Tips for Visiting Hamburg for the First Time

Hamburg is Germany’s second largest city and a destination that should be on your vacation planning radar!

Located on the Elbe river in northern Germany, there are countless attractions in Hamburg and so much to love about this beautiful and bustling hanseatic city.

I lived in Hamburg when I was a teenager and have returned to visit several times. I’ve lived in several regions of Germany over the years but Hamburg remains my favorite big German city.

In this article I share lots of travel tips, as well as the top things to do in Hamburg, Germany on your first visit. Let me know if you have any questions about Hamburg!

Getting to Hamburg

Traveling to Hamburg couldn’t be easier. Hamburg is a major city in northern Germany with many options for arriving via air, train, bus or car.

Flying to Hamburg

The Hamburg Airport has incoming flights from 130 European destinations and direct flights from cities such as New York City, Dubai, and Marrakesh.

Flights from most European destinations are quick and easy, and if you book early you can find many cheap flights to Hamburg. I’ve flown into Hamburg from both London and Frankfurt, after transferring from my international flight from the US. Last time I flew on Lufthansa and they gave us not only drinks on the 50-minute flight but also a Milka chocolate bar!

You have a few options for getting from the Hamburg airport into the city center. One is to take the  “S-bahn” (above ground metro) – the S1 (green line) goes right downtown 25 minutes. This is a great option if you know where you’re going and don’t have much luggage.

Another option is to arrange for a private airport transfer (to or from the airport). This is the perfect option if you’re traveling with others, especially kids, don’t want the hassle of trying to get cash and metro tickets while jet lagged or if you’d prefer to have someone else navigate in an unfamiliar city. 

Taking the Train to Hamburg 

If you’re traveling to Hamburg from elsewhere in Germany or other European cities, I recommend taking the train. If you book in advance you can score super cheap tickets. Plus, the train is just so easy and convenient. To give you an idea of travel times to Hamburg, here are a few examples:

  • Berlin to Hamburg – 2 hours
  • Frankfurt to Hamburg – 4.5 hours
  • Munich to Hamburg – 6 hours
  • Paris to Hamburg – 8.5 hours
  • Copenhagen to Hamburg – 5.5 hours

Most visitors arrive at and depart from the Central Station Hamburg (Hauptbahnhof in German), which is right downtown, but depending on where you stay, the Harburg, Dammtor or Altona stations may be more convenient.

Taking the Bus to Hamburg 

If you travel to Hamburg by bus, you’ll arrive at the ZOB bus station right downtown. Open 24 hours a day, the main bus station is a stone’s throw from the Hauptbahnhof. Both the main train and bus stations are a short walk from hotels, shopping, and the huge Alster lake in the middle of the city.

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Taking the bus in Germany is becoming a popular option because it’s often much cheaper than the train. Here are travel times for the cities I listed above so you can compare:

  • Berlin to Hamburg – 4 hours
  • Frankfurt to Hamburg – 7 hours
  • Munich to Hamburg – 11 hours
  • Paris to Hamburg – 17 hours
  • Copenhagen to Hamburg – 5.5 hours

Driving to Hamburg

Renting a car? You can easily drive to Hamburg from anywhere in Germany or Europe, really. Renting a car is a good idea if there are three or four in your group, want to visit more smaller towns than big cities or plan to do several day trips. While it’s easy to get to Hamburg by car, I recommend parking your car while you’re in Hamburg and using the city’s efficient public transport.

Flying vs Train vs Bus vs Driving to Hamburg

Since there are so many options, a lot of people wonder about the best way to travel within Europe or even Germany. It used to be that buying a Eurail pass and taking the train everywhere was the best option (for most people). Not any more! Even though I personally love riding trains all over Europe, there are other options to consider. It all depends on your priorities and budget.

Flying. This could be the best option if you find a cheap ticket, are traveling light (cheap tickets often limit the amount of luggage you bring) or don’t want to sit on a train or bus for several hours. There are a few downsides of flying…your flight could be delayed, your luggage might be severely restricted, and even if your flight is only an hour long you still need to factor in time to get to the airport, go through security, wait to board, and then get your luggage and travel into the city once you land. Personally, I’d opt to fly to Hamburg if it were going to take more than 8 or 9 hours on the train.

Train. There’s so much to love about trains in Europe and especially Germany. Train stations are in the city center, you don’t (usually) have to check in or go through security, trains (in Germany) are typically on time, you can enjoy the lovely scenery out your window, there’s more room than on a plane, you can change seats anytime, and you can get up and walk around or go to the bar car anytime.

You can book your ticket and reserve a seat ahead of time online or buy a ticket five minutes before you board. I almost always take the train in Europe, and especially Germany, because it’s just so easy and convenient.

That said, there are a few downsides to taking the train…to get the lowest price you have to book well in advance and you can only take the train you’re scheduled on, prices are often higher than the bus or a cheap plane ticket, and it can be boring to ride a train for hours on end, especially overnight.

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Bus. Taking the bus around Europe is becoming more popular because it’s cheap. Bus stations are often near the central train station and most busses are clean and comfortable with wifi, bathrooms, and snack bars. If the price is about the same, I’ll always opt to take the train, especially on longer trips, but I’ve been very happy with my European bus experiences. If you’re looking to travel on the cheap, take the bus.

Driving. Having a car at your disposal gives you lots of freedom. My husband and I have rented cars in several countries, including Germany, and have always enjoyed the experience. Driving is a great option if there are 2 or more people traveling together, if you plan to stick to smaller cities or if you want to take a lot of day trips. There are some downsides to renting a car…someone has to drive, parking can be expensive and difficult (we got an expensive parking ticket in Switzerland once!), your car could break down (we had to be pulled out of ditch on an icy night in Ireland), your car could be broken into, there are tolls and other fees, etc.

Using Public Transport in Hamburg

Public transport is the best way to see all of the top things to see in Hamburg. Buy a Hamburg day ticket (6,40 Euros if you travel after 9 am) and you can easily use all of Hamburg’s busses, ferries, U-bahns (underground metro), and S-bahns (above ground metro). I always rely on public transport in German cities because it’s cheap and easy (I supplement with taxis as needed).

If you’re traveling with friends, check out the group day card. Up to five people can use public transportation on the same day ticket for only 12,00 Euros! And if you’ve got kids 6 and under you’re in luck–they ride for free! Be sure to download a Hamburg transit app to your phone (I use the free Hamburg Metro – HVV app) so you have the metro map at your fingertips.

What to Pack for Your Visit to Hamburg 

Get my Germany packing list here!

While sunny weather is possible at any time of year, Hamburg’s location near the North Sea makes rain equally likely at any time during the year. But don’t let a little rain stop you from exploring all of the many things to do in Hamburg! Just pack an umbrella or rain jacket (or buy one once you’er there) and you’ll be set.

Winters can be cold and summers can be warm so play it safe by packing layers. Comfortable shoes are a must in this walkable city any time of year!

Click here to read my ultimate guide to finding the perfect travel purse or my guide on finding the best secret pocket travel scarf

Accommodation in Hamburg

There are endless lodging options in Hamburg. Here are a few suggestions that are centrally located and fit a variety of budgets:

  • Crowne Plaza Hamburg – City Alster
  • Park Hyatt Hamburg
  • Ibis Hamburg St Pauli Messe
  • 25hours Hotel HafenCity
  • The Madison Hamburg

The last time I was in Hamburg I stayed in an AirBnB apartment. I was there for several days and loved having the ability to make breakfast each morning and the occasional lunch or dinner. Check-in was easy (even though my flight was significantly delayed), the apartment was clean, and the wifi worked well. I was a little further away from the main sites but all I had to do was hop on the U-bahn and 5-10 minutes later I was in the heart of the city.

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The great thing about AirBnB in Hamburg that you have so many options – from budget to luxury, small to sprawling, close in or in the suburbs.

Click here to get $40 off your first AirBnB stay!

When to Visit Hamburg

Summer, winter, spring or fall, Hamburg is beautiful any time of year!

That said, the benefit of visiting in the summer is that you’ll have lots of daylight (the sun doesn’t set until well after 10pm), and you’re more likely to have sunny, warm weather. The downside? It can get hot and Germany doesn’t us A/C as often as other countries. 

The upside to visiting in the winter is that you might get to walk or skate on the frozen Alster — the huge lake in the middle of the city! If you visit in late November or December you can also visit the Christmas Market, which I highly recommend because Christmas in Hamburg is beautiful. The downside? The sun rises late and sets early, and it can be cold and rainy. 

The spring and fall are usually less crowded and less expensive. But the weather can be hit or miss. 

If you can travel to Hamburg in your ideal season, do it. If not, don’t worry, you’ll have a great time no matter what. 

Top Things to Do in Hamburg  

  • Walk along or sail on the Alster
  • Canoe, kayak or stand up paddle board on Hamburg’s canals
  • Take an Elbe boat tour
  • Visit the Elbe’s beach
  • Eat seafood
  • See a Broadway show
  • Go dancing on the Reeperbahn
  • Hop on the yellow U3 (U-bahn) for a free scenic city tour 
  • Visit the TV tower for an amazing view of the city
  • Wander hip Sternschanze
  • Visit the HUGE Ohlsdorf cemetery park
  • Wander the old Blankenese Treppenviertel
  • Taste a Franzbrötchen
  • Cross the Elbe via the pedestrian Elbtunnel
  • Take a long walk along Elbe
  • Relax at Planten un Blomen
  • Enjoy Kaffe und Kuchen
  • Get off at a random bus, U-bahn or S-bahn stop and wander
  • Take a day trip! 

Hamburg Day Trips

While there are plenty of things to do in the city to keep you happy and busy for days, there are several easy day trips from Hamburg that will further introduce you to northern Germany.

From the main train station you can quickly and easily reach Lübeck to the north (about an hour by regional train), Stade to the southwest (about an hour on the S-bahn), Lüneburg to the southeast or Schwerin to the east (about an hour by train).

Click here for more detailed information about these Hamburg day trip options! 

Enjoy your trip! 

If you’re planning a trip to Hamburg, I hope this guide helps you. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions. Enjoy your trip to one of Germany’s most beautiful cities!

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