Lübeck’s reputation for confectionery is the icing on the cake of a city rich in history and tradition
For those of a certain vintage, the Lübeck skyline bears a passing resemblance to the town immortalised in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (the classic Mel Stuart film that is, not Tim Burton’s kooky Noughties remake). Except it’s not chocolate that helped put Lübeck on the map – it’s marzipan.
Marzipan has been made in the town since Johann Georg Niederegger founded the Niederegger firm in 1806. The company logo features the impressive Holstentor – the large medieval gate built to defend Lübeck from attack – with marzipan still made there today, earning the Hanseatic city the “home of marzipan” moniker. But there’s a lot more to Lübeck than sugar and almonds.
Considered the “second” city of the Schleswig-Holstein region, Lübeck boasts a history of trade and tradition that isn’t apparent at first glance. An autonomous city-state for over 700 years, it became “Queen” of the Hanseatic League, the medieval trade organisation which dominated northern Europe between the 11th and 17th centuries and influenced the names of Lufthansa (Air Hansa) and the football team Hansa Rostock.
Yet most people I spoke to before travelling to Lübeck were largely oblivious to the city’s significance and, if I’m honest, I was only dimly aware of its trading past thanks to a brief spell studying history at university.
The relatively small size of Lübeck – less than 100 square miles and with a population of less than 230,000 – belies its status as one of Germany’s major ports on the Baltic Sea. Situated on the River Trave, the old part of the city is isolated from the mainland, accessible by a number of bridges.
It’s nothing if not atmospheric – all the more impressive when you consider the city was razed to the ground during an RAF raid in the Second World War and then restored with such care and attention that Unesco granted Lübeck World Heritage Site status.
So, where to start?
We entered Lübeck through the Holstentor (Holsten Gate), one of two remaining gates to the city. The Holstentor is an iconic structure, and not just because of its apparently higgledy-piggledy towers and the Latin message inscribed on its walls.
Just a single vote saved it from demolition in 1863, with citizens voting instead to restore the Holstentor. It was renovated in 1933/34 and again in 2005/06. The inscription, which reads “Concordia domi foris pax” – meaning ‘Unity at home, peace abroad’ – was etched on to the Holstentor in 1871, and the city used it as a basis to rebuff Adolf Hitler’s efforts to hold rallies there. In revenge, once in power, the Führer lifted the city’s autonomy in 1937, yet according to a plaque in the museum, we have the Nazis themselves to thank for restoring the historic gate before the last war.
Passing through the Holstentor, we cross the Holstentorbrücke over the Trave towards the former merchant houses lining the streets overlooking the river. The city’s six churches dominate the skyline as we make our way up towards the city centre.
The red-brick Petrikirche, or St Peter’s Church, is an ideal spot to get your bearings, situated right in the centre of the city. Dating back to 1170, the 108-metre tower can be climbed, offering a panoramic view of the city stretching right up to the Bay of Lübeck in the north.
From the Petrikirche viewing deck, the other churches are visible: Marienkirche, the largest; der Dom (the cathedral); Jakobikirche; the towerless Katharinenkirche; and the smallest church, Aegidienkirche. The city’s other gate – the Burgtor or Citadel Gate – is also visible. Like the Holstentor, it houses a museum.
Lübeck is best experienced on foot – the manageable size lends itself well to a walking tour which can access the city’s many nooks and crannies tucked away down side streets. For example, we have just passed a fairly ordinary looking music shop when our tour guide stops and directs us through a small archway into a beautifully maintained courtyard, surrounded by houses on all sides – an oasis of domestic calm sheltered from the general hustle bustle, and just one Lübeck’s many surprises.
Visitors with a sweet tooth may be disappointed that the Niederegger factory, which has made Lübeck’s trademark marzipan for 200 years, is not open for public tours, but they can find all the magic of the confectionary in the Niederegger Cafe in the city centre. Built around the same time as the city’s marzipan production took off, this is a haven for sugarholics. Seemingly endless buckets of marzipan in every flavour possible (Plum Armagnac, anyone?) along with nougat and chocolate tempt passers-by into the shop on the ground floor, while up the stairs on the first floor is the famous cafe itself. Always packed, in summer it opens up its market terrace with views of Marienkirche, Petrikirche and the Town Hall or Rathaus.
On the top floor is a “marzipan museum”, containing, among other exhibits, a model of the Holstentor made out of marzipan. It’s a valuable insight into the history of marzipan in Lübeck and well worth a visit.
The Rathaus is another jewel in Lübeck’s crown. One of the country’s largest town halls, it is a Gothic masterpiece. A favourite subject for painters Hans von Bartels and Cornelis Springer, building began on the town hall in the 13th century, not long after Lübeck gained autonomy. Ornate and eye-catching, it’s worth a visit just to marvel at the design and construction.
Underneath the town hall is the Ratskeller zu Lübeck. A Ratskeller is the name given to any bar, pub or restaurant situated in or beside a town hall, and Lübeck’s Ratskeller is one of the oldest in northern Germany.
A restaurant since 1875, history runs deep in the vaults of the town hall. Important banquets were held here in the 1800s and it was immortalised in works by local poet Emanuel Geibel. Here, visitors can sample local dishes, such as smoked rib roast in red wine and Grünkohl, made with kale.
Lübeck isn’t short of impressive eateries. For those who might find the Michelin-starred Wullenwever a step too far, Schiffergesellschaft is a popular draw, as is Markgraf and the Schabbelhaus. Beer fans should head to Brauberger on Alfstraße for local brews. A pint or four of Brauberger’s Zeickelbier goes down rather easily and the regional Rotspon wine is available in most bars.
Away from the architecture and marzipan, Lübeck is also home to a number of notable characters. Author of Death In Venice and Buddenbrooks and Nobel Prize-winner Thomas Mann was born here and lived next to Marienkirche. Today his house, renamed the Buddenbrookhaus, is a museum dedicated to Mann and his brother Heinrich. Willy Brandt, former chancellor and leader of the Social Democratic Party of Germany was born in Lübeck in 1913, as was fellow SDP leader Björn Engholm. English painter Gottfried Kniller (Godfrey Kneller) grew up in Lübeck, and examples of his artwork can be seen in Katharinenkirche.
With ships sailing to Malmö and Trelleborg in Sweden, as well as Helsinki and St Petersburg via Latvia, Lübeck is still very much a major Baltic seaport. Visitors should also consider a boat ride to Ttravemünde, a seaside resort about 20 minutes’ drive from the city on the Baltic Sea, while boat tours of the city itself allow tourists to experience Lübeck’s six Salzspeicher – or salt warehouses – which were used as Count Orlok’s house in FW Murnau’s film Nosferatu, and again in Werner Herzog’s remake.
I arrived with little knowledge of the town that said no to Hitler but yes to marzipan. Quirky, historic, surprising and steeped in tradition, Lübeck might not have the global reputation of its near neighbours Hamburg, Rostock, or even Kiel (everyone’s heard of the canal). But just as the city is separate from the rest of Germany, perhaps the secret to Lübeck’s appeal is keeping itself to itself.
• Rooms at the Radisson Blu Lübeck, start from £100 a night (www.radissonblu.com/hotel-luebeck/location)