Before I spent 24 hours in Hamburg, I assumed it was about as German as a city could get. After all, it’s the second largest city in the whole country, and it remains an important German port. Even the name is super fun to say with a German accent. (JAWOHL! HAMBURG!) But in fact, Hamburg was an independent country until 1871, which means that California has been part of the United States longer than Hamburg has been part of Germany.
Hamburg has its own cuisine, its own way of life, and its own dialect. Although at first glance, Hamburg might seem less thrilling than Berlin or less lovely than Munich, if you’re lucky enough to have 24 hours in Hamburg, you’ll soon fall in love with the city’s own special charm.
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend 24 hours in Hamburg. If you have another 24 hours in Hamburg, try this itinerary!
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24 Hours in Hamburg
Where to Stay
Hamburg isn’t a city with huge landmarks or massive museums. Most of its charm can be found by wandering around, learning about the city’s history and getting to know the local culture. I suggest staying as close to the Old Town as you can possibly afford. (I learned this the hard way because I stayed an hour away from the Old Town. Though my room was very cheap, it was stinky because it was above a chip shop and it took me forever to get somewhere in the morning. Don’t make this mistake with your 24 hours in Hamburg!)
If you want to explore over 700 great hotels in Hamburg, just click here!
24 Hours in Hamburg
Morning: Explore Hamburg’s Historical Landmarks
Hamburg was founded in the year 500 AD, so you can imagine that the city has history aplenty for your edification and enjoyment. My suggestions are but a mere tip of the Hamburg iceberg. However I can promise you based on my personal experience that it is possible to satisfyingly see them all in one morning.
THE APPROXIMATELY TOP FIVE: 24 hours in hamburg
1) st michael’s church
If you only visit one church in Hamburg, let it be St. Michael’s Lutheran church. It’s a Baroque church that dates to the 17th century! (OOOH!) It has the largest crypt in Northern Europe! (AAAAH!) Famous composer Johannes Brahms was baptized here. (WOW!) Whether you like climbing a spire with a view, descending into a creepy, German-language-only crypt, or simply exploring a gorgeous gold and white Baroque interior, this church will have something to please you.
It even has a stained glass monk giving some vicious side-eye! What could be better than that?
2) The Views From St Michael’s Tower
Once you’ve had your fill of old Resting Monk Face above, it’s time to soar on St. Michael’s wings to glimpse the city from above. I recommend that you do this as early in your day as possible. If you wait, you’ll have to share space with so many wiggling German children that you’ll start to get the urge to push one over the edge and even Augustus Gloop doesn’t deserve that. But the crowds are worth it in order to get such a dazzling view of the city! And you can take an elevator to the top, so it’s possible to get this view even if you’re not up for climbing a whole bunch of teeny Baroque stairs.
Here you can see the famous Elbe River that makes Hamburg such an important port city.
And here you can get a pretty good view of the new Elbphilharmonie Concert Hall that looks like a crown of glassy waves. Don’t worry if you can’t make it out too clearly because we’re going to get a better view of this building tomorrow.
3) St. Michael’s Crypt
It will not surprise regular readers of this blog to know that I prefer the creepy crypt under the church to the soaring view above it. The crypt is quite cold and German-language only, just like I like my men. Plus it is home to this weird bird claw doohickey…
I’m not sure exactly what this is, but I feel it’s probably something a character on Game of Thrones would use to take vengeance of their enemies. All Birdmen Must Die, or something.
The most famous grave in the crypt belongs to Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, the son of legendary German composer J.S. Bach. CPE Bach was a musician in his own right and worked as a Musical Director in Hamburg for years.
That history is interesting enough, but what I really want to know is, who left that rose there? Maybe there was a woman who was secretly in love with CPE Bach, and now she can only express her feelings through the power of flower. She leaves a fresh rose at his grave every day. But since Bach died in 1788, that would certainly make her dead too. And how would a ghost get ahold of a rose? It’s possible this theory has some holes in it.
4) The Old Elbe Tunnel
“Urgh, Stella Jane,” you are probably thinking. “Now you are so far gone that you’re recommending tunnels as tourist attractions? Isn’t a tunnel just a place you go when you want to get murdered by a Zombie Mole Person or something?” Never you fear, Internet Stranger! I would never send you to be murdered by a Mole Person, zombie or otherwise. The Elbe Tunnel really is one of the coolest attractions in Hamburg.
This engineering marvel was constructed in 1911, and it goes right under the Elbe River. You can take the elevator up and down, or you can walk, depending on your fancy and the strength of your stems. The Elbe Tunnel was the first European river tunnel, so walking through it is like walking through history. And for those travelers on a budget, it is completely free. So there’s no excuse for passing it up!
24 Hour Tip
Once you get to the other side of the Elbe, don’t just head back right away. If you stay on the Southern bank a little while, you can get some lovely views of the city. Can you see that spire in the distance? That’s St. Michael’s Church, where we just were! It seems like such a long time ago, but it was only this morning. Time flies when you’re having fun!
24 Hour Treasure
My favorite thing about the Elbe Tunnel are these terracotta moldings on the walls. Most of them depict aquatic creatures like the lobster, which is fitting for an underwater tunnel.
But some of them show more outlandish things like this representation of naked babies driving a horse-drawn chariot. I feel like there must be some sort of story behind this because normally people make babies put clothes on before allowing them to drive horses. If you know it, please email the answer to [email protected].com.
5) Lunch at Breuke 10
Once you cross back over to the North Side of the Elbe, you’re going to want to eat. Hamburg, being on the water, is famous for its seafood. Those terracotta designs of sea creatures have probably made you crave a fishie of your very own to eat. So I suggest getting a fischbroetchen.
Fischbroetchen basically just means fish sandwich, and they are everywhere in Hamburg. Get yours at a popular fast food stand called Breuke 10. Mine was the funky-fresh Backfisch sandwich, which tastes like the world’s greatest Filet o’ Fish sandwich. The shrimp and crab-wiches looked very popular too. The line can get long, so make sure you leave plenty of time to place your order. We need to get ready for our tour at 2 PM.
24 Hour Treat: Fritz-Kola
Fritz-Kola is a highly caffeinated soda made by a couple of local Hamburgers that is omnipresent throughout the city. I definitely had one every day when I was in Hamburg. They come in a variety of flavors if you don’t like the taste of cola. It is the perfect accompaniment to any Fischbroetchen.
24 Hours in Hamburg
Afternoon: Harbor, St. Pauli, and Reeperbahn Tour
It’s easy to get St. Pauli and the Reeperbahn confused, so let me give you a bit of background. St. Pauli is kind of like the hipster neighborhood in Hamburg, and the Reeperbahn is a red light district inside St. Pauli. Being a solo female traveler, I wasn’t interested in visiting this area at night by myself. Also, when it comes to fun times, I’m more likely to get my jollies meeting ghost lovers of German composers in a crypt or eating a fish sandwich than checking out Live! Nude! Girls! But I did want to see Hamburg’s most notorious neighborhood, if only to share my tips with you on my blog.
That’s why I decided to check out Robin and the Tourguides Free Walking Tour of St. Pauli and the Reeperbahn. I could get all the gossip about this area without having drunk guys puke on my shoes. Robin and the Tourguides is run by a local man, rather unshockingly named Robin, although the guides themselves come from all over. Our guide, Brent, was an American who has lived in Hamburg for many years, and I was pleasantly surprised with how much he knew about the city. He certainly taught me more than the…
APPROXIMATELY TOP FIVE: ST. PAULI and the harbor
1) Park Fiction
The St. Pauli neighborhood in Hamburg has traditionally been known for its left-wing politics and the presence of squatters. Because of gentrification, the squatters have been forced out of their homes from time to time, but they have always resisted. One form that this resistance took was the creation of Park Fiction, pictured above. The locals wanted to create this space into a park, but there was no support from the government. So they just decided to treat it as if it were a park, even though it wasn’t, hence the name Park Fiction. Eventually people treated it as a park for so long that the park became a reality.
I like that story and the name Park Fiction has a nice ring to it! I think Quentin Tarantino should turn it into a movie starring John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson as scrappy locals and Harvey Keitel as the evil mayor who won’t support the park.
2) The Herbertstrasse
This is the only street in my life that I ever seen but was not allowed to walk down. It is lined with sex workers peddling their wares, and there’s a big sign on the outside of this fence saying that women of any age and minors are not allowed to walk down the street. Brent told us that if any women tried to walk down the street, we could get trash thrown on us or worse. I think that’s sexist! And aren’t there any lesbians in Hamburg? But now was not the time to try to raise people’s consciousness.
Brent also warned us not to take any pictures on the other side of the fence because it would make the sex workers angry to have their privacy invaded. He then took all the women in the group, plus any men who didn’t want to walk down Herbertstrasse, around to the other side of the fence, while any men who were curious could walk down the street. I heard one of the men later telling his wife that there were no women out that early in the day, but maybe he was just being diplomatic so she wouldn’t get jealous.
3) The police station in the Reeperbahn
This tiny little police station is actually the busiest police station in Germany, even though it is in charge of the smallest precinct in Europe. Brent warned us that many scams designed to target tourists keep the police busy. He said that one recent popular scam was getting people to buy drinks without telling them how much the drinks cost, and then presenting them with a gargantuan bill at the end of the evening. If people don’t want to pay, a big bouncer threatens them until they agree. I have to say, hearing Brent’s tale did not make me regret my decision to not go into the Reeperbahn.
4) A Ride on the Public Ferry
Because the tour meets at the harbor, a trip on the super cheap ferry is part of the tour. This is obviously not included in the price of the tour, so make sure you have about 2 Euros with you so you can buy a ferry ticket.
Speaking of bringing cash, though the tour is technically free, remember that guides on a free tour work for tips, so don’t stiff them! I try to tip 20 Euros if I go on a free tour and the guide does a good job. (Brent definitely earned his tip!) Please pay as much as you can afford.
5) Beatles Square
I was raised by a certified Beatle-maniac, so I was most interested in the part of the tour that took us through the areas where the Beatles used to play. This square pictured above is Beatles Square, and it has statues of all five Beatles: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, a hybrid of Pete Best and Ringo Starr, and Stu Sutcliffe.
If you’re starting to think I’m going insane, remember that the Beatles’ lineup changed a lot in their first few years, and their original drummer was Pete Best, not Ringo Starr. Stu Sutcliffe was a guitar player who was part of the Beatles while they were playing in Hamburg, but he ended up leaving the group and then dying of an aneurysm at a young age. I think that’s the most depressing life story I’ve heard in quite some time. Although maybe it was better for him that he never learned how famous the Beatles would become without him.
24 Hours in Hamburg, Germany
Late Afternoon: Planten un Blomen Park
Planten un Blomen Park is the prettiest spot that I found in Hamburg. You can while away more than a couple of hours there, staring at gorgeous waters…
eyeing brilliantly bright blooms…
and generally feeling at peace with nature in one of Germany’s busiest cities.
Planten un Blomen is actually “Low German”, which is the language historically spoken in Hamburg. In regular German, the name of the park is Pflanzen und Blumen.
24 Hour Tip
Just be aware that there are several streets that cut through the park, so just because you are seeing traffic doesn’t mean that the park has ended. Keep going across the street, or you might miss fascinating sights like this double slanted fountain!
Tip Two: If you run through this fountain, you’re going to get wet.
24 Hour Treasure
On the way to the park, stop at Luicella’s Ice Cream on Detlev-Bremer-Straße 46 for a little snack. You can get two different flavors in one cup and a bonus flavor on top. I opted for cherry yogurt and rice pudding flavors with a fun topping of mango. The colors went so beautifully together, but the taste combination was even better.
24 Hours in Hamburg
Evening: Hamburger Fischerstube
I found just the right place to conclude our 24 hours in Hamburg. The name of this restaurant literally translates to something like “Hamburger Fish Pub”, which I think is delightfully blunt. Germans just get right to the point, don’t they? Anyway, this restaurant is a great no-frills place to sample Hamburgian seafood treats. What they will lack in presentation, they will make up for in homey flavor!
24 Hour Treat: Eel Soup
This is a German delicacy, and in fact it is made with not only shrieking eels but also ham, prunes, and apples. It was savory and sweet at the same time, kind of like a honey baked ham. I didn’t get much eel flavor, but I had the impression that the creature was adding a bit of saltiness to the dish, which is always welcome.
24 Hour Treat: Pannfisch
The Pannfisch is in the Guinness Book of World Records because it is the largest fish dish ever invented by humans. Its main components are two giant pieces of different fish, in this case one whitefish and one salmon, served with a mound of potatoes and a rich mustard sauce. It tastes unbelievable, but the only way you will finish it is if you have four stomachs like a cow.
24 Hour Treat: Alsterwasser
This isn’t a dessert because in Germany we have beer instead of dessert. The Alsterwasser is a Pilsner mixed with lemon soda. It’s very specific to Northern Germany, although Germans all over like to mix beer with lemonade. So that was enough sweets for me during my 24 hours in Hamburg.
24 Hour Tip
The staff here doesn’t all speak English, but they all could understand English, and I understand enough German to communicate effectively. As long as you’re polite and try your best, you should be fine.
That’s 24 Hours in Hamburg!
What would you do with 24 hours in Hamburg? Are you ready to start booking your hotel in Hamburg? Have you ever eaten both Pannfisch and Fischbroetchen in one day? And do you know anyone who’s had a tougher life than Stu Sutcliffe? Please leave your thoughts below!