With Christmas around the corner, a cruise to see Hamburg’s Christmas markets is the perfect way to get in to the festive spirit.
When I told friends that I wanted to visit Hamburg for five days in December, they were really surprised. When most people dreamed of winter sun, I wanted to experience a real German market in a city rich with culture. So my husband and I enjoyed a few days exploring this fascinating city in the depths of winter.
Although we didn’t go to Hamburg on a cruise, there are many cruise lines that take in the city’s Christmas markets. We stayed at the Hotel Atlantic Kempinski, a five-star hotel just a short work from the central markets. The hotel was fabulous and I’d really recommend it to others. It’s also well known for its delicious afternoon tea, which can be pre-booked.
There’s plenty to see in and around Hamburg on a short-break or cruise, but it’s worth planning ahead if you are short on time. The city has lots of different districts, which each have their own individual feeling and flair. It is relatively easy to walk around the different districts, but you’ll struggle to do it in one day. Here are my personal Hamburg highlights, which are perfect for both first-timers and repeat visitors.
It goes without saying that people flock to Hamburg during November and December to experience its famous Christmas Markets. There are several markets spread across the city. My favourite was located outside the City Hall (Rathaus) on Rathausmarkt. It had a special Christmas display suspended above the market. Every day at 4pm, 6pm and 8pm, you could see Father Christmas whizzing above the stalls in his sleigh.
Each market sold similar merchandise, so you won’t miss out if you don’t visit all of them. There are rows of stalls selling handmade Christmas decorations, homemade cakes and exquisite woodwork.
Expect to find traditional outdoor German pubs ladling out delicious, but potent, Glühwein. For an additional €2, you can often keep your festive mug or glass. Each market has its own unique mug, which varies in shape or pattern. I use mine as Christmas decorations now.
For the locals, these markets are a social event. In the evening, you’ll find lots of office-workers and families frequenting the pub and food outlets, wrapped up warm against the cold. The food stalls feature cuisine from across the world. The traditional German bratwürst is really good and it’s much better than anything you get at a German market in the UK.
The markets are much busier in the evening and it’s worth seeing all of the Christmas lights once it’s dark. If you don’t like crowds of people then visit during the daytime when it’s quieter.
Hamburg’s Christmas markets run from 27th November to 23rd December. A full list of the city’s Christmas markets can be found here.
The Reeperbahn (or Kiez) is Hamburg’s famed red-light district, which stretches 930 metres. There’s not much to see during the daytime, but it has become a popular entertainment spot in the evening. As well as adult-themed venues, there are other nightspots that offer cabaret shows alongside lively techno nightclubs.
Shopping in Hamburg is excellent and you’ll find most well known international brands. I’ve outlined the better shopping areas below.
Mönkebergstrasse and Spitalerstrasse run parallel to each other and are considered two of the main shopping streets. You’ll find a good selection of well known brands including Jack Jones, H&M and Zara, along with department stores.
Colonnaden is great for speciality boutiques and most shops are independently owned.
Neuer Wall is home to designer shops and is considered one of Hamburg’s finest shopping streets. Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Escada all have stores here.
For a quirkier shopping experience, check out Schanzenviertel and Karolinenviertel. These areas are popular because of their second-hand shops, funky bars and quaint cafés.
Hamburg’s fish market is a must-see for visitors. Since 1703, locals have traded here on Sunday mornings. Whilst it’s not much to look at from the outside, it is an important part of the city’s history.
Hamburg Zoo (Hagenbeck Zoo)
This is one of the most impressive zoos I’ve ever been to and I’ve yet to visit a British park that rivals Hagenbeck. Not many people are aware that Chester Zoo was modelled on Hamburg Zoo. It’s located in Hamburg’s suburbs but is easily accessed from the city via underground.
The 110-year-old park is split in to two sections: the zoo and the aquarium. I’d recommend getting a joint ticket for both attractions, as they are equally impressive. It’s currently €30 per person for an adult joint ticket.
The zoo is home to 210 species of wildlife and over 1,850 animals (including a polar bear and elephants). It’s easy to navigate, with lots of short cuts for visitors with limited time. Opened in 2007, the aquarium is in a separate building and houses a variety of aquatic creatures and flora and fauna.
A visit to Hamburg Zoo is perfect for couples and families. Although it was very cold when I went there, it was very quiet due to the time of year.
U-Boot Museum – U434
This museum gives visitors the chance to step aboard a retired Soviet Tango class submarine, moored close to Hamburg’s fish market. It offers a fascinating glimpse in to what life was like for the people who worked on board, up until its retirement in 2002. The museum also has a shop and visitor centre. I found it a really interesting experience and I would urge others to visit, especially as it’s so close to the cruise terminals.
This relatively new district has become a very trendy part of Hamburg. Its construction began in 2003 and there is still a lot of building taking place in the area, but you’ll find a great selection of modern bars and restaurants overlooking the water. It’s also home to the attractions: Miniatur Wunderland, the Elbphilharmonie concert hall and the Speicherstadt. One of the city’s three cruise terminals is located in HafenCity.
Whilst in Hamburg, you might also want to visit St. Michael’s Church or Hamburg’s many museums. You can find information on these here.
A bus tour is a great orientation for anyone visiting Hamburg for the first time. I’d recommend any of the hop-on, hop-off bus options which take in most of the main attractions.
Hamburg’s U-Bahn rail system is extremely easy to use and it’s inexpensive. It works in a similar way to the London tube system and rail staff are generally very helpful. The city also has a local bus network and taxis are readily available. Ferry travel and bike hire are also common ways to get around.
Hamburg cruise information
There are three main cruise terminals, which I’ve listed below. Passengers needing to cross the Elbe River can do so via the Old Elbe Tunnel, which connects St. Pauli-Landungsbrücken with the Steinwerder peninsula. It spans 400 metres and lifts take visitors 24 metres below the river. There is no charge for pedestrians.
Hafen City – this is the closest cruise terminal to the city centre and you are able to walk in easily.
Atlona – ships up to 300 metres long berth here and it’s located 15 minutes from the city centre by public transport.
Hamburg Cruise Centre Steinwerder – the largest cruise ships (over 330 metres) berth here and it’s the city’s newest terminal. Although it’s slightly further outside the city (around 20 minute drive), it does have a public waterbus stop.
Further cruise information can be found on the Port of Hamburg website. You can find out more information about things to do in Hamburg via the city’s main website. You can find more information on ports-of-call in the Port Guides section of my website.
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