How to Survive as an Expat in Hamburg

How to Survive as an Expat in Hamburg

by Adriana Stein
April 15, 2020

Four years ago Adriana decided to move halfway across the world from Oregon, USA to Hamburg, Germany. Freshly graduated from university and wanting to make a drastic change, Hamburg felt like the right place to create a new life. Nonetheless, the first year was tough, because Adriana didn’t understand anything about the bureaucratic system, she was trying to learn German, and she needed to get used to an entirely new culture. But now Adriana can say with absolute certainty that it was the right decision and she’s very happy she did it! So, if you’re planning to Hamburg or are an expat there struggling to survive, Adriana has outlined some helpful tips for you here.

Top Tips to Survive as an Expat in Hamburg

Learn German

While in a city like Berlin, English is much more readily spoken, in Hamburg the situation is quite different. Before I learnt German, it was a struggle to do things like sending post, asking for help to find things in a shop, and making doctor’s appointments. In addition, for any foreigner’s office appointments you’ll need German, as well as for setting up health insurance, getting electricity and WiFi, and finding a flat. So my biggest piece of advice for moving to Hamburg is to learn German quickly, because the longer you don’t speak it, the harder it will be to be comfortable here throughout daily life.

Get to know the public transportation system

I still wonder how tourists understand the public transportation system here, because it’s quite confusing. Luckily when I was first learning how everything works, I was staying with locals that could explain everything. Even still, this is another aspect of Hamburg that you need to know German for, because pretty much none of it is in English (even in central station you can’t really ask staff for help without speaking German). To navigate Hamburg, you’ll first need to download the HVV app. Although you can use Google Maps to find bus and train connections, they’re incorrect a lot of the time and you also save slightly on the ticket price when using the app. 

Once you’ve got the HVV app, you then need to decide how many stations you’re going through or which zones you need, because that determines which ticket you need. There are also monthly passes for regular commuters and multi day passes for tourists. When in doubt, just buy a day ticket (9 Uhr Tageskarte) and that’ll keep you safe for going around the city for that day. Also note that if you’re looking for long distance trains, you’ll need the Deutsche Bahn app, not HVV.

Another local tip I can mention is to be aware of the connections that HVV lists between bus and train. Sometimes it lists that a connection is possible within 2 or 3 minutes, but unless you know exactly where that bus is and run there, you won’t make it. So getting places efficiently does take some experience to know the local areas.

Meet other expats

I think I’ve always gravitated toward making friends with other expats, because they are in a similar situation. Although I do also have wonderful German friends, sometimes they struggle to understand how difficult it is to live in Germany as a foreigner, which is probably the same for locals in any country. Other expats tend to have the same mindset as me and also understand what it means to have an identity crisis. After four years being away from America, I feel less and less American on a regular basis. But I also don’t feel German, so it’s a bit of an odd feeling. In any case, being surrounded by expats who get this is truly what makes Hamburg survivable. The best resources I’ve found for meeting other expats are Girl Gone International Hamburg (for females) and Meetup (for anyone).

Don’t skip out on the tourist attractions

Hamburg’s beauty is often understated. It’s considered a German-only travel destination, because international tourists tend to focus on Berlin and Munich. But there are just as many awesome tourist attractions here to see, so if you plan to move here, I highly recommend visiting Hamburg’s tourist attractions, not only because you’ll love the city even more, but you’ll also be prepared for when relatives come to visit. 

Here is an overview of some of my favourites:

  • Miniatur Wunderland: a huge museum of miniature country models. While this sounds like it’s only for children, I can guarantee that as an adult you’ll have just as much fun. Definitely do book your tickets online in advance, though, because otherwise the wait times can be long.
  • Elbphilharmonie: Hamburg’s opera house. You can visit the top balcony for free and get a wonderful view of the city, as well as cheap last minute tickets to classical concerts if you ask the ticket office.
  • Coffee museum: a museum about the history of coffee and a huge coffee tasting room with a wide selection of coffees to try. They also do desserts well, too!
  • Speicherstadt: all three of the items listed above are in the area known as the Speicherstadt, which is composed of unique brick buildings. This area is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Hamburg, because you can combine many activities together for a full day out, and there are also some great photo opportunities.
  • Reeperbahn: Hamburg’s nightlife area, made famous by the Beatles. If you want a place to have a drink and dance, this is the place to be.
  • Elbe: The river that surrounds the majority of Hamburg and what enabled Hamburg to be a busy port due to the connection with the North Sea. It’s a great place for a picnic in the grass or on the beach.
  • Alster: here you can also have a nice picnic by a lake, but it’s also really fun to go paddling in a canoe through Hamburg’s canals.

Take note of the good restaurants

Hamburg’s food scene is unfortunately not so developed. You do need to be careful where you eat, because you can easily end up spending a lot of money for a mediocre meal. Because I’m a foodie at heart, I’ve made it my mission to find all the good food in Hamburg, and there is quite a lot, you just need to know where to look for it. 

Here are some of my top recommendations:

Buy the right clothes

Last but not least, one of the most important points of surviving in Hamburg is being prepared for the crazy weather. There is a saying in Hamburg that “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing”. Sometimes we do have four seasons in a day, so always have your umbrella at your side and wear layers that you can add and remove with the temperature. In addition, make sure you have at least one high quality pair of waterproof shoes and a thick waterproof coat to get you through the rainy months.

If you’d like to prep your German before moving or visiting the country then visit the Lingoda website and sign up for your free 7-day trial with our native speaking teachers!