The Underrated German City Perfect for a Weekend Getaway

Germanys magical waterfront city
Germany's magical waterfront city | © medieserver.hamburg.de/Andreas Vallbracht

With a historic town centre, architectural districts worthy of UNESCO recognition and a vibrant waterfront scene, Germany’s third city is often overlooked in favour of Berlin and Munich. If you want to avoid the crowds, however, head to Hamburg for a slice of modern European comfort with a healthy dose of classic flair.

Hamburg probably isn’t on your radar as a summer destination. To be honest, its probably not on your list of potential holiday destinations at all but its the place many German’s head to when they want to take a break at home. With that in mind, and a few days to spare, I packed a weekend bag and hopped on a flight from London to the northern city to find out what we’ve all been missing out on. To my surprise I found a fun city, with elegant hotels, charming lakeside walks, plenty of greenery and a convenient transport system that made getting around a pleasure.

1. Hamburg Card

Architectural Landmark

An essential for any trip here is the Hamburg Card. This will give you discounts on many of the attractions the city has to offer, but more importantly it gives you free travel throughout most of the city. If you’re staying in the central part of Hamburg, this has you covered. The subway and overground S-Bahn are reliable, safe and easy to navigate even for newcomers. You can get from the airport to the heart of the historic district in less than 30 minutes and from there every major attraction is within reach. You’ll probably end up walking or cycling in Hamburg for most of your stay, but this is still a great purchase even if its just for the return trip to the airport and a handful of convenient discounts.

Known as the City on the Water, Hamburg has a large port, interweaving rivers and the charming lakes where locals like to relax.

Where to stay in Hamburg

When you arrive at the airport, you’ll quickly see why its so close to the city. Compared to the major transport hubs in other parts of Germany, such as those in Frankfurt, Düsseldorf or Munich, Hamburg’s airport is tiny. This means there are fewer direct options for international travellers, but those airlines that do operate here are fantastic for quick arrivals and departures. I was in my hotel room about an hour after landing following a 25 minute taxi ride (about 30 euro), although the train is much cheaper if you feel comfortable getting around on public transport as soon as you arrive in a new city.

2. The Fontenay

Hotel

The Fontenay_Drohnenaufnahme (1)
© The Fontenay
The Fontenay is on the banks of the Outer Alster. With lakeside views from the rooftop infinity pool and spa, you can get a real sense of the scale of the city from the upper floors of the hotel. What’s surprising is how green large portions of Hamburg actually are today. You can see why cycling is popular here too and the property offers guests the opportunity to take bikes if you want to explore on your own. The building is a fascinating combination of sweeping curves and spacious interiors. There are 130 rooms which are designed with modern comfort in mind. Nice touches include integrated balconies and elegant bathrooms with underfloor heating. Two restaurants highlight the nearby environment – breakfast and casual dining can be found in Parkview whereas Lakeside (on the top floor) recently won a Michelin star for its elevated cuisine. Staying here is a great introduction to Hamburg and you can easily walk to the historical town centre in 20 minutes or hop on a bus to get around from the street opposite.

Things to do in Hamburg

Let’s get the obvious question out of the way… yes, the hamburger does originally come from here. Sort of. Versions of meat served in slices of bread or rolls have been popular here for centuries, although local recipes often contain beef steak or sausages. German sailors travelling to America would have served up the dish in some form but no exact inventor has been recorded. You can still find burgers in Hamburg, but as a port city many dishes here actually contain seafood.

If you get up early enough you have to take a trip to the famous Hamburg Fish Market in St. Pauli. The traditional Fischmarkt is unsurprisingly close to a number of restaurants where you can try what seems like the natural ‘burger’ of the city. At Brücke 10 you can get all types of fish served in hard rolls, which seems to be the way they like it here. There are options like oily mackerel, fried white fish and even a minced octopus dish. The menus are in English too, so you won’t have too much trouble finding something to suit.

The Hamburg Fish Market

3. Reeperbahn walking tour

Architectural Landmark

St. Pauli is the trendy neighbourhood in Hamburg which is famous for its nightlife and a relaxed atmosphere. The local football team has been flying, bringing a buzz to the area as the previous powerhouse club from the city fades into the lower leagues. The Reeperbahn is the main entertainment street that was a seedy Red Light District that has now cleaned up its act. There are still some parts catering to adults only, but this is now where the majority of nightclubs in Hamburg operate. You can book a tour to find out more, just be sure to check the language options beforehand.

4. Guided Hamburg Bike Tour

Concert Hall

M-JuliaSchwendner_Speicherstadt_Detail_Fahrrad_180807-001_HiRes_AdobeRGB-Mediaserver Hamburg-Mediaserver Hamburg _ ThisIsJulia Photography
The Elbphilharmonie concert hall is an architectural masterpiece and an acoustic work of art. You can see the iconic building from the Elbe river if you’re on a boat cruise but its also visible from the waterfront. If you want to take in as much as possible but don’t have too much time, then this guided bike tour is the perfect introduction to Hamburg. You’ll get to weave through HafenCity and pedal around the Alster Lakes along the Jungfernstieg promenade. As the city is bike-friendly, the route is easy and suitable for everyone with a basic level of cycling proficiency.

5. Discover Hamburg Walking Tour

Historical Landmark

M-Speicherstadt Fleet am Tag-Mediaserver Hamburg-Mediaserver Hamburg _ Christian Spahrbier
Courtesy of mediaserver-hamburg / Christian-Spahrbier

If you want to take more of a leisurely tour, then this is the option is for you. Discover exactly what sets the city apart, admiring landmarks such as the UNESCO-listed Speicherstadt, the Nikolai Church, and the Elbphilharomie; and hearing tales about Hamburg’s history, from Hanseatic trade deals to WWII bombing. The historic warehouse district is a huge collection of red brick buildings that have been exquisitely maintained, today housing many start-ups and creative businesses. If you have a few extra hours, head down to Kontorhaus which boasts dramatic architecture which has a mid-century German influence and has also been recognised by UNESCO.

6. Miniatur Wunderland

Museum

If you’re worried that Hamburg might not have enough to entertain you and the family, then there’s one other must-see attraction that risks soaking up all your free time. Hamburg’s Miniature Wonderland is the world’s biggest smallest thing. 11km of train tracks take visitors through miniature versions of the Alps, Scandinavia, the U.S. and a good mix of places in Germany. Great care (and $12.5 million) has been taken to get the details exactly right and it continues to grow. There’s a ‘functioning’ airport, plenty of hidden touches and a regular transition from daytime to nighttime inside. Book in advance to avoid having to wait for a free slot to open up. It gets busy.

Hamburg isn’t as flashy as Munich or as outwardly trendy as Berlin, but its the subtleties that make it special. The lack of high rise buildings cluttering the skyline work in its favour, and the ridiculously short flight time from London coupled with the convenient central location of the airport mean that a true weekend getaway here is possible. You get to do more in the city in a short amount of time thanks to the lack of tourists at peak times.

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