Hamburg in northern Germany is a city that I knew little about, until I recently had the chance to join a press trip focused on sustainability in Hamburg.
The fact that the city authorities care about sustainability was already a big plus in my book, so I was looking forward to the trip.
Once I arrived, I discovered that Hamburg is a very cool city with plenty of sightseeing opportunities. It’s a port city, and most sights and activities are centered around the water.
Europe’s second largest port, Hamburg is filled with shipyards, docks, boats and canals. There are two rivers that run through the city, the Elbe and the Alster, and also two adjoining lakes.
A number of easy day trips can be made from Hamburg to destinations such as the Wadden Sea and the fairytale town of Bremen. But with so many things to do in Hamburg itself, you can entertain yourself here for several days without ever traveling beyond the city limits.
I found it really handy to have the Hamburg Card when sightseeing in Hamburg. With the card, you get free transport on all buses, trains and harbor ferries, plus discounted entry to more than 150 attractions.
Here are the top things to see and do in Hamburg:
This area became Hamburg’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015, and it’s not hard to see why. Speicherstadt is the world’s largest contiguous warehouse district, and its rows of 19th-century Gothic brick warehouses lined up along the canals are quite striking.
Goods from all over the world, such as coffee, tea, spices and tobacco, were stored here. Nowadays, the district is home to a number of attractions, such as the International Maritime Museum and Minitur Wunderland (see below).
The warehouses are built on oak piles hidden under the water, while everything above the waterline is a dark red brick. They are beautifully lit up at night by 800 spotlights.
You can admire the warehouses from one of the many bridges spanning the canals, or take a canal tour on a barge to see them from a different angle. These boat tours start from the St. Pauli landing bridges, but check the departure times carefully, as they vary with the tides.
Entrance: 13 euros, or 12 with the Hamburg Card
As you might have guessed, the name of this attraction means Miniature Wonderland. Located inside one of the Speicherstadt warehouses, this attraction is often described as the largest model railway system in the world.
And while that’s true, you’ll see a whole lot more than just model trains here. The trains pass by scenery and landmarks that from many different countries, all of which will be instantly recognizable to anyone who’s been to those places.
My favorite part was the miniature Rome, because it’s a city I have lived in and know very well. I can confirm that all the Roman monuments depicted were very accurate, so I can only imagine that the rest of the models must be too. It’s incredible how the model makers have included so much detail.
The creators are constantly adding new elements to Miniatur Wunderland, some of which portray very current events. For example, in the Arctic section, there is a miniature Greta Thunberg standing on an iceberg protesting the lack of action on climate change.
And a miniature version of the new Elbphilharmonie (see below) was recently inaugurated with much fanfare. In total, the display currently includes 13,000 meters of track and 3,660 buildings and bridges.
Miniature Wunderland is one of Hamburg’s most popular attractions and can get very busy. However, the opening hours are quite long, and on weekends they stay open until midnight.
If you go outside peak hours, you can avoid queuing up for tickets. The Miniatur Wunderland website shows the expected wait time for each hour of the day, so check this before you go and try to hit one of the least busy times (generally in the early morning or late evening)
Affectionately known as “Elphi” by the locals, this new concert hall just opened in 2017 and has already become one of Hamburg’s most famous landmarks. There are actually three concert halls inside, as well as a restaurant, a hotel and a public viewing platform.
The glass construction has been said to represent a wave, a hoisted sail of a boat, or even an iceberg. Whichever one is true, it’s clear that the designers were mindful of the importance of water for this port city.
Elbphilharmonie sits on a peninsula on the banks of the River Elbe in the new urban development project called HafenCity. It’s surrounded by water on three sides. The viewing platform, called The Plaza, sits 37 meters above ground.
As you can imagine, the views from here are spectacular. You’ll be able to see the busy port as well as the Speiicherstadt. In fact, Elphi itself is built on top of an old Speicherstadt warehouse. This is a great place to come for a drink at sunset.
Access to the platform is ticketed but free. Just go to the ticket booth and ask for a free ticket, then ride up the beautiful, curving escalator to the top.
Alternatively, it’s also possible to book your ticket in advance online for 2 euros. This shouldn’t really be necessary, though. The line may look long, but it moves pretty quickly.
St. Michaelis Church and Tower
St. Michaelis is the most famous Baroque church in northern Germany. It was first built in 1641, but it has been destroyed and rebuilt three times since then.
If you’re lucky, someone will be playing one of the three pipe organs inside the church when you visit. It’s very popular with tour groups, so it can get a bit crowded inside.
When planning your visit, keep in mind that a church service takes place from 11:45am to 12:30pm every day, and tourist visits are not possible during that time.
While entry to the church itself is free, it costs 5 euros to climb up the tower during the day, or 4 euros if you have a Hamburg Card. From the top you have great views over the city, and you can also watch a panoramic multimedia presentation about Hamburg and its history.
If you want some exercise you can take the stairs, but there’s also an elevator available. The tower is also open at night, when it costs 10.50 euros, or 9.50 with the Hamburg Card.
With the entrance ticket, you are allowed to enter twice on the same evening. This way, you can admire the skyline before sunset and then come back to see the city lit up at night.
Entrance: only by guided tour arranged in advance
The Hamburg city hall, or Rathaus in German, was built in the late 19th century in Neo-Renaissance style.
Its sandstone façade is quite imposing and completely dominates the busy square on which it stands. To give you an idea of just how big the Rathaus is, it has more rooms than Buckingham Palace!
The building houses not just city government offices but also the state parliament, and it can only be visited on a guided tour. Most visitors are happy just to admire it from the outside.
Inner Alster Lake
This attractive lake was created in the 13th century, when the Alster River was dammed. The Inner Alster is much smaller and more picturesque than its sister lake, the Outer Alster. Surrounded by grassy shores on three sides, it’s a popular area for jogging as well as water sports like rowing and sailing.
The canals near the lake are lined with shopping arcades, such as the Venetian-inspired Alsterarkaden. On its west side, the lake is flanked by the Jungfernsteig, a popular shopping promenade whose name translates roughly as “the Maiden’s Walk”.
In days gone by, wealthy families would come here for a Sunday stroll to show off their unwed daughters in the hopes of finding husbands for them.
While I can’t promise you will find a spouse here, I can promise you a delicious vegan burger! At the food court of the Europa Passage shopping mall, you’ll find Vincent Vegan. This place serves up amazing plant-based burgers, including some made with the famous Beyond Meat patty. And don’t miss the sweet potato fries!
Germany has been at the forefront of the vegan movement for some time now, so it's no surprise that there are plenty more great vegan eats in the city. I’ll be publishing a vegan guide to Hamburg in the coming weeks, so stay tuned for that!
Entrance: 15 euros, or 12.50 with the Hamburg Card
A great way to experience the Inner Alster is by taking a ride on the St. Georg steamship. There are several boats that ply the waters of the popular lake, but the St Georg is the only true Alster steamship still in operation.
It has been faithfully restored and is operated by a crew of three -- the captain, the engineer and the conductor -- just as it would have been in the old days.
By the way, St. Georg is also the name of a hip, gay neighbourhood that lies a little further east, on the banks of the Upper Alster. It’s known for its hip bars and cafés, art studios and quirky design shops. If you have the time, it’s definitely worth a visit.
Planten un Blomen
This beautiful park extends from St. Pauli to the Alster River. Its name means “plants and flowers” in Low German, and you’ll certainly find plenty of those here.
If your visit falls between May and September, come at 10pm to catch the water light show on the lake, with colored fountains and accompanying music.
And at any time of year, you can enjoy the botanical garden, the tropical greenhouse, and the largest Japanese garden in Europe, where you can experience a classic tea ceremony.
Also look for the rose garden, which has about 300 different varieties of roses. Many free concerts held here in the park. And kids and adults alike will love the huge open-air skating rink that converts from an ice rink in the winter to a roller rink in the summer.
Entrance: not allowed
This huge television tower was built in the 1960s. Its officially named the Heinrich Hertz Turm after a Germany physicist, but locals affectionately call it the “Telemichel”. In case you didn’t catch the reference, it’s a nod to Hamburg’s other famous tower, the one at St. Michaelis Church.
The total height of the tower is 279.8 meters. There used to be a restaurant and observation deck up top, but the tower has been closed to visitors for a couple of decades now because it doesn’t conform to current fire escape regulations.
City authorities are seeking investors willing to make the costly conversion, so hopefully one day it will reopen again. In any case, the tower stands just near the exit of Planten un Blomen, and you have a great view of it from the back of the gardens.
St. Pauli Landing Stages (Landungsbrücken)
From these floating docks, you have great views of the massive cruise ships and container ships that pass through Hamburg’s port. It’s a great place to come just for a stroll, and there are lots of attractions, such as Rickmer Rickmers, Cap San Diego, and the U-434 Submarine listed below.
This whole area is so huge that it’s easy to forget you’re walking on a floating platform. The first pontoons were built here in 1839 as docks for steam ships.
Nowadays, harbour boat tours leave from here. One popular boat tour company is Rainer Abicht, which offers one-hour harbour cruises for 20 euros, or 16 with the Hamburg Card. English commentary is available.
Entrance: 5 euros, or 4.20 with the Hamburg Card
Rickmer Rickmers was first launched in 1896 as a full-rigged ship made of steel. Over the years, it was propelled by wind, then steam, and finally diesel.
It has now been fully restored as a museum ship, and visitors can explore the different rooms, including the officers’ quarters and the engine room. There’s also a restaurant and an escape room on board.
Cap San Diego
Entrance: 7 euros, or 5.90 with the Hamburg Card
Another museum ship, this one is much larger than the Rickmer Rickmers. In fact, when it was built in 1961 it was the largest freight ship in the world. Its nickname is the “White Swan of the South Atlantic”.
Cap San Diego has been permanently anchored here since 1986, but it’s still seaworthy and sometimes sets off on voyages with passengers as a floating museum.
As an interesting alternative to a hotel, you can spend the night in one of the passenger cabins or the captain’s quarters. There’s also a restaurant and musical performances on board.
Old Elbe Tunnel
This pedestrian tunnel opened in 1911 and passes below the Elbe River at a depth of more than 20 meters.
It was the first river tunnel in continental Europe and was considered to be a marvel of civil engineering when it opened.
Now it’s a nostalgic piece of Hamburg history that is still used by locals to commute on foot or by bicycle from one side of the city to the other. A walk through the tunnel is also popular with tourists and is a great activity for a rainy day.
Entrance: 9 euros
This Russian submarine is the largest hunting and espionage submarine in the world. The Russians built it in 1976 and used it for spying throughout the Cold War.
It can reach a depth of 400 meters, though nowadays it stays above water near the St. Pauli Fish Market. Visitors can go inside and experience the sparse and cramped living conditions that the crew endured.
Reeperbahn is Hamburg’s red light district and is nicknamed die sündigste Meile (the most sinful mile). It was made famous in an old song called “On the Reeperbahn at Half Past Midnight”, which just about every German person knows.
The main drag is pretty quiet during the day, but it comes alive at night with table dance clubs, brothels and sex shops, as well as more mundane pubs, student bars and hamburger joints.
Speaking of hamburgers, be sure to grab a meal at the Fried Club, an all-vegan burger joint inside the Bidges & Sons eco-streetwear clothing store. Their rooftop terrace offers a great view of all the goings on down on the Reeperbahn.
This is undoubtedly the liveliest entertainment and nightlife district in Hamburg, although Sternschanze is starting to catch up.
Wilhemsburg was historically a poor district where Hamburg’s dock workers lived. Many of them were left unemployed when advances in cargo ship logistics made their jobs obsolete.
Nowadays, Wilhemsburg is a very multicultural area with 160 different nationalities represented, and it’s also home to many students. The whole area is being transformed into a showcase for sustainable building and community living.
As you wander around the neighborhood, you’ll see signs explaining the different building techniques used in the “case study houses” to create eco-friendly and affordable housing.
There is plenty of green space here, especially Wilhelmsburger Inselpark and Heuckenlock Nature Reserve. A fun way to experience Wilhemsburg is by renting a canoe to paddle along the many canals.
Walking Tours of Hamburg
Sandemans New Europe walking tour
This well-known tour company offers tip-based tours of the main attractions in Hamburg, plus fixed-price city tours of St. Pauli and the harbor. There’s also a sightseeing tour of Speicherstadt and HafenCity.
Shopping in Hamburg
Stuckgut is the city's first zero waste shop. You’ll find it inside the Rindermarkthalle (“cattle market hall”), which opened as a market and food hall in September 2014.
Bridge & Tunnel
This sustainable slow fashion label based in Wilhemsburg makes bags, cushions and fashion accessories from used denim, and they employ refugees and other disadvantaged people in Hamburg. Upcycling and the sustainable use of raw materials is what they’re all about.
I had the chance to visit the Bridge & Tunnel workshop as part of the sustainable Hamburg press tour, and I loved seeing the photos of the employees pinned up on the wall. Each item for sale has a tag with the name of the person who made it, so it was wonderful to be able to put faces to the names.
The workshop is not really a retail space, but you can order their products online through their website or donate your old jeans.
Hotels in Hamburg
Raphael Hotel Wȁlderhaus
I thoroughly enjoyed my stay at this Wilhelmsburg hotel, which is focused on sustainability and the forest. In fact, the name Wȁlderhaus means “forest house”. It was an obvious choice for our press trip, which was focused on sustainability in Hamburg.
Wȁlderhaus is a cooperative project between the Raphael hotel chain and an environmental organization that protects the forests in Germany. The hotel is built mostly of wood and has an “inhabited façade”, meaning that it provides shelter for many birds and small animals.
Each room in the hotel is named after a type of tree, and a trunk or branch of that tree features in the décor of the room. Furnishings are rustic, made of unfinished wood, and the toiletries are fully biodegradable and cruelty-free (though not all of them are vegan).
There’s also a science center exhibit on the premises. It’s kind of like a natural history museum that teaches visitors about the forest and the plants and animals that live in it.
I decided not to visit the exhibit when I saw that they have taxidermy displays there. I was uncomfortable with looking at the bodies of dead animals, especially since I thought they might have been killed just to be put on display.
It turns out, most animals in taxidermy displays are donated to museums after they are already dead. Knowing this, I’m more comfortable from an ethical perspective with visiting the Walderhaus Science Center than I would be with visiting the Tierpark Hagenbeck zoo, for example.
Green Haven Vegan Bed & Breakfast
For a fully vegan experience, check out Green Haven Vegan Bed & Breakfast. I didn’t get a chance to visit this place this time around, but I would love to stay here the next time I return to Hamburg.
The trailer out on the terrace looks like a cosy place for a short stay, and they also offer larger bedrooms and even a full apartment.
The furniture is mostly upcycled or reused, the towels and bed linen are fair trade certified and made of organic cotton, and all detergents and other products used are vegan. Human children and fur babies are welcome.
And if you're looking for more places to visit in Germany, check out these great holiday options in and around Lake Constance.
Many thanks to Hamburg Tourismus and Raphael Hotel Walderhaus for hosting me on this trip. As always, opinions expressed here are entirely my own.