At about 2.5 hours from Berlin by train, and 3 by car, Hamburg is best done as a weekend trip, which is fine, because some of its best sights have to be experienced late at night or early in the morning.
Stroll with the multitudes along the pier at Landungsbrücken past the boats and the kitsch shops, and when you see a man hawking boat tours (Hafenrundfahrt), ask him if it's in a Barkasse. This is a small, very low tour boat and it's the only size that can take you through the Speicherstadt, the famous warehouse city along the canals. Next ask him if the next trip will actually take you there. Depending on the tides, sometimes even these boats can't get through. The experience of the old red brick buildings towering over you as you glide through the narrow canal is worth waiting for, and the trip there will still take you on the loop past the container ships and docks that all the larger boats do.
Once back on land, take a quick peek at the Alte Elbtunnel, just a little farther west along the harbor. Built in 1911, it connects the mainland with the island across the way. A passenger elevator will take you down to see the tunnel itself, once a busy throughway allowing cars and horsecarts to cross the river, and the elevators, next to the one you've taken, that were built for them.
Those looking for a view above it all should wander over to the 18th century Protestant Michaelskirche, where a climb (or elevator ride) up to the top of the dome gives you a great view of the city, the harbor, and the river.
If the weather is nice and you're in the mood for a stroll, take a walk along the Elbstrand, a stretch of beach below a row of beautiful old houses, many in the typical North German style, and all in beautiful condition. A path runs between the two. This is also a good vantage point from which to watch the enormous container ships make their way to the port. A smattering of restaurants along the path offer ample chance for refreshment. To get there take the ferry, part of the public transportation system (and the poor man's Hafenrundfahrt) from Landungsbrücken. Get off at Neumühlen. The beach starts just up ahead.
The Alsters, a pair of lakes in the middle of town, provide another good place for a leisurely walk. The Binnenalster, the smaller of the two, with its tall, central fountain, shows up on a lot of postcards. The Aussenalster is much larger and greener. If you're looking for some light refreshment, the Literaturhaus, overlooking the southeastern edge of the Aussenalster, houses a marvellous café with large airy rooms, and a daily selection of delicious cakes. It's also a pleasant, though expensive place for Sunday brunch .
From here it's just a short walk to the bustling Lange Reihe, the center of Hamburg's gay community, and another good place to find cafes.
The ornate 19th century Rathaus is worth a look, especially at night when floodlights set its spires off against the sky. The Rathaus area is also the center of Hamburg's high end shopping district.
Those into the alternative scene should explore Sternschanze, where you'll find a multitude of used record shops, cafes, and clothing outlets, the last is especially prevalent along Schulterblatt. Rote Flora, an occupied house, occasionally functions as a night club. Frank und Frei, one of the many café-bars you'll find, has decent food and an atmosphere that beckons you to waste the afternoon reading the paper, writing postcards, and drinking Milchkaffees.
A little rest might be a good idea, especially if you plan to see the Reeperbahn, Hamburg's famous red light district. It's not just for lonely sailors. It's also the throbbing, pulsing heart of Hamburg's club and bar scene. Arrive late and take a stroll past the sex shops, restaurants, prostitutes, and night clubs. Pop-music averse club goers will find an eclectic, though still trendy, music program at the Mojo Club. Take a short detour down Grosse Freiheit, home not just of strip clubs, but also of one of the most popular small concert venues in town (Grosse Freiheit 36), and erstwhile home of the club where the Beatles played during their Hamburg days. Club and concert-goers looking for a place to sit back and have a drink might want to wander over to the popular and pleasant Bar Centrale, just off the main drag. Some might want to do a little window shopping on Herbertstr., but be advised, no women, and nobody under are 18 allowed past the tall, opaque barriers at the entrance.
Late night revellers capping off their evening, and early morning risers starting their new day both converge at the Sunday morning Fischmarkt. Clearly at one time a place for fisherman to sell their freshly caught wares, there are few, if any there today. In their place are a mindnumbing variety of stands hawking all of the traditional farmer's market goods. The prices are good, and the sales methods of the proprieters are legendary. Catch the man's eye as you're walking past his stand and next thing you know a free sample will be whizzing through the air, coming right for you. There's also a covered hall with live Schlager (German pop music), lined with breakfast-oriented food stands.
Those with a still unsatisfied fish-lust might enjoy a quick lunch at Daniel Wischer, the legendary German-style fish and chip restaurant in the pedestrian mall near the main train station. The fish is always moist and tender, the batter crispy and light. Wash it down with a Fassbrause, the German softdrink for which they're also known.
Additional information about Hamburg in English can be found at the following sites:
Maps in english:
The Kunsthalle, one of Hamburg's art museums: