Don’t you think the ‘Hanseatic League’ sounds like it should be an alliance of superheroes? Pretty classy ones, though.
They would all have a European sophistication about them and perhaps fight the baddies by outnegotiating them or using some kind of secret intellectual weapon.
Well, that’s what I think of when I hear the term – and it’s not too far from the truth.
The Hanseatic League was a collection of guilds and cities along the coastline of Northern Europe (mostly Germany) that worked together in the Middle Ages as a trading confederation to look after the economic and political interests of each other.
By having this agreement, they were all able to become very wealthy and keep potential competitors in check.
At the centre of the Hanseatic League was the city of Lübeck – the capital of the organisation and often referred to as the ‘Queen City’.
For four hundred years – from the 12th until the 16th century – it was an extremely rich and influential trading centre in this part of the continent, ruling over other important cities like nearby Stralsund and Bremen or, further away, Tallinn and Riga.
This wealth manifested itself in the buildings that were constructed in Lübeck. The old part of town is on an island and it was once filled with the homes of the top merchants and artisans.
They were all nestled in the shadows of the grand religious monuments that dominated the skyline of the island. Although many of the homes and shops have changed since those days, the churches remain.
At the centre is the enormous St Mary’s Church, one of the oldest in the city, but it’s just one of a number of churches here. In fact, Lübeck has the nickname ‘the city of seven spires’ because of how this majestic buildings dominate the skyline.
Visiting each of them is one of the best things to do in Lübeck.
Walking between each of the churches is a good way to explore more of the Old Town, which spreads across a large island in the centre of the Trave River.
You’ll find yourself on a journey past more Gothic buildings, to wonderful architecture from the Renaissance and Baroque periods, through alleyways with merchant houses, and along old fortifications.
Even centuries after Lübeck lost any official title as the leader of the Hanseatic League, the power and wealth of this city is immediately evident.
Beyond the most important landmarks in Lübeck like the Holsten Gate, you’ll also find lots of heritage from the city’s maritime era – access to the water is still an important part of the culture and economy here.
But obviously a lot has happened in the centres since the Middle Ages that is not directly related to the Hanseatic League. Famous residents have museums in their honour, and there are lively neighbourhoods to hang out in and discover a bit of local life.
However you choose to approach your time here, you won’t run out of things to do in Lübeck. It may be a relatively small city but there’s a dense and fascinating history – a primary reason it’s been named one of Germany’s World Heritage Sites.
An Old Town like no other, Lübeck’s historical heart lies on a little island in the centre of the city. It’s teeming with medieval architecture and labyrinth-like laneways that have been beautifully preserved and restored over hundreds of years.
Divided into four different sections, each district of Lübeck’s Old Town brings something unique to the table. The Artisan’s Quarter makes up almost half of the island and is where you’ll find the likes of St Anne’s Museum.
Along the other side of Old Town is the Seafarer’s Quarter, a former hub for business and travel, the Cathedral Quarter (which is pretty self-explanatory!), and the Merchant’s Quarter, where many wealthy traders once lived.
To explore the best of the Old Town at a leisurely pace, I’d suggest spending a day here. That way, you’ll have plenty of time to stop to enjoy the sites and grab a bite to eat along the way without rushing from place to place.
Ask any local what to do in Lübeck, and pretty much everyone will tell you to put Holsten Gate at the top of your list.
This imposing medieval gate looks like the entrance to a fantastical castle and has stood as the portal to the Old Town since 1464, although it now houses a museum in one of the towers the gate is positioned between.
The Museum Holstentor focuses on Lübeck’s role at the centre of the Hanseatic League, the union between European market towns along the Baltic Sea. It also gives you a good rundown of what life was like here during this period between the 14th and 19th centuries.
Entry is €8, and you can view the exhibitions every day from 10:00 until 18:00.
An integral part of the Hanseatic League was Lübeck’s town hall, a striking Gothic building that remains in impeccable condition – especially considering it’s been around for almost 800 years.
Members of the Hanseatic League would attend meetings and banquets here, and much of the current interior has been retained from that time. As you can imagine, this means that the rooms are incredibly lavish and elegant, and the whole hall feels as if it’s in a time warp.
For just €1.50, you’ll be able to head inside and join a guided tour that takes you by the audience hall, meeting rooms, and grand staircase, filling you in on the building’s significance along the way.
Hospital of the Holy Spirit
Lübeck’s Hospital of the Holy Spirit hosts annual Christmas markets and a year-round museum, but it had a very different purpose in its past life.
For centuries, this hospital was where the poor, the ill, and the elderly were cared for. In exchange for food and shelter, the residents had to remain under the control of the wealthier founding locals and even had to pray for them seven times every day.
The building itself is beautiful, with a red-brick facade and an ornate church, though it’s even more captivating when it comes to life during the festive season.
Visitors are free to explore the grounds between 10:00 and 18:00 any day except Monday, but small donations are encouraged.
The Castle Monastery, along with a great deal of Lübeck’s Old Town, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the city’s finest examples of architecture from the Middle Ages in northern Germany.
Dating back to the early 13th century, the castle was built as a monastery by the Dominican order, though it later went on to serve as an almshouse, courthouse, and, at one point, a prison. Surprisingly, it’s only been transformed into a museum in the last ten years.
Also referred to as the Magdalen Monastery or the Castle Friary, uncover this intriguing complex’s long history with a free audio guide that takes you around the site.
One of the nice things about visiting Lübeck is that there’s lots to see in the Old Town and it’s all very close to each other. The problem is, that means it can all be a bit overwhelming.
The nice thing about having a local guide is that they’ll make sure you don’t miss any of the highlights – and they’ll show you a few hidden gems.
Perhaps most importantly, you’ll get all the context to explain why things look the way they do here, and how it all relates to the workings of the Hanseatic League.
If you would like to join a small-group tour, I would definitely recommend this excellent and affordable tour.
But there are also some really good private tours that will be great value if you’re in a group. I suggest any one of these:
Some of the most significant things to see in Lübeck are the city’s churches, with spires that dominate the skyline.
Visiting all of Lübeck’s churches would be a pretty arduous task, so I would suggest just focusing on these top ones.
Lübeck Cathedral’s two soaring pointed towers sit above the Old Town, making it one of the easiest landmarks in the city to spot.
Even though the church was originally erected over 850 years ago, most of what you’ll see here today was built in the 1960s, as almost the entire building was destroyed during World War II.
You’re free to go inside Lübeck Cathedral, where you’ll have to keep an eye out for the old-school astronomical clock, elaborate crucifix, and impressive paintings.
Be aware that, as of 2023, there’s ongoing construction inside the cathedral, which may make your visit a little less peaceful and might impact the church’s accessibility.
St Mary’s Basilica
Another magnificent structure that was nearly lost during the war is St Mary’s Basilica, a Protestant church in the heart of the city.
With its super high ceilings, colourful arcades, and monumental towers, it’s among Germany’s largest and most picturesque churches.
As alluring as the exterior is, the inside is where the magic is, as you’ll see the former tower bells that were smashed during the collapse of the church and the colossal organ.
Entry to St Mary’s Basilica costs just a couple of euros to explore the interior, and it’s open every day from 10:00 until 18:00.
St Jacob’s Church
St Jacob’s is one of just two churches in Lübeck that emerged from the war undamaged, so the building you see today is the same one that stood there in the 14th century.
Having been frequented by seamen throughout its medieval history, the church doubles as a place of memorial for those who spent their lives at sea. However, it’s also known for its three organs, decorative altar, and three naves.
Similar to the other churches on this list, St Jacob’s is built in a Gothic style with red bricks and a green-topped tower. See it for yourself any day between 10:00 and 18:00.
St Giles’ Church
Despite being the smallest church on this list, St Giles’ Church is just as spectacular as its more sizeable counterparts.
What makes this particular church stand out is the mix of design styles that have influenced its interior. The structure itself is a Gothic masterpiece, but a lot of the artwork and decor nods to the Renaissance and Baroque periods.
There’s no charge to enter St Giles’ Church, and it’s open from Tuesday to Sunday from 10:00 until 18:00.
St Peter’s Church
Though it continues to be referred to as St Peter’s Church, this former place of worship is now better known as the best spot in town to catch some of the most gorgeous vistas in all of Lübeck.
There are usually some temporary exhibits and occasional events inside, except for December when, like the Hospital of the Holy Spirit, it becomes a lively Christmas market selling local crafts and eats.
Entry to the main building is free of charge, but a visit to the famous observation deck will set you back €5, and it welcomes visitors daily from 11:00 to 16:00.
Having spent much of the Middle Ages as a crucial maritime city, Lübeck’s long-standing relationship with the sea is evident throughout much of the Old Town, but especially in the aptly named Seafarer’s Quarter.
Below are some of the spots you have to check out to get a sense of the importance of this aspect of Lübeck’s history.
Almost two dozen boats that date back to the 1600s up to the 20th century are on display at this open-air museum and I think it’s one of the best things to do in Lübeck.
Even if you don’t have a particular interest in maritime history, you’re sure to be impressed by this line-up of vintage ships that once played a vital role in the city’s trading industry.
This is among the most scenic spots in Lübeck and the perfect place to catch the sunset along the waterfront. The area itself is relatively small, and when you eventually reach the more modern vessels at the end of the harbour, you’ll know you’ve come to the end of the museum.
Set in a former guildhall, Seafarer’s is a restaurant with a twist. Having once fed sailors, captains, and shipmates as far back as the 16th century, today, it’s open to all walks of life looking for a hearty meal.
This iconic eatery dishes out some unmissable German classics, like bratkartoffeln (a German take on fries), labskaus (a traditional sailor’s favourite), and pannfisch (consisting of fried fish and potatoes).
Regardless of what you order, one of the best things about the Seafarer’s Guild is the cosy wooden decor and marine-inspired paintings and ornaments.
As a result of its easy access to a wider variety of ingredients than most, marzipan (comprised of sugar and almonds), became a beloved sweet treat in Lübeck.
To this day, this is Lübeck’s best-known export and is available in stores in every corner of the city, even gaining the title of the world’s marzipan capital!
Also, make you you leave some room in your itinerary to visit the Marzipan Museum. Here, you’ll learn all about how this sugary snack came to be, and you’ll also have the chance to sample and buy some of the best marzipan on the market.
The Marzipan Museum is not all the city has to offer when it comes to fascinating exhibitions, and there are some other museums that are among the best things to do in Lübeck, each offering something a bit different.
For a colourful and detailed recount of Lübeck’s trading history and membership of the Hanseatic League, look no further than the European Hansemuseum.
I recommend setting aside a couple of hours for this one, as you’ll have tons of interactive displays, artefacts, and reconstructions to work your way through.
An RFID system is in place, meaning you can access descriptions in your own language with ease. Best of all, entry is free every day of the week.
St Anne’s Museum
Anyone with a keen interest in art will be enthralled by St Anne’s Museum.
Within the confines of this gallery, you’ll come across traditional German art, Renaissance and Reformation-era paintings, and intricate textiles, most of which are religious. The building itself is also a work of art, and it also encompasses two quaint courtyards.
A wander around St Anne’s Museum will cost you €6, and it’s open every day except Mondays.
Behnhaus Drägerhaus Museum
Fans of romanticist art might find that the Behnhaus Drägerhaus Museum is more to their liking.
19th and 20th-century pieces make up this small gallery, which is actually set between two neoclassical-style mansions, adding to the charm of this museum.
Some of the artists you can expect to see represented here include Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, German native Caspar David Friedrich, and printmaker Emil Nolde.
The surroundings are equally as superb, and it’s worth taking some time to admire the immaculately kept rooms and the retro furniture, too.
The Behnhaus Drägerhaus Museum is open Tuesday to Sunday between 10:00 and 17:00.
Museums about people
For a deeper dive into German history, check out some of the museums in Lübeck that focus on prominent figures from times gone by who’ve helped shape the city.
Uncover the life of a revered former German chancellor at the Willy-Brandt-House, a museum set in Brandt’s childhood home that traces his life and legacy, including his Nobel Peace Prize for bettering the ties between East and West Germany.
Get a glimpse of how Lübeck has changed over the years through the life of writer Thomas Mann and his family at the Buddenbrook House. This museum puts particular focus on Thomas and his brother Heinrich.
Another acclaimed German author who hailed from Lübeck is Gunter Grass. Discover more about the life and work of this Nobel Prize winner at the Gunter-Grass-House, a charming property where he spent much of his time.
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN LUBECK
You’ll be able to find some hotels in gorgeous Art Nouveau buildings and there are lots of affordable options in Riga’s historic centre.
For a good hostel, there’s the large Jugendherberge Lübeck Vor dem Burgtor, although it’s often used by schools.
With warm hospitality and excellent value, Hotel Schweizerhaus is a good budget choice.
For a bit of style, Fisher’s Loft Hotel is a fantastic place with a great location.
And with luxury in a historic building, have a look at Lübecker Krönchen.