One of the most picturesque cities in Europe, Lübeck is the perfect destination for a Northern European city break. During my recent March visit the wind chilled to the bone but the end-of-winter sunshine showcased the Old City in glorious golden light.
Situated on the River Trave, Lübeck is the second-largest city in Germany’s Schleswig-Holstein region, and a major port in the area. For several centuries it was the leading city of the Hanseatic League, a commercial confederation of merchant guilds and market downs that dominated trade in Northern Europe, stretching along the coast from the Baltic to the North Sea. Lübeck Old Town, on a small island entirely enclosed by the Trave, is much admired for its extensive brick gothic architecture and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A Rich Mediaeval History
If you enjoy learning about Europe’s history, you’ll certainly appreciate a visit to the European Hansemuseum which opened in Lübeck last year.
Even though I love history, I’m not always a fan of museums; far too many of them present information in such dull and unimaginative ways. That absolutely cannot be said of the Hansemuseum which is one of the best museums I’ve visited! Housed in a purpose-built modern structure adjacent to Lübeck’s Castle Monastery, the museum focuses on the rich history of the Hanseatic League (which South East England was very much a part of) over six hundred years. The museum makes excellent use of modern technology to bring history to life; not only are there informative interactive visual displays and audio content, but every other room recreates a scene that immerses you in an aspect of the tale – a lively bazaar, a traditional wooden merchant ship or the league’s council chambers during a session. As in any museum there are also a range of historical artefacts on display, and best of all, an excavation of ancient constructions down at basement level.
Of course, you can also see much of this history in the many beautifully preserved old buildings; Lübeck is a veritable jewel of Gothic and Renaissance architecture.
An Enormously Walkable Old Town
A great way to appreciate some of that is simply to walk around Lübeck’s delightful Altstadt (Old Town), designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site with very good reason.
A local guide can really bring the history alive for you, pointing out details you might otherwise miss, and relating the history and stories associated with each place. We were shown some of Lubeck’s treasures by Mr Colossus, a real character with the most wonderfully bushy handlebar moustache; hugely knowledgable and an entertaining narrator, he really enhanced our visit. Certainly, you can explore on your own though it’s well worth picking up a guide book or Tourist Information map to ensure you don’t miss the highlights.
The iconic Holstentor – a fifteenth century brick-built Gothic two-tower city gate that formed part of the city’s mediaeval fortifications and sits at the Western entrance to the Old Town – is today considered the symbol of the city, and indeed you can buy hand-moulded marzipan models of the gate in Niederegger’s shop (see below).
Burgtor, also built during the fifteenth century, is located to the North of Old Town.
Lübeck was once known as the City of the Seven Spires, these being visible from quite a distance from the city.
St. Mary’s Church shows the Gothic stone cathedral designs prevalent in France adapted to be built in local brick. Do check out the bronze sculpture of a devil that commemorates a charming fairytale about the construction of the church – as the townspeople were building St Mary’s, the devil paid a visit and asked what they were building. Keen not to anger him, they told him they were building a tavern. Delighted with this idea, since many souls had found him in just such a place, he leant a hand and the church grew quickly. Only when it was nearing completion did the devil realise he had been tricked. Furious, he picked up a huge stone boulder, intending to demolish the new place of worship. Thinking quickly, the townspeople promised to build a tavern directly next to the church and this they did, the Ratskeller. Appeased, the devil dropped the boulder where it lies today next to the walls of the church – the devil’s claw marks are clearly visible. The bronze sculpture of the devil was created in 1999 by artist Rolf Goerler.
Lübeck Cathedral is the oldest place of worship in the city; construction of the brick cathedral began in the 12th Century, but before that a wooden church stood on the same spot.
St. Peters, a Roman church built between 1227 and 1250, is no longer a church but an exhibition and events centre. At Christmas, a large arts and crafts market is hosted here.
You may also like to visit St. Giles, St. Jacob’s and St. Catherine’s churches.
The Rathaus, Lübeck’s Town Hall, is still the city’s seat of administration, so you can’t wander around inside on your own. However guided tours are available regularly throughout the day to allow visitors to see the lavish interiors and architecture more closely.
The Heiligen Geist (Holy Spirit) Hospital is one of the oldest social institutions in the world – any sick or elderly townspeople were guaranteed care here, regardless of their financial means. During advent, the city’s largest and best known arts and crafts market is hosted here.
If you do get tired and want to rest your legs, you can hop on a boat for a leisurely view of Lübeck Old Town from the water.
A World Centre of Marzipan
Lübeck is famous for marzipan. The most celebrated manufacturer is Niederegger, founded over 200 years ago.
Once upon a time there were many hundreds of marzipan makers within the old town alone. A local legend suggests that marzipan was first made in the city in response to either a military siege or a local famine. The story goes that the town ran out of all foodstuffs except stored almonds and sugar, and these were combined to make loaves of marzipan “bread”. In reality, marzipan is believed to have been invented far earlier, most likely in Persia though historians are undecided between a Persian and an Iberian origin.
At its core, marzipan consists of nothing more than ground almonds mixed with either sugar or honey. These days, a wide range of marzipan is available; many commercial versions contain a comparatively low volume of almonds; instead they contain a great deal of sugar with the flavour boosted by almond oils and extracts or even cheaper synthetic almond flavourings and are often sickly sweet. In Germany there are clear labels that describe the various levels of marzipan, from marzipanrohmasse (raw marzipan) at the top to gewöhnliches marzipan (ordinary or consumer marzipan) at the bottom.
Niederegger marzipan products are all marzipanrohmasse, which means they contains 65% ground almonds and 35% sugar; the flavour is subtle and natural and the sweetness is not overwhelming. In consumer marzipan, only a third of the total content is almond, with the rest made up of sugar and flavourings.
The best place to visit to indulge to the fullest is Café Niederegger, located in the heart of Old Lübeck. Not only will you find the most impressive range of Niederegger products in the extensive ground floor shop – at far lower prices than you’ll find in the UK – there’s also a charming café on the first floor where you can have a light savoury lunch before indulging in one of the fabulous cakes on offer. And I can personally recommend ordering a marzipan hot chocolate, alongside! Also worth a quick visit is the top floor museum where you learn a little more about the history of marzipan in Lübeck and see twelve life-size statues made entirely of marzipan.
Dinner in the Seafarer’s Guild
The Schiffergesellschaft is a modern restaurant offering both traditional German classics and newer dishes. The restaurant is proud of its history as part of the city’s historical shipping guild.
The Skt. Nicolaus Schiffergesellschaft (seafarers’ guild) established in 1401 was tasked with supporting those who worked in the shipping trade, and caring for their families. By the end of the thirteenth century there were multiple such guilds, including St. Anne, established in 1495. In 1530 these two guilds merged, forming a single professional body for Lübeck’s shipping industry. The new guild purchased the property across from St. Jacob’s church in 1535 and shortly thereafter, a new headquarters was built there. Over time the guild’s responsibilities expanded to include matters of navigation, taxes, mediation, guarding the harbour and more. All those working in shipping had to be members of the guild but in 1866 the compulsory nature of the guild was abolished and it lost many members and much-needed revenue. In order to counter some of its debt it leased an area of the building in which a restaurant was established. This lease assured the financial security of the guild and helped it to settle its debts. In 1933 the Schiffergesellschaft became a non-profit organisation and in the 1970s, extensive restoration of the building was carried out. Today the restaurant lease is operated by Engel & Höhne.
The wood-panelled restaurant features wooden tables and ornately carved high-backed bench seating that divides the room into rows of diners. Hanging from the high ceiling are model ships, and lanterns and chandeliers throw a warm and welcoming light.
The menu offers a wide range of starters, fish and meat mains, and desserts.
After malty brown bread served with pig fat, my Roast Duck Lübsch – roasted duck served with gravy and a savoury-sweet stuffing of red cabbage, prunes and marzipan – was hearty and delicious, and desserts were indulgent.
This isn’t the highest level of fine dining but it’s good, tasty food in an unusual setting and the extensive menu gives plenty of choice.
I liked our table up on a raised platform by the front window which allowed us to look down into the main dining area; book this if you can.
I spent just over 24 hours in Lübeck and am keen to go back for a longer, more leisurely visit. Have you been? What sights, activities and restaurants do you recommend I check out on my next trip?
Kavey Eats visited Lübeck as a guest of Niederegger who organised transport, accommodation, a guided tour and our meals. We were also given an exclusive tour of their factory, not usually open to visitors.