Spending 2 days in Hamburg, Germany is a perfect city break, with loads of things to do, places to visit, and of course (most importantly) amazing places to eat and drink. Although I’m calling this 2 days in Hamburg, it was sort of 3 days really – one being a day trip. More on that further down.
This was the second part of a multi-destination week-long trip, beginning in Copenhagen and then getting a train that goes onto a ferry to Hamburg. HOW exciting is that? A train going ONTO a ferry! Obviously I’ll be writing a massive blog post about that soon…
Hamburg is like Berlin’s less pretentious seafaring cousin. It has loads of history, a gritty industrial edge, amazing places to eat and drink, and a vibe that’s uniquely its own.
Here’s what I recommend doing, seeing, eating and drinking over 2 days in Hamburg…
Day 1 – Exploring and the big sights
Walk around the Speicherstadt (warehouse district)
The night before our first ‘proper’ day in Hamburg, we arrived quite late on the train from Copenhagen that got to Germany via a ferry (I may never shut up about that – blog post to follow), so we pretty much went straight to bed. The first proper day began with getting our bearings by exploring.
I’d seen the Speicherstadt (the warehouse district) a lot in photographs of Hamburg. It’s full of red-brick warehouses built on timber piles and surrounded by canals. It reminded me a lot of the Albert Docks in Liverpool. The warehouses used to only store goods, but nowadays a lot are redeveloped into museums and eateries.
We had intended to do a canal boat tour, but it was -2, my hands had gone blue and I have to draw the line somewhere… If you’re there in less gruelling conditions, I think this would be a good way to get a different perspective of the city.
Do a tour of the International Maritime Museum
We had a tour of the International Maritime Museum from a lovely chap called Damian, who knew everything there is to know about all things maritime.
The museum was set up by someone called Peter Tamm. Basically, Peter Tamm’s mum gave him a model ship when he was little without thinking about the consequences. The consequences were, in fact, starting an entire lifetime’s obsessive collecting of model ships and associated maritime stuff. I don’t just mean hunting round antique fairs and car-boot sales a couple of times a year. Oh no. I mean spending millions on over 70,000 (I think) items that have ended up in the museum. I have no idea where Peter Tamm kept them before he opened the museum.
If you’ve ever seen the TV programme Britain’s Biggest Hoarders on Channel 4… I imagine his mansion was like that but full of boxes of ships! Luckily, he got them all into the museum so was able to share them with the public. I’m not massively interested in ships but it was really impressive seeing the entire 10 floors (or ‘decks’ as they call them!) of the museum absolutely full of it all.
I thought one of the most impressive bits was a section of model ships made by prisoners of war. Because they didn’t have proper equipment, they used things like hair and bone to make incredibly intricate replicas of navy ships from memory and sold them to get some money while in prison.
… Chris thought the most impressive bit was a giant Lego model of the Queen Mary 2 cruise ship. Standard.
We both really enjoyed the tour and could have spent all day there. It was genuinely brilliant – if you have any interest in all things maritime, I’d really recommend going.
Have a street food lunch in HafenCity
After the Maritime Museum, we headed round to Food Lovers Market, which I’d scouted out earlier. I had a delicious Korean bibimbap from Happy Bite and Chris had a chilli from… somewhere I’ve forgotten the name of.
Both really nice and obviously popular with local office workers on their lunch breaks judging by the queues. This is something I love when we’re on a city break – doing what people who live there do. Some cities are good for a holiday but not somewhere you can imagine living. Hamburg is definitely somewhere I could picture having a job, going shopping and doing normal everyday stuff.
Anyway, this food market is on every Tuesday (11:30-14:00) just round the corner from the Maritime Museum. You’ll spot the selection of little vans serving different food. If you’re not in Hamburg on a Tuesday, there seem to be plenty of food markets on different days that you could go to.
Take in the view from the St Nikolai Memorial
No city break is complete without dragging yourself up an awful spiral staircase that goes on for about 10 years to get to the top of a tower for a view of the city. Bonus points if it’s so windy at the top that you can hardly take a photo.
The St Nikolai Memorial eases the pain of such a mission by providing a lift (or ‘elevator’ for my American readers; hi there). Extreme wind and suffering at the top are still available.
St Nikolai’s original church was destroyed in the air raids on Hamburg in 1943, but the ruins are kept as a reminder. The tower is also the fifth highest church tower in the world. Who doesn’t love a fact like that…?
It was about 4 euro to go up and this is the incredible view. I’ll be honest, the view the other way wasn’t half as good (and was so windy it made my eyes water). Fun.
Visit Miniatur Wunderland: the biggest model railway in the world
Half dead from exposure admiring the windswept view, we headed to the great indoors to defrost.
Miniatur Wunderland is quite something. It’s the world’s largest model railway – featuring nine rooms covering landscapes from different countries around the world in incredible detail. Although the words ‘model’ and ‘railway’ are enough to make most people back away slowly, this is Germany’s biggest tourist attraction. Yes.
Just bear that in mind if you’re planning a visit. Although I loved it (you couldn’t not, it’s that impressive) I did spend the first 10 minutes being annoyed by the wall-to-wall crowds and screaming, out-of-control children running around bumping into people. I’d definitely recommend visiting in the morning when it might be quieter. Afternoon/evening seemed to be manic, with about 6 layers of people in front of the displays.
With that in mind, you do have to visit Minitur Wunderland if you’re in Hamburg. I’d heard about it before and had some idea of its scale and quality, but it surpassed all expectations.
There’s a full working airport (the planes actually take off), a dock with real water in it and beautiful replicas of famous cities. I loved the Swiss Alps and Cinque Terre especially. It changes from day to night about every 15 minutes and everything lights up with terrifying accuracy. My favourite thing was the attention to detail everywhere: things like cars crashing, couples snogging, campfires burning… There was even a little stables (being horsey, I loved this). If they ever need anyone with equestrian knowledge to amend the detail in those stables and set up different scenes, my rates are very reasonable.
I can’t describe it – you need to go. It’s 15 euro to get in. Have a look at the official Miniatur Wunderland video trailer if you’re not convinced.
Have your evening meal at Hobenköök
By far the best place we ate in Hamburg was Hobenköök Restaurant & Markethalle. Like it says on the tin, it’s a market hall and restaurant in one, located by an old freight railway station in an up-and-coming area of the city.
All the produce is from within 100km of Hamburg and is beautifully laid out in the renovated old warehouse. It has a bit of a Scandinavian feel to it, with lots of fresh and smoked fish on the menu (all brilliant) and beetroot pickled/fresh etc, and the BEST homemade rye bread I have ever had. I seriously regret being so full that I couldn’t eat the last piece. Also they had the sign of a good restaurant: an open kitchen.
As soon as I walked in, I had high expectations because of the feel of the place and it did not disappoint. The lady who served us was also LOVELY. This is exactly the kind of place I love finding when on holiday. When anyone I know says that they’re going to Hamburg, this will likely be the first thing I recommend to them and start sending them links to. That’s how good it is. After our meal, we went and bought all our food-based presents for friends at home from their market shop. And by ‘friends’, I also mean for ourselves…
Side note: all of Hobenköök’s tables had what I call ‘Florence Nightingale’ candles (candles in those little holder things), which I love. Very cosy.
Day 2 – Art, St Pauli and too many cocktails
Start your day with art at Hamburg’s Kunsthalle
The Hamburger Kunsthalle is a set of three art gallery buildings right by Hamburg’s central station. It covers:
- old masters (not my cup of tea at all)
- nineteenth century art (ditto)
- modern art (don’t mind if I do)
- contemporary art (yes please).
We made a proverbial bee line for the gallery of contemporary art. It was excellent. The best bit for me was a collection of famous German landmarks (the Brandenburg Gate etc) made out of fabric and hung on a washing line, making them look like wet clothes. I can’t recall the name of the artist now, so if anyone knows, please leave a comment below.
It’s 14 euro to get into the Kunsthalle. You do get a discount down to 11 euro if you have the Hamburg card (more on that later). Also note that it’s closed on Mondays, like most of Europe.
After your visit, have a quick stroll around Hamburg’s Alster lakes. Right by the Kunsthalle, you’ll spot the fountain (pictured at the start of this post). It’s more of an extreme jet of water than a normal fountain, so is worth keeping an eye out for. I really liked this area, despite the arctic conditions during our visit.
Explore Hamburg’s alternative St Pauli district
After nearly a whole morning in the art gallery, we ventured out to explore Hamburg’s alternative area, St Pauli.
St Pauli’s football
Apparently, St Pauli is known for its football club/team. I’d never heard of it, but then I avoid all non-equestrian sport with a giant bargepole. Chris has given me some info to write an entire paragraph on the St Pauli football scene below…
St Pauli football club is different from others. It still plays football, obviously, but it has more of a moral ethos and hasn’t turned itself into a business like others have. It was taken over by left-wing intellectuals and is very progressive to this day. I was really impressed by a sign above their football pitch that said ‘Football has no gender’, which goes some way to fight the toxic masculinity usually present in the sport. It’s a community-minded and spirited football club in the traditional sense, with strong morals about sponsorship. It was probably the first ‘hipster’ football club and is famous for having a skull and crossbones logo on its shirts, which is very much a cult thing as I discovered while waiting around for half an hour in their gift shop.
You can read more about St Pauli’s unique ethos in this Guardian article if you’re interested. Essentially, it’s not the usual football rubbish and I was (fairly) happy to go and look at it. If you’re a fan, it will probably be a must-do while in Hamburg. Enjoy.
St Pauli’s Reeperbahn
Other than football, St Pauli is famous for the Reeperbahn – the ‘sinful mile’ of the city and one of Europe’s largest red light districts. Like with most maritime cities, sailors used to end up hanging around Hamburg while their ships were re-loaded with goods or while they were on leave. Their questionable behaviour spawned cheap bars, brothels and strip clubs. Even though there aren’t sailors there now, all the trappings remain. Flashing neon signs have taken over and the whole shebang has become a tourist attraction. To be fair, it’s not all seedy. There are more highbrow sorts of entertainment in the form of theatres and music halls too.
The Reeperbahn and the St Pauli area in general are also famous for being where The Beatles first started gigging. You can find statues of them in the aptly named Beatles-Platz. If you’re really into The Beatles, there are walking tours you can do that call in at all the clubs/bars they frequented. Being from Liverpool originally, I feel like I’ve absorbed enough Beatles information to last a lifetime so I didn’t bother. Getting a photo with the statues was enough. (But that was so disgusting it didn’t make anywhere near the cut for the blog).
The rest of the St Pauli area
Aside from football and sleaze, St Pauli offers everything an alternative area of a city should. Cool bars, street art, independent shops. It’s definitely worth wandering around and taking it all in. However, like all working class ‘cool’ districts, it’s suffering from inevitable gentrification. More hipster bars and restaurants, rents going up, apartments being built. Hopefully it’ll keep its unique character despite this.
Have amazing vegan burgers for lunch from Vincent Vegan (just try not to crush them like I did)
Let me just interject here. I know these burgers don’t look appetising. But this is an unfortunate and misleading occurrence that is all my fault, because I shoved them in my bag and crushed them after we bought them to take away. We trotted off to find a bench to people watch from while we shovelled them down and they ended up looking like this… but I can assure you, they were heaven.
I’d massively recommend Vincent Vegan whether you’re plant-based or not. I had the best burger I’ve had, amazing chips and a homemade basil lemonade.
It’s a high-quality vegan fast food place. When you’re waiting for your order at Vincent Vegan, they give you an animal name rather than taking your name to shout out when it’s ready (a challenge for knowing your animal names in German!). We got ‘llama’. Chris was delighted, given that he basically is one. I’d have liked ‘meerschweinchen’ (guinea pig), but you can’t have it all.
Get to know Hamburg with a free walking tour
Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m always banging on about how good it is to do a free walking tour on every city break. Hamburg is no exception, so I’d recommend Robin and the Tourguides.
There’s an historic and city centre tour, a harbour/St Pauli one or a craft beer one. I wish we’d also had time for the craft beer one but I’d already crammed too much into the itinerary!
The tours last for 2 hours and are obviously free, but you should give a tip at the end if you can afford it. Their meeting point is the Landungsbrücke No. 5 nearby the Hardrock Cafe (you can find it here on Google Maps).
I’d already seen it the previous day when walking around, but the tour takes you past the Rathaus (town hall). I like to think I’m a bit of a Rathaus connoisseur. While I’m partial to the gold-topped Landsberg am Lech one down in Bavaria, I have to admit that the Hamburg one is a strong contender for best Rathaus I’ve seen so far. It’s in a main square and is unexpectedly ornate. You can do a tour of the inside for 5 euro, but if you’re tight for time then it’s enough just to admire its exterior.
Do a bit of shopping
On every city break, I try to scout out some unique local shops that I can’t get in the UK. Unfortunately, I had no room whatsoever in my suitcase to buy anything on this trip (seriously, I have never been so on the verge of bursting a suitcase and putting my own packing tips in the bin). But I still had a bit of a window shop around Hamburg and I 100% can’t leave out this gorgeous shop I found, Kauf Dich Glücklich. They seem to have a few branches in the city but I’ve linked there to the one nearest our hotel.
They had higher-end highstreet stuff like Selected Femme, Cheap Monday and Rains, but also loads of clothing and homeware brands I’ve never heard of (and probably couldn’t afford but were still nice to browse). It was all laid out in a beautiful, slightly hipster way. You know the kind of thing!
With my horrendous suitcase situation in mind, I restrained myself from making any purchases and I reckon I deserve a small medal for that…
Eat Vietnamese street food at Ban Canteen
After a quick shower and change at the hotel (unusual for me but remember it was FREEZING so we needed to briefly thaw out), we pootled back to the St Pauli area for our evening meal. I keep typing ‘evening meal’ on the blog because I know ‘tea’ will confuse anyone not from the North but I refuse to degrade myself with ‘dinner’.
ANYWAY, I’d booked us in at Ban Canteen, a Vietnamese street food restaurant in the St Pauli/Karolinenviertel district. I always try to squeeze in some Asian food wherever we go because as nice as it is to eat the local grub, it can get a bit heavy and Asian food generally does great pescatarian/vegan dishes. It’s also the cuisine we eat most at home so it’s a bit kinder on the digestive system to eat something familiar if you’re feeling slightly run down from travelling and lack of sleep.
I was really impressed with Ban Canteen. It was modern and trendy inside, had a good menu and even served beer with lychees floating in it, which was brilliant. The vegan summer rolls were worth writing home about and the bao burger with sweet potato fries was right up my street.
Round off the evening with cocktails at Clockers, a secret bar
After eating to the point of no return, we headed out to find cocktails. Because what do you need after a massive meal? Sugar and alcohol, naturally.
Clockers is a hidden/secret/unmarked speakeasy type bar, and of course I hilariously struggled to find it because of this – despite knowing where it was. It’s only a short walk from Ban Canteen but we kept walking past it like idiots. When we did eventually get into Clockers and order our drinks, I was really struck by how cosy and perfect it was. It has dimmed lights, wood everywhere, fairylights and walls covered in moss. Their logo is a cute monkey creature; they did fill me in on the exact type of monkey and we looked it up on Google, but unfortunately I was too drunk to remember the name. Oops.
Anyway, Clockers is exactly the kind of place I love recommending to people because it’s such a gem and you’d probably not stumble across it otherwise. Despite being a weeknight, it had a few other people there – not too many – and a friendly buzz to it. The bar staff were lovely and really helpful with steering me towards gin-based fruity cocktails. The dream.
I should probably warn you not to go to Clockers if you have an early flight or train to catch the next day… Or just woman up and deal with the hangover, because their homemade gin is worth the pain.
Day 3 – A day trip to Lübeck
Oh what’s this third day doing, sneaking into a 2-day Hamburg itinerary, I hear you cry? (I don’t really, but I enjoy artistic licence).
Well, I felt a bit of a fraud writing a post up called ‘3 days in Hamburg’ when one day was actually spent having a day trip in the nearby town of Lübeck, so I went with ‘2 days in Hamburg’, seeing as that’s what I spent inside the city itself.
I’m going to write a whole separate post about Lübeck because it was beautiful and just the right size/distance for a day trip from Hamburg if you want to get somewhere quieter.
So keep your beadiest of eyes out for that post. I’ll link it here when it’s done.
Useful information: 2 days in Hamburg, Germany
How to get there (and away)
We got to Hamburg via a train that went onto a ferry from Copenhagen. This is possibly the most unusual way I’ve ever arrived anywhere, but for a more standard arrival, you can easily fly to/from Hamburg. It’s about 1 hour 30 mins from Manchester.
Where to stay
I won’t go into too much detail here: I’m writing a whole other post (will link here when done!) about where to stay in Hamburg, because I was really pleased with our hotel, Hotel Baseler Hof. This was really central and a good base to explore Hamburg from.
How to get around
Much of Hamburg is easily walkable, but for longer treks or if you’re just lazy/tired/cold, its public transport is excellent – much like most German cities, of course. I got a Hamburg card, which meant that all public transport was free. This made everything so quick and easy. Even if you decide this wouldn’t be worth it for your trip, public transport is affordable and still simple to use.
When to go
I went in late October/early November. It was unseasonably cold, even for that time of year, but I’d still recommend it for an autumn or winter city break. There’s plenty of indoor stuff to do and cosy places to eat/drink, plus the public transport quality means that you can always hop on the U/S bahn to warm up between places.
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I was treated to our lovely hotel (Hotel Baseler Hof) thanks to the tourist agency Come to Hamburg after they were aware I had already booked a trip to Hamburg. They also covered (with no obligation to say anything nice about them!) the Maritime Museum tour; my Hamburg card; one drink at Clockers; and meals at both Ban Canteen and Hobenköök. Everything else mentioned in this post was not covered. These gifts did not affect my views or my writing in any way. Thoughts on Hamburg are all my own. My blog is always 100% honest and I cannot be bribed with food, although feel free to try.