The capital of Schleswig-Holstein, Kiel is a maritime city in the 17-kilometre Kiel Fjord. That is a huge natural harbour, just the spot for Germany’s Navy to dock its Baltic fleet. The city is also at the eastern lock of the busiest artificial waterway on the planet, the Kiel Canal, tying the North Sea to the Baltic.
At Kiel Week in June thousands of competitors set sail for the city to compete in the largest regatta in the world, together with a big party that sweeps across the whole city. Museums and attractions in Kiel tend to have a seafaring theme, whether it’s a preserved U-Boat, lighthouse, monumental naval memorial or maritime museum.
Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Kiel:
1. Kiel Week
The world’s biggest sailing event kicks off during the last week of June, bringing millions of visitors and some 4,000 ships to the city from across Germany and abroad.
Going back to 1882, Kiel Week is a Volksfest at its heart, and there’s no better time to soak up the city’s maritime atmosphere and get some amazing photographs.
The are 2000 events packed into the week, including boat races for a host of categories setting off from the Schilksee harbour, where the sailing events for the 1972 Olympics were staged.
More than 100 historic vessels dock in the city and many welcome visitors aboard.
On land there’s live music, an international market on Rathausplatz, and street performers and entertainment kids throughout the city centre and along the waterfront.
On the west bank of the Kiel Fjord is a waterfront promenade beginning in the north at the naval base.
The route takes you past rows of boathouses for rowers, sailors and canoeists as well as the Heimholtz Centre for Ocean Research, which has an outdoor seal aquarium.
During Kiel Week the promenade has a real bustle to it as there are concert stages, and crowds two or three people deep gather to watch the races in the fjord.
At any other time there are a few places to stop for a coffee to get out of the cold in winter.
There are stirring views over to the ThyssenKrupp shipyards on the east bank, and you can watch the colossal cruise ships pulling into the harbour.
3. German Submarine U-995
On a beach on the eastern lip of the fjord at Laboe is a wartime U-boat that has been turned into a technical museum.
You can get there from Kiel on the 100 or 102 buses.
U-995 was built by Blohm & Voss in Hamburg in 1943. The submarine was damaged in 1944 and spent the remainder of the war at a dock in Trondheim.
After the war it was commissioned by the Norwegian navy and was in service until the 60s, before ending up close to the Naval Memorial in Laboe and opening as a museum in 1972. Little has changed inside, and if you don’t mind cramped spaces you can poke around the engine room, control station, bunks and torpedo tubes.
4. Marine-Ehrenmal Laboe (Naval Memorial)
You can easily spot this landmark several kilometres away at the Kiellinie.
The Naval Memorial is a tower 72 metres high, built between 1927 and 1936. The tower has a concrete frame and brick cladding, and was first erected to commemorate sailors killed during the First World War.
Following the Second World War the structure is now a monument to peaceful seafaring and victims from all nations killed during the World Wars.
You can go up to viewing platform via two elevators or 341 stairs and survey the Kiel Fjord, while below is a memorial hall and a small museum exhibition.
You’ll find a model of the Bismarck battleship the size of a car and a porthole window salvaged from the MV Wilhelm Gustloff, a military transport ship sunk in the Baltic at huge loss of life while evacuating Gdynia.
5. Schifffahrtsmuseum Kiel
Right on the water, the city’s Gothic Revival fish auction house was repurposed as a maritime museum in 1978. The interior has been whitewashed and in this airy space is an exhibition on Kiel’s fishing and seafaring history.
One exhibition here charts the construction of the Kiel Canal, which was completed in 1895 and connected the North Sea with the Baltic.
There are logbooks, maps, model ships, navigation instruments and a cross-section of the Seehund midget submarine from the Second World War.
The museum has its own dock where a few historical vessels are moored.
Lined up are a fireboat, a lifeboat launched in 1944 and finally a buoy tender, the Bussard, from 1966.
6. Kieler Rathaus
The City Hall is an indelible part of Kiel’s skyline thanks to its 106-metre tower.
When this Art Nouveau edifice was constructed during the 1900s it was actually in the suburbs to the west of the Old Town.
One look at the tower and you’ll know where the idea came from, as it bears a striking resemblance to St Mark’s Campanile in Venice.
At the time of writing this post the tower was closed for refurbishment, but ordinarily it welcomes visitors for tours of the Art Nouveau interiors and up to the observation platform at 67 metres.
A neat feature inside is one of the world’s last paternosters, a slow-moving, open, two-passenger lift that is in constant motion.
The city’s principal church has been at this location on Alter Markt since the 13th century.
In its time it has come through a lot of changes.
The most dramatic were in the 1870s when it was updated in a Gothic Revival style, and again after the war when modern materials like reinforced concrete were used in the reconstruction.
But although the appearance has changed, there’s still a lot of history to uncover.
The Nikolaikirche witnessed controversial sermons by the rabble-rousing Anabaptist Melchior Hoffman in 1528. The church’s art was also safeguarded in the war: There’s a highly ornate wing altar carved in 1460, a triumphal cross from 1490 and oldest of all, a Hanseatic bronze baptismal font cast in 1344.
8. Zoological Museum of Kiel University
The building for this museum was designed in the 1870s by one of the eminent architects of the day, Martin Gropius, great uncle of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius.
The museum’s collections are much older, and were first gathered in the 1600s.
An exhibit you won’t soon forget is in the main hall, where there are 13 whale skeletons and massive blue and sperm whales are suspended from the ceiling.
A new exhibition titled “Ozean der Zukunft” (Ocean of the Future), reveals the latest findings on topics like rising ocean levels, fishing, acidification and ocean circulation patterns using interactive displays.
9. Schleusenanlage Kiel-Holtenau
The busiest man-made waterway in the world (busier than Suez or Panama) begins just a few kilometres north of the centre of Kiel at Holtenau.
More than 120 years after it opened, the Kiel Canal is used by 31,000 ships and 15,000 recreational boats, cutting 460 kilometres from a journey around the Jutland Peninsula.
The easternmost locks at Holtenau are where construction began in 1887. On the south side is an outdoor visitor centre with information boards and telescopes set up for you to watch the traffic.
On the north side are the remnants of the old Eider Canal (1784-1887), which was a predecessor to the Kiel Canal but had to be replaced at the advent of steam shipping.
10. Kunsthalle Kiel
The bulk of the art museum’s collection is from the 19th and 20th centuries and there are some influential German artists here, like the Romantic Carl Spitzweg and Impressionists like Lovis Corinth, Max Slevogt and Max Liebermann.
Moving into the 1900s there are Expressionists and New Objectivity artists such as Emil Nolde, Karl Hofer and Alexander Kanoldt.
The other strong-point is contemporary art by German big-hitters like Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter and Georg Baselitz.
The museum was also one of the first in Germany to create a video art collection, while there’s also sculpture by Rodin, Wilhelm Lehmbruck and a contemporary installation by Kazuo Katase in the inner court.
11. Leuchtturm Bülk
On a small cape at the western entrance to the Kiel Fjord is a lighthouse begun by the Danes when they controlled this territory in 1862. Construction was interrupted by the Second Schleswig War, after which Schleswig-Holstein belonged to Prussia.
Leuchtturm Bülk is the oldest lighthouse on the fjord and issues a red signal to warn ships of the treacherous sandbank (shoal) at the entrance.
The lighthouse is open to the public and you head up 25 metres to the lantern and pick out sights on the horizon like the Naval Monument on the opposite bank.
At the foot of the tower is a cafe serving hot drinks, cakes and snacks from 10:00.
12. Stadtmuseum Warleberger Hof
As a naval base, Kiel sustained more bombing than most German cities during the Second World War.
And it so happens that the oldest building to survive the destruction was a noble residence built for Frederick III, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp in 1616. Warleberger Hof is the kind of townhouse that was once found all over the Altstadt, and has a sandstone portal, painted stucco ceilings, silk wallpaper and murals from a plush makeover in the 18th century.
The vaulted cellar also merits a look, and among an exhibition of 18th-centruy faience and silverware there’s a well that still carries water.
On the first floor are rotating exhibitions charting Kiel’s past.
13. Kieler Sprotte
Appropriate for a maritime city, Kiel’s traditional delicacy is smoked fish.
These are sprats, which are a bit like herring, and are caught when they’re about 10 centimetres long.
If you can get hold of authentic Kieler Sprotte, they’ll have been smoked in a wood-burning oven, over beech and alder boughs and will be presented in wooden boxes.
Now, the proper way to eat them is by eating the whole thing, head, tail bones and all, because the fish is so soft.
But it is possible to remove the head and pull the bones out via the tail in one easy motion.
Linking the big Karstadt department store in the Vorstadt with the Nikolaikirche in the Altstadt, Holstenstraße is one of the oldest streets in the city.
The street was almost totally obliterated during the war, and during reconstruction in 1953-1957 it was closed off to road traffic, becoming the first pedestrian street in West Germany.
Holstenstraße has always been Kiel’s traditional shopping mile, and is lined with big international brands like Foot Locker, TK Maxx, Starbucks and at its upper end has a shopping centre hosting branches of C&A and the German department store Saturn.
Good for a rainy day or for parents travelling with fashion-conscious teenagers, the Citti-Park is Kiel’s largest mall and has quick transport links from the centre of the city on the 300 bus.
There are more than 60 stores on two levels for German and International fashion brands like H&M, NewYorker and Esprit.
If you’re in Kiel for an extended amount of time you can do your supermarket shop at the ALDI here, while if you get peckish on your visit there are cafes, bakeries and tee houses, and a refreshing absence of fast food chains.