Hamburg or Berlin? It’s a choice between two of the most visited cities in Germany. We can understand why this one’s tricky – both are pretty awesome spots with loads to see and do, not to mention rich histories and energetic nightlife scenes.
On the one hand, there’s Berlin. It’s the big, hipster capital of Germany. From amazing museums to WWII sights and old Communist quarters, there’s lots to get through here. But then there’s Hamburg, a historic port that links to the North Sea that hosts the infamous Reeperbahn red-light district.
Where to go? That’s where this guide comes in. It will weigh up several aspects of both towns to outline which we think has the best sights, the top activities, the most happening nightlife, and plenty more.
Hamburg or Berlin: The vibe
Let’s start with what you can expect from these two cities.
Hamburg is a port city built on the waters of the Alster tributary. In fact, there are over 20 canals in the town, which may sound more like Venice than a German metropolis. After Berlin, it is the second largest and the second most populous urban center in the country.
Most of all, though, Hamburg is one of the coolest places in western Europe. There is just something special about it, whether it’s the beautiful red-brick architecture over the canals, the musical scene (there are over 100 venues and clubs), or the gastronomical diversity where northern cuisine meets the south German classics.
But then comes Berlin – the capital and the biggest city in Germany. It’s known for its diversity and the international crowd of expats from all over the globe. It’s also an iconic nightlife destination with some of the best techno clubs in the world. Most of all, though, Berlin is a super hipster urban space with plenty of cool cafes, bars, art galleries, and nightclubs.
Also, Berlin has lots of different neighborhoods, each with distinctive vibes. From hipster Kreuzberg and industrial, vintage Neukölln to the cultural center of Mitte, there is lots to explore in Berlin.
Winner: Hamburg, but it’s a tough choice.
Hamburg or Berlin: Getting there
There is a good reason why Hamburg is often called the gateway to the world: It’s the third-largest port in Europe and the busiest in Germany. The easiest way to get into Hamburg, though, especially if you’re coming from far away, is by plane. The main airport, Flughafen Hamburg is located north of the city. That has many direct European connections but only a few long-haul routes, so if you’re visiting from further afield, you might need to catch a connecting flight.
If flying to Hamburg isn’t an option, you can easily catch a train or a bus from most major German cities and a couple of European destinations to boot. Finally, nearby Lubeck is the major ferry port with regular boats to Denmark and Sweden.
Berlin, however, is the capital and the biggest city in Germany, so you won’t have any trouble getting there wherever you come in from. It was once divided by the famous wall, so the infrastructure was built on both sides of the city. There are two main airports, Tegel International Airport in the north-west and Schönefeld in the south-east. You will find many international connections to both. Although Berlin is the capital, you will often have to change in Frankfurt if coming from overseas – that’s the country’s biggest international hub.
And even though Berlin is a huge city, getting around is easy with an extensive metro line system known as the U-Bahn. If you need to get somewhere further, you can hop on the less frequent S-Bahn that travels longer distances. There are also plenty of buses and trams, so you should always be able to get to places without having to hail a taxi.
Hamburg or Berlin: Nightlife
Berlin is considered one of Europe’s most amazing nightlife destinations. It’s actually even called the techno capital of the world! There are two areas that really put their hands up here. The first is Kreuzberg. That’s the hipster center of the German capital, where you can find cool cafés and backpacker beer bars on the streets. The other is Friedrichshain, which is mostly famed for the legendary rave club of Berghain. You probably won’t get in there as the entry policy is really strict. However, there are loads of other massive electronic clubs in the area, so there’s lots to enjoy.
Hamburg has a reputation as more of an industrial city and a port town. But there’s also a party side to it. And one of the most famous nightlife districts in the world: The Reeperbahn (also known locally as St Pauli). It’s basically one long red-light district with loads of really edgy dive bars and more risky venues going west from Alter Elbpark. The Altstadt is also good fun. You can find more low-key cocktail bars in there tucked between the historic depots.
Winner: Berlin takes this one because it’s the home of European techno!
Hamburg or Berlin: Things to do
From world-class museums to UNESCO World Heritage Sites, you should find loads to do in both these places. Let’s begin with Berlin…
The biggest city in Germany is filled with sights. The downtown has the Brandenburg Gate, right next to the Reichstag (the home of the German government), and the famous Grosser Tiergarten park. From there, it’s easy to stroll down the wide boulevard of Unter den Linden, which is a shopping hotspot, and across to Museum Island, which lives up to its name with exhibits on everything from ancient Greece to modern German art and historic Egypt. Berlin is also a top nightlife spot, has loads of charming neighborhoods to explore, and lookout points like the Berliner Fernsehturm.
Sights in Hamburg don’t get better than the Speicherstadt. It’s a whole UNESCO site that was once the largest complex of depots on the planet. It’s now an upcoming area of bars, restaurants, and museums, but you can still see the big, red buildings above the canals. When you’re not there, you could go to watch concerts at the Elbphilharmonie, learn about cross-Baltic trade at the International Maritime Museum, or go bar hopping in St Pauli.
Winner: Berlin. But Hamburg still offers loads.
Hamburg or Berlin: Prices
Whether you’re going to Hamburg or Berlin, you will have to budget a lot more than you would if you were going to, say, Southeast Asia. This is Western Europe, which is known to be pricier than much of the rest of the world. But which of these two towns is the most expensive?
In Berlin, you should expect to spend around $120 a day per person on things like accommodation, transportation, and food. That, of course, is the average price, so if you chose to stay in the most luxurious hotels in the Mitte (central) district, you could pay over $400 a night! Dining out costs around $45 per person but can go up or down depending on where you eat. You shouldn’t spend more than $16 on transportation if you stick to the city limits.
How does Hamburg compare? Everything apart from public transport will cost you less here, but not that much less. The average daily budget in Hamburg stands at around $100 per person. Accommodation and food are also cheaper than the capital. The cheapest double rooms start at around $50, and the most luxurious ones go beyond $400. You should expect to spend at least $30 per person on food.
Winner: Hamburg, but there isn’t much in it.
Hamburg or Berlin: Accommodation
There is no shortage of fantastic hotels in both Berlin and Hamburg. But which German city offers better accommodation?
From hipster hostels to luxury chain hotels, there are plenty of places to stay in the German capital. You can be sure that those 5-star hotels in the center of Berlin will cost some big dollars, but you can opt for shared dorms in more economical accommodation if your budget is tight. Here are a few of our top picks:
- Hotel Adlon Kempinski Berlin – This iconic five-star hotel with a Michelin-star restaurant in Berlin’s Mitte was one of the most popular European hotels before World War II. Although the original building didn’t survive the war, the new venue doesn’t lack style and luxury.
- Grand Hostel Berlin Classic – If you’re looking for a unique place to stay at a more affordable price, Grand Hostel is the place for you. This Victorian building has over 30 rooms in a great location – the hip area of Kreuzberg.
- 25hours Hotel Bikini Berlin – A stylish and modern hotel in the popular shopping area of Kufürstendamm.
Although on average, accommodation in Hamburg will cost you less than in Berlin, the high-end hotels will cost you big dollars. And even though Hamburg isn’t a much smaller city than the capital, it’s less popular. That means there are way fewer hotels to choose from. Here are some of our favorite ones:
- Fairmont Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten – This is one of the best luxury hotels in the country, with a history dating back to the nineteenth century. It is also one of the priciest hotels in the city, but well worth it if your budget allows.
- The Fontenay – This quirky but stylish hotel overlooks the glimmering Outer Alster Lake.
- Hotel Wedina an der Alster – A bohemian hotel made up of four colorful buildings, this one is literature-themed throughout with plenty of books and 14 author-related rooms.
Winner: Berlin – because there is more choice.
Hamburg or Berlin: Food
Berlin is one of the most multicultural capitals in Europe, with residents from all over the world. That means that whatever cuisine you fancy, you’ll find it in Berlin. Whether it’s a spicy Thai curry, a Neapolitan pizza, or tacos, you should have no trouble getting it there. And you may find this surprising, but Berliners love Turkish kebabs. There are oodles of them in the town. For something more traditional, there are also plenty of shops selling delicious currywurst – German sausage with curry sauce on top!
Although most people associate German cuisine with sausage and schnitzel, it isn’t what northern cooking is all about. And Hamburg’s proximity to the sea means that a lot of food there includes fresh seafood. You should try fischbrötchen – a fish bun snack – and Finkenwerder Scholle – a local fish fried with bacon, onion, and shrimp. Other local delicacies you shouldn’t miss include Grünkohl (kale with sausage), Aalsuppe (eel soup), and Rote Grütze (sweet berries with cream).
Winner: Hamburg, for the uniqueness and seafood.
Hamburg or Berlin: The conclusion
Which city should you visit this year, Hamburg or Berlin? That really depends on what you’re after. We think Berlin should be the pick if you’ve never been to Germany before. It’s the most amazing city in the country and should be seen by everyone. It hosts world-class museums, sobering war memorials, and some of the most important landmarks in the country. Hamburg is fantastic if you’re keen to get a bit more off the beaten path, want to experience the nightlife of the Reeperbahn, or just want something a little smaller than the sprawling capital.