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Hamburg usually isn’t a traveler’s first choice when visiting Germany. However, with its harbor area, old warehouse district, rich history, proximity to the Baltic Sea and the North Sea, and charming northern spirit, Hamburg should be on every traveler’s Germany bucket list.
I fell in love with Hamburg during a dark, grey January day. It was an easy decision for me to move to Hamburg later that year, and I’ve now spent the past few years exploring Hamburg and everything it has to offer.
Before moving to Hamburg, I wish I had learned more about the city. It’s completely different from anywhere else in Germany and feels much more hip and cool due to its modern architecture and lack of historic city center. Here are some fun facts and information to know before visiting Hamburg for the first time!
Table of Contents
- 25 Things to Know Before Visiting Hamburg
- Second-Largest German City
- Long Winters and Midnight Sun
- Model Train Museum
- Germany’s City-State
- An Free and Independent City
- The Great Fire of 1842
- 7 Counties and 104 Neighborhoods
- Most Bridges in Europe
- Wealthy City
- Rainy? Or Not!
- Moin! Moin!
- Not Southern Germany
- Red Light District
- The Beatles Began in Hamburg
- Christmas Markets
- Bombing of Hamburg
- Hamburg’s Jewish Population
- Elbphilharmonie – the new Opera House
- Harbor of Europe
- “HafenCity” – or Harbor City
- Denmark’s Influence
- First Ethical Zoo
- The Staircase Quarter
- Hamburg’s Islands
- Where to Stay in Hamburg
- What to Pack for Hamburg
25 Things to Know Before Visiting Hamburg
Hamburg is unlike any other city in Germany – it doesn’t look traditionally, fairytale old and the city is quite modern compared to the rest of the country. Even for being a large city, the city still is quite “German” with fewer expats and a higher need for the local language. However, in my biased opinion, it is one of German’s best cities to visit with the abundance of water, weekly festivals, and amazing food scene. Here are 25 things to know before visiting Hamburg for the first time!
Second-Largest German City
Hamburg is Germany’s second-largest city. Contrary to popular belief, Hamburg is larger than Munich and Frankfurt with a population close to 2 million people. Berlin, Germany’s capital city, is the largest city in the country. It’s jokingly said that the starving artist goes to Berlin while the artist that’s made it comes to Hamburg.
Long Winters and Midnight Sun
At almost 54 degrees latitude, Hamburg is higher than any of the continental United States. Hamburg cuts directly through the middle of Canada and the bottom of Alaska. This is what accounts for Hamburg’s long, dark winter days (7.5 hours of sunlight a day) and Hamburg’s almost midnight sun (17 hours of sunlight a day).
Model Train Museum
Minatur Wunderland, a model railway museum, is Germany’s most-visited tourist attraction. What began as a hobby for the founders evolved into an elaborate and much-loved museum. Open year-round, this is the perfect activity for both families and couples!
- Hint: Tickets must be reserved ahead of time and it gets especially packed during rainy weather, summer months, weekend, and school holidays. Book your tickets ahead of time to avoid waiting.
Hamburg is both a German city and a German state. Known as a “city-state,” it has its own local government and state parliament. This special status stems from its participation in the Hanseatic League, a customs union between Northern European port cities dating back to 1358. This kept Hamburg an independent city and entity until Germany’s unification in 1871.
An Free and Independent City
Going off number 4, Hamburg’s official name is Freie und Hansestadt Hamburg. The “Freie” denotes its status as a free and independent city prior to German unification and Hansestadt represents its membership in the Hanseatic League. Hamburg is commonly abbreviated as “HH” (Hansestadt Hamburg).
The Great Fire of 1842
The Great Fire of 1842 destroyed ¼ of the city. It started on Hamburg’s oldest street, Deichstraße, and there are rumors that it was purposely set in order to rebuild and expand Hamburg. During the Great Fire of 1842, the first known photographs of Hamburg as a city were taken. These photographs were published in Illustrated London News, marking one of the first times that photographs accompanied news stories.
7 Counties and 104 Neighborhoods
In terms of size, Hamburg has 7 counties (“Bezirken”) and 104 neighborhoods (“Stadtteilen”). The “Bezirken” are Harburg to the south; Bergedorf to the east; Mitte in the middle; and Altona, Eimsbüttel, Nord, and Wandsbek in the north. Bergedorf is the largest in terms of area and population while Mitte had the most “Stadtteilen.”
Most Bridges in Europe
With 2,500 bridges, Hamburg has the most bridges in all of Europe and more bridges than Amsterdam and Venice combined (and arguably, the most bridges of any city in the entire world). The city is a web of canals and bodies of water, all leading to the Elbe River (which eventually empties into the North Sea). This is also why Hamburg is nicknamed the “Venice of the North.”
Hamburg is one of Germany’s wealthiest cities. Home to numerous German celebrities, there are 42,000 millionaires in the city and 18 billionaires. Almost 2% of the population are millionaires, making it one of the richest cities in all of Europe!
Rainy? Or Not!
Contrary to its reputation as a rainy city, Munich actually receives more rain per year than Hamburg. People just assume that Hamburg receives an above-average amount of rain due to the greyness and darkness of the city. However, there is rarely a downpour of rain. Instead, it is just a sense of mist a lot of times.
The standard greeting in Hamburg is “Moin” – it works for all times of the day and all greeting situations. There’s debate as to whether you should “Moin” (once) or “Moin Moin” (twice). I’m a fan of only one ;) Northern Germany also has its own language – Plattdeutsch! While similar to German, it is technically its own language. Most children learn it through family members and some schools teach it. Currently, there are around 5 million native speakers in Germany.
Not Southern Germany
Northern Germany, and Hamburg, in particular, is not your stereotypical castles, dirndls, lederhosen, and everything else typically associated with Germany. Northern Germans are very proud of their Northern German heritage and do not appreciate it if you ask about these Bavarian traditions. (Fun Fact: my fiancé, born and raised in Northern Germany, just bought his first pair of lederhosen at almost 30 years old).
Red Light District
The Reeperbahn is the second-largest red-light district in Europe. Prostitution is legal in Germany and it’s common for lots of bachelor(ette) parties to be held in this area of Hamburg. Women beware: Herbertstraße is only open to men! It’s the only place on the Reeperbahn in which female prostitutes are still in windows (much like Amsterdam). At one point, there were over 3,000 prositutes working here. Now, the Reeperbahn has closer to 300 prostitutes.
- Take a tour of the Reeperbahn: There are lots of tours and various opportunities to go behind-the-scenes of the Reeperbahn (both in English and German). Check out all your tour options.
The Beatles Began in Hamburg
The Beatles got their start in Hamburg! As John Lennon famously said, “I was born in Liverpool, but I grew up in Hamburg.” Before making it big, the Beatles lived and performed in Hamburg for 2.5 years. It’s here that the Beatles got the opportunity to hone their skills, performing almost nightly in clubs along the Reeperbahn.
- Learn the entire story of the Beatles in Hamburg through this fantastic tour!
With over 25 Christmas markets in Hamburg, there’s a bit of something for everyone! St. Pauli’s Christmas market is the most unique Christmas market you’ll visit – complete with a stripper, risque ornaments, and naughty gifts. Don’t worry, there’s also a child-friendly section of the Christmas market :) The Christmas market at the Rathaus is the largest in Hamburg and the Fleetinsel Christmas market has its own champagne bar. Looking for something a bit smaller and more local? Check out the Osterstraße Christmas market or the Apostelkirche Christmas market – two of my favorites!
Bombing of Hamburg
The bombing of Hamburg during WWII, codenamed Operation Gomorrah, took place over several days in July 1943. Conducted by the USA and UK Air Forces, over 35,000 civilians were killed and 125,000 civilians wounded. Due to the firestorm created from the mixture of high temperatures and no rain, over 90% of the inner city was completely destroyed. Hamburg was targeted by the Allied forces due to its shipyards, u-boat pens, and oil refineries. St. Nicholas Church in the city center has been left ruined as a memorial against war. Additionally, it isn’t uncommon to find unexploded bombs during construction! The city probably still has hundreds (thousands!) or unexploded bombs buried all around.
Hamburg’s Jewish Population
Prior to 1933 and the rise of Hitler, Hamburg had a flourishing Jewish population. In fact, Hamburg had, at one point, the largest Jewish population in all of Germany. By 1925, over 20,000 Jews lived in Hamburg, primarily in the Grindel neighborhood of Eimsbüttel. About half of the Jewish population was deported and killed in concentration camps during WWII. However, there’s been a revival in Jewish life and culture in Hamburg. In 2007, the Talmud Torah School reopened – this was the first time the school was reopened since 1942. Having been established in 1805, it was the first Jewish school in Germany. The Grindel neighborhood is still home to Jewish cafes, bakeries, restaurants, and cultural centers.
Elbphilharmonie – the new Opera House
The Elbphilharmonie – the pride and joy of Hamburg. Opened in late 2016, it’s the newest landmark of the Hamburg skyline. This majestic concert hall was built on top of an old factory and resembles a wave with its glass paneling. It is one of the largest and most acoustically advanced concert halls in the world. Even if you don’t have an opportunity to see a show, make sure to at least go up to the viewing platform (it’s free).
- Take a behind-the-scenes tour of the Elbphilharmonie, including the viewing platform!
Harbor of Europe
As the third-busiest harbor in Europe, the port of Hamburg is still an important economic aspect of the city. In the 19th century, the Hamburg-American Line became the world’s largest transatlantic shipping company and Hamburg became an important starting destination for those emigrating to the United States. Nicknamed the “Gateway to the World,” Hamburg is still one of the largest exporters of coffee, cocoa, and tea, and handles textile imports from Middle Eastern countries before shipping them onwards. The Speicherstadt is the largest warehouse district in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Harbor Tour: What better way to see Hamburg’s harbor than by water? Take this one-hour harbor tour (available in multiple languages).
“HafenCity” – or Harbor City
The HafenCity is the largest inner-city renewal project in all of Europe. Located along the Elbe River, it is totally changing Hamburg’s waterfront. The area not only has the newly-constructed Elbphilharmonie, but it is also home to a mix of modern apartments, shops, and office buildings. The goal is to increase housing and job opportunities in this area.
The area of Altona was under control of Denmark for over 200 years (from 1640 – 1864). After two wars in the 1860s, Altona officially became part of Prussia and was eventually incorporated into the German Republic in 1871. Altona was independent from Hamburg until 1938, when it officially merged into the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg. There’s a gold line that indicates where the former border was between Hamburg and Altona!
First Ethical Zoo
Tierpark Hagenbeck, also known as the Hamburg Zoo, is considered the first modern zoo in the world. Founded in 1907, it introduced ethical conditions for housing animals by using moats and ditches, instead of traditional fences and cages. Today, Tierpark Hagenbeck still prioritizes the ethical treatment of animals along with making conservation efforts the main focus of the zoo.
The Staircase Quarter
Blankenese, a wealthy suburb neighborhood of Hamburg, has more stairs than any other neighborhood in the world. Dotted with stunning villas and old captains’ homes, there are over 5,000 stairs alone in this neighborhood. It has affectionately earned the German nickname of “Treppenvietel” or “Staircase Quarter” for the amount of stairs. It’s also one of the best day trips to take from central Hamburg.
Despite not being located on the North Sea or Baltic Sea, Hamburg still owns seven islands. Four of the islands are located in the vicinity of the city – Cremon, Grimm, Veddel, and Wilhelmsburg. The other three islands are located at the mouth of the Elbe River and are approximately 70 mi (120 km) from downtown Hamburg – Neuwerk, Nigehörn, and Scharhörn. While the latter two are uninhabited, the island of Neuwerk currently has 39 residents.
Where to Stay in Hamburg
Hamburg is one of the more expensive cities in Germany, especially when it comes to finding affordable hotels! However, there are still accommodation options in Hamburg for all budgets. Prices can vary depending on the time of year.
Budget: Under 100 Euros a night (cheaper if you have a shared dorm)
Mid-Range: 100 Euros – 300 Euros a night
Luxury: More than 300 Euros a night
Generator Hostels is consistently my favorite hostel chain in Europe. I’ve stayed at their locations all over Europe because they’re clean, affordable, and well-located. The Generator Hostel in Hamburg is situated close to the main train station, making it easy to explore Hamburg and the surrounding region.
One of the coolest hostels ever, Pyjama Park has two locations – in the Schanzenviertel and St. Pauli. With a mix of both shared dorms and private rooms, this hostel is like a green oasis in the center of an urban jungle.
- Check rates, reviews, and availability in Schanzenviertel here.
- Check rates, reviews, and availability in St. Pauli here.
25hours Hotel, located in both Altes Hafenamt and HafenCity, is the hippiest new hotel chain in Europe. As part of AccorHotels, they cater to a younger audience looking for a more boutique feel and personalized experience. Most 25hours hotels have a hip bar and classy restaurant within it.
- Check rates, reviews, and availability for Altes Hafenamt here.
- Check rates, reviews, and availability for HafenCity here.
Motel One hotels are deceiving in the name – they are far from a motel! This fast-growing hotel chain in Europe is hip, cool, and always at an affordable rate (sometimes under 100 Euros). Both locations in Hamburg, am Michel or at the Alster, are in excellent locations.
- Check rates, reviews, and availability for am Michel here.
- Check rates, reviews, and availability for the Alster here.
Fairmont Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten is Hamburg’s premier hotel. Located overlooking the Alster in central Hamburg, this 5-star hotel has routinely been ranked as one of the best hotels in the world. Indulge in yourself and book at a state at this luxurious hotel.
Hotel Atlantic Kempinski is located on the opposite of the Alster from the Fairmont Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten and just as opulent as the other hotel. A historical building in Hamburg, this hotel used to be the hotel of 1st-class passengers emigrating to the United States before their journey started. It’s now a favorite hotel of celebrities.
What to Pack for Hamburg
As a local living in Hamburg but originally from the USA, I’ve had to adjust my wardrobe to fit the Hamburg lifestyle! This includes embracing the rain, cold weather, and wind as well as navigating the massive public transportation (lots of walking!).
- Rain jacket, rain boots, and umbrella
- Wool Sweater with Hat, Gloves, and a Thick Scarf
- Plug Adapters
- Power Bank