My first experience in Hamburg was in the fall of 2015. I had been participating gung-ho in my exchange and immersing myself as best as I could within the German culture, and this was my first trip together with my ‘American’ friends. It was also my very first independent trip, resulting in me learning a lot of lessons about travel.
Hamburg is the single most underrated city in Germany. When our exchange offered an opportunity to go, I lunged at the opportunity to meet with friends and speak English again. I lamented at the fact that we’d be going to Hamburg, a city in which I had no interest. For me, the exciting areas of Germany were found in Berlin, Frankfurt, and Leipzig! The city name Hamburg invoked no passion or spirit within me, and I ignorantly thought the trip would have no other highlights than the people I was with.
How wrong I was.
- Elbe River/Elbe Tunnel
Hamburg is the largest European city that is not a capital, and this is largely due to the fact that its enormous container port (2nd largest in Europe after Rotterdam) is a huge deal and attracts thousands of jobs to the area. The Hamburg port is also strange in the way that it is about an hour’s drive inland; it is not attached directly to the ocean but rather sends ships through one of the major rivers of Germany, the Elbe.
The Elbe River is beautiful in that it offers plenty of scenic views around the old city of Hamburg while boding city residents with a number of recreational activities, such as paddle boarding or kayaking. One can see gorgeous bridges transecting the river, oftentimes covered in locks of residents and tourists alike.
One of the largest attractions of the Elbe River is the Elbe Tunnel, which is exactly what it sounds like. Located across the river from the floating loading port, the Elbe Tunnel begins with a deep descent of 24 m (80 ft) of steps before reaching a concrete base. The Tunnel itself stretches 426 m (1,398 ft) deep underneath the Hamburg port and ends in a dead end. It definitely raises the hairs on your body as you walk under hundreds of tons of water in a long and dark tunnel, and would be spooky if not for the comfort of the other sightseers joining you on your journey.
- Miniatur Wunderland – HafenCity
Probably the most mainstream of all the attractions to be found in Hamburg is the newly constructed HafenCity, an isolated, modern island in the Elbe straight. This island contains a bunch of fun attractions that range from cultural activities (Elbephilharmonie or Lion King Theater) to more fun niche stores like the Miniaturwunderland, my favorite.
Miniaturwunderland (Miniature Wonderland – German is a hard language how?) is the world’s largest collection of model train sets. In fact, I would go so far as to call it a museum. Exhibits range all over the world and depict different countries and their public train transportation system. Current country models include the United States, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, and Italy, among others. The intricate details of each exhibition are really what make Wunderland so unique. In one showing, a train circles around an open-air concert. Each person in the crowd at the concert is maybe an inch and a half tall, but there are thousands upon thousands of them standing in the synthetic field. The most amazing part is no two people in the crowd are the same; each person is a unique hand-crafted mini-mannequin. Each case country exhibit has some fashion of this individualistic style represented, and each one will leave you with your mouth open.
- Michi’s Steeple
For the romantic reader or wayward couple, St. Michaeli’s Cathedral is the place to visit. Try to arrive on a clear night and buy 5 Euro tickets (cheap!!!) to climb to the top of the Steeple. From there, one can see the entire skyline of Hamburg and its beautiful nightlight (see: Reeperbahn).
Once at the top, you and your partner can descend into a cozy roof-side bar that provides free warm apple cider.
- The Europa Passage Mall
This mall is so large, that when my friends and I used this place as a rendezvous point, it took us over two hours to find each other. Not a smart idea. We even lost one on the way out and had to back track to find her (she was freaking out in an H&M).
Outside the mall are usually street artists and vendors who will sell you a plethora of items that are unobtainable anywhere else in the city. Your pick: trendy chic stores and boutiques within the mall OR indie, soap-scented antique stands outside the mall; it really is for everybody.
- Hamburger Hauptbahnhof
One of the largest train stations in Germany, and Europe, the Hamburg main train station is a truly beautiful sight: a marvel of engineering.
Like other train stations, Hamburg’s is usually full of panhandlers and drifters asking for money. Sometimes, they may even hand you a rose and then demand twenty euros from you (also happens often in France and Italy).
It’s also a place of high action. The first time I went, the place was swarming with police. A man had fainted after taking something from a beggar and needed to be rushed to the ER. This is somewhat unlikely to happen to you, however.
- Honorable Mentions: Reeperbahn and Concentration Camp
Not all things are for everybody, and these two attractions are definitely very different.
The Reeperbahn is Hamburg’s world-famous men-only street (sorry ladies), where the nightlife there reaches Amsterdam Red-Light district levels. Certainly an acquired taste, but many people go there for tourism and to see the women stand provocatively in the windows.
On a totally different note, the Neuengamme Concentration Camp is only a short ride away from Hamburg (accessible by bus) and is for the history buff within your group. It’s truly an amazing complex with an open field and gravitating past that will leave you inspired each time you visit.