Located on the Baltic coast in the northern pocket of Germany, Lübeck is a throwback to Old World Germany and by far the most interesting city in Schleswig-Holstein. It was once the principal city of the Hanseatic League, an influential and mighty trading confederation in the late Middle Ages. It is now a magnet for fans of Gothic brick architecture and its immensely delectable marzipan. Lübeck had been on our radar for a number of years and we finally went there on account of Jacky’s birthday. Here’s our lowdown on the top things to do in Lübeck.
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Table of Contents
Why You Should Visit Lübeck
Lübeck is one of Germany’s best-kept secrets, renowned for its charming Old Town with its big brick churches, little brick houses with stepped gables, cobbled streets as well as its marzipan.
Lübeck was founded in 1143 and for over 400 years held a vast monopoly over trade in the Baltic and the North Sea along with other cities of the Hanseatic League (Hansa). It became very prosperous and wealthy over this time as a wide array of goods were shipped from the Baltic region via Lübeck to the west and south of Europe in exchange for valuable goods required in Germany.
Much of the city’s commercial, political and cultural character was shaped by the international merchants and patricians running their trade from here.
Lübeck remained influential till the 17th century when the sea trade shifted from the Baltic Sea to the Atlantic and Lübeck played second fiddle to the North Sea ports of Bremen and Hamburg.
This ultimately led to a decline in the wealth and influence of Lübeck. Today, it is one of Germany’s most beautiful towns and well worth a visit.
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How to Get Around Lübeck
Virtually all of Lübeck ’s main sights are confined within the compact Old Town. The Old Town is certainly best explored on foot as the many tiny, medieval alleys here cannot be accessed by car.
Bikes also provide a handy option of getting around with Bike & Tour being one of the places where you can rent a bike for a minimal fee.
What to Do in Lübeck
Lübeck doesn’t get too many visitors and is often overlooked by travelers in favor of Hamburg and Sylt. This is a shame because this underrated city is a vibrant and superb getaway for those on a short break. Lübeck is a very quiet little town and therein lies its charm.
If you’re visiting Lübeck for one or two days, these are the best things to do. For your convenience, this post includes a free map of the top sights in Lübeck. You can find the addresses of the attractions by clicking on the icons in the map.
- Holsten Gate & Museum (Holstentor)
- Explore the Old Town
- City Hall (Rathaus)
- Hospital of the Holy Spirit
- European Hansemuseum
- St. Mary’s Church
- Eat Marzipan
- Willy Brandt House
- Peek into Lübeck’s Passages & Courtyards
- Behnhaus Drägerhaus Museum
- Lübeck Cathedral
- Buddenbrook House
- Günter Grass House
- St. James’ Church
- House of the Seamen’s Guild
- St. Peter’s Church
- Museum Quarter St. Annen
1. Holsten Gate & Museum (Holstentor)
The Holsten Gate (Holsentor) is undoubtedly one of the major points of interest in Lübeck. It is one of the most prominent landmarks in Germany and serves as an emblem for the city. Lübeck once had four medieval gates and two still remain, the most notable of them being the Holstentor.
The gate was built between 1464 and 1478 and was part of the city’s defense system. It has since been rebuilt twice. It was actually erected before the city walls and clearly more intended to parade the city’s might and affluence rather than serve for defensive purposes.
I love how the Holstentor’s twin pointed cylindrical towers appear to sag inward, the result of a poor foundation. The western face of the Holstentor bears a Latin inscription ‘Concordia domi foris pax’ meaning ‘harmony at home and peace abroad’.
The Holstentor-Museum is located inside the two bulging towers. The museum isn’t overly large, but it does a nice job of summarizing the local history.
It is open Tue-Sun from 11:00-17:00 (January-March) and Mon-Sun from 10:00-18:00 (April-December). The entrance to the museum costs 8 EUR.
The Holstentor is as good a place as any from which to embark on a walking tour of Lübeck. Today, it remains a popular image in the advertising and souvenir industries.
The salzspeicher (salt storehouses) are six gabled brick historic buildings on the Upper Trave River that stand behind the Holstentor (to the east side). You’ll notice that each of the six buildings is unique, evidence of numerous trends in Renaissance gabled architecture.
Salt was always an integral part of the trade in Lübeck and it is what made the city powerful in the Hanseatic League. Salt coming from Lüneburg, another Hanseatic town had to be stored somewhere before it was placed into ships and sold around the Baltic Sea. It was stored here before being shipped off to Scandinavia and bartered for furs.
As the importance of salt diminished over time, the warehouses were used to store cloth, grain, and wood. During the era of the Third Reich, one of the warehouses was converted into a Hitler youth center. Today, the buildings are used by a textile store.
The Salzspeicher were used as a filming location for F.W. Murnau’s acclaimed 1922 German Expressionist horror film “Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror”. The movie is an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the film’s protagonist Count Orlok lives in the abandoned Salzspeicher in Lübeck.
3. Explore the Old Town
Although Lubeck is the second-largest city in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein with a population of over 200,000 there isn’t really anything to see outside of its small medieval Old Town (Altstadt). The city was heavily bombed in an RAF raid in 1942.
Nonetheless, Lübeck has been so well restored that more 13th- to 15th-century buildings are found here than in all other large northern German cities combined. This fact helped this little gem of a town being designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987.
The egg-shaped Old Town is a testament to Lübeck’s former position as the golden queen of the Hanseatic League and evidence of this is found at every corner.
The Old Town is surrounded by the Trave River on all sides and partly by embankments. It is characterized by high gabled merchant houses, towering steeples, strong towers, and a vast number of charming half-timbered houses.
Walking around the Old Town is naturally one of the best things to do in Lübeck and is akin to being in an open-air museum. You can easily cover the Old Town in a few hours while unearthing the architectural wonders and sights.
4. City Hall (Rathaus)
The Lübeck City Hall (Rathaus), with its richly decorated, dark brick facade, dates back to the 13th century and is veritably one of the prettiest town halls in Germany.
It has characteristic high protective walls adorned with slender turrets. The first Hanseatic diet took place here in 1356 and the representatives of the Hanseatic League usually met at the city hall in the Hansesaal.
The City Hall is built around two adjoining sides of the old Market Square with traditional Gothic arcades on the ground level and features a wonderful late 16th-century Dutch Renaissance external staircase on Breite Straße.
The city hall’s interior features many images of scenes from Lübeck’s foundation. A particular highlight of the interior is the marvelous Audience Hall (Audienzsaal). The light-flooded decor of this room highlights the transition between late Baroque and Rococo.
On the walls are ten allegorical paintings portraying the virtues of a good government. The paintings are in stucco frames and dominate the hall in Rococo manner.
You need to take the guided tour to gain entry inside. Visiting hours are Mon- Fri 11:00, 12:00, and 15:00 and Sat at 13:30 (providing no other events are taking place).
5. Hospital of the Holy Spirit
The Hospital of the Holy Spirit (Heiligen-Geist-Hospital) is one of my favorite things to see in Lübeck. It dates from 1260 and is the best-preserved medieval building of its ilk in Central Europe. It is one of the oldest social institutions and hospitals of the Middle Ages that was still in operation until the 1960s.
The building was built in the shape of the letter ‘T’ and part of its larger section contains a warren of small living cubicles, which were used as a house for the elderly and infirm. The building’s smaller section contains a twin-aisled Gothic hall church with frescoes and altarpieces.
The hospital has a free entrance and is open on all days except Monday from 10:00-17:00 (April-September) and 10:00-16:00 (October-March).
6. European Hansemuseum
The European Hansemuseum is one of the main points of interest in Lübeck and a must-visit place while sightseeing in the city. Opened in 2015, it is the largest museum in the world dedicated to the Hanseatic League and it is simply amazing!
The Hansemuseum is truly exceptional with a perfect blend of high-tech & object display to make the rich history of the Hanseatic trade and towns understandable to the visitors.
Each visitor gets a ticket with an RFID chip that identifies the required language and lets you impersonate a person from one of the member cities of the Hanse and your special interest. The chip can then be used at many stops to display information tailored to your interest.
Walking through the museum gives you a clear picture of how the Hanseatic League developed from an individual group of travelers to a powerful mercantile alliance, what its economy was based on and what brought on its decline. The chief goal of the Hanseatic League was to facilitate trade and to keep it in the hands of the members.
During the 14th and 15th centuries, the Hansa was the most powerful political and economic force in Germany and much of northern Europe. At its zenith, it had over 200 member cities. The history of the Hansa at various stages is represented through the cities of Novgorod, Lübeck, Bruges, Bergen, and London.
Admission to the museum costs 13 EUR and it is a bargain if you ask me. I would recommend that you reserve at least 2.5-3 hours to get the most out of the museum. The museum is open daily from 10:00-18:00. Check out their official website for more information.
7. St. Mary’s Church
Lübeck is blessed with many beautiful churches and the monumental St. Mary’s Church (Marienkirche) is the most exceptional one. It is one of the must-see attractions in Lübeck.
Germany’s third-largest church was built by Lübeck natives between 1250 and 1350 as a monument to themselves. The church was used primarily by the council and the merchants.
The church stands as a symbol of the citizens’ power at the time and is visible from far afield. This imposing twin-towered basilica rises up to 125 meters and once served as the blueprint for many other Brick Gothic churches in the Baltic region.
Its vast interior boasts the highest vaulted brick ceiling in the world, at 40 meters. The vaulted interior has three aisles, each separated by rows of huge arches, and multiple side chapels.
The intricate carvings and reliefs on the chancel walls and the numerous stained-glass windows are a joy to behold. There’s also an astronomical clock, which performs a midday spiel of figurines.
St. Mary’s Church was badly damaged during an air raid in 1942. During the ensuing blaze, most of the interior was lost but long-forgotten medieval wall paintings were laid bare and restored with the rest of the church afterward.
The shattered bells that came crashing down during the bombing have been left where they fell in 1942, and have become a famous symbol of the city. They serve as reminders of the horrors of war.
St. Mary’s Church is open daily from 10:00-16:00 (November-December), 10:00-17:00 (January-March) and 10:00-18:00 (April-October). The entrance costs 2 EUR.
8. Eat Marzipan
No list of best things to do in Lübeck would be complete without including marzipan. Marzipan, which has been popular throughout Europe since the 19th century, makes for a great present from Lübeck. Lübeck marzipan is unique in that it must be composed of at least 70 percent almonds and no more than 30 percent sugar and aromatic oils.
Lübeck is the uncontested marzipan capital of the world and there are numerous places all over the city to sample this delightful sweet.
Cafe Niederegger is the most iconic of these places. It really is a paradise for marzipan lovers with a delectable assortment of delicious marzipan cakes, ice cream, and pastries.
The cafe still produces marzipan in traditional shapes such as fruit and vegetables which are handpainted to make them look (almost) real. Jacky and I really love marzipan so we were literally salivating in the cafe and must have bought at least 2 kg of stuff.
A tableau of various Lubeck attractions made out of marzipan on display in Cafe Niederegger ‘s windows.
The second floor is home to the Marzipan Museum (free admission) which traces the almond’s origins from the Orient to its arrival in Lubeck. The life-size marzipan figures are very interesting indeed.
9. Willy Brandt House
A day of Lübeck sightseeing warrants a visit to the Willy Brandt House, the childhood home of Lübeck’s most famous resident ever, Willy Brandt, the chancellor of West Germany from 1969 to 1974. Brandt was bestowed with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971 for his efforts to achieve reconciliation between West Germany and East Germany.
The house which has now been converted into a museum provides a rich account of not only the political career of Willy Brandt but also the entire Cold War era in Germany. Entrance to the house is free and it is open daily from 11:00-18:00.
10. Peek into Lübeck’s Passages & Courtyards
One of the best things to do in Lübeck and something which I highly recommend is checking out some passages and courtyards (Gänge and Höfe) in the Old Town. Close to 90 such passages and courtyards still exist.
A large number of these are found in the northern part of the Old Town on the streets Engelswisch, Engelsgrube, and Glockengießerstraße and in the southern part around the Lubeck Cathedral.
The most interesting ones include Glandorpshof and Füchtingshof (which served as the backdrop for some exterior shots in F.W. Murnau’s horror film “Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror”).
These passages and courtyards are vestiges of medieval town planning and were often the living quarters of tradesmen and artisans. From the outside, they do not look impressive. But many of them reveal themselves as small idyllic pearls with low timbered houses, benches and beautiful flower arrangements.
Please keep in mind that there are people living there, so respect their privacy.
11. Behnhaus Drägerhaus Museum
The Behnhaus Drägerhaus Museum is a lovely little art museum in the Old Town of Lübeck. The museum is housed in two former patrician villas. The design of the villas is tall and slender, constructed in that fashion to circumvent heavy taxes based on the frontage.
The museum does not only show art but also some rooms, one can gain an impression of how the upper bourgeoisie lived in Lübeck in the old days. There are interesting German Romantic, impressionist and Nazarene paintings by Caspar David Friedrich, Max Liebermann, Johann Friedrich Overbeck, Lovis Corinth, Max Slevogt and Edvard Munch.
The Behnhaus Drägerhaus Museum is open Tue-Sun from 11:00-17:00 (January-March) and Tue-Sun from 10:00-17:00 (April-December). The price of admission is 8 EUR.
12. Lübeck Cathedral
Lübeck Cathedral (Dom) is not only the oldest church in the city but also the oldest building in Lübeck dating back to 1173. The original Romanesque church was converted and enlarged in a Gothic style during the 14th century.
Like the St. Mary’s Church, the Lubeck Cathedral was also bombed during WWII and needed to undergo restoration work that lasted nearly 40 years.
The relatively spartan interior of the cathedral houses a resplendent large organ, an imposing clock, and valuable sculptures such as ‘Holy Mary Mother of God’ with a crown composed of stars, as well as the ‘Beautiful Madonna’.
However, the cathedral’s marquee possession is the ‘Triumphal Cross’ sculpted from a 17-meter oak tree by Bernt Notke, a famous local artist.
The Burgtor (Castle Gate) is a late Gothic-style gate that stands on the northern periphery of the Old Town. Although construction of the gate started in 1227 it didn’t finish until 1444.
Along with Holstentor, it is the only surviving gate of the historic fortifications that protected Lübeck’s castle. A Baroque cupola was added to the gate in the late 17th-century.
The tower’s five floors are decorated with uniform rows of arched windows. The majestic Burgtor has been the private residence of notable city residents and was formerly an embroidery and weaving workshop. Today, parts of it are home to a youth center.
14. Buddenbrook House
A visit to the Buddenbrook House is one of the best things to do in Lübeck, especially if you’re a literature buff. This stunning white Rococo house dating from 1758 features a gabled roof and a recessed doorway.
It belonged to the Mann family from 1841 to 1891 and two of Lübeck’s most famous sons, the writers Thomas and Heinrich Mann, spent several summers here. Thomas Mann, Nobel laureate for literature in 1929, used the house as the setting for his famous novel “Buddenbrooks”, a saga that describes the life and fall of a rich patrician Lübeck family.
The house is now home to a museum that strives hard to capture the atmosphere of the famous book. There are also several displays on the two writers’ lives and works, concentrating on their time in Lübeck.
The Buddenbrook House is open daily from 10:00-18:00 and the price of admission is 8 EUR.
15. Günter Grass House
Besides Thomas Mann, Lübeck was also home to one of Germany’s most prominent authors, Günter Grass. He is known all over the world for his most famous novel, “The Tin Drum”, published in 1959. Grass won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1999.
The Günter Grass House focuses on Grass’s written work and features many manuscripts and even the machines on which he wrote, including an old-fashioned Olivetti typewriter. Grass was also an artist and sculptor and the rest of the exhibits focus on his lesser-known artworks, including drawings, paintings, and sculptures.
The Günter Grass House is open Tue-Sun from 11:00-17:00 (January-March) and Mon-Sun from 10:00-17:00 (April-December). The price of admission is 8 EUR.
16. St. James’ Church
The 15th-century Gothic-style triple-naved St. James’ Church (Jakobikirche) is one of the five famous churches of Lübeck Old Town.
The church is famous for having emerged relatively unscathed during the bomb raids on the city in World War II. It has been the church of choice among fishermen, sailors, and seafarers since the time of the Hanseatic League.
The multilevel clock tower and its soaring spire dominate the church’s facade. A particularly interesting aspect of the exterior is the stone spheres located at the base of the spire. The clocks are a special feature because they display the time with one hand.
The mainly Baroque interior boasts 16th-century paintings of captains, motifs, and coats of arms. A chapel with a damaged lifeboat commemorates the city’s sailors from the past and present. The lifeboat is from the Pamir, a German sailing vessel that sank in 1957 in Portugal’s Azores region.
17. House of the Seamen’s Guild
The House of the Seamen’s Guild (Haus der Schiffergesellschaft) is one of the best surviving elaborate guild houses from Lübeck’s Hanseatic era. It dates to 1535 and was constructed in Renaissance style, with stepped gables and high-Gothic blind windows.
The splendid interior is mostly wood-paneled with rough wooden furniture and brass fittings, befitting of a seamen’s tavern. It is now home to one of Lübeck’s finest restaurants.
18. St. Peter’s Church
Head to St. Peter’s Church for some stunning panoramic views of Lübeck. It is definitely worth paying 4 EUR to go to the viewing platform.
The platform is located at a height of 50 meters and is accessible by elevator. The starkly whitewashed interior of the church is very spartan and is no longer an active parish, hosting exhibits, and events.
19. Museum Quarter St. Annen
The recently designated Museum Quarter St. Annen is the newest point of interest in Lübeck which includes an old synagogue, church and medieval buildings. The eponymous St. Annen Museum traces the varied history of the area through 700 years of art and culture.
The adjoining St. Annen Kunsthalle is home to some unique Lübeck art treasures. There is an impressive number of wooden Gothic altars, commissioned by affluent families.
The Hans Memling altar with Christ’s Passion and the external side wings of the Schonenfahrer altar by Bernt Notke are the cynosure of all eyes
The Museum Quarter St. Annen is open Tue-Sun from 11:00-17:00 (January-March) and Mon-Sun from 10:00-17:00 (April-December). The price of admission is 8 EUR.
Where to stay in Lübeck
Lübeck is a relatively small town. As long as you book a hotel in the Old Town or in the vicinity, you can’t really go wrong. There are some good options for all budgets.
Hostel: Jugendherberge Lübeck Altstadt, a great choice right in the heart of Lübeck, just 300 m from the famous St. Mary’s Church. A hearty buffet breakfast is included in the price
Budget: Hotel Stadt Lübeck, lovely little family-run hotel which is just 50 m from the main train station and 500 m from the Old Town
Mid-range: Motel One Lübeck, an excellent value for money hotel with probably the best location in the Old Town, right in the main square. Rooms are super comfy, good selection at breakfast
Splurge: Radisson Blu Senator Hotel Lübeck, an outstanding five-star hotel located directly on the Trave River. The hotel has spacious rooms and suites, a large pool and saunas as well as a fine dining restaurant
Now, what do you think? Is Lübeck on your bucket list? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!