As the second largest city in Germany just after Berlin, Hamburg is the country’s surprising, lesser-known gem. It’s a city that’s a little rough around the edges with one of the world’s oldest red light districts, but also polished in the center with ornate historical buildings and a number of impressive canals.
The Northern European city is nearly surrounded by water on all sides, making it one of the busiest ports in the world after London and New York. Hamburg’s waterways create a city with surprising small beaches, waterfront dining and a year-round view of towering ships carrying goods through the Elbe River. When you’re ready to explore a place that still remains a mystery to many in the shadow of other German cities, head to Hamburg for these experiences.
Canteens have always fed port cities, and Oberhafen-Kantine is no exception. The historic waterfront restaurant is tucked below the Upper Harbour Bridge in HafenCity, and was founded in 1925. Due to the effects of storms over the years, the restaurant sits on an incline, making for an interesting dining experience. Try the local German beers, Frikadeller (meatballs), and labskaus—a Northern German favorite that includes salted meat, onion and potato. You can also order the original hamburger here, which is simply a huge slab of pork between two pieces of crusty bread topped with gravy.
Photo: Kristin Braswell
A little bit hipster and a lot of cool, Schanze is a cultural center that reflects Hamburg’s diversity of local life—namely, the original working class who have always lived in the area, resistant squatters from various countries, and newcomers gentrifying the neighborhood. International restaurants, sidewalk cafes and music stores make Schanze a trendy and attractive neighborhood to visit. Every Saturday, a flea market called the “Flohschanze” fills up with locals on the lookout for quirky housewares.
3. The Church of St. Nikolai
The Church of St. Nikolai is a standing reminder of Hamburg’s war torn past. The remnants of the Gothic Church are scarce due to air raids during World War II, but visitors can ride an elevator to the top of the Church for a 360-degree view of the city.
4. Strand Pauli
Photo: Christian Spahrbier
A beach is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when imagining an industrial German city, which is exactly why Strand Pauli should not be missed when visiting Hamburg. Located on the banks of the Elbe River, this is the place to be when the weather warms up. Grab a cocktail, sink your toes into the sand and enjoy some people watching.
5. Reeperbahn in St. Pauli
The Reeperbahn (pictured at top) is the center of Hamburg’s red light district. While not as seedy as it was during the 1960s and 1970s, it is still a place to get lost somewhere between the past and present of sex tourism, and live music with the international crowds who flood its streets. The Reeperbahn is also where the Beatles started their music career, performing at places like Star-Club and Indra in the 1960s. Guided tours of the band’s musical journey during this time are available for visitors.
6. Elbe Philharmonic Hall
Photo: Thies Raetzke
There is no Hamburg building more striking than the Elbephilharmonie, a glass structured concert hall located on the waterfront of the Elbe River. The massive building will house 2,100 guests when completed and be the tallest building in Hamburg at 360 feet. It will also house a hotel and two smaller concert halls.
7. Miniatur Wunderland
Eccentricity thrives at the Miniatur Wunderland. It is home to the largest model railway in the world, built by the twins Gerrit and Frederik Braun. In this miniature museum, trains whizz overhead and mini-cities spring to life. There is also a fascinating miniature exhibition that depicts the history of Berlin, from the end of World War II to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
8. Empire Riverside Hotel
High above the twinkling lights of boats on the Elbe River hang even more lights inside the Empire Riverside Hotel’s 20Up. Bachelors, tourists and locals mingle in this hot spot until the wee hours of the morning for its truly magnificent view and decadent cocktails.
Kristin Braswell is a travel writer based in Brooklyn, New York. When she’s not traveling, she’s on Instagram and Twitter, and trying to catch up on sleep due to jetlag.