A Hanseatic trading city, Rostock was granted city rights in the 13th century and since then has been a nexus point for trade, learning and shipbuilding on the Baltic.
The city was hit by bombs in 1942, but a lot of its heritage was spared, like the Medieval riches of the Brick Gothic Marienkirche, Renaissance gabled merchants’ houses or a long stretch of the city’s defensive walls going back to the 13th century.
Rostock is also a city with its very own seaside resort.
Warnemünde on the Warnow Estuary has a white sandy beach 15 kilometres in length where everyone from toddlers to watersports fanatics will be thrilled by what’s in store.
Try to time your trip for mid-August for the Hanse Sail festival, when tall ships will transport you right back to Rostock’s Hanseatic heyday.
Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Rostock:
The pick of Rostock’s churches is an archetypal North German Brick Gothic church, which hasn’t changed much since the 14th century.
The cross-shaped basilica is still a weighty bulk on Rostock’s skyline, and much of its architecture and decoration is original.
Despite the widespread destruction visited on Rostock during bombing raids in 1942, the church was only partially damaged and its fires were swiftly extinguished.
Some of the many captivating things to see inside are the altar to St Roch, carved from oak in the Late Gothic style around 1530, a bronze baptismal font from 1290 and a fantastic astronomical clock dating to 1472. Also spare some time for the ornate Rococo high altar from 1721 and the Renaissance pulpit from 1574.
The oldest of Rostock’s three churches goes back to 1252 and was rebuilt in the Brick Gothic style around the 1350s.
Petrikirche is on the high left bank of the Warnow just before it broadens into the Unterwarnow estuary.
The church tower is 117 metres high and for hundreds of years was a handy seamark for sailors and fishermen.
The building was hard-hit in the Second World War and it would be another 50 years before its spire was restored.
During the reconstruction the tower was fitted with an elevator, lifting you to an observation platform at 45 metres.
3. Warnemünde Beach
On either side of the Warnow Estuary, the perennial Blue Flag-winning Warnemünde Beach is 15 kilometres long and widens to 100 metres at points.
The beach shelves low, so is safe for children, and there are two wide sections monitored by lifeguards in summer: Warnemünde Hauptstrand and Markgrafenheide on the other side of the Warnow.
Walk down a little to the west of the lighthouse and the beach becomes quiet and traced by a row of villas from the turn of the 20th century.
The sand is fine and sugar-white, and along the 15 kilometres there are designated areas for water sports, naturists, beach sports like soccer and volleyball in summer, as well as places where you can have barbecues and campfires on the sand.
4. Alter Strom
In Warnemünde’s harbour, the Alter Strom is a channel dug as long ago as 1423. For more than five centuries this was the main channel linking Rostock’s port with the Baltic, until the Neuer Strom was dredged in 1903. On the west side of the Alter Strom is a promenade edged with charming old fishermen’s houses that are now shops and restaurants.
And on the quay there’s a continuous line of boats, some of which have been turned into floating snack bars.
At Am Strom 53 you’ll come to the Edvard Munch Haus, where the Norwegian symbolist painter lived from 1907 to 1908.
5. Warnemünde Lighthouse
On the left side of the Warnow Estuary, the Warnemünde Lighthouse is just under30 metres high and has been here since 1898. Built with white-glazed bricks, the tower is the main landmark in the resort and has wrought iron railings on its platforms.
From Easter to October you can go up to survey Warnemünde, Rostock, the Baltic, the port entrance and the beach.
At the base of the tower is the Teepott, a GDR-era structure now housing cafes, restaurants and bars.
The old pilot station has a memorial to the 1872 storm surge, which claimed 271 lives on the German Baltic coast.
The long breakwaters lining the estuary were a response to the disaster.
6. City Wall
Rostock’s defensive walls were first raised in the 1100s and were then adapted for gunpowder in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Because of this redesign and expansion of the city 19th century, only four of the original twenty medieval gates remain.
But there’s more than a kilometre of wall intact.
At one of the gates, Kröpeliner Tor, you can navigate a wooden walkway along the wall up to Schwaansche Straße.
At intervals along the way you’ll pass by small guardhouses.
A bit further east is the Kuhtor (Cow Gate), said to be the oldest surviving city gate in Northern Germany and dates from the second half of the 13th century.
7. Kulturhistorisches Museum
The Gothic Monastery of the Holy Cross housed Rostock’s cultural history museum since 1984. As an institution the museum is far older, dating back to 1859 and is seen as one of the foremost museums in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.
There’s much to see, but one of the most intriguing exhibitions is the sacred art from Rostock’s various religious buildings dating from the Middle Ages to the end of the 16th century, counting statues, choir stalls and altars.
There’s Dutch Renaissance and Baroque art by the likes of Jan Brueghel, a series of landscapes of Rostock from different times in its past, and modern art labelled “degenerate” by the Nazis.
Add to that antique toys, coins from the 1300s to 1800s, handicrafts going back to Medieval times, and there’s much for an antiquarian to uncover at this historically charged setting.
8. Shipbuilding and Maritime Museum Rostock
Moored on the Unterwarnow on halfway between Rostock and Warnemünde is the Dresden, a “Typ IV”, 10,000 ton freighter.
This monster was launched in the city in 1958 and since 1970 has contained a museum about shipbuilding and seafaring.
Rostock has a rich shipbuilding tradition going back to its Slavic origins; you’ll retrace the industry through different phases of the city’s past, like the GDR when Rostock was East Germany’s main maritime container hub.
Exhibitions go into to detail on the history of maritime radio, the GDR’s “Typ IV” freighters, marine research in the Baltic and the future of the shipping and shipbuilding industries.
There’s a maritime-themed park beside the ship dotted with heavy-duty shipbuilding artefacts like a colossal steam hammer from Rostock’s former Neptunwerft shipyard.
9. Neuer Markt
After Rostock gained city rights in 1218 the city expanded quickly.
In 1265 when three once separate suburbs became interlinked, this square became the new centre of the city.
During the Renaissance handsome gabled merchants’ houses sprouted on the borders of the square.
The Neuer Markt didn’t escape the bombing in 1942, but most of the east side of the square is original, and the same goes for some of the north and the town hall, which we’ll visit next.
The houses and no. 12 and 16 are especially photogenic.
And Monday to Saturday you can do your grocery shopping at the market on Neuer Markt, while the square features Rostock’s ferris wheel and other rides during Christmas market.
To look at Rostock’s arcaded town hall on Neuer Markt you wouldn’t know that the building is as old as the square itself, going all the way back to the 13th century.
This means it could be the oldest town hall in Germany.
But in the 18th century the facade was damaged in a storm and was replaced with a new Baroque design, even if the interior is much older.
The only clue outside is the set of seven Gothic turrets capping the roof.
In front of the entrance, make sure to look for the sculpture of a snake.
The current version is from 1998, but there has been a snake here in some form since the 1800s.
This might have either been a symbol of wisdom, or a way of measuring eels at the market.
Either way, you have to pet its head for good luck.
11. Rostocker Stadthafen
You’ll be in no doubt that you’re in a Hanseatic city when you step onto Rostock’s waterfront at the Stadthafen.
In 1877 Rostock had the largest trading fleet on the Baltic, with 369 ships.
Harbour activity had all been switched down the Unterwarnow to Rostock Port by 1991. But there are lots of hints of what came before in the rows of warehouses by the water and the replica of a wooden harbour crane from the 18th century.
For the last 20 years the Stadthafen has been somewhere to wander, grab some seafood and watch the passenger boats and herring trawlers unloading during the season in spring.
The Stadthafen is taken over by Hanse Sail, a maritime even in mid-August when some 250 tall ships and other traditional vessels dock in the city.
12. Stasi-Knast Rostock
This former prison is a chilling window on state oppression under the SED during the days of the GDR. Run by the state security service, the Stasi, the detention centre is attached to the former Stasi ministry building dating to the 1950s.
On three floors the facility could hold 110 men and women, in small cells that allowed almost no sunlight and prevented their occupants from knowing where they were.
A total of 4,900 people were kept at this facility before Reunification, and were detained for anything from attempting to leave East Germany to defamation of party leaders.
You’ll hear about the Stasi and how it functioned, take a tour of the cells and see a prison transport vehicle, as well as documents, photos and secret surveillance equipment.
13. Rostock Zoo
In 56 hectares and hosting more than 4,000 animals, the acclaimed Rostock Zoo is the largest on Germany’s Baltic Sea coast.
One thing you have to see here is the Darwineum, which is described as a “living museum”, equipped with an interactive and live exhibition about evolution, and a tropical house for gibbons, orangutans, gorillas and more.
The attraction’s most emblematic animal is the polar bear as Rostock Zoo manages the species’ studbook the European Endangered Species Programme.
In autumn 2018 the new Polarium will be unveiled, providing a state-of-the-art environment for the zoo’s polar bears.
In summer there’s a busy programme of feedings throughout the day, when you can observe cheetahs, reindeer, seals, Galapagos giant turtles, gorillas and pygmy hippos eating, and hear interesting facts about them.
14. Molli Railway
A few minutes west of the centre of Rostock is the town of Bad Doberan, which, as well as boasting a stunning Brick Gothic minster, is the eastern terminus for a narrow gauge railway from the 1880s.
Frederick Francis III, the Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin attended the line’s maiden service.
The Molli runs up to the coast and then west to Kühlungsborn for a nostalgic steam-powered journey that takes 40 minutes or so.
At Bad Doberan the trains chug along a cultured avenue lined with lime trees and then once you reach the Baltic you’ll have sea views all the way to Kühlungsborn.
The oldest locomotives on the line were manufactured by Orenstein & Koppel and date to 1932.
A couple of streets north of the walls is the triangular Universitätsplatz, which like Neuer Markt is in Rostock’s pedestrian zone.
The square is intersected by Kröpeliner Straße, the city’s main shopping street.
The name of the square comes from the university, which has had a presence here since the 15th century.
The current main university building is on the west side of the square and has a Neo-Renaissance design from the 1860s.
The fountain in the centre, Der Brunnen der Lebensfreude (Fountain for the Joy of Life), was the work of Jo Jastram and Reinhard Dietrich.
Cast in 1985, it has 20 bronze sculptures of animals and people and 18 water jets, and is a kind of playground for kids in summer.
Behind the fountain is the Fünfgiebelhaus (Five-gable house), which despite its Renaissance stylings is only from 1986: Stop by at 12:00 on a Saturday to hear its carillon toll.