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Elbphilharmonie concert hall, Hamburg, Germany

An essential guide to 48 hours in Hamburg

Hamburg was voted one of the world’s top 10 most livable cities in 2016 and 2017.

As Germany’s second biggest city, it has both a historic old town as well as unique modern buildings. It’s got alternative areas covered in street art, a thriving arts and music scene, a happening nightlife district, and a variety of fantastic restaurants with vegetarian and vegan options on nearly every menu.

I was drawn to Hamburg when it came up in conversation with friends a few times as we talked about our travels. Their positive recommendations made me excited to include it on my winter Eurotrip itinerary. It did not disappoint – by the end of my 2 week stay in the city, I really felt like I’d settled into Hamburg. It was almost as though I’d lived there for years.

Rob and I spent a full weekend seeing the sights, so this 2-day Hamburg itinerary is based on a Saturday/Sunday schedule. If you’ll be travelling midweek, you can of course still do most of these activities though there will be one or two that won’t be possible.

Views from St Michael's Church in Hamburg

Where to stay in Hamburg:

As per usual, I did some research on the trendiest areas to stay in the city and landed on St Pauli. St Pauli has some great spots, but without really knowing the area I ended up booking a place near Reeperbahn – the late-night entertainment district. Staying there would be more appropriate for people who want to spend their evenings hitting up the clubs (not me!).

The accommodation at Boardinghouse St Pauli was ok, though Rob and I found it to be lacking in some areas. Next time, I’d choose to stay in the northern end of St Pauli at NH Collection or at one of the hostels in nearby Sternschanze (like Hostel Superbude).

How to get around Hamburg:

Hamburg’s city centre is walkable if you don’t mind a bit of exercise. There is also a fairly comprehensive metro system which is easy to navigate. If you’re planning on getting the Hamburg Card for sightseeing, this should include unlimited free metro travel.

You can also rent bikes to get around Hamburg, though I found the bike infrastructure to be less good than some other German cities. Another option is electric scooters that you can rent if you download one of the apps – Rob already had the Lime app downloaded because the same company offers bikes in Sydney, so we hopped on the e-scooters a few times when we couldn’t be bothered walking.

Many people in Hamburg know some English so it is possible to get by without speaking the German language, however, it would definitely be an advantage if you know basic German phrases and even better if you take advanced German lessons before your trip. Rob and I both know a small amount of German and it made travelling through Germany a bit easier.

Day one Hamburg itinerary:

Day one Hamburg itinerary map

1 – Flohschanze (St Pauli flea market)
2 – Planten un Blomen
3 – Binnenalster (Inner Alster Lake) + Jungfernsteig promenade
4 – Rathaus (City Hall) + Rathausmarkt (Market Square)
5 – Speicherstadt (warehouse district)
6 – Elbphilharmonie concert hall

Guitars and suitcases for sale at the St Pauli flea market in Hamburg
Wares for sale at Flohschanze

If you’re staying in St Pauli, start your weekend at Flohschanze (St Pauli flea market). This market near the Feldstraße U-bahn Station is on every Saturday and has a variety of stalls where people go to buy second hand clothing, records, jewellery, or other knick-knacks.

We didn’t buy anything, but Rob and I really enjoyed seeing all the sticker art and murals that decorate the walls around here. You can also grab a morning coffee and a bite to eat in this area – we stopped in at Sehr Schmeck on Marktstraße for a latte before moving on to our next stop.

Views of the Heinrich Hertz Tower from Planten un Blomen in Hamburg
Succulents in the Tropical Greenhouses at the Botanic Garden, Planten un Blomen in Hamburg
Top: Heinrich Hertz tower / Bottom: Tropical Greenhouses at the Botanical Garden

From the flea market, it’s a 15 minute walk to Planten un Blomen (which translates to ‘Plants and Flowers’). This huge park is one of the biggest in the city and has some great views of the iconic Heinrich Hertz telecommunications tower – I snapped the one above from the picturesque Japanese Garden.

You absolutely must go in to the Tropical Greenhouses at the Botanical Garden. There are five interconnecting greenhouses each with plants from varying climates, and the paths that wind through the conservatory are super pretty! My fave was definitely the succulent and cactus garden.

The Jungfernsteig promenade at Binnenalster (Inner Alster Lake), Hamburg
Jungfernsteig at Binnenalster

Next, head to Binnenalster (Inner Alster Lake). This artificial lake was once inside the city walls of Hamburg and served as a reservoir. Nowadays it provides neat views of the city, and if you feel so inclined you can do a boat cruise on the water. Some of the cruise companies offer discounts if you have the Hamburg Card.

The Jungfernsteig promenade along the south side of Binnenalster is a pretty spot to walk along with restaurants and shops. Seeing as we were visiting in December, there was actually a lovely Christmas market that lined the entire promenade.

Christmas markets in front of the Hamburg Rathaus
Interior courtyard of the Hamburger Rathaus
Top: Rathaus and Christmas market / Bottom: Interior courtyard

Not far from Binnenalster is the Hamburger Rathaus (City Hall). This Neo-Renaissance building has a stunning lobby and a courtyard to explore if you venture inside. Even though the building looks historic, it only dates back to 1897 as the old Rathaus was destroyed in a fire in 1842.

Fun fact: A secret room was accidentally discovered in the tower in 1971 when somebody dropped a document behind a filing cabinet! Who knows what other mysteries this building holds.

The Rathausmarkt (Market Square) is in front of City Hall. This spot is the location of Hamburg’s main Christmas market throughout December. We really enjoyed a break to grab some Christmas Market snacks a drink of glühwein here during our winter tour of Hamburg!

Bridge views of the Speicherstadt warehouse district in Hamburg
Views from Poggenmühlen-Brücke in Speicherstadt

Just south of the old town is the photogenic Speicherstadt (warehouse district), which features on most postcards from Hamburg. Built between 1883 and 1927 for transferring shipping goods, it’s now a UNESCO World Heritage site and a popular spot for tourists. The area has long rows of red-brown brick warehouse buildings and cute bridges that cross the canals.

Go straight for Poggenmühlen-Brücke to access the classic Speicherstadt photo spot. If you want to learn more about the buildings and the area’s interesting history, I’d suggest taking a Speicherstadt and Hafencity walking tour.

The glass front of Elbphilharmonie concert hall in Hamburg
Views of the city from Elbphilharmonie concert hall in Hamburg
Top: Elbphilharmonie concert hall / Bottom: View from the Plaza

The last stop of the day is the iconic and stunning Elbphilharmonie concert hall in HafenCity. This building juxtaposes old and new with a modern glass top sitting over an original brick warehouse. Sandwiched between these two parts of the building is the Plaza observation deck. I thought the views were ok, but the highlight for me was the super cool curved escalator that takes visitors upwards from ground level.

The line to get tickets for the Plaza (which only cost €2) can get long at popular times. I wanted to go up for sunset so I decided to book tickets online. This worked really well except that the online tickets only allow entry 10 minutes before the allocated time… we arrived half an hour early and ended up having to wait 20 minutes to get in!

Day two Hamburg itinerary:

Day two Hamburg itinerary map

1 – Fischmarkt (Fish Market) + Altonaer Fischauktionshalle
2 – U-Boat Museum
3 – Elbtunnel
4 – St Pauli Landing Bridges
5 – Reeperbahn
6 – St Michael’s Church

Baskets of fresh produce at the Fischmarkt in Hamburg
The inside of Altonaer Fischauktionshalle in Hamburg
Top: Produce for sale at Fischmarkt / Bottom: Altonaer Fischauktionshalle

If you can manage to get out of bed early, go down to the Elbe for the Sunday morning Fischmarkt (Fish Market). Even though Rob and I don’t eat fish, we still thought it was neat to see all the activity. The market is bustling from the early hours until around 9:30AM. We arrived a little late (probably around 10AM) and there were still a few stalls operating though most were in the process of packing up.

Another attraction here is the Altonaer Fischauktionshalle. This grand building behind the Fish Market is where fisherman used to dispatch and trade their catch. We stepped inside to find a lively beer-hall style setup with food, drinks, and a band playing tunes in the background. Unfortunately for us it was all seafood (no surprise!) and IMO it was too early for a beer (10:30AM!) so Rob and I didn’t eat or drink anything. Still, it was good fun to experience the vibe.

The U-boat Museum on a foggy morning in Hamburg
Rob outside the U-Boat Museum

Just around the corner from the Fish Market is the U-Boat Museum. We expected this to be a WWII German U-Boat but it’s actually a Soviet submarine from the 1970s that has been docked in Hamburg and opened for tourists to explore. Still pretty cool.

The narrow passages with their low ceilings led us from one end of the submarine to the other past crew quarters, engine rooms, torpedos (obviously not active), and control centers. It was extremely interesting and Rob was totally loving all the Russian machinery, though I’ll admit that I felt totally claustrophobic inside! I have no idea how any human could stand being in such a small space while deep underwater.

The Elbtunnel elevators in Hamburg
Standing at the entrance to the Elbtunnel in Hamburg
Top: Elevators at the Elbtunnel entrance / Bottom: Inside the Elbtunnel

Further along the waterfront is the entrance to the Elbtunnel, which was one of our highlights from Hamburg! This historic tunnel runs underneath the Elbe River and was once a major transport route for port workers to access their workplaces.

On the street level, there are a handful of massive elevators – big enough to carry cars – that you can take down to the tunnel level. Once inside the tunnel, you can walk all the way to the other side for views back towards Hamburg. Unfortunately it was too foggy for us to see anything on the day that we were there.

Next to the Elbtunnel entrance are the St Pauli Landing Bridges, which are used as a ferry and cruise terminal. To be honest I found this spot pretty busy with busloads of tourists hopping off charter buses to head into the various souvenir shops, but if you have the Hamburg Card and are interested in taking a discounted cruise of the Elbe, this is a good spot to do it.

The other highlight of this area for us was lunch at StrandPauli. This quirky beach-themed restaurant/bar had an arrangement of recycled objects made into furniture and decorations. The food was fabulous – I had a Flammkuchen (German Pizza) topped with beetroot, cheese, and candied walnuts. Yummm.

Beatlesplatz sculptures at Reeperbahn in Hamburg
Beatlesplatz on Reeperbahn

Head back into St Pauli to visit the Reeperbahn Red Light District. This area is actually most famous for being the place where The Beatles came before they were big – the band lived here for 2 years playing gigs in the early 1960s. Beatlesplatz, near the west end of Reeperbahn, celebrates this era with a few sculptures and commemorative tiles line the ground.

To be honest I didn’t find this spot to be all that exciting, but I think it would be more interesting to learn about the full history of The Beatles in Hamburg on a St Pauli Red-Light District walking tour.

View of Elbphilharmonie from St Michael's Church in Hamburg
Views towards Elbphilharmonie from St Michael’s Church

If you walk along Reeperbahn towards the old town, you’ll come across St Michael’s Church. It was unfortunately too foggy for us to see anything so we ended up going back a few days later. The 360 degree views from the top of the tower were surprisingly good! Our visit was late in the afternoon, but I’ve heard that it’s lovely to see the views at night.

The inside of the church is also quite interesting as it actually burnt to a crisp in the early 1900s, so most of it has been reconstructed. If you take the stairs to the tower (a tough choice as this is a rare tower that actually has an elevator!) you’ll see the charred walls of the original building. The crypts also hold a few remnants from before the fire, including one of the old bells that buckled from the heat.

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