There was a time when Bremerhaven had the largest fishing port and the largest emigration port in all of Europe. So it’s apt that this harbour city on the North Sea Coast should be dubbed the “Seestadt” (Sea City). Bremerhaven is an enclave of the Free City of Bremen, which lies 60 kilometres up the River Weser to the south.
Most of your activities in Bremerhaven will have something to do with the sea: You might step aboard a heritage U-Boat or fishing trawler, or pass time at the old fishing harbour where the scent of brine and smoked fish hangs on the air.
The old and new port have been regenerated over the last 20 years by the “Havenwelten” scheme, which has brought cutting-edge visitor attractions, hotels, malls and pedestrian areas.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Bremberhaven:
1. Klimahaus Bremerhaven
Opened in 2009, this attraction has a unique concept, guiding you through all the different climate zones and cultures on the 8th meridian east.
This line of longitude passes just west of Bremerhaven and of course wraps around both poles, passing through Africa and the Mediterranean on the way.
You’ll be able to feel the changes in temperature from the temperate German North Sea Coast to the rainforest in tropical Cameroon, and each zone is a multisensory journey with sounds, smells and scenery.
Climate change is a common theme, and for instance in the Swiss zone you’ll discover how rising temperatures have changed people’s way of life.
2. German Emigration Center
The only museum in Germany dedicated to migration, the German Emigration Center addresses the departure of Germans for the New World.
From 1830 to 1974 there were seven million emigrants, and Bremerhaven was the main point of embarkation.
What’s amazing is that the names and destinations of all of the emigrants in that period have been recorded, and people cross the Atlantic to trace their ancestors here.
The museum has moving accounts of life on board the ships, dioramas of the different cabins, interactive stations and heaps of original documents.
You can also explore the general topic of migration down the ages, from the Huguenots in the 17th century to the refugees of the Syrian Civil War.
3. German Maritime Museum
On the Weser Dyke, the German Maritime Museum is a trip through the history of seafaring in Germany.
Inside there are model ships, maritime paraphernalia and archaeological remnants, and outside there are ten museum ships to board.
Most absorbing of all is the Bremer Kogge, the wreck of a 14th-century merchant’s vessel discovered in the Weser just outside Bremen in 1962. Elsewhere in the halls there are exhibits for whaling, polar exploration, container shipping, fishing and the German navy.
Look out for the mechanical tide calculator used in Hamburg from 1919 to 1935. Outside climb on board the RAU IX whaling steamer or the Seute Deern, a barque launched in 1919.
4. U-Boot Wilhelm Bauer
Even though it never saw action you can say that this U-Boat, docked outside the Maritime Museum has had an eventful career.
The only remaining model of its kind, the Wilhelm Bauer is a diesel-electric Type XXI commissioned in February 1945, but scuttled at the end of the war without ever going out on patrol.
In 1957 it was salvaged and re-commissioned for the West German navy before finally being restored to its Second World War configuration and converted to a museum ship in 1984. You can duck inside and look around a piece of hardware that revolutionised submarine design after the war.
There are plaques in German and English explaining the role of each of the submarine’s compartments, and how the crew worked, slept and ate at extremely close quarters (the galley is minuscule).
5. Schaufenster Fischereihafen
Bremerhaven’s century-old fishing harbour has been revitalised, and has restaurants, cafes, pubs, maritime-themed shops and visitor attractions in an evocative setting.
On weekends there’s always something going on at the Schaufenster Fischereihafen, whether it’s live music in summer, outdoor movie screenings or exhibitions.
And it’s always a minor thrill to idle along the dock and size up the ships, like the FMS GERA, which we’ll cover later.
For dining look no further than Packhalle IV, a former fish packing hall, now housing a line of fish restaurants infused with the fragrance of smoked halibut.
6. Look-Out-Platform SAIL City
At more than 140 metres the sail-shaped Atlantic Hotel Sail City is among the tallest structures on Germany’s North Sea coast.
Provided the weather is safe there are two observation platforms at 86 and 95 metres, open to the public for a fee of €3.00. The higher of the two is open-air.
And if you’re planning on stepping outside, be prepared, because even on clear days it will be very blustery up here.
But you can always enjoy the view of the port and Weser Estuary from the comfort of the indoor lookout.
7. Zoo am Meer
A few steps up from the Maritime Museum, the Zoo am Meer is an animal attraction for marine and polar species.
The zoo has been around in some form since 1913, but was given a complete overhaul in the early 2000s and reopened in 2004. Along with polar bears, seals, gannets and Humboldt penguins, the zoo has primates like chimpanzees, which have been part of life in this port city for hundreds of years.
The North Sea Aquarium here has nine tanks containing zander, seahorses, eels and sea trout, and there’s also a children’s zone with rabbits and guinea pigs.
8. Museumsschiff FMS GERA
The FMS GERA is the last of its kind: This big old side-loading trawler was launched in Wolgast in East Germany in 1961 and belonged to Rostock’s deep sea fishing fleet.
Throughout the 60s and 70s the FMS GERA would head off on long expeditions to the North Atlantic off Iceland, and later Canada and West Africa.
These trips were famously dangerous for the crew, who had to haul the nets onto the deck with their own muscle power with the help of a net winch.
The Museum ship gives you a snapshot of the hard-working lives of those on board, and you can inspect every inch of the ship, including the fishing deck, holds, washroom, crew quarters, engine room and galley.
9. Historisches Museum Bremerhaven
On the left bank of the Geese is a smartly designed museum telling the story of Bremerhaven and the surrounding region, known as the Elbe-Weser Triangle.
The main exhibition reveals 120,000 years of history, from the earliest traces of human habitation up to the 1960s.
There life-sized vignettes as you go, showing life on the docks, shipbuilding activity and deep-sea fishing.
You can pore over weapons, maps, navigation tools, period furniture and historic everyday items like 19th-century bicycles.
There are reminders from the immediate post-war years, like an American jeep, the interior of a fishmongers in Bremerhaven and a reproduction of a cinema hall.
More like a church tower than a lighthouse, the graceful Simon-Loschen-Leuchtturm on the new harbour is still in operation and dates back to 1855. This makes it the oldest working lighthouse on Germany’s North Sea coast.
At just under 40 metres high, the tower is in the Brick Gothic Revival style and is named for its architect Simon Loschen, who also designed Bremerhaven’s main church, the Bürgermeister-Smidt-Gedächtniskirche at roughly the same time.
Now the tower is a listed building, and its lower hall serves as a venue for wedding ceremonies.
11. Bremerhaven Radar Tower
Climbing to 106 metres next to the mouth of the Geeste River, the Bremerhaven Radar Tower went up in 1965 and is made of reinforced concrete.
As well as serving as a radar station the tower is a key maritime radio transmitter, and also opens its doors to visitors.
There’s an observation platform at 60 metres for a 360°, bird’s eye view of the city.
Like a watchman of old, you can look out to sea and track the meandering courses of the Geeste and Weser Rivers.
12. Columbus Center
Both the Klimahaus and SAIL CITY have maritime-themed silhouettes, but the first project to transform Bremerhaven’s skyline was this mixed-use development in the 1970s.
By the old harbour, The Columbus Center is one of the city’s most visible landmarks for its three apartment towers shaped like the chimneys of a steamship.
Beneath this is a mall with 75 shops, counting the German department store Karstadt.
Since 2009 there has also been a glass bridge linking with the Klimahaus across the water and for arresting views of the old harbour and the new Hafenwelten development.
Right in Bremerhaven’s port there’s a peculiar viewing tower made from 12 stacked shipping containers.
The Container-Aussichtsturm has four layers of containers, all bearing their logos, and a platform installed at the top at a height of 15 metres.
The tower is a free attraction and from the top you get a clear panorama of the Nordschleuse lock, the cranes of the container port, car terminal and the cruise terminal.
There’s a map to help you get your bearings, as well as binoculars if you want to identify the many ships docked or towing in and out of the harbour.
If your German is up to scratch then you can set off on a guided two-hour bus tour organised by Bremerhaven’s tourist office.
The HafenBus is something to keep in mind because Bremerhaven and its modern container port cover a sizeable area, and it’s not very practical to get around on your own steam.
The bus also has access to places you wouldn’t normally be able to visit.
The container port is an obvious standout for its towering cranes and the world’s longest quay, which has 14 berths and extends to 4,680 metres.
You’ll hear about all the goods that come ashore here, from coffee to heavy machinery, but also get snippets of Bremerhaven’s shipbuilding, fishing and emigration history.
One of the anchors for Hafenwelten is a Mediterranean-themed mall on the south side of the Klimahaus.
Like something out of Las Vegas, Mediterraneo is halfway between a shopping centre and a free theme park with a bright, sunny atmosphere when it’s pouring with rain outside.
There’s an arcaded garden, a market square and an Italianate piazza with a Renaissance-style fountain under a glass dome modelled on Florence Cathedral.
Mediterraneo has a choice of mid-market brands, specialty shops and restaurants, while its free wi-fi always comes in handy.