3 Days in Hamburg: A Long Weekend Itinerary
Is Hamburg Worth Visiting?
After a recent, and unexpectedly brilliant, weekend in this lesser-known German city, I can absolutely confirm that Hamburg is worth visiting. To prove it, here’s an itinerary for 3 days in Hamburg. From live music to boat tours, visiting a UNESCO World Heritage site to sampling world-class coffee, Hamburg is a city that might just surprise you.
It’s the weekend in Hamburg’s world famous Fischmarkt and the sun has made a welcome appearance. Ringing my bell, I cycle through the crowds – navigating stalls overflowing with gawping seabream, electric pink peonies and oversized oranges.
Competing aromas fill the air: the smell of frying sausages, aromatic coffee blends and Hamburg’s favourite hangover cure – fish sandwiches. I pass a group of partygoers who have joined the market from the nearby clubs on the Reeperbahn, ending their night over trays of Labskaus – a traditional dish of pickled herring, beef mince, beetroot and fried egg.
Passing them are those who are just starting their day, browsing goods from the makeshift stalls nestled inside the boots of cars. ‘Moin!’ people shout across the crowds – Hamburg’s signature greeting echoing along the warehouse lined street. Somewhere, a ship’s horn blows and a few startled gulls take to the skies: a reminder of the city’s lifelong love affair with the sea. Cycling through this early morning scene, the sun glittering on the surface of the famous River Elbe, I couldn’t think of any place I’d rather be.
Hamburg is already a city I’m a little captivated.
Where is Hamburg, Germany?
Hamburg, Germany’s second largest city, often fails to make travel headlines.
Somewhere between Berlin’s techno clubs and hipster scene, and the well-heeled streets of Munich, Hamburg goes overlooked. Indeed, prior to visiting the city, I’d have been pushed to tell you anything of Hamburg’s attractions.
Close to Denmark, located in Northern Germany, Hamburg’s isolated geographic location has meant that the city has been less interested by the goings-on of the country below it and more concerned with the cold Baltic waters surrounding it.
A city connected to over 170 countries, via 900 ports, Hamburg has, since its early days in the Hanseatic League, shrugged off its wholly German character and instead adopted a distinctly cosmopolitan personality: dealing with silk traders from Asia, tobacco merchants from South America, and sailors from the humid shores of Mumbai.
Like many seafaring cities, Hamburg boasts an entirely different character from its landlocked peers; one built on a passion for the unique, a tolerance of the different and a genuine sense of adventure.
As my guide told me when I first arrived: ‘in Hamburg, the world’s your oyster’.
Things To Do in Hamburg, Germany
1. Take a Harbour Boat Tour
Start your 3-day Hamburg itinerary with a boat tour of Hamburg’s harbour.
I spent a weekend in Hamburg over the city’s most important annual festival: the hafengeburtstag, or ‘Harbour Anniversary.’ It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of the harbour and the pride Hamburg’s residents feel towards it. To honour this, a large, internationally-recognised festival is held each year, recalling the year 1189 when Emperor Frederick Barbarossa granted Hamburg’s merchants the freedom to trade.
Eight hundred and twenty eight years later, and the city is still reaping the rewards of this decision, declaring itself one of Germany’s wealthiest cities.
Hamburg’s notorious rain falling, I walked tentatively down the wooden planks to our boat: a traditional German barge that would have transported goods along the winding Elbe river.
Our captain for the day, dressed in a heavy coat and traditional captain’s cap, was also a successful local businessman, owning one of the city’s hotels. However, in his spare time, he enjoyed nothing more than taking to the waters of the North Sea – something I sensed was a pastime shared by many of his fellow residents.
Salty sea air and open waters run in the veins of these Hamburgians. As we began our journey, we were met with hundreds of other boats: some were traditional barges like our own, others – elegant sailing yachts, historical steamboats and industrial freight ships. An enormous cruise boat led the way; a proud big sister to the gaggle of smaller vessels. Horns blaring, tooting and beeping, we were all here to join the parade.
Our guide explained that each year over 300 boats from around the world joined this maritime festival, sailing up and down the Elbe river in an enormous display of nautical tradition.
As we bobbed behind in our little wooden boat, clutching steaming cups of coffee and herring sandwiches, I felt quite proud to be part of such a big event.
By the evening and the festival had hit full swing. Lining the banks of the river, including Hamburg’s floating dock, were hundreds of stalls selling everything from beer to sugar coated waffles. A concert was being held nearby, with crowds dancing and singing to an Abba tribute band.
The climax of the night was an enormous firework display that lit the River Elbe up in pinks, purples and shimmering gold. An enormous cruise ship sounded its horn and the little boats followed: a final salute to the waters that form the lifeblood of this city.
If you want to discover more about Hamburg’s watery history, head to the International Maritime Museum.
2. Explore the Portuguese Quarter
‘Obrigada’, I said, carrying a traditional Portuguese custard tart over to my table.
Eating a forkful of the thick, creamy tart, I felt like I was in the middle of Lisbon; the small crowd around me speaking a mix of Spanish and Portuguese. I was, however, still in the heart of Hamburg; nestled in the middle of the city’s established Portuguese Quarter, or Portugiesenviertel.
Beginning in the 1960s, when Portuguese families moved to the city to work at its prosperous port, the area sits just behind the Landungsbrücken harbour and occupies just a few streets. Yet these streets are thriving, brimming with authentic Portuguese tapas restaurants, pastelerias and popular bars – Portuguese flags hanging proudly over balcony railings. Be sure to head to O Pescador, for plates of juicy calamari, or Pastel de Nata, for the city’s best baked delicacies.
Close to this area is also Hamburg’s treasured St. Michaelis Church, a building whose soaring spire was the first thing that returning sailors would see as they made their way up the famous river. Cited as one of Northern Germany’s most beautiful baroque churches, its candle-lit interior and 20 metre high alter is a wonderful place for quiet contemplation.
3. Visit St. Pauli District, Hamburg
A short walk from the Portuguese district sits St. Pauli, an incredibly popular part of the city. Once one of Hamburg’s less salubrious quarters, St. Pauli was the traditional stomping ground for sailors looking to wile away the hours in bars and brothels. ‘A girl in every port’, as the saying goes.
Today, the area is still host to legalised prostitution (there are a lot of stag parties to Hamburg), but it’s also an area where residents, young and old, come to join the crowded bars, restaurants and music venues. Walking though the area’s Reeperbahn – a street brimming with sizzling street food, bars and music halls – it’s impossible not to get caught up in the atmosphere. A testament to the open-mindedness of Hamburg, here strip clubs sit alongside elegant music halls, home to orchestras and renowned composers.
Walking through St. Pauli, it’s impossible to ignore the enormous range of music on offer. From up-market jazz halls, to pop up rock gigs in the middle of the street, it seems that whilst Hamburg is devoted to the sea, it also has a mistress: music. Indeed, you might remember John Lennon’s famous line: ‘I was born in Liverpool, but grew up in Hamburg’ – a reference to the training ground that the city provided the Beatles, from 1960 – 1962.
With diverse venues such as Uebel & Gefährlich – a once World War II Nazi bunker – and Hamburg’s famous The Golden Pudel, the city is a tapas of musical styles, exciting sounds and eclectic venues. This is just one reason why I think Hamburg makes for such a fantastic weekend break.
4. Visit the Elbphilharmonie
Perhaps the city’s most valued haunts is its Elbphilharmonie: an enormous concert hall that rises from the city skyline like a giant wave.
Taking over twelve years to complete, this glass-clad building, filled with smooth, undulating wood and enormous light spaces, is undeniably beautiful. Arriving on a quiet Saturday morning, the sound of piano recitals drifting through the entrance, I could have spent my entire day here.
Now Hamburg’s central tourist attraction, the Elbphilharmonie offers two concert halls, the largest being the Grand Hall. Stepping inside, watching as the local orchestra practiced for their afternoon recital, it was like being inside an enormous, shimmering pearl. From the roof hung thousands of hand-blown lights, lighting the hall like swarms of fireflies. The rows of seats curved, forming gentle waves of their own. The building was the perfect gesture to the city’s two passions: music, housed within a giant wave.
This concert hall is one of the top sights in Hamburg and well-worth a visit. We would highly recommend the guided walking tour of the concert hall.
5. Visit Speicherstadt (UNESCO World Heritage Site)
Whilst the Elbphilharmonie is perhaps the modern depiction of Hamburg’s lifelong affair with the sea, the UNESCO protected Speicherstadt – the world’s largest warehouse complex – is its historical representation.
Built in 1883, the area is filled with towering red brick buildings, overlooking Hamburg’s ‘fleets’ or canals. It feels strangely similar to downtown New York; steel bridges guiding you through the large buildings. Whilst small (much of Hamburg was bombed entirely during World War II), this area is a reminder of the city’s rich seafaring heritage and beauty. It is also filled with eccentric places to eat, including the nearby Oberhafenkantine, a wonderfully wonky building that pitches forward, causing the dangling lights to permanently slant sideways.
A visit here is definitely one of the best things to do in Hamburg.
6. Take a Bike Ride to Blankense, Hamburg
Once belonging to Denmark, the area of Blankense sits outside of Hamburg’s traditional city walls and traces the route of the River Elbe – out to sea. Riding alongside its sparkling water, passing beaches filled with families and dog walkers, central Hamburg soon fades behind you as you head towards this beautiful area.
Here you can enjoy some wonderfully fresh seafood, bask in the sunshine on a beach, or explore the area’s leafy suburbs (and beautiful houses).
Some good cycle routes, from Hamburg to Blankense, can be found here.
7. Visit Miniatur Wunderland, Hamburg (Home to the World’s Largest Model Railway)
If you’re travelling with children (or to be honest, even without), a weekend in Hamburg would not be complete without a visit to Miniatur Wunderland.
Located in Speicherstadt, Miniature Wonderland is home to the world’s largest model railway (50,000 feet of it, in fact), which winds itself through miniature lands, such as New York, Scandinavia and Venice.
Tip: skip the long queues and book ahead. Children shorter than 3 feet go free, children under 16 will need to pay 12.50 euros and adult tickets cost 20 euros.
8. Visit Hamburg’s Fish Market
As mentioned at the start of this guide to a weekend in Hamburg, a stroll (or cycle) through the city’s famed fish market (Fischmarkt) on a Sunday morning is a brilliant thing to do.
From 5am onwards, some 70,000 visitors and locals descend on Hamburg’s fish market, located in St Pauli. Open since 1703, the market is famed for not only its fish but its Marktschreier (market criers). It also boasts, quite unexpectedly for a fish market, live bands that entertain the crowds with niche, German pop songs.
The whole experience is surreal, yet wonderful and definitely something to do during 3 days in Hamburg (or during a stag party to Hamburg).
Visiting Hamburg: FAQs
Getting From Hamburg Airport to the City Centre
The easiest way to get from Hamburg airport to the city centre is by train or bus, but plenty of taxis are available if you have a lot of luggage with you.
1. Train from Hamburg Airport: 25 minutes (trains run every 10 minutes)
You can reach the train station (S-Bahn) from terminals 1 and 2 in arrivals at Hamburg Airport. This was the option we took and it was was incredibly quick and easy. The train station is connected to the airport, and visitors change after one stop from the airport, to take the underground straight into Hamburg Central Station.
2. Bus from Hamburg Airport: 45 minutes (buses run every 20-30 minutes)
The bus stops directly in front of Terminal 1 one, on Level 0 of arrivals and takes passengers straight into central Hamburg – easy.
3. Taxi from Hamburg Airport
The final option for transport to and from Hamburg airport is by taxi. Expect to pay 30-50 euros for a 25-minute journey. Personally, I would opt for the train, unless you have a lot of luggage (and money to burn).
What’s the Best Hotel in Hamburg?
During our own weekend break in Hamburg, we stayed in the fantastic 25hours Hotel Hafencity.
Designed to reflect Hamburg’s industrious character, with an industrial chic design (the rooftop sauna can be found within an old shipping container), the hotel is also a nod to the city’s seafaring character – with each room designed like a cabin and photographic portraits of sailors dominating each wall.
25hours Hotel Hafencity, the nicest hotel in Hamburg, is located just a one-minute walk from the Hafencity metro station and is a brilliant location to base yourself. Overlooking Hamburg Harbour, it’s also a stone’s throw from the Hamburg Maritime Museum.
Double rooms begin at around £151 per night and breakfast will set you back an extra £21.
Using a Hamburg Card City Card
The Hamburg Card is a brilliant way to save money while visiting the city.
The 3-day card costs 28.90 Euros per person (group ticket prices are also available) and will entitle you to the following:
- Free travel by bus, train and harbour ferries
- Free travel applies to and from the airport
- Covers all the relevant areas of Hamburg (areas A&B)
- 50% discount on over 150 tourist attractions
If you’re an art lover, we can also highly recommend the Hamburg 3-Day Art Exhibition and Gallery Pass.
How Do You Get Around Hamburg?
We found getting around the city very easy and during our weekend in Hamburg, we used train, bikes, taxis and walked, ensuring that we explored this fantastic destination to its fullest.
Don’t forget to get your Hamburg card so you can ride for free on all of the below.
For design lovers, the underground (U-Bahn) is worth riding alone, simply to see the new HafenCity University metro station. Cool, cube lights fill the station and change colour continually. This is complemented by classical music, which plays between 10am and 6pm every weekend.
One-way tickets cost around 1,80 euros (short haul) and 3,50 euros for rings A & B (covering most of central Hamburg).
It goes without saying that it’s a rather more enjoyable experience than London’s underground.
2. Bike rental in Hamburg
StadtRAD Hamburg is the city’s bike rental scheme. These bright red bikes can be found throughout the city and can be hired through the StadtRAD Hamburg app. You do have to pay an annual fee, rather than a daily fee, but at 5 euros for the year, with 30-minutes free riding everyday day, I think it’s worth the money (even if you are only spending a weekend in Hamburg).
3. Explore Hamburg by Foot
We explored much of Hamburg by foot and found it a very walkable city. There are a number of free self-guided walking tours of Hamburg, to make sure you take in all the sights and sounds.
4. Are there Buses in Hamburg?
As well as an extensive train network, Hamburg also has frequent buses that follow most routes through the city.
Personally, I think the train is the easiest way to get around and we were able to move around the sights of the city quickly and comfortably this way.