At the innermost pocket of Schleswig-Holstein’s Flensburg Fjord in, is a Baltic Sea port soaked in maritime culture and with 800 years of stories to tell. The quay on the west side of the fjord is a nautical journey of discovery with quaint taverns and a historic shipyard on one side and historic sailboats creaking in the water on the other.
For a lot of its life, Flensburg has been Danish. Some monuments bear the coat of arms of Danish royalty, and there’s still a strong Danish community and culture in the city. Trade has also shaped Flensburg in every sense, generating the wealth for splendid monuments in the Early Modern Age and refining a taste for rum since the1700s.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Flensburg:
1. Historischer Hafen
On the west side of the Flensburg Fjord is the historic harbour where, especially in summer, people come to amble along the boardwalk, taking in the sailboats in the water and quaint houses on the shore.
The streets in this quarter have evocative maritime names like Schiffbrücke (ship pier), Segelmacherstraße (sail-makers’ street), and there’s an old customs house (now the maritime museum) and inns that would once have been teeming with sailors and shipbuilders.
Stalls along the quay serve up comforting fish rolls (Fischbroetchen). Bobbing on the water are craft like the Dagmar Aaen, launched in 1931 and the only sailboat to have crossed both the Northeast and Northwest Passages.
Further up, the “Krahn” harbour crane is a remnant of Flensburg’s shipyard that has stood here in some form since 1726..
2. Flensburg Fjord
If you’ve always wanted to learn to sail, Flensburg is one of the best places for it in the Baltic Sea to take that leap.
The fjord’s waters are easy-going as they’re so sheltered, but the consistent breezes keep things fun.
There are tourist marinas at short intervals along the fjord and the fierce competition for business keeps prices down.
In summer there’s nothing to stop you windsurfing and kitesurfing, waterskiing, hiring a canoe or kayak, going stand-up paddleboarding or renting a motorboat for a tour of the fjord.
North of Flensburg the shore is indented with quiet little coves, so you’ll be tempted to strike out and see what you can find.
On Südermarkt, the Nikolaikirche is the largest church in the city at more than 50 metres in length.
The Nikolaikirche is a classic Gothic hall church begun in 1390, with aisles around the same width as the central nave and divided by six pairs of mighty round brick pillars.
The altar from 1749 is unusual, being at the transition from Baroque to Rococo, with an image of the Resurrection flanked by life-sized representations of the Virtues (faith and hope). But the exceptional work in the Nikolaikirche is the “double organ”, which has no equivalent anywhere in the world.
The instrument was commissioned by King Christian IV at the start of the 17th century and has richly ornamented casing sporting an image of the resurrected Christ and the royal coat of arms.
4. Museumsberg Flensburg
Posted above the harbour to the west, this attraction comprises two museum buildings, Heinrich-Sauermann-Haus and Hans-Christiansen-Haus, as well as the Alter Friedhof cemetery and the Christiansen Park.
The resplendent gabled Heinrich-Sauermann-Haus is for the art and culture of the Schleswig region.
In 25 rooms there are whole home interiors from the 1600s and 1700s, a beautiful 16th-century altar brought here from a church in Hütten and the Viöler Madonna, a stunning Gothic Marian sculpture from the end of the 13th century.
The Hans-Christiansen-Haus is a former school with lavish Art Nouveau interiors, replete with regional art from the 19th and 20th-centuries by the likes of the Naturalist Carl Ludwig Jessen and landscape painter Louis Gurlitt.
At this science museum kids learn concepts relating to mathematics, physics and technology by playing, interacting and experimenting.
There are more than 200 ingeniously designed, multi-sensory stations across four floors.
There’s no fixed path at Phänomenta and no explanations of any of the experiments; kids are given enough time to work it out for themselves.
They’ll float in space, find out what it’s like to be blind in the Tunnel of Darkness and experiment with sight, sound, smell and touch in the House of the Senses.
Kids will also become electricity conductors, build crazy overhanging buildings that somehow don’t collapse, and play with all sorts of optical illusions.
6. Museumswerft Flensburg
The museum shipyard was founded beside the harbour in 1996, and preserves the old craft of shipbuilding, using time-honoured methods to construct sea-worthy sailboats and restore historic craft.
In these workshops you’ll discover many different skills that went into building ships in the 18th and 19th-centuries, and find out about the life of a worker in Flensburg’s shipyard 150 years ago.
If you want to get involved you can also take a practical course at the museum using the same tools that have been in a Flensburg shipbuilder’s inventory for hundreds of years.
7. Flensburger Löwe
This memorial has been on quite a journey in the 155 years since it was first erected in the Alter Friedhof cemetery.
The Flensburger Löwe was raised in 1862 by the Danes to commemorate their victory over the state of Schleswig-Holstein in the Battle of Isted in 1850. The fairytale writer Hans Christian Andersen was among the crowd when it was unveiled in 1862. When Schleswig-Holstein came under Prussian control in 1864, the statue was damaged then dismantled and moved in pieces to Berlin where it remained until 1945 when it was gifted by the Americans back to Denmark.
For the next 60 or so years it was in Copenhagen, before finally being returned to Flensburg’s Alter Freidhof at the wishes of the city’s Danish minority! A new plaque reads that the lion was erected once more as a symbol of trust and friendship between the Danes and Germans.
Standing by the Nordermarkt, the Marienkirche is a brick-built Gothic church dating from the 1200s.
The basic structure of the nave and choir hasn’t changed since they were extended at the start of the 15th century, while the western tower went up at the beginning of the 1730s.
The reason the Marienkirche needs to be on your radar is for its wonderful fittings, all donations by Flensburg’s wealthy merchants.
The Renaissance altar from 1598 is the largest in Schleswig-Holstein and is a multifaceted work of art with numerous painted panels , the largest of which depicts the Last Supper, all ensconced by gilded carving, marble columns, caryatids and capped with portraits of the altar’s donors.
See also the 15th-century frescoes in the vaulting, the bronze baptismal font from 1591, the pulpit from 1579 and the Renaissance tomb monuments adorning the nave walls.
9. Schifffahrtsmuseum Flensburg
The customs house by the harbour was built in 1843 and stored duty-sealed goods like rum up to 1972. The lower floors are supported by cast iron columns from the earliest years of Flesburg’s iron industry.
A maritime museum opened here in 1984, and this was recently brought up to date again in 2012. The museum is a treasure chest of seafaring memorabilia, like equipment from expeditions to Greenland, artefacts from Flensburg’s harbour in the Middle Ages, shipbuilding tools, nautical instruments and folk art relating to North Frisian sailors.
And as this was a customs house you can find out about the New World goods that would have been stored and processed in this building, like coffee, cane sugar, rum and exotic timber.
10. Rote Straße
This pedestrian street heading south from Südermarkt was a place of business for merchants, craftsmen and inn-keepers in Medieval times and the Early Modern Age.
Their centuries-old buildings along the way have been well looked after, and the tower of Nikolaikirche to the north gives Rote Straße a charming backdrop.
Many of the facades give way to noble courtyards, so don’t resist the temptation to poke your head through some of the doorways.
A couple of the old inns remain, but Rote Straße is now given over mostly to design and specialty shops.
These hark back to Flensburg’s trading history, selling in tea, wine and rum.
Between the Marienkirche and the Nordertor gate, this long thoroughfare is known far and wide for its youthful verve, quirkiness, art, fashion and left-leaning residents.
Since 2005 Norderstraße has hosted one of Flensburg’s unofficial landmarks: Known as “Shoefiti”, an art project in which pairs of old shoes hang from wires across the street.
Norderstraße is a big, cosmopolitan muddle, with tattoo shops, Italian ice cream parlours, tea shops, antique stores and vintage clothing.
There are also lots of reminders of Flenburg’s Danish culture, in its Danish library, bookshops, Danish cultural centre and cafes selling Danish treats.
At the northern end of Norderstraße, just next door to Phänomenta, is the last surviving city gate.
The Nordertor’s Renaissance red brick architecture is from the end of the 16th century.
With a stepped gable it is an unmistakeable sign of Flensburg’s confidence at a time when the city was making money hand over fist from international trade.
Similar to the Holstentor in Lübeck, the Nordertor is an instant identifier for Flensburg, and has appeared on German postage stamps.
On the north side of the gate, over the portal are the coats of arms of the Danish King of the period, Christian IV and the City of Flensburg.
For more conventional shopping mark Südermarkt on your map.
On the east side is the Flensburg Galerie, with more than 70 shops including stalwarts of every German high street like GameStop and Saturn.
The outdoor market (Wochenmarkt) has a bit more personality, having traded in Flensburg for 800 years.
Call in on Wednesday and Saturday mornings for groceries and specialty food from around the Schleswig region.
Südermarkt is also a very photogenic square, edged by gabled houses like the Nikolai-Apotheke (St Nicholas’ Pharmacy) at no.
12, dating to 1490 and believed to be the oldest secular building in Flensburg.
14. Dampfer Alexandra
You can’t come to a maritime town like Flensburg and not go on a boat trip.
And there’s a special way to do this as the main option is a floating landmark in its own right.
The Alexandra is a saloon steamer christened in Hamburg at the Janssen & Schmilinsky shipyard in 1908 and used as a regatta escort vessel in Kiel during the Olympic Games of 1936. On weekends in July and August the Alexandra pulls away from the Historischer Hafen for an hour-long cruise around the fjord.
In the 1700s raw, sugar cane juice was shipped to Flensburg from the Danish West Indies.
It would be fermented, purified and blended at Flensburg’s rum distilleries (Rumfabrikanten) and the sold on by merchants.
In those days Flensburg earned the title “Rumstadt” when there were more than 200 rum houses in the city.
Two survive today, and one of them, the Wein- & Rumhaus Braasch on Rote Straße has a museum for Flensburg’s favourite drink.
There’s also a separate museum for rum in the basement of the maritime museum, with antique barrels and a short film explaining Flensburg’s relationship with this drink.
That museum is the start of a “Rum & Sugar Mile”, which has 20 stations in Flensburg.