walking back to the Park Hyatt, where the streets were crowded with people doing shopping. On my way, I got to see the very cool Chilehaus building – an impressionist structure designed to look like a sailboat.
My Saturday night started with a low-key dinner at a place called Rock Our Kitchen, which was basically a hipster pizza place, where I got a salad and huge pizza for 9,90 EUR.
From there, I headed to the Alstervergnugen, the huge four-day festival that was going on around the Alster. There were tons of food and drink stands, and crowds started to gather for fireworks, which started at 10:45pm and were pretty impressive. After, there were dance parties and DJs all around the Alster. It was a very fun environment – you can check out the video below for a taste of the festival.
Sunday was another beautiful day, and I started with a walk through Hamburg’s large urban park, Planten Un Blomen, to the west of the center city. The park is beautifully maintained, and super pleasant on such a nice day.
At the end of the park is the Hamburg History Museum (Museum fur Hamburgische Geschichte). It was surprisingly large, and worth the 7 EUR entry with a Hamburg Card (9,50 EUR without). There was an interesting exhibit on the Jews of Hamburg, and a large section on society in Hamburg throughout the decades of the 20th century. There was a model railway which really was nothing special (especially compared to Miniatur Wunderland), as well as exhibits on fashion and musical instruments. It was kind of a hodgepodge, but that works well. The architecture of the museum was also pretty cool. I’d say about half the museum had a ton of English displays, and the other half had some.
I continued my walk south back towards the water, and ended up in St. Pauli at Landungsbrucken, a pier area where there are a bunch of touristy shops, restaurants (including the Hard Rock Café), and tourist boats. I had thought it would be a good lunch stop but it really was packed – and the “beach bars” didn’t seem to have much food.
I did unintentionally discover the Old Elbe Tunnel, which is very cool and worth a visit. Basically, it’s a tunnel that has been open since 1911, connecting central Hamburg with the shipyards on the south side of the river. Cars drive across the tunnel, and then take large elevators up to the street level. It’s still used today, but is pedestrian and bicycle only on the weekend, which makes for some cool exploration.
From Landungsbrucken, I took the public ferry back to HafenCity near the Elbphilarmonie. It was a very pushy crowd to get onto the ferry, but there was plenty of seating, and it was a very pleasant, five-minute ride. It definitely gives you a better view of the music hall than the land.
I had an underwhelming lunch at Pasta Pasta, on the same waterfront promenade as Saturday’s lunch, before heading back to the hotel and having a relaxing remainder of the day.
My last day in Hamburg was Monday (Labor Day), and though there were a series of mishaps, I did some cool things. In the morning, I wanted to rent a kayak and go around the Alster and some of the canals. But none of the boat rental places I found had kayaks. The closest I found was a rowboat, which I rented and promptly got stuck – they are not good for one, especially if one has never rented a rowboat before. The rental place allowed me to switch to a pedal boat, which I could easily do, and I had a lovely hour on both the inner and outer Alster. You can see a little video below. (At 20 EUR an hour, it was a bit pricey!)
My main plan for the afternoon was Miniatur Wunderland, which is a giant model railway/ miniature museum inside a former warehouse in Speicherstadt. It is also very, very popular, so I had pre-booked tickets in advance with a timed entry. I figured I’d grab some lunch on my way to my 2:30 booking, and saw a lovely-looking restaurant on a canal as I crossed over that canal. I figured out how to actually get there, and only after sitting realized it was Ti Breizh, “Brittany House,” serving nothing but crepes. I was a little disappointed, and the service was terrible, but the crepe I got was actually very delicious.
Miniatur Wunderland was a short walk away and was super crowded, even at 3pm on a Monday. There were a lot of tourists from the UK, and I was the only one who appeared to follow instructions and leave my backpack in a locker. It was pretty cool, though, and some of the models were insanely realistic. There were models of Hamburg, Las Vegas, various other European cities, the Alps, and Hamburg Airport. The lighting changed to represent different times of day, and the “street life” did as well. The control room is viewable as well, and itself fairly fascinating. Video below.
For my last meal in Hamburg, I went to Portonovo, a well-reviewed lakefront restaurant near the Fairmont that had come highly recommended. I didn’t have a reservation, but there were tons of tables outside. I was told I had to eat inside, and was assigned what seemed to be the only table in the place without a view. (A lot of folks walked up after me without reservations and got seated outside.) The inside was super warm, and got so dark that I was unable to see my food. The service was also atrocious, as no one seemed to know who was serving me. I had a delicious salad which took forever, and then fifty minutes later got my main dish – a pasta special with mushrooms and beef, which was good but lacking in beef. I had to flag the waiter down to get a second beer, but it didn’t come until well after I finished my meal. It wasn’t. Perhaps outside the ambience is better, but it seemed to be a lot of visiting businessmen. It wasn’t that expensive, 35 EUR all-in, but it was a ninety-minute meal which seemed ridiculous.
Bottom line: I loved Hamburg. It has a great vibe, and there’s so much to explore. It’s a pretty city, fairly compact, and not overrun with tourists. There’s a ton to see in the city, but it’s also a great base for exploring other parts of northwestern Germany.