This historic German city comes into its own in the festive season, with mulled wine, marzipan and Christmas markets galore, says Marian Amos
Click here to download map
WHY GO NOW?
This fascinating medieval city, a major seaport in the Hanseatic League, gets a double helping of festive decorations and bright lights, as it holds not just one but two Weihnachtsmarkts, or Christmas markets – one indoors, one outdoors. They provide an atmospheric backdrop for buying local crafts, jewellery and glassware, while warming your festive spirits with a glass of mulled wine. The main outdoor market, held, appropriately, in Markt (1), the central square, opens on Monday and continues until 24 December, while the medieval hospice, Heiligen-Geist-Hospital (2), is the setting of the indoor version, from 30 November until 10 December.
Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com ) flies directly from Stansted to Lübeck's Blankensee airport, 8km south of the city centre; confusingly, Ryanair describes it as " Hamburg". Bus 6 departs frequently from outside the arrivals hall, taking 20 minutes to reach the bus station, ZOB, next to the main railway station (3), for a fare of €2.20 (£1.60). The taxi journey costs €15 (£11).
GET YOUR BEARINGS
Lübeck's historic heart, now a Unesco World Heritage Site, is the Altstadt, or old town, an oval-shaped island circled by the river Trave and the city's moat. Locals refer to the island as Lübeck's body, with Königstrasse – the main street that cuts straight from north to south – as its backbone, and all roads leading east and west from it as its ribs. Simply put, the Altstadt is a symmetrical arrangement of streets, so it's hard to get lost. The main tourist office (4) is at Holstentorplatz 1 (00 49 451 889 9700; www.luebeck-tourismus.de ). It opens 9.30am-6pm Monday-Friday, 10am-3pm on Saturday and, in December, 10am-2pm on Sundays.
Lübeck has plenty of budget and mid-range accommodation, but for visitors seeking elegance and style, the Klassik Altstadt Hotel (5) at Fischergrube 52 (00 49 451 702 980; www.klassik-hotel.com ) is the place to stay. Formerly a pair of Patrician mansions, the interior was completely rebuilt in 1984, but retained the beautiful neoclassical façade. Doubles start from €122 (£85), including a buffet breakfast, increasing by €3 (£2.20) in the New Year.
To save more euros for the markets, check in to Stadt Lübeck Hotel (6) at Am Bahnhof 21 (00 49 451 881 880; www.hotel-stadt-luebeck.de ). Herr and Frau Hosak welcome you to their impeccably clean and pleasantly old-fashioned hotel, just two minutes' walk from the station. An expansive breakfast is included, and served in a room whose stained-glass windows feature Lübeck's landmarks. Doubles from €74 (£53).
Great value, good fun, and on the doorstep of the priciest hotels, is the youth hostel CVJM Sleep-In (7), at Grosse Petergrube 11 (00 49 451 71920; www.cvjm-luebeck.de ). It offers a selection of dormitory beds, single or double rooms, from €16.50 (£12) including breakfast. Three self-catering apartments with twin beds are available from €40 (£28).
TAKE A VIEW
Just to the east of Lübeck's magnificent gate, the Holstentor (8), is the Gothic Petrikirche (9) at am Petrikirchhof 1 (00 49 451 397 730; www.st-petri-luebeck.de ). It was severely damaged during bombing in 1942, but reconstruction was finally completed in 1987. The bright, whitewashed interior now houses contemporary art exhibitions and is a venue for concerts. For €3 (£2.20), take the lift to the top of the 108m-high steeple for sweeping views across Lübeck and beyond. The lift opens 9am-7pm daily (longer in summer).
TAKE A HIKE
Begin your walk admiring the Holstentor (8), built with distinctive layers of red and black bricks, topped with two imposing conical towers with grey tiles. Walk across the Holstenbrücke and turn left into an der Obertrave, noting the old salt lofts (10) on the far side of the river. These salzpeicher were used to store the "white gold", which was imported from Lüneburg and heading for Scandinavia, as well as salted herrings.
Carry on, and the road becomes pedestrianised and pleasantly peaceful about 400 metres along. Every fourth or so doorway there are tiny archways with gänge (alleyways) leading to pretty cobbled courtyards. At No 43 (11) is a 1750 corn mill. At the street's end, climb the 21 steps to the 12th-century Dom (12) and take the cobbled path across the "Paradies" to the north of it, towards Fegefeuer (13), a narrow lane leading you towards St Annenstrasse, where you find a jumble of old houses of charming proportions and colours. Fifty metres on the right are what remains of an old Augustinian convent, now St Annen-Museum (14), next to Lübeck's only synagogue. The museum has a good collection of civic and religious art from the 13th to 18th century; it opens 10am-4pm daily, admission €3 (£2.20).
Continue along until the street becomes Schlumacherstrasse, turn left into Fleischhauerstrasse and end your walk at number 89, the Kandinsky Café (15).
LUNCH ON THE RUN
The Kandinsky does a good line in kaffe und kuchen, but for something a bit more substantial, the cosy Café Opera (16), opposite the theatre at Beckergrube 39 (00 49 724 254640) and draped in fairy lights, serves tasty meat or fish dishes for under €10 (£7).
If time is seriously short, Suppentopf (17), at Fleischhauerstrasse 33 (00 49 451 400 81 36), serves a selection of five soups for under €4 (£2.80), to be drunk standing at waist-high tables.
Even if you have come for the Christmas markets, head east from the Markt to Fleischhauerstrasse and Huxstrasse for a different kind of retail experience. These wide streets with ancient, tall pastel-painted buildings house quirky shops that stock anything from the latest fashions and contemporary textiles, to antiques and jewellery. In Fleischhauerstrasse, you'll find one piled high with thousands of multicoloured balls of wool, next to another selling over 100 different flavours of tea.
The beautiful baroque Buddenbrookhaus (18), at Mengstrasse 4 (00 49 451 122 4242; www.buddenbrookhaus.de ), is the birthplace and former home of the authors Heinrich and Thomas Mann and the Mann family. The ground-floor exhibition tells the complex story of this large, bourgeois Lübeck family to the present day, and explains how the city was the bedrock of their writing. The novels Buddenbrooks and Tonio Kröger by Thomas Mann are both set in the city, and you can find out more about Buddenbrooks on the first floor of the house, opposite a room decorated according to descriptions in the novel. Open 10am-6pm daily (to 5pm January-March), admission €8 (£5.50).
Another, more recent Nobel laureate is celebrated at the Günter-Grass-Haus (19), at Glockengiesserstrasse 21 ( www.guenter-grass-haus.de ), opened in 2002 to celebrate a writer originally from Danzig (Gdansk), another Hanseatic port. Grass not only writes, but paints, etches, prints and sculpts, and examples of his work are on display. Currently being screened in the house is a bold documentary in which Grass is challenged about his lifelong silence over reports that he served in the Waffen SS as a young man. Open 10am-5pm daily, admission €5 (£3.50).
Music has also featured in Lübeck's past. In the 17th century, the Danish-German composer Dietrich Buxtehude drew huge crowds to his organ recitals in the Marienkirche (20), and became one of the first musicians to achieve fame as a virtuoso instrumentalist. Recitals can still be heard there on weekend afternoons at 6.30pm (00 49 451 709 8760; www.kirchenmusik-luebeck.de ).
Enter via a glass door and heavy, black curtain for a touch of theatricality on your way to the highly polished bar in the Jazz Café (21) at Mühlenstrasse 61 (00 49 451 7073734). Choose an aperitif from the mirrored wall of gleaming bottles in this dimly lit haunt, and soak up the live jazz from 4.30pm at weekends. Try a glass of sekt, Germany's affordable fizz, for €3 (£2.20); or race for Rush Hour between 6pm and 8pm, when all cocktails are €4.90 (£3.50).
DINING WITH THE LOCALS
For something a little bit special, head for Potter's (22), An der Obertrave 9 (00 49 451 75102), an intimate and rustic riverside restaurant serving rich traditional food. Start with homemade fish soup, followed by a vast platter of sausage, pork and roast potato on a bed of spinach – there's easily enough for two. Wash this down with a glass of the local draught beer. Prearranged parties of four or more can experience a supper complete with medieval merriment: dishes are served by costumed waitresses.
SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH
Tucked away in the tranquil eastern quarter is Lübeck's smallest church, the late-Romanesque Aegidienkirche (23), with a single handsome tower. Historically the place of worship for craftsmen, clerks and less affluent merchants, it is steeped in musical tradition and home to a magnificent baroque organ. The bare white walls induce a feeling of calm; in medieval times, they were covered with colourful murals.
Soaring up behind the Rathaus (24), at the highest point of the city, is Lübeck's grandest church, the Marienkirche (20). Although built in the French Gothic style, the distinctive red and black brickwork ensures an authentic German appearance. It has the highest brick vaulted ceiling in the world, and the largest mechanical organ, too. It was badly bombed in 1942, and two bells remain shattered where they fell in the South Tower, in memory of all the dead all over the world.
OUT TO BRUNCH
If a long night means a late start, Café Affenbrot (25) in Kanalstrasse 70 (00 49 451 72193) will set you up for the day. This edgy, alternativ vegetarian café close to the canal lays out an ample buffet at weekends, from 10am until 2pm. Assorted German breads, scrambled eggs, cheeses, muesli, tofu, quiche and more can all be enjoyed among assorted German free-thinkers and students for €8.50 (£6); bowls of coffee cost €3.50 (£2.50).
TAKE A RIDE
Some 20km north-west (and downriver) from Lübeck is the Baltic port and resort of Travemünde, affectionately named "Lübeck's Most Beautiful Daughter". In the 14th century, it was a village at the mouth of the river Trave and was bought by Lübeck to secure access to the city's quays. Today it is one of Europe's largest ferry ports, with ships to Scandinavia and Russia, as well as a seaside playground with trendy bars, fine fish restaurants, and smart hotels with spas. Trains run every hour from Lübeck Hauptbahnof (3), taking 23 minutes to Lübeck-Travemünde Strand station, beside the beach.
ICING ON THE CAKE
... or, rather, the marzipan that lies beneath it. In 1806, the Niederegger family achieved confection perfection, making marzipan from almonds imported from Italy. This sumptuous sweet should be savoured with a glass of Lübecker Rotspon (oak-aged red wine originally from Burgundy) at Café Niederegger (26), Breite Strasse 89 (00 49 451 5301 126). It opens 9am-8pm daily (10am-6pm on Sundays), and has an interesting small museum on the second floor.