Hamburg may be the second largest city in Germany but it doesn’t take a lot of time to see all of the main ‘tourist attractions’. I’ve never personally spent more than 36 hours in Hamburg on a single trip.
If you have a a day or two spare in Europe and Hamburg is in between your destinations, you can stop off and like me, see most of what Hamburg has to offer in 24 hours or less. Here’s the main sights and what you should know about them.
How To Spend 24 Hours In Hamburg Germany
The Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg has been continuously inhabited since ancient times but was founded as a city around the 9th century. The offical date of the commissioning of the Port of Hamburg is 7th May 1189.
If you’re transiting through Hamburg on a short stop over you likely won’t get a sense for the true size of Hamburg. It was only when visiting the Elbphilharmonie and standing on the bank of the Elb River that runs through Hamburg that I began to appreciate just how big the city of Hamburg actually is.
Hamburg is the second largest city in Germany and the 7th largest in the European Union. Yet Hamburg feels much smaller. And most of the ‘tourist attractions’ are concentrated in the HafenCity Quarter and the Speicherstadt neighbourhood.
Hamburg is a city you should visit. But you don’t necessarily need to spend a lot of time in Hamburg to visit key sites. With 24 hours or less in Hamburg you can see quite a lot.
In this article I cover all those places you can visit on foot with 24 hours or less by just wandering around HafenCity and Speicherstadt. As it’s what most tourists do and it’s what I’ve done on 3 trips transiting through Hamburg.
Getting to Hamburg Germany
There are two main routes that international visitors take to Hamburg Germany. Hamburg has an international airport but most visitors to Hamburg will arrive by Deutsche Bahn train at the Hamburg Hauptbahnhof. Train is the most common and by far the easiest route to Hamburg.
I took the Deutsche Bahn to Copenhagen from Berlin and stopped in Hamburg. And like most international visitors I stopped in Hamburg because it was in between my two destinations (Berlin and Copenhagen). I was coming from a two week stay in Berlin and was on my way to visit friends in Copenhagen Denmark.
Because I’d booked a couple of weeks earlier I was able to get a much cheaper ticket with OMIO that included a stop in Hamburg. I’ve found that if I leave booking a Deutsche Bahn ticket to the last minute it gets much more expensive.
Some last minute train tickets in Europe are more expensive than international flights. And if booked a couple of weeks in advance the train tickets are a quarter of the price of flying. As available plane tickets get cheaper closer to their departure date while the train tickets get more expensive!
Getting Around Hamburg Germany
I found that I could walk everywhere I wanted to go in Hamburg. If it was raining (which it does a lot) I found that there was always a suburban train (S-Bahn) or subway (U-Bahn) station nearby.
Uber was available but overly expensive and had inconvenient wait times. So I just walked and I was always within 15-30 minutes of my destination moving around the centre of Hamburg.
Hamburg also has an extensive ferry network. I never found a need to take a ferry. But I would take a ferry on my next stop over in Hamburg. Yet only for the purpose of sightseeing the city from the water. I doubt I’d ever have a need to take the ferry purely for transport.
Is Hamburg Safe?
Hamburg is very safe. It’s a large city and standard safety precautions should be taken. You’re more likely to encounter pickpockets and opportunistic thieves around the suburban train (S-Bahn) or subway (U-Bahn) stations.
However the Reeperbahn which is Hamburg’s nightlife centre is the highest risk area in Hamburg. And the Reeperbahn is the likeliest area in Hamburg where tourists will experience crime.
I personally avoided the Reeperbahn after dark. The station in the picture above is one of the closer ones to the Reeperbahn. It’s the sort of place you’d want to watch your wallet if you’re in the neighbourhood after dark.
Weather in Hamburg
Hamburg rains a lot. The weather in Hamburg is purpose made for ducks. Not humans. I’ve now had a few stops in Hamburg and have never once seen a bright sunny day. The closest I’ve come to ‘nice’ weather was overcast, mostly dry and not too cold (15 Celsius).
The most rain occurs in Hamburg’s summer months (June to September). Though precipitation is high year round in Hamburg. On one stop I made in Hamburg the weather looked like I’d arrived into a monsoon with driving sideways rain that continued for hours unabated. It’d be a good idea to take weatherproof clothing and an umbrella if you’re travelling to Hamburg.
Where to Stay in Hamburg Germany?
HafenCity and Speicherstadt are my preferred locations in Hamburg. The area of HafenCity between the Hauptbahnhof and the Rathausmarkt is particularly convenient. It’s close to everything and an easy walk to all of the points of interest covered in this article.
Those who come to Hamburg for the nightlife may choose to stay near (or on) the Reeperbahn. I’ve heard horror stories from those who have stayed close to Reeperbahn. Those I know who’ve stayed on the Reeperbahn have complained about everything from excessive noise to crime.
Personally, after living for almost 6 months in the Motel One in Bonn, I chose to stay in the Motel One Hamburg-Fleetinsel. And it was perfect. Motel One just seems to be topping everyones lists all over Europe.
Short Stay in Hamburg – Airbnb or Hotel?
There are very few Airbnb’s in Hamburg. I couldn’t find a good one within HafenCity or Speicherstadt which are my preferred locations in Hamburg. Instead, I’ve had more success using Booking.com and to locate hotels in the HafenCity or Speicherstadt areas.
On my last stop in Hamburg I found a great deal on the Motel One Hamburg-Fleetinsel using booking.com. And the Motel One Hamburg-Fleetinsel was a third the price of the Airbnb’s available at the time.
From the Motel One Hamburg-Fleetinsel it was an easy 20 minute walk through the centre of the city and past the Rathausmarkt to Speicherstadt. And I’d recommend the Motel One Hamburg-Fleetinsel for short stays over the available Airbnbs.
Hamburg Tourist Attractions
Hamburg has a few tourist attractions worth seeing on a short stopover. And with the exception of the International Maritime Museum all those attractions I’ve covered below are free to visit.
All of the attractions covered in this article are relatively close together. Sometimes they’re even across the street from each other. Such as the Fleetschlösschen which is directly across the road from the International Maritime Museum.
Is Hamburg Walkable?
Hamburg is a very flat and walkable city. If you’re just visiting for a short period or as a stop between your two primary destinations; then just walking around and seeing the sights for free is your best option.
But of course, how you get around in Hamburg will ultimately depend on how lucky you get with Hamburg’s utterly atrocious weather.
The Speicherstadt neighbourhood sits within the HafenCity quarter near the Port of Hamburg. It’s the worlds largest warehouse district with buildings standing on wooden piles over the water. And Speicherstadt is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Speicherstadt is interlaced with canals and was used for loading and unloading cargo from ships. The district was built to allow for the transfer of goods in a customs tariff ‘free zone’. Built and in operation between 1883 and 1927 Speicherstadt was hit hard during the Second World War.
More than half the Speicherstadt district was bombed during the Second World War as part of ‘Operation Gomorrah‘. Using incendiary bombs as opposed to just high explosive ordinance, ‘Operation Gomorrah’ created one of the largest firestorms of the Second World War and burned so hot the blaze created it’s own wind system.
Before the Second World War and during its prime the Speicherstadt warehouse district was responsible for loading, unloading and storing almost a third of the worlds cocoa, coffee, tea, spices and carpets. During the Second Wold War Speicherstadt and the Port of Hamburg were home to munitions stores, maritime equipment, refineries and U-boat (submarine) pens.
Walking Tour of Speicherstadt
Visiting Speicherstadt is free. It’s a functional suburb of Hamburg. And almost all the sites covered in this article are within Speicherstadt and can be visited on foot. With it’s maze of bridges and canals separating the old redbrick buildings it’s the type of place you should just wander through on foot.
Coming from my hotel near to the Hamburg Hauptbahnhof my first stop was the International Maritime Museum covered below. After which I stopped at the Fleetschlösschen for a hamburger and a beer. The Fleetschlösschen is less than a block from the International Maritime Museum.
I then made my way through the maze of buildings and canals past the Wasserschloss (Water Castle) and ‘Love Lock’ bridges to the Elbphilharmonie. At which point I doubled back to the Rathausmarkt (Old Center) via the Saint Nikolai Memorial.
As I spent a decent amount of time wandering the 9 ‘ships decks’ within the International Maritime Museum and a little over an hour for lunch at the Fleetschlösschen, plus I walked slowly through Speicherstadt to explore all the little alleyways, the whole route took me about 5-6 hours.
To walk through and explore the Speicherstadt neighbourhood as I did, you don’t have to allow huge amounts of time. Rather you can casually explore Speicherstadt and visit any or all of the sites covered in this article with less than a full day in Hamburg.
You could arrive into Hamburg in the morning and store your luggage. Before wandering through Speicherstadt exploring the neighbourhood. You could then board an onward train in the evening.
Most photographed site in Speicherstadt
While there is so much more to see and do in Hamburg, very few International visitors choose Hamburg as primary destination for their holidays. Probably the most photographed and recognisable attraction in Hamburg covered in this article is the Wasserschloss (Water Castle).
Most Australian, American or Canadian tourists will explore some of Speicherstadt and see the Wasserschloss before moving on to other cities. So don’t feel too bad if you too are only spending a day in Hamburg as you can easily see the most visited sites covered below.
Wasserschloss (Water Castle)
Built between 1905 and 1907 in the final phase of Speicherstadt construction the four-story Wasserschloss is one of the most recognisable landmarks in Hamburg Germany. It’s likely the most photographed location with a constant stream of people arriving to take selfies with the grand old manor.
The ‘water castle’ sits on an exposed position between two canals and survived the Second World War bombing of Hamburg largely unscathed. The lower set water-side extension at the tip of the peninsular on which the moated castle sits is not part of the original building. It was built in the post-war period from rubble recovered from other parts of Speicherstadt.
In the photos below with a side on view you can see the taller castle building and the newer and lower set postwar construction. The original four-story building was used as an accommodation and workshop for dock workers.
Those that lived in the Wasserschloss were those workers who maintained the hydraulic storage winches and were called the ‘wind guards’. As part of the criticality of their profession to the functioning of the docks they were afforded the privilege of living within the Speicherstadt dock area.
The building is now home to a restaurant or cafe serving tea and traditional fish rolls.
Across the street from the International Maritime Museum you’ll find the Fleetschlösschen. The Fleetschlösschen has a bar and restaurant with an outdoor seating area that has a great view of one of the canals.
The burgers, currywurst, fish and chips are all fantastic at Fleetschlösschen. Don’t judge the food by the buildings past use. And don’t read this next part about the buildings past use until after you’ve finished lunch.
The Fleetschlösschen was originally a toilet. It’s literally a former toilet block. It’s also the former site of St Anne’s Chapel that was built in 1566. St Anne’s Chapel was a burial chapel and took plague victims who had nowhere else to be buried. In 1812 the cemetery was closed and the chapel made way for the current Fleetschlösschen toilet in the 1890’s.
So while you’re having lunch and admiring the canal; you’re actually eating in a public toilet, while sitting on the former burial grounds of plague victims and admiring the view of what was ostensibly a large open sewer.
But hey, the food is fantastic and I did warn you not to read the history of the site until after you’d finished eating!
International Maritime Museum
The International Maritime Museum is the only site listed in this article that isn’t free and it is definitely worth spending a little money and large amount of time visiting. The museum is huge and is set over 9 ‘ships decks’ or levels.
The museum houses the largest private collection of maritime artefacts. It’s a museum that can keep visitors of all ages entertained for hours. And the International Maritime Museum is child friendly for those visitors with kids.
The International Maritime Museum has everything from muskets, rifles and swords to cannons and whaling guns. It covers every type of weapon used on a ship. As well as detailed models and descriptions of the ships themselves.
The museum also has an extensive collection of war memorabilia and medals that I found quite interesting. I lost at least a couple of hours in the museum just reading about maritime exploration and conflict. Reading descriptions of medal recipients and their actions. And admiring the model ships that are made of everything from gold, Ivory and whalebone to modern plastics and metals.
The range of historic periods covered and topics detailed is what makes the museum unique. You can expect to see model cruise ship rooms displayed in the same museum that houses nazi swords, modern undersea exploration drones and viking era ships and weapons.
The museum covers literally every topic you could ever think to associate with ships and the sea. With the adult ticket price for the museum set at only €15 it’s definitely worth visiting with 2-4 hours to spare in Hamburg. And it’s one site in Hamburg I’d certainly visit again.
Saint Nikolai Memorial
Saint Nikolai church in Hamburg Germany was once the tallest building in the world (1874 to 1876). Today the remains of the former Saint Nikolai cathedral are a stark reminder of the horrors of war.
Saint Nikolai church was bombed and destroyed during the allied blitz on Hamburg during the Second World War called ‘Operation Gomorrah‘. Only a couple of the outer walls and the church spire remain.
Saint Nikolai church has since been converted into a permanent anti-war memorial. And its contemporary relevance lies in the bombing campaign that destroyed it during World War Two.
‘No man in the whole world can change the truth. One can only look for the truth, find it and serve it. The truth is in all places’Saint Nikolai Memorial, Hamburg Germany
The allied bombing campaign during the war was code-named ‘Operation Gomorrah‘ and would likely be today classified as a war crime or a crime against humanity. The operation was intended to create maximum destruction. And was likely a reprisal for German bombing raids on Warsaw, Rotterdam, Plymouth and Coventry.
Hamburg was chosen as the target as it was deemed specifically vulnerable to a blitz style attack with incendiary bombs. The resultant ‘fire storm’ created a whirlwind of fire with a 460 meter high vortex.
The bombing campaign claimed the lives of an estimated 37,000 people. Most of whom were civilians. And in some cases the quantity of ash left in bomb shelters was used to estimate the number of people who died in each location.
Saint Nikolai Spire
In front of the Saint Nikolai Memorial there is a park with a stone from the original church. Saint Nikolai as a site has been home to a church in various incarnations since the 12th century. The neo-gothic spire that still exists was part of the last functional church built on the site between 1846 and 1863.
Ironically, the church spire of Saint Nikolai Cathedral served as a beacon to guide allied bombers into Hamburg during ‘Operation Gomorrah’.
The spire has been stabilised and during the operating ours of the site museum, you can buy tickets and take an elevator to the top of the spire.
Saint Nikolai Memorial Museum
The crypts have been restored and now host a museum detailing the destruction of Hamburg and the horrors of war. The museum is open between 10am and 6pm most days. And it hosts a permanent exhibit to the destruction caused by ‘Operation Gomorrah.’
The permanent exhibition Gomorrah 1943: Hamburg’s Destruction through Aerial Warfare not only details the destruction of Hamburg by allied forces but provides a sobering look at the reasons for the allied bombing campaign. Rather than a one sided view of the destruction I found the exhibit put the destruction of Hamburg in historical context.
With an extensive collection of photographs detailing the destruction of Hamburg and its subsequent decades long reconstruction, the museum is worth visiting on longer trips if you have time to spare. Yet the museum is not something I would endeavour to visit again if I was on a short stopover in Hamburg.
If I were visiting the site again for the first time on a short trip, I would likely just visit the site and it’s sculptures. Instead of the museum. Because a lot of the information in the museum can be found online and there are other better museums in Germany to learn about the Second World War and the Nazi Regime.
From the site itself and the sculptures spread throughout one gets a good sense of the destruction. But visiting a site like Saint Nikolai Memorial one also sees the tit-for-tat nature of the violence that was present in the Second World War.
When to Visit Saint Nikolai Memorial
The site itself is open 24 hours. And with a short stop in Hamburg I’d suggest visitors skip the museum and visit the site in the late afternoon or early evening. I would likely visit again after 6pm when all the museum guests have left and the site is empty.
Saint Nikolai gets eerily quiet in the evening. And the lighting is dramatic. Though my photos below don’t do it justice. I’d suggest anyone with an hour or two to spare on a short stop in Hamburg wander around the site in the early evening.
The Hamburg Philharmonic Concert Hall is called Elbphilharmonie. It’s part of the renewal of the HafenCity quarter of Hamburg and is located on the outer edge of the Speicherstadt neighbourhood.
Designed by the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron the Elbphilharmonie sits on the Elb River at the site of Kaispeicher A. The red brick bottom half of the building is the former Kaispeicher A warehouse and the upper portion is a new addition. Finished and opened in 2017 the building has one of the best views of the Elb River and of Hamburg’s port.
Because my stops in Hamburg are short I haven’t yet ventured inside the building. There is a coffee shop and a gift shop on the premises but I wouldn’t bother with those. The main reason I’d venture inside the building is if I was there to see a concert. Instead, on my trips to Hamburg I’ve just walked past the site for the river views.
Standing in front of the ‘Elphi’ and facing the port of Hamburg there is a yacht club to your right and Speicherstadt to your left.
Its a great place just to sit and watch the ships cruise by. And in the vicinity and just behind where I’m standing to take the photos included below, are a series of old bridges with wrought iron railings covered in ‘love locks’.
Hamburg ‘Love lock’ bridges
Unlike other sites in Germany such as Köln (Cologne) where a single bridge gets covered in ‘love locks’ every bridge in Hamburg gets a smattering of locks. I’d been told there was a single bridge to see but on arrival I found it’s no longer open.
Instead in Hamburg this European tradition is conducted on just about any bridge with metal railings on which a padlock will fit. I must admit as an Australia I find putting padlocks all over bridges to express ones love a little weird. Not just because it wastes a perfectly good padlock. But because it just seems a little creepy. But hey, each to their own.
Just wander around Hamburg’s HafenCity quarter and Speicherstadt in particular and you’ll find plenty of ‘love lock’ bridges. The one below in the picture is directly behind the Elbphilharmonie on the outer edge of Speicherstadt.
But for those who want a bridge with a better view to place a ‘love lock’; the bridge facing the most photographed building in Hamburg, the Wasserschloss (Water Castle), also has metal railings covered in locks. Just make sure you get stainless steel locks as you wouldn’t want it to corrode, like your love.
Rathausmarkt Hamburg Germany
The Rathausmarkt and the Rathaus get confused often. The Rathausmarkt is the central ‘old town’ square in Hamburg. The Rathaus is the old building on the edge of the square that houses the city hall and is the seat of Hamburg’s government.
If you’re on a short stop over in Hamburg I’d skip touring inside the Rathaus. And I’d instead walk around the Rathausmarkt and the old town. I quite enjoyed walking around the old town in the early evening as it all begins to light up.
And if the tide is changing all the canal locks start opening. Giving the old town a slight rushing water sound which makes for a unique atmosphere. I spent way too much of my time in Hamburg sitting on the edge of the water in the Rathausmarkt with a coffee watching boats and people cruise by. It’s quite a lovely spot in the evening.
If like me you are travelling by train and arriving into Hamburg Hauptbahnhof or are staying in a hotel or Airbnb near the Hauptbahnhof, the Rathausmarkt will be a central point when walking into Speicherstadt and to the other sites listed in this article. You’ll walk through the Rathausmarkt on your way in and out of Speicherstadt.
During the day it’s not much to look at. During busy times it has an active bus terminal and most of the locals in the square will be waiting in lines for busses. Yet in the evening the buses are few and far between as are the office workers. And as everything begins to light up in the quiet evening the old town and Rathausmarkt take on an atmosphere akin to a Disney movie.
Hamburg Germany | Conclusions
Hamburg is a great place to stop and break up the monotony of long European train journeys. If like me you are transiting north from Berlin you’ll likely need to change trains in Hamburg anyway. Which is why I always choose to stop for 24 hours or less and walk around Hamburg. Each time I do I discover something new.
Hamburg is not as expensive as some European cities and I found the prices in Hamburg quite reasonable. As it’s flat and walkable I’ve never had to pay for a taxi or ride share. Though I did take the train a couple of times due to Hamburg’s weather which can go from cloudy and cold one minute to a monsoon like downpour the next.
While there are a few good museums in Hamburg there’s only one I’d pay to see if I was starting all over again knowing what I know now. And that’s the International Maritime Museum. You simply won’t find a museum like it anywhere else.
Sitting around with a coffee in the ‘old town’ on the edge of Hamburg’s Rathausmarkt reminds me a lot of Geneva in Switzerland. But the weather isn’t as nice. And the water is a brown colour. But then Hamburg is also a lot less expensive than Geneva.
Is Hamburg worth Visiting?
Hamburg is worth visiting as part of short stop or as a transit destination. It’s worth spending 24 to 48 hours in Hamburg and walking around the HafenCity quarter and Speicherstadt neighbourhood.
Most tourists stopping in Hamburg will take a photo with the Wasserschloss (Water Castle) before continuing on to more popular cities.
Personally, I’d visit Hamburg again. I’ve already stopped there three times. However I’d probably never make Hamburg a destination in its own right. Hamburg has little that can’t be found in other German or European cities.
Once you’ve seen the HafenCity quarter and Speicherstadt neighbourhood, visiting the tourist attractions listed in this article, then you’ve hit all the big ticket items in Hamburg. And all of Hamburg’s destinations covered in this article can be visited with a stop in Hamburg that is 24 hours or less. And depending on your level of interest and how fast you walk, you can likely cover all of them in less than a single business day.
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