Most backpackers make a beeline for Berlin when visiting Germany, and for good reason, but it’s also worth factoring in some time to see Hamburg, too. Boasting one of the largest seaports in the world but located almost 70 miles inland, Hamburg has long been referred to as the gateway to the world in Germany and it’s easy to see why. At every turn you’ll be reminded you’re near the water and on the edge of something spectacular. Owing to its seaport status, Hamburg rose up a wealthy metropolis in the Middle Ages, and is still Germany’s most important trading post.
Where to go and what to see in Hamburg
Ok, it’s not the most original sightseeing experience but Hamburg’s hop-on hop-off bus service is the easiest way to get your bearings. Jump aboard the red double-decker to see the city’s main attractions, it’s a great way of helping you decide where to explore further. Tickets cost from €18 for a full city tour (it takes about 2 hours) and you can upgrade your ticket to get a one-hour harbour cruise included.
Or you could register for StadtRAD, Hamburg’s bike rental network. This way you can hire a bicycle at one of the city’s many rental stations. The red and white bikes are a familiar sight, used by commuters and visitors alike. They’re a great way to explore under your own steam; simply return the bike to the nearest rental point when you’re finished. You can pay by the minute or day and the first half hour’s free! For a unique perspective on the city get on yourbike and follow theHafenerlebnisroute, a cycle trail that winds its way through a maze of freighters and containers at Hamburg port.
To see the city from a completely different angle, you can rent a kayak or paddleboard and explore Hamburg’s myriad waterways. It’s one of very few European cities that can be explored from the water and you get to see a lot more than you do on land. Hire a kayak at one of the rental shops on Lake Alster or along theDornheim or Osterndorf canals and head off for an adventure. Locals and travellers both claim it’s the best way to see Hamburg.
Finding culture in Hamburg
History lover or not, you can’t visit the imposing capital of the Hanseatic League without immersing yourself the story of this beautiful maritime city. Even if you just dip your toe and wander the streets, the past surrounds you, reflected in the functional yet inspiring northern European architecture.
You can also spend an afternoon in one of Hamburg’s many museums and galleries. There’s something to suit all tastes here. The Hamburger Kunsthalle is one of the largest galleries in Germany. Seven centuries of art history are showcased in the permanent collection, from the medieval altars of Master Bertram to the contemporaneous brilliance of Gerhard Richter.
Any epicureans here? You’ll love Spicy’s, the only museum in Europe dedicated to spice. Housed on the second floor of a warehouse building on Am Sandtorkai you’ll uncover the history of spices and get to touch and smell over 50 different varieties.
Still not titillated? The Erotic Art Museum on the Reeperbahn is home to the world’s biggest collection of sexual art. It boasts over 1,000 pieces charting 1,500 years of sensual evolution. Good for a laugh, and you might even learn a thing or two…
Nightlife in Hamburg
No visit to Hamburg would be complete without a visit to the Reeperbahn, the city’s red-light district. The area started life as Hamburg’s rope-making district but evolved into the city’s garden of earthly delights in the 19th century when entertainment was banned from other districts.
Many claim Reeperbahn has had its day. With the closure of the historic Hotel Luxor, Hamburg’s oldest brothel, in 2008, the street in St Pauli is less sexy and more silly these days. Instead of sex theatres, now restaurants, bars and nightclubs line the Große Freheit (roughly translated as, ahem, Great Freedom) but if you look you can still find the old, infamous Reeperbahn. Brave the barriers of the Herbertstraße (women are fully entitled to visit too, despite the warning signs) and you’ll find the district’s few remaining sex shops, brothels and sex shows. Whatever your views, it’s worth a trip, even if just to say you’ve been there.
If Reeperbahn’s not your cup of tea then follow the locals to Schanzenviertel, north of St Pauli. This pretty, leafy district is home to Hamburg’s bright young things and is rapidly establishing itself as the city’s new centre for nightlife. If you like your shops boutique, your bars quirky and your restaurants independent then Schanzenviertelis the place for you. The Schanze is the beating heart of modern Hamburg, a great place to shop by day and party by night. With loads of cheap hangouts to eat and drink you’ll get a real taste of Hamburg, rubbing shoulders with the locals.
Eating in Hamburg
First off, don’t anyone mention hamburgers! Yes, it might have been the inspiration for that most iconic of snack foods but there’s so much more to food in Hamburg. With too many great eateries to mention, here are a few of our favourites.
Out and about in the Schanzenviertel? Try Bullerei on Lagerstraße, a restaurant and deli serving modern German food – be warned, this is probably not the place for vegetarians!
If you’re venturing further afield, Gia Pham in Wedel, west of downtown Hamburg, serves great-value, delicious Pan-Asian cuisine. Resembling a film set straight out of a martials arts movie, Gia Pham prides itself on preparing tasty fusion food at a fraction of city centre prices. The freshly prepared sushi rolls are delicious and come in at just a few euros for a platter, or the menu also includes well-known Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese dishes too.
Of course, no visit to Hamburg would be complete without sampling some of the city’s famous seafood. And what better way to do it than aboard a ship? Das Feuerschiffis a refurbished vessel that serves freshly caught seafood and regional dishes. For a true taste of maritime Hamburg try one of the many herring dishes or the plaice, simply cooked. It’s a bit tricky to find but head to the port and look for the big red fireship docked at City Sporthafen.
Finding accommodation in Hamburg
Ask anyone who’s backpacked to Hamburg and they’ll probably tell you to head for Backpackers St. Pauli. Like most hostels, it’s no frills but with low prices and an location smack bang in the middle of the city it’s a great choice, tried and tested by hoards of backpackers before you. I stayed at the Generator opposite the station and thought it was a great hostel, but they need to turn that damn heating down. So hot in there!
If you want to stay central but don’t want the hassle of downtown Hamburg, stay at the 25hours Hotel on the harbour. There are two 25hours in Hamburg, both impeccably designed with offbeat décor and vogueish fixtures. The 25hours HafenCity Hotel is great because it’s located right on the harbour in the up-and-coming, ultramodern Hafencity district.
Experience backpacking the German way and stay atElbeCamp on the banks of the mighty River Elbe. It’s an idyllic spot, surrounded by lush woodland and close to a beautiful beach, but with easy access to Hamburg centre. The campsite is secure and has well-kept facilities. It’s a pretty special place, made even better by the super friendly staff, and provides a wonderful tonic to the craziness of city life.
Top five experiences in Hamburg
1. Rent a StadtRAD bike and explore the city without a map.
2. Climb the stairs of St. Michael’s Church (Englische Planke) for a breathtaking view of the city and port.
3. Have lunch at the Park Café (on Susannenstraße) in the trendy Schanzenviertel district, let the afternoon turn into evening and see where it goes!
4. While away a Saturday morning browsing for bargains at the Flohschanze (fleamarket) on Alte Rinderschlachthalle.
5. Get up early and eat fischbrötchen (a fish and salad bun) for breakfast at the Altona Fish Market. The market’s open every Sunday, 5am-9:30am – here beer and Oompah bands at 8am are the most normal thing in the world!