8 Ways to Explore Hamburg, One of the World’s Great Maritime Cities
Whether you’re dining along the spectacular Elbe River or attending a show at the magnificent concert house on the harbor, Hamburg’s ranking as a top seafaring capital makes for a fabulously fascinating trip.
With more bridges than Venice, Amsterdam, and London combined, few metropolises can rival Hamburg’s reputation as a maritime capital and the gateway to Scandinavia. An important trading center since the Middle Ages due to its strategically located port, the city and its culture continue to be shaped by its close connection to the ocean. Filled with experiences that celebrate the region’s natural beauty and seafaring lifestyle, travelers here will quickly discover how much of Hamburg’s vibrant community is informed by and centered around the water—and why a vacation that does the same is so rewarding. From spending a night on a vintage German ship to boarding a submarine, here are the best ways to uncover history, cuisine, outdoor activities, and culture on and around the water during a trip to Hamburg.
1. Watch the music—and water—flow
Hamburg’s newest landmark and a premiere concert-hall complex, the Elbphilharmonie—lovingly nicknamed Elphi by locals—lies on the banks of the Elbe River and is surrounded by water on three sides. Many come here to listen to music performed by world-class orchestras and ensembles enhanced by the building’s crystal-clear acoustics. Made of shimmering glass, this architectural marvel also boasts views of the harbor and city at every turn. For a real treat, head to the public viewing platform, perched more than 120 feet above sea level.
2. See where a maritime empire began
Built between 1885 and 1927, Speicherstadt and Kontorhaus District—the world’s largest single complex of traditional brick warehouses and a UNESCO World Heritage site—stands as a living symbol of Hamburg’s maritime trading tradition. Old canals, bridges, and narrow streets link the miniature city of buildings that helped establish Hamburg as a global power; the most spectacular of which, Chilehaus, was designed to resemble the bow of a ship. Today, the area has been transformed into a vibrant cultural quarter where travelers can visit the International Maritime Museum of Hamburg, wander charming cafes, and sample two products that were once stored here, coffee and chocolate, at the respective Museum of Coffee and Chocoversum.
3. Appreciate the smaller things at Miniatur Wunderland
In Speicherstadt, you’ll also find Miniatur Wunderland, the world’s biggest model railway and the most popular tourist attraction in all of Germany. Constructed from more than 50,000 feet of track, 4,110 buildings, and 1,040 trains, this whimsical display allows guests to visit different ant-sized worlds like South America, Venice, and of course, Hamburg itself. You can also learn how cities are run. For example, in the Scandinavia section, the real water basin holds nearly 8,000 gallons of water to illustrate how computer-operated ship traffic works.
4. Board (yes, board) a museum
Hamburg is home to multiple museum ships docked up and down the Elbe River. One of the most popular, former cargo ship MS Cap San Diego, sailed the South Atlantic between 1961 and 1988, transporting goods like coffee, cotton, cocoa, beef and clothing to Germany. Get a glimpse of what life was like onboard and even book an overnight stay. Want to go deeper? The U-434 Submarine Museum allows visitors to experience a trip below sea level in a Soviet warship, among the longest non-atomic submarines in the world.
5. Kick back and enjoy the lake life
Ask any resident, and they’ll tell you that the Alster Lakes form the heart and soul of Hamburg’s daily life. Made up of two lakes called the Außenalster (Outer Alster) and the Binnenalster (Inner Alster), these water reservoirs were organically created during medieval times to power mills. Now the Outer Alster—surrounded by green parks and opulent mansions—is more popularly used as an escape from the busy city. Spend an afternoon here and do as the locals do by renting a boat, canoe, kayak, or stand-up paddleboard. On the Inner Alster, take a walk along the magnificent Jungfernstieg, a regal waterside promenade with some of Hamburg’s best dining and shopping.
6. Experience a virtual journey across the sea
Dedicated to Hamburg’s history as the “Port of Dreams,” the Emigration Museum BallinStadt Hamburg illustrates how Hamburg became the Gateway to the World for about five million European emigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries as they left for the Americas from Hamburg. Walk in their footsteps through interactive displays, original documents, riveting exhibits, and even a multimedia game. If you’re interested in researching your own family’s past, the museum offers visitors access to their database of census lists and passenger lists from 1850 to 1934.
7. Take to the water
No trip to Hamburg is complete without a guided harbor boat tour. While you’ll have your pick of vessels, the most traditional is a Barkasse (former dockworkers ferry)—a classic Hamburg experience. Set sail from the Landungsbrücken piers and enjoy a relaxing, educational ride around the industrial docks, Speicherstadt warehouses, and modern architecture highlights like Hafencity Hamburg, a blueprint for the new European city on the waterfront.
8. Savor the ocean’s best
Open every Sunday morning, Fish Market has been Hamburg’s go-to spot for freshly caught seafood since 1703. Stroll from stall to stall, grab a fish sandwich for breakfast, or simply sip a coffee and enjoy listening to fishermen haggling. Some vendors also sell flowers, fresh produce, and souvenirs.