On the list of the world’s most visited countries, Germany can (almost) always be found among the top ten: Tourists come for half-timbered houses, ancient history and Currywurst from all over the world. They want to see the medieval loveliness of Rothenburg ob der Tauber (which is on the Lonely Planet Germany cover) and Neuschwanstein Castle (aka the castle that inspired Disney’s Cinderella castle). And they come to see the two big cities: Berlin and Munich.
But that’s not all there is in Germany — especially not when it comes to cities.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the street art and urban edginess of Berlin. I love the parks and the pretzels in Munich. Both cities are extremely important to understand German mentality, history, and culture — and I highly recommend anyone to visit these cities at least once.
But there’s another big city that you just shouldn’t miss in Germany. This one other city that truly stole my heart — a city without world-changing political history, without Lederhosen and without beer steins, but still one of my all-time favorite places in Germany: Hamburg.
Hamburg is the second largest city in Germany and still it does not get nearly as many visitors as Berlin and Munich. But honestly, I believe that Hamburg should be included on every Germany itinerary, because it is so different from everything you’d consider cliché Germany to be like. Here are the most striking reasons to convince you to definitely visit the Hanseatic pearl if you ever happen to set foot on German soil:
The Sea Food
Whereas Drindl, Lederhosen, beers, and sausages are wide-spread common knowledge about Germany, only a few people are actually aware of Germany also having quite the pretty coastlines. Germany has beautiful beaches on the North Sea and the Baltic Sea and even several islands that are absolutely worth visiting.
Hamburg however, is still 100 kilometers from the coast — but the coast’s close(ish) presence can be felt everywhere in Hamburg, especially in its cuisine: Hamburg is famous for its sea food and the most traditional and delicious thing you could eat in Hamburg is a fried fish roll, a Fischbrötchen.
Is there anything better than fresh fried fish combined with a view of the harbor and the sound of seagulls? I don’t think so.
The Fish Market
The weekly fish market is obviously where you can get the freshest fish in town, and this is one of the reasons you should absolutely consider the Fischmarkt one of the top must-see sights in Hamburg. There’s only one catch: It’s on Sunday and it closes at 9.30 am.
So either, you have to party on the Reeperbahn (the sleazy party street) until the early morning, and then get a hangover-prevention fried fish roll on the way home (which is quite the common practice in Hamburg) — or you have to get up early to have fish for breakfast. I’m old and boring so I opted for the latter and who knew, fried fish actually makes a fabulous breakfast!
But even beyond all the fish and seafood varieties, the Sunday fish market has a whole lot to offer: Huge fruit baskets for 10 Euros, madly screaming vendors, and a post-market “brunch” in the old market hall, which has life music and all the justification for some decadent day drinking.
The Portuguese Quarter
It’s no secret that I’m completely in love with Portugal and that even the slightest hint of anything Portuguese around me makes me as happy as almost nothing else in this world. And Hamburg has an entire Portuguese neighborhood! This is absolutely unique in Germany and it is now pretty much my favorite place in the whole country.
Even though the architecture in this quarter is still German, everything else is Portuguese: Restaurants with seafood platters and Portuguese names, people greeting each other with kisses on the cheeks, and red plastic chairs with the Sagres beer logo on them. It’s just too perfect!
And this June I lucked out even more: Without knowing anything about it before, Steffen and I just randomly stumbled upon a huge street festival, because I heard music from afar and spotted a sea of red and green decorations. It turned out to be a huge neighborhood party to celebrate 50 years of Portuguese immigrants in Hamburg.
And honestly, could I have timed my visit to Hamburg any better? There were parades, Portuguese bands playing, old men were barbequing sardines and all my favorite foods and drinks were sold on the streets. I had tears in my eyes when I ordered two pasteís de nata in Portuguese, because I was so happy. Speaking Portuguese again and indulging in the world’s best pastries again was just the most wonderful thing that could have happened to me on a weekend getaway in Germany! I have so much love for Hamburg’s Portuguese quarter!
Hamburg has always been a very important sea trade city and its history is closely intertwined with Elbe river leading up to the North Sea. The Speicherstadt, the storage city, is located right next to the harbor and it’s where all the trading goods were stored for centuries. Even today as many of the former storage building are turned into stylish loft-style office spaces, the smell of coffee, tea, and exotic spices can still be sensed in many of the old red-brick buildings. And in the storage rooms still used today, one can still find more oriental carpets than in most than in most Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries combined.
I adore the history of this place and the typical red-brick warehouses with the large windows; I adore the maze-like canal system, which make the storage room accessible via boat. But what I love most is the idea of how these storage houses contained foreign trade goods, stories, odors and flavors for centuries. Who knows what can still be found in the corners of these old buildings?
It took me a while to realize that it is always the cities by the water that steal my heart. Although I never lived close by the sea as a kid, as an adult I find nothing more beautiful and soothing than seeing boats being softly rocked by the water or watching the tide and the seagulls.
Of course, Hamburg’s harbor is nothing like a little romantic village harbor in Southern France: In fact, it’s the largest harbor in Europe and one of the most important international trade hubs of the continent. But still, the gigantic ships and the colorful containers still hold a romantic idea for me: It possible to go anywhere in the world from here. The world is just a boat ride away from this huge harbor.
The Beach Bars
Although it’s not something you’d expect right away: Hamburg has lots of beaches along the Elbe river and quite a few beach bars. And since the weather during our trip in June was so perfectly hot and summery, Steffen and I spend a large amount of our time in Hamburg with our toes in the sand.
It was the closest I came to a summer vacation this year (which is kind of sad, I know) but it was perfect like that: People watching, harbor observing, sunbathing — how many cities have such perfect conditions for a mini summer vacation in the middle of the city?
Spending time in this neighborhood in Hamburg finally won me over for the Hanseatic city entirely: The Sternschanze, or Schanzenviertel, is the hipster neighborhood full of stylish cafés, cool bars, an obligatory occupied house, graffiti and street art. It’s like a little piece of what I like most about Berlin thrown right into the middle of Hamburg.
The Schanzenviertel is an up and coming neighborhood and within the first seconds there I knew that I totally wanted to live here someday. From delicious vegan burgers and cheap cocktails to amazing breakfasts and art galleries, this area of Hamburg has everything that I love about big city life.
I sincerely hope I could convince you to include a trip to Hamburg during your time in Germany — believe me, it’s worth it!
Have you ever thought about visiting Hamburg?
Or could I convince you to do it now?