German people I know love Hamburg, the city in the northern part of their country. They all do. They love the energy, the urban vibe and the feeling of being close to the essence of what a unique and diverse city should be like. Still I experienced difficulties describing Hamburg. It’s a pretentious city for sure. Not on the level of Berlin, but just look at the polished Speicherstadt (Warehouse district) and the new development area near the harbor called Hafencity. The recently opened Elbphilharmonie concert hall is acoustically considered to be one of a kind and design wise might be able to even compete with the Sidney Opera House.
Hamburg, a pretentious city that still keeps its feet on the ground. It’s a harbor city, and this maritime spirit still infuses the place. Hard working sailors and tradesmen created the wealth of the city, now being the 3rd biggest port in Europe after Antwerp and Rotterdam. Visitors are being ‘warned’: If you haven’t been on a boat, you haven’t been to Hamburg.
There is more to Hamburg, of course. When you move out of the polished areas into the older residential parts, you feel the real urban vibe of the city. Districts like St. Pauli, Karoviertel and Schanzenviertel are the unpolished part. Here you get a glimpse into a layer of society that is vibrant, open-minded and creative.
Where to go and what to do in Hamburg?
This diverse city is probably not on many people’s bucket list, yet (city trip competition in Germany is huge). And honestly speaking that is the cool thing about Hamburg. Should it be on your list? If you are a fan of exploring cities (where Hamburg is not that widespread), and looking for something different, consider paying Hamburg a visit. In case you are still unsure, I have listed the most interesting destinations and things to do in Hamburg. Are you ready for Hamburg?
1. Speicherstadt and Hafencity
Our first stop in Hamburg: Speicherstadt (Warehouse District). Here you find the spots that have made Hamburg famous on Instagram. The red-bricked warehouses with canals and bridges. Some call it the Venice of the North. This world’s largest integrated complex of warehouses was built in 1883 and since 1991, this unique district has been given historic monument protection.
The warehouses are all still in use (you actually have the largest storage of oriental rugs in the whole of Europe) and you see lifting and storage activity here and there. This is an area that has grown because of the increasing attention: it now has its share of (new) museums, bars and restaurants. Photographers, bring your tripod for some cool evening photography. At that time of day, the red brick buildings and steel bridges are artfully illuminated by 800 spotlights.
In the center of Speicherstadt there is an amazing spot for culinary enthusiasts: Vlet Restaurant (Vlet in der Speicherstadt). At Vlet you are being treated not only as a guest, but also as a friend who has returned to town after a long time. In between the dishes you ordered, the chefs at Vlet surprise you with some of their special culinary creations. It feels as if they have prepared that especially for you, the returned friend.
Our 3 course menu was selected by the chef. The herb-crunch-soil with vegetables and blossoms was a totally unexpected combination of ingredients. The following variations of veal (saddle and cheek) had an amazing taste. Divine. Wine selection was perfect and we left the restaurant with a big smile on our face!
Nearby Hafencity (Harbor City) is an example of modern urban planning, with apartments, offices and lots of bars and restaurants on the Elbe boulevard. This former part of the Hamburg harbor has been totally restored, being the largest, ongoing, urban regeneration program in Europe. Totally different from the historic Speicherstadt, it does make a nice place to wander or bike around. Enjoy the views from the steps of the Magellan or Marco Polo terraces. A place also to escape the bustle of the chaotic city that Hamburg can be.
2. The port of Hamburg and the Landungsbrücken
Hamburg has long been the Gateway to Europe. Boats docked at the Landungsbrücken which nowadays still plays an important role in the city. From this 700 meter long floating platform (with the first pontoons being built in 1839) ferries, harbor tours and steamships leave. You can book a one or two-hour trip, for example at Barkassen-Meyer.
The platform with its share of (mediocre) restaurants, ship owners trying to sell you boat trips, and souvenir shops has a kind of past glory atmosphere. But on the other hand, sitting here watching all the activity (including ships passing by) is a must when in Hamburg. From Landungsbrücken you can also enter the 1911 Elbe tunnel. Enter for free and walk 426 meters to the other side of the river.
Of course we went on a boat trip! The trip provides you with views on the activity in the harbor, but also shows you how the city is developing through urban development on all levels.
3. Bike tour
We always aim to do a bike tour when exploring a city (like the ones we have done in Barcelona, Rio de Janeiro or even New Delhi, India). You feel so much closer to city life and a bike brings you to places that you would not have found when on foot or in a car. In Hamburg we went on a 3hour bike tour via Hamburg City Cycles. Guided by Philip (originally from Australia) we went on the so-called Hamburg Compact tour (passing all the highlights).
We biked from the Hamburg City Cycles office in St. Pauli straight through Speicherstadt, HafenCity and many other great places in Hamburg (most of them will be featured separately in part 2 of this blog). One surprise I want to mention here was Park Fiction. It’s actually more an art project in the shape of a park. In the 80s lots of buildings in the neighborhood were demolished and new ones being constructed. In order to preserve an open space with a harbor view, local artists and residents worked together to create this green urban space. Great place to relax with lovely views!
After having dropped your bikes it’s time to treat yourself to a drink at Hamburg’s one and only beach club: Strand Pauli! Lay yourself down in one of the beach chairs, look at the palm (!) trees and the ships passing by…. Surprising Hamburg.
Do also check part 2 where I will show you more great places and things to do in Hamburg: the best architecture, the red-light district, the city’s lake and the city center with all its monuments. Have you been to Hamburg? Which spots in Hamburg did you specifically like?
This trip was part of the Come to Hamburg promotional initiative. I would like to thank the city of Hamburg and the Gute Leude Fabrik for organizing our stay. On the Come to Hamburg blog you can also find information about upcoming events.
I want to leave you with this amazing picture, shot by the Hamburg Police Department some years ago. What a city!