While Berlin may be the capital of Germany, it’s not necessarily the best city to visit during your trip to this magnificent country. Instead, the city of Hamburg, a major shipping hub situated in the north of the country, maybe better suited.
If you’re looking for history, culture and fine dining experiences, then Berlin is, in our opinion, the best German city to visit. However, if you’re looking for a more laid back, raw travelling experience or only have a day to spare, then head north to Hamburg.
I’ve broken down this article into sections highlighting the best of each city so you can decide which one is right for you based on what you enjoy from a city break.
Both Berlin and Hamburg are relatively flat, therefore if you’re staying close to the city centre and in good health, you may be able to walk everywhere you want to go during your visit.
In Berlin, the most common alternative to walking is the tram which runs across the city. The cost of a journey on the tram is based on tariff zones.
However, if you plan to take the tram multiple times a day, you can pick up a 24-hour ticket for the AB zone for €8.80 per person.
The most common alternative to walking in Hamburg is the HVV, also known as the Hamburg Underground.
Unlike Berlin, you can travel on the HVV for free with a Hamburg City Card, which may make one of these worthwhile if you’re also planning on visiting some of the cities most popular sites.
Berlin is, of course, home to the most significantly historic site in Germany, the remains of the Berlin Wall.
Therefore, if you’re looking to experience historical significance and see first-hand the Berlin Wall’s impact on the city from World War II until 1989, then Berlin is definitely the right city for you.
While the most major attractions will relate to the Berlin Wall’s significant impact on the city, there’s still plenty of other things to do here, including viewing the city from the top of the TV tower or exploring Tiergarten park.
Keep in mind that you’ll need at least two days to experience everything that Berlin has to offer, although I’d increase that to three or four if you’re travelling as a family with young children.
Meanwhile, if you’re looking for a more laid back experience, then Hamburg may be the right city for you.
There’s something about Hamburg. It’s a raw, hard-working city, home to one of the largest warehouse districts and some of the most incredible street art you’ve likely ever seen.
Fans of architecture and music will frequently choose the city to visit the newly opened Elbphilharmonie Concert Hall, which is believed to be among the most acoustically advanced concert halls in the world.
However, that’s not the only world-famous attraction in Hamburg, as the city is also home to the largest model railway in the world at Miniatur Wunderland.
This unique attraction features a model train track over 15,715 meters in length, which pass through models of countries including the United States, Italy and Switzerland.
Miniatur Wunderland alongside, Chocoversum, an entire museum dedicated to chocolate, make it easy to see why many families with young children flock to Hamburg over Berlin for a city break.
Unlike Berlin, it’s relatively easy to explore the best of what Hamburg has to offer in just one day. However, since it’s next to the water, exploring the city is a significantly more comfortable experience in the summer months.
Being the capital city of Germany, it’s unsurprising that Berlin is home to more Michelin Star and luxurious restaurants compared to Hamburg.
Berlin’s Michelin Star restaurants include the likes of CODA, a dessert bar that only uses organic, sustainable and natural ingredients to sweeten dishes as an alternative to more common refined sugar processes.
If you’re looking for fine seafood, however, then Hamburg is the place to be as, given its prime location on the water, the food is as fresh as it comes.
You’ll find the freshest and finest in the restaurant, Jellyfish, a restaurant that focuses solely on jellyfish appetizers. However, if you want to experience one of these fine dishes, then you’ll want to arrive early as there are only 42 seats available inside.
For those looking for a more budget-friendly dining experience, I’m pleased to report that Helen and I managed to spend little more than €20 a day on food when backpacking both of these cities back in 2016.
This was made thanks to easily accessible supermarkets, budget-friendly cafés and unique burger and tapas bars.
If you’re into clubbing, then I’ve good news, as Berlin is actually the clubbing capital of Europe.
I’m also pleased to say that Berlin’s nightlife scene also has inclusivity down to a tee, with sex-positive policies and nights tailored to pretty much every community.
However, that doesn’t mean the experience in Hamburg is the opposite. In fact, having experienced both, I’d say they are relatively on par. That’s because Hamburg has one of the most incredible red-light districts in all of Europe.
Here you’ll find a range of erotic bars and sex shops that somehow manage to peacefully coexist alongside a statue of the Beatles (who played many shows here during the ’60s), old sailors’ pubs and discos.
There are significantly more things to see and do in Berlin, making it highly likely that you’ll want to do more and spend longer here when compared to Hamburg. Of course, the cost of doing so adds up.
However, the increased cost of attractions and the length of your visit to Berlin can be counteracted by the slightly reduced accommodation costs.
Berlin has a wider range of accommodation in all budget categories given the fact it’s the country’s capital.
Therefore, generally speaking, accommodation is around 20% cheaper (for the same class of hotel, provided no specific events are going on in the city) than Hamburg.
This means you can usually grab a night in a four-star hotel in Berlin for around €50 (€60 in Hamburg) when booking a week or two in advance and if you’re able to book even further in advance, then expect these prices to be discounted even further thanks to increased availability.
The only other disparity in the cost of visiting either Berlin or Hamburg comes down to internal transport. That’s because Hamburg City Card holders can travel on all forms of the Hamburg public transport network for free.
While the Hamburg City Card comes at a price (€10.80 for one-day with discounts for multiple days), it also provides you with the added value of up to 50% off at major attractions in the city, including harbour tours and the cities museums.
Both Berlin and Hamburg are home to major international airports. Therefore if you’re flying to/from Europe, it should be relatively easy to find a flight to or from either city regardless of the date/time you wish to travel.
However, for those travelling to / from outside of Europe, you may find better availability and pricing when flying from Berlin, as the city is home to the largest airport in the country.
However, if you’re sold on visiting Hamburg, then don’t let this small technicality put you off as it takes just under two hours to travel from Hamburg to Berlin by train with one-way tickets often available for under €20.