New York Times Overnighter By OMAR SACIRBEY Published: August 5, 2011
Lübeck’s Spires, a Quick Hop From Hamburg
A view of the city of Lübeck, Germany, with the spires of the Church of St. Mary, center, and St. Peter's Church.
WITH its soaring spires, ubiquitous crow-step gables and dozens of courtyards lined with centuries-old houses, it’s easy to see why Unesco placed a large swath of the northern German city of Lübeck on its list of World Heritage Sites.
An hour from Hamburg by rail or car, Lübeck, a city of 212,000, offers the overnight visitor a chance to revel in a dreamlike panoply of architectural history. Some 1,300 buildings — Gothic, Baroque, Renaissance and Classical — are situated within the city’s compact center on an island that is surrounded by the Trave River and a canal that leads to the Elbe River. Barely a mile long, the island can be traversed on foot in less than an hour. But don’t rush, because there is much to explore — from quiet side streets and busy thoroughfares to historic squares and medieval churches.
For all its history, there is nothing stuffy about Lübeck. Founded in the 12th century, the city exudes an independent air, likely a product of its maritime heritage as a major Baltic port and its centuries-long status as a free city-state governed not by royalty but by wealthy merchants who helped found the powerful economic alliance known as the Hanseatic League. These days, this egalitarian sensibility is abetted by three universities and a vibrant community of Turks and other immigrants. Music, theater and artistic options abound, as do restaurants offering regional and ethnic dishes, shops selling the city’s famed marzipan confections, and waterfront cafes where you can sip a beer while taking in the intriguing juxtaposition of ancient architecture, cargo ships and tour boats. Political fans can visit a museum about Willy Brandt, the former German chancellor, who was born in Lübeck, while those with a literary bent can explore museums devoted to Thomas Mann, another native son, and Günter Grass, who has lived in the region since the 1980s, and has been known to occasionally pop into Buthman’s Bierstube, which served its first drink in 1697, on Glockengiesserstrasse.
But the main attraction remains the architecture. A good place to start is the 15th-century Holsten Gate, which sits across the Trave and once guarded Lübeck’s western entryway. Today it is the city’s symbol, with its arched entrance, stout walls and two towers overlooking a wide green lawn. Inside, after perusing swords, armor and other artifacts, climb one of the spiral staircases and peer out the tiny windows for a view of ships and the town.
Then it’s on to the churches.
Lübeck is known as the City of Seven Spires for the Gothic churches that punctuate its skyline. The best known are the Church of St. Mary, Germany’s third-largest church (Schüsselbuden 13; st-marien-luebeck.de/kontakt.html) and the Lübeck Cathedral (Mühlendamm 2-6; domzuluebeck.de/en/index.php), with its nearly 400-foot spires. Their enormity is impressive, but it is their many details that are most captivating. At St. Mary’s, skeletons carved in stone lurk on the walls and columns, while two bells lie broken on the ground where they fell in 1942 after an Allied attack during World War II. The cathedral is no less enthralling, with 14th-century tombs, iron gates donated by riverboat captains hoping to improve their odds of salvation, and a gold crucifix from 1477 that includes the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene and the apostles.
Not surprisingly, the acoustics are remarkable in both buildings. Most weeks, the city’s churches host organ recitals and choral concerts, while the cathedral serves as a venue for the annual Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival, a seven-week event that began on July 9 this year. Then there are the unannounced concerts. For example, one afternoon, visitors at St. Mary’s were treated to “Shenandoah,” performed by teenagers from the Hathaway Brown School in Shaker Heights, Ohio.
Some of Lübeck’s most enchanting buildings are found serendipitously, by exploring the city’s myriad alleys and courtyards. For instance, near the Lübeck Cathedral, a stroll down Hartengrube street leads to a medley of medieval homes and, at the end of the street on a grassy bank, a bench with a romantic view of the Trave River.
On the west side near the city’s puppet theater and museum, the curvy streets are too narrow for cars and emanate a fairytale feel, while a walk along the canals reveals the city’s maritime roots. Choose a waterside cafe where you can watch the swirl of people — laborers, business people, Muslim women wearing colorful head scarves and student types decked out in leather.
After exploring the city’s streetscape, get an overview of what you’ve seen seven floors up the steeple at St. Peter’s Church (Am Petrikirchhof 1; st-petri-luebeck.de). From there, you can look across the sea of red-tiled rooftops and out to the flatlands, marvel at the giant wind holes carved out of the upper walls of the 13th-century Rathaus, and gaze at the flying buttresses atop St. Mary’s Church.
Across the street from St. Mary’s, you’ll find a courtly white house that once belonged to the grandparents of the novelist Thomas Mann, one of three local Nobel Prize winners. Today the Buddenbrookhaus (Mengstrasse 4; buddenbrookhaus.de/), which recalls the name of Mann’s masterpiece, is a museum dedicated to the novelist and his writer brother Heinrich. A short walk away the Günter Grass Haus (Glockengiesserstrasse 21; die-luebecker-museen.de/de/43/home.html) is primarily devoted to the nonliterary pursuits of Lübeck’s other Nobel-winning novelist — sculpturing, painting and drawing, but still includes literary artifacts, like his first typewriter. The Willy Brandt Haus (Koenigstrasse 21; willy-brandt-luebeck.de) is around the corner and no less fascinating in its recollection of this pivotal 20th-century figure and Nobel winner, became a prominent anti-Nazi activist, and as chancellor from 1969 to 1974 helped Germany regain a place on the international stage.
Need a break from history? Stop at the Café Niederegger (Breitestrasse 89; niederegger.de) across the street from the Rathaus. It is the flagship store of the famed producer of Lübeck marzipan, which, like Gouda cheese, enjoys European Union protection as a geographic indication of origin. The shop sells marzipan in a dizzying array of shapes — eels, onions, carrots, rabbits — as well as marzipan liquor and marzipan coffee. In the adjoining cafe, in a room with tall windows that overlook the always-busy Breitestrasse, you can savor rich cakes (the Prince Heinrich, packed with marzipan, is the classic). Upstairs, a small museum is dedicated to marzipan.
While the city has many good restaurants, Schiffergesellschaft, or the Seamen’s Society (Breitestrasse 2; schiffergesellschaft.de), in a crow-step gable building from 1535, is quintessential Lübeck. In operation since 1868, the restaurant, with its original banquet tables and 200-year-old model ships dangling from the ceiling, features regional specialties like baked zander — a game fish found only in Europe — and medallions of roasted lamb, beef and pork served atop ratatouille and fried potatoes.
Afterward, stop at Im Alten Zolln, in a 16th-century customs house at the southern tip of the city (Mühlenstrasse 93-95; alter-zolln.de) whose beer selection includes a delicious dark ale the owners brew themselves.
You’ll find the biggest constellation of bars on Lübeck’s east side, especially along Hüxstrasse and Fleischhauerstrasse. CafeBar (Hüxstrasse 94; cafebar.tv) draws crowds with nightly D.J.’s spinning techno, lounge, hip-hop and R & B, and that late on a recent Tuesday night overflowed with revelers speaking English and Turkish mingled with German.
Before you head back to your hotel, allow yourself time for an aimless stroll through the streets illuminated by gas lamps. It’s yet another way to lose yourself in the time warp that is Lübeck.
IF YOU GO
Trains from Hamburg’s main train station depart for Lübeck’s main station throughout the day, and take about 40 minutes. One-way tickets range from 15 to 20 euros, or $21 to $28, at $1.41 to the euro. From Lübeck’s train station, most hotels are a short cab ride or bus ride away, and in some cases can also be reached by foot. If you’re driving from Hamburg, exit the city at A24 East and then head north on A1 for about 30 miles until you see exit signs for Lübeck Zentrum.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel An Der Marienkirche (Schuesselbuden 4; 49-451-799-410; hotel-an-der-Marienkirche.de) has 18 rooms in the heart of the city next to the historic St. Mary’s Church. Recently renovated, doubles start at 70 euros (about $98) per night off season, and 80 in peak season.
Hotel Jensen (An Der Obertrave 4-5; 49-451-702-490; hotel-jensen-luebeck.de) has 42 rooms in a 14th-century building on Lübeck’s western riverfront facing the Holsten Gate. Singles and doubles range from 75 to 115 euros, while family rooms and suites are between 125 and 219 euros.
Scandic Lübeck (Travemuender Allee 3; 49-451-370-60; scandichotels.com) is a short walk to the historic Burgtor, the north entrance to the city. The nearly 160 rooms range from 85 to 250 euros per night.