Lübeck: Planning Your Trip

Lübeck, Germany

TripSavvy / Christopher Larson

For a healthy dose of medieval history, architecture, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, historic ships, Christmas markets, marzipan, and epic hikes on your next European vacation, head to Lübeck, Germany.

Located in Northern Germany about an hour from Hamburg, the city has come a long way from its early beginnings as a Trave River trading post on the way to the Baltic Sea. Today, Lübeck appears much as it did in medieval days and has regained its throne as the Königin der Hanse (Queen City of the Hanseatic League). It's one of several major German ports, and like other Hanseatic cities (medieval merchant hubs like Bremen, Rostock, and Stralsund), everything seems to revolve around its connection to the water.

So where do you begin? Consider this your guide to the best places to see, stay, eat, and play on your next trip to Lübeck, one of Germany’s most underrated cities.

A Bit of History

Originally founded in the 12th century as a trading post along the Trave River, which leads to the Baltic Sea, Lübeck's oldest section is on an island, completely encircled by the river, a strategic location that allowed the city to flourish. By the 14th century, it was the largest and most powerful member of the Hanse (Hanseatic League), with Emperor Charles IV placing it on par with Venice, Rome, Pisa, and Florence as one of the five "Glories of the Roman Empire.”

World War II had a dramatic effect on Lübeck, just as it did the rest of the country, with RAF bombs destroying about 20 percent of the city, including the cathedral. Miraculously, many of its 15th- and 16th-century residences and the iconic Holstentor (brick gate) were spared. After the war, as Germany was divided in two, Lübeck fell in the West but lay close to the border with East Germany, and the city grew rapidly with the influx of ethnic German refugees from former Eastern provinces. To accommodate its growing population and reclaim its importance, Lübeck rebuilt the historic center, which in 1987 was designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

The Burgkloster (castle monastery) contains the original foundations of the city's long-lost castle, while the Koberg area, including Jakobi Church and the Heilig-Geist-Hospital, is a fine example of a late 18th-century neighborhood. More churches (Petrichurch in the north and the Dom, or cathedral, to the south) surround Patrician residences from the 15th and 16th centuries. Seven church steeples punctuate the city skyline; Marienkirche (Saint Mary's) is one of the oldest from the 13th century. The Rathaus (town hall) and Markt (market place) each display the effects of WWII bombings but are still quite spectacular. Elements of Lübeck's working past remain on the Left Bank of the river in the form of Salzspeicher (salt storehouses), while the Holstentor, built in 1478, is one of only two remaining city gates; the other, Burgtor, dates back to 1444.

Planning Your Trip

  • Best Time to Visit: Shoulder season months like May and September are best for mild weather and fewer crowds. Summers are warm with lots of humidity, while winters can be particularly cold due to the city's proximity to the Baltic Sea.
  • Language: German is the official language, while Danish and other regional German dialects can also be heard throughout the Schleswig-Holstein state. English is typically taught at schools in Germany, but learning a few phrases in German can certainly go a long way toward endearing you to the locals.
  • Currency: The euro is the official currency of Germany. Cash is preferred and is used almost exclusively in smaller cities and towns, though Visa and MasterCard are generally accepted (American Express and Diners Club cards, not so much).
  • Getting Around: Lübeck is a very walkable city, with many streets open to pedestrians only or for cars driven by guests of local hotels. Buses and trains are available at stations located just outside the city center, linking it to other locales around northern Germany.
  • Travel Tip: Lübeck has an enchanting Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas market) from late November until Silvester (New Year’s Eve) Just remember to pack your parka.

Things to Do

History buffs will love Lübeck, home to a historic Old Town that’s now a UNESCO World Heritage site and medieval churches and structures dating back to the 12th century. It’s also where you’ll find interesting museums like the Günter Grass-House, a fine arts museum named for the Nobel laureate, and the Buddenbrook House, a stunning Baroque-style building dedicated to the life of Thomas Mann, another Nobel laureate.

  • Lübeck was the only other city besides Berlin to be located along the border between East Germany and West Germany during the Cold War and you can learn more about its unique position at the Lübeck-Schlutup Border Documentation Site. If you’re really into hiking, take on the German Border Trail, an 865-mile (1,393-kilometer) path that passes through Lübeck along the former site of the Iron Curtain and stretches south to the German city of Mödlareuth.
  • A visit to Lübeck is not complete without taking some time to enjoy the waterfront, where historic ships like the Fehmarnbelt and the Lisa von Lübeck are moored in the harbor and welcome visitors (pending Germany’s Covid-19 restrictions).
  • To get in the water, visit one of Germany's best beaches at nearby Travemünde, or Timmendorfer Strand, each about a 20-minute drive from Lübeck's city center.

What to Eat and Drink

After a classic German meal of sausage and sauerkraut, satisfy your sweet tooth with an original Lübeck treat. Proud Lübecker claim marzipan as their own (although contrary theories place its beginnings somewhere in Persia). No matter its origin story, Lübeck is famous for its marzipan, with renowned producers like Niederegger. You’ll also want to try Kolsteiner Katenschinken (cured ham that’s smoked for eight weeks), Holsteiner Tilsiter (a favorite regional cheese), and locally sourced fish like herring and carp. The region is also known for Dooley’s, a liqueur made with vodka, Dutch cream, and Belgian toffee, as well as Pharisäer, a tasty concoction made of coffee, rum, and whipped cream.

Read more about the best foods to try in Germany and our in-depth guide to schnapps, German wine, and everything else you should be drinking besides beer.

Where to Stay

Whether you prefer to stay in big-brand or independently owned hotels, bed and breakfasts, hostels, or vacation rentals, there are accommodations to suit every taste and budget in Lübeck. To really experience the city and meet its people, consider renting a local apartment through a vacation rental service like Airbnb or VRBO. If you plan to base yourself in Lübeck, stick to the easily walkable Old Town, where most chain and independent hotels are located in historic buildings. Accommodations are also available just outside town in the greater Schleswig-Holstein region for those who prefer to spend more time in the German countryside. If you're short on time and only plan to visit Lübeck as part of a day trip, consider staying an hour away in Hamburg or in nearby Travemünde if you'd prefer to be near the beach or are planning to take the ferry.

Discover some of the best places to stay during your visit, including Germany's most unique hotels, castle hotels, and top hostels.

Getting There

The closest international airport is about an hour away in Hamburg, though if you’re coming in from the U.S., you’ll likely need to connect via another European airport or a larger German airport like Frankfurt, Munich, or Berlin first. The city is well connected by motorway and train. If traveling by car, take the Autobahn 1, which connects Lübeck with Hamburg and leads all the way up to Denmark. If traveling by train, the Hauptbahnhof (train station) is located within the city to the west of the island, offering commuter trains to and from Hamburg every 30 minutes on weekdays, plus connections around the country and abroad. Ferries from nearby Travemünde offer connections to Finland, Latvia, and Sweden. For ferries to Denmark, make your way to Kiel, Fehmarn, or Rostock along Germany’s Baltic Coast.

Money Saving Tips

  • To travel frugally in Germany, do as the locals do: stick to public transportation, pick up food from local markets instead of constantly eating at restaurants, diversify your accommodations (try renting an Airbnb or VRBO instead of splashing out for a fancy hotel) and walk or hike as much as possible.
  • Lübeck’s tourism board website lists a number of free self-guided walks so you can set off and explore the city's historic sites and medieval churches at your own pace.
  • Each year, Lübeck hosts events like Museum Night (when museums remain open until midnight), Theatre Night (when you can see puppet, dance, improv, and musical performances in any theatre around town), and Große Kiesau Night (open house at several literary houses around Old Town), that let you experience several museums, shows, or readings for the price of one ticket.

Save even more money with our guide to the cheapest ways to get around Germany by train.