A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lübeck is a must-visit city in Schleswig-Holstein. As the capital of the Hanseatic League the city was a central node in a network of ports around the Baltic Sea. For hundreds of years Lübeck has been the “City of the Seven Spires”, and even after a devastating bombing raid in 1942 those towers decorate the skyline of the Old Town on its island in the River Trave.
Down on the streets are gabled merchants’ houses, guildhalls and warehouses, all signs of the trade that brought prestige and power in the Middle Ages. The town hall is suffused with that prosperity, while the five main churches are still decorated with Medieval and Renaissance art.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Lübeck:
Germany’s largest historic centre is 100 hectares of historic streets under the watch of those seven spires.
A classic Lübeck street scene has would be rows of Renaissance gabled houses broken by passageways.
The city is designed in a way that rewards anyone who with spirit for adventure.
You can turn off the main streets and follow these alleys to hidden courtyards or find yourself deposited by surprise onto a familiar street.
The courtyards are mostly found in the well-preserved Kober area in the north along Engeslwisch, Glockengießerstraße and Engelsgrube, and in the south around the cathedral.
And if you’re in the mood for some shopping you can stay on the straight and narrow at Breite Straße and Königstraße where big name brands jostle for position beside one-of-a-kind boutiques and confectioners.
More than just a building, Holstentor, guarding the western entrance to the Old Town is a landmark known all over Germany.
Started in 1464, the gate has Lübeck’s signature North German Brick Gothic design.
There are two rounded towers flanking the passageway and smaller ornamental towers on the pediment.
You can see how subsidence has brought the south tower a little lower than its neighbour.
There are two terracotta friezes running around the gate while on the city side the facade has three tiers of small ogival arched windows.
Inside is a small museum about Lübeck’s might as a Hanseatic and Free Imperial City, using period measuring instruments, ship models, armour and weapons.
3. St Mary’s Church
Like the Holstentor, you can’t overstate the significance of St Mary’s Church.
Dating to the 13th and 14th centuries, its Brick Gothic design would be replicate at dozens of churches around the Baltic in the Middle Ages.
In the style of Germany’s medieval Hall Churches, the building doesn’t have a transept.
The nave is exceptionally high, and at 38.5 metres has the highest brick vaults in the world.
These are reinforced outside by flying buttresses.
The two towers meanwhile are a staggering 125 metres high and were the last elements completed in the 1350s.
In the south tower’s chapel you can see the broken bells that fell from the tower in an air raid in 1942. A surprising amount of art came through the war, like the 14th-century bronze baptismal font, the 15th-century Darsaw Madonna, reassembled from hundreds of pieces and the winged altarpiece from 1495 by Christian Swarte.
4. Town Hall
Among Germany’s largest medieval town halls and another photogenic landmark in Lübeck, the town hall was first mentioned in 1225. It started out as a Romanesque building and you can still spot a Romanesque blind arch in the shield wall.
But the first town hall was destroyed by fire in the middle of the 13th century, and the pointed arcades on Markt are from that time.
Renaissance additions were made on the north side in the 1570s, and the light sandstone used in this phase contrasts beautifully with the dark brick of the earlier constructions.
There are three tours a day, Monday to Friday, leading around the various halls like the Audienzsaal.
In this former courtroom-turned-audience hall, the doorways have different heights: Innocent defendants could leave with their head held high while guilty ones had to stoop.
5. Hospital of the Holy Spirit
At Koberg square in the Altstadt’s northern Jakobi Quarter, the Hospital of the Holy Spirit is one of the oldest social institutions in the world.
Founded in 1286 and secularised after the Reformation, the hospital is a sign of Medieval Lübeck’s social conscience, taking care of its poor, elderly and sick residents, provided they lived a near-monastic existence.
They would get food, shelter and a warm bath eight times a year, and the hospital continued to operate all the way up to the 1960s.
Now you can check out the architecture, which has come through more than 700 years.
There are 14th-century frescoes in the porch and in the nave of the church, as well as an altar from the 16th century.
At Christmas this dignified setting welcomes an international arts and crafts market.
6. European Hansemuseum
The capital of the Hanseatic League is the logical place for a museum about this international confederation of market towns and merchant guilds.
The Hansemuseum maps the birth, rise and fall of the Hanseatic League across more than half a millennium.
There are thorough outlines of the trade networks, and reconstructions of port scenes at cities as far afield as London, Bergen, Bruges and Hansa Novgorod in Russia.
If you’re fascinated by the governing mechanisms of this Medieval organisation the museum is rich with historic documents.
These record the oaths taken by its members and ingenious contracts and agreements that helped keep the Hanseatic League alive for so long.
There’s a hoard of gold and silver coins discovered in Lübeck.
7. Lübeck Cathedral
Built by Henry the Lion after Lübeck had become an episcopal “see” in the 12th century, Lübeck Cathedral is one of the oldest monuments in the city.
It was severely damaged in 1942 and the restored building wouldn’t be re-consecrated until 1973. As a break from Medieval norms, the cathedral isn’t the tallest church in the city, and this is down to the tensions between Lübeck’s bishopric and the city’s powerful merchants who were patrons at St Mary’s.
You have to go in to see the Late Gothic and Baroque art that survived unscathed.
The rood screen carvings and 17-metre triumphal cross are the work of Bernt Notke from the 15th century, while the Flemish sculptor Thomas Quellinus produced a series of works for the funeral chapels on the south aisle.
8. Lübeck Museum of Theatre Puppets
In a lovely set of five Medieval brick buildings, the Theatre Puppet museum has 300 years worth of puppets and puppeteering props gathered from Europe, Africa and Asia.
These are a private collection, assembled by Fritz Fey, one of a long line of puppeteers, and they reveal one of the uniting themes of the art-form, which is to be a reflection of the society in which they’re produced.
Together with puppets there are small stages, posters and barrel organs, and you’ll learn a little about the culture of each region, as the puppets embody Indian legends, Chinese social mores and African tribal rituals.
If all this whets your appetite for a puppet show there’s a theatre next door to the museum.
A Nobel prize-winner and One of Germany’s most beloved statesmen, former Chancellor Willy Brandt was born in Lübeck in 1913. The museum opened in 2007 on what would have been his 94th birthday, and the property chosen was a cultivated Burgher house that needed restoration.
From his youth Brandt lived a life out of the ordinary, and this is retold by the exhibition, calling on newsreels, interview transcripts and documents like Brandt’s school leaving certificate.
You’ll discover his resistance efforts, exile to Norway and role as a reporter during the Nuremberg Trials.
He was mayor of Berlin when the wall was built, and the museum has a letter he wrote to John F. Kennedy at that time.
The largest space is dedicated to Brandt’s efforts to bridge Germany’s North-South divide, promote human rights and encourage friendlier relations with the GDR.
10. St Peter’s Church
The Romanesque St Peter’s Church was first mentioned in 1170 but was a ruin for the second half of the 20th century and was only restored in 1987. This church no longer has services and instead is an exhibition and function space.
If you’re in Lübeck at Christmas, call in at the arts and crafts market.
The rest of the time the main objective has to be the church’s observation platform, which at 50 metres high provides the best panorama of the city.
If the skies are clear you can see as far as the Baltic on sunny days.
Outside look for the Danziger Glocke bell, cast in 1647.
Maybe overshadowed by the more famous Holstentor on the former western wall, Burgtor is Lübeck’s other remaining gate is still warrants a visit.
Just next to the Hansemuseum, the gate defends the northern approach to the Altstadt and was constructed in the Late Gothic style in 1444. That Baroque copper dome on the main tower is from 1685. From the lawn on the east side you can also see a rare fragment of the city’s fortifications: A circular tower and curtain wall with arrow loops.
If you cross the Burgtorbrücke (bridge) you’ll come across two lions guarding the entrance by the 20th-century sculptor Fritz Behn.
These are partners for the lions at the Holstentor produced by Daniel Rauch in the 19th century.
12. Günter Grass Haus
The great 20th-century author Günter Grass spent most of his later life in Lübeck and passed away in the city in 2015. A museum in his honour opened as a forum for literature and visual art in 2002. Grass is mainly known for his writing, but also produced paintings, sculpture and graphic art.
There are more than 1,300 visual works in the museum’s collection, and these give a more rounded idea of Grass’ ideas, message and creative process.
If you’re an avid Grass reader, his pictorial worlds offer a fresh perspective on recurring themes like National Socialism and post-war Germany, but also settings like the Baltic Sea.
13. Schiffergesellschaft (Seafarer’s Guildhall)
Lübeck’s seafarer’s guild was founded at the beginning of the 15th century.
In 1535 it bought and revamped a house opposite the Jakobikirche, which would be the guild’s base until it was broken up in the 19th century.
Now the guildhall is a traditional tavern and has looked after all of the old-time decorations.
Hanging from the ceiling’s wooden beams are historic model ships, while the benches are still carved with the insignia of the guild’s individual companies.
Even after the reformation the guild had a strong religious code, and above the wooden panelling are nine frescoes from 1624 evoking passages from the bible.
14. An der Obertrave
The southwest curve of the Old Town’s island was spared major damage in 1942 and is full of Medieval and Renaissance architecture.
The best way to take it all in is on a walk along An der Obertrave, the 720-metre promenade next to the River Trave.
The way is lined with gorgeous listed houses that have crow-stepped and rounded gables.
It will be hard to resist taking detours into the seven courtyards reached via narrow passageways from the street.
Summer is a fine time to be in this part of the city, when cafe terraces take over the promenade and you can watch the river and green bank opposite from a bench.
After passing through the Holstentor, one of the first sights to greet you in Lübeck is the row of six historic warehouses on the Obertrave.
The oldest of these is from 1579 and the newest dates to 1745. Salt brought to the city from Lüneburg to the south, would be stored here to be exported to Scandinavia for the herring trade.
In the past there used to be wooden homes belonging to herring merchants in front of the warehouses by the water.
Fans of Weimar cinema will be excited to know that these gabled buildings appear in F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu as the vampire’s home in Wisborg.