Most travellers thinking about a weekend break in Germany overlook Hamburg and put Berlin and Munich at the top of their wish lists. Yet within Germany, the nation’s second city proves a popular draw thanks to nightlife, shopping and museums. Stuart Forster, a regular visitor to Germany, finds out what Hamburg has to offer.

Why just go for a weekend?

Because Hamburg is at its liveliest over weekends. The city has long been renowned for its nightlife. If you’re looking for a destination with a good choice of bars, clubs and live music venues you can spend a couple of days partying then depart exhausted.

You can also enjoy an intense shot of art and culture. Hamburg has a number of quality art and design museums, several of which are ranged along the Kunstmeile or ‘art mile’ close to the central station.

The U-Bahn – Hamburg’s underground railway – operates throughout the night on Fridays and Saturdays, making it easy to get around. The airport is less than 12km from the centre, a distance covered in under 25 minutes on the U-Bahn, meaning you can maximise time in the city.

What should I see in Hamburg?

To gain a perspective on the city of 1.8 million inhabitants, its waterfront is a good starting point. View Hamburg’s skyline, including the HafenCity district’s new Elbephilharmonie concert hall, and sail alongside the docks during a boat tour on the River Elbe, starting from St Pauli’s landing stages. You can also walk through the Elbtunnel to appreciate the view from across the water.

Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg, Germany, EuropeImage by Stuart Forster

For sailors returning to Germany the clock tower of St Michael’s Church is a symbol of homecoming, and the panoramas from the observation platform are particularly evocative during dusk.

If you enjoy architecture take a look at the grand, brick-built offices of the Kontorhausviertel, including the Expressionist Chilehaus. Those – along with the neo-Gothic warehouses of the Speicherstadt district – are UNESCO World Heritage Site candidates.

The Speicherstadt’s buildings now host tourist attractions including Miniatur Wunderland, where you can see the world’s largest model railway. The intricate detail, including a miniature depiction of Hamburg.

The Kunsthalle housing a collection ranging from Old German Masters to contemporary installations is arguably the pick of Hamburg’s art museums.

What should I eat?

If you’re after a snack, try a currywurst – grilled sausage smothered in ketchup, strewn with curry powder and served with pommes (French fries). Locals will tell you the popular dish was invented in their city after WWII (Berliners say the same), and you can find it in snack bars such as Edelcurry.

Fish plays a significant role in Hamburg’s traditional cuisine. Hamburger Pannfisch – fillets served in a mustard sauce – was once served to mask the pungency of old fish. Today it’s a delicacy. Try it in the timber-framed Krameramtsstuben restaurant, one of the city’s oldest buildings.

Labskaus, a fish and meat stew, coloured purple by beetroot and topped with a fried egg, is another local speciality worth looking out for.

Currywurst – Creative Commons flickrby Punctuated via photopin (license)

Where’s the party?

The heaviest concentrations of bars are in the St Pauli and St Georg districts, where you’ll find everything from shabby drinking dens to chic lounge-bars and nightclubs. Both quarters were once infamous for their red lights but are in the process of re-inventing themselves as entertainment hubs.

St Georg hosts a cluster of gay bars, including the compact Bellini Bar, where you can grab a cocktail and a dose of Europop.

To experience a pub packed with locals – and down a beer while listening to German Schlager music from an old style jukebox – head to the long-established Zum Silbersack.

Hamburg nightlife, Germany, EuropeImage by Stuart Forster

For the throb of dance beats visit the subterranean Mojo Club. The neighbouring Jazz Café opens on weekends for late live gigs.

If you can keep going until morning – or fancy an early start to your Sunday – head to the riverside Altona Fischmarkt, where bands play in the former auction houses.

Any budget-friendly accommodation?

Yes. Superbude has budget designer hotels in St Pauli and St Georg. Double rooms cost from £50. The Instant Sleep hostel has single rooms to 12-person dorms, priced from £10, including female-only accommodation and a kitchen for preparing meals.

Where can I go on a day-trip?

You could combine a trip to Hamburg with a visit to the maritime city of Kiel, 90km north, which is busiest during the Kieler Woche, a regatta combined with a city festival, held during the last week of June.

Lübeck, 60km away, was the Hanseatic League’s leading city during medieval times and is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site notable for its Gothic architecture, including the iconic Holstentor gate.

Bremen, another Hanseatic hub, lies 90km south-west of Hamburg. Its Renaissance style town hall and statue of Roland, a symbol of freedom, are listed by UNESCO and among the city’s best known sights.

Explore more of Germany with the Rough Guide to GermanyCompare flightsbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

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