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Travel

Lübeck - from feudal to fashionable

Lübeck is a tourist hotspot which was once a trading capital of the world. DW’s Barbara Woolsey went to find out how this medieval city's history, that started off salty, ended up so very, very sweet.

Lübeck is one of those rare destinations that's touristy, but not full of tourists. The medieval German city, about an hour's drive from Hamburg, is unbelievably scenic, and despite teeming with history and culinary pleasure, there's still a sense of space and community that's easy to enjoy.

Located in Schleswig-Holstein state, Lübeck was an important place in the world hundreds of years ago. From the 11th to 17th century, it was the capital of the Hanseatic League, a maritime confederation of merchants that controlled trading over the North and Baltic Seas. Goods came into Germany through the port city and salt (back then known as "white gold") was shipped out. This rich history is why Lübeck is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, known for its downtown made up of brick gothic wonders like the Holsten Gate and St. Mary's Church. But Lübeck's best offerings from olden days definitely come in edible form.

Deutschland Lübeck Holstentor

Holsten Gate, a medieval fortification

A sweet must-see attraction

Lübeck is the marzipan capital of the world, and every day tons upon tons of soft almond-sugar candy are shipped out of here overseas. Legend has it that in 1407, famine swept through the city leaving only a few ingredients behind in the storehouses. Lübeckers crushed together almonds and sugar, and molded it into the shape of bread loaves to give to the poor.

Today there are four different manufacturers here, the biggest being Niederegger, which exports their sweet product to 40 countries worldwide. The Café Niederegger is a must-see attraction sure to make anyone's inner child hopelessly giddy.

Truly scrumptious

Lübecker Marzipan Nideregger

Get a sugar rush at the must-see Café Niederegger

The first floor is a confectionery, bursting full of marzipan, truffle and nougat gift boxes and more. There's everything from marzipan Holsten Gates to hand-painted marzipan frogs, dogs, starfish and of course pigs, which are the most popular, because they are believed to bring luck. There's even a machine where you can win free sweets by correctly answering questions about marzipan trivia!

The second floor is the café itself, with over 20 kinds of over-the-top indulgent cake, including a famous nut torte with layers of foamy cream inside a marzipan shell. Upstairs is the Marzipan Salon; a museum where giant figures carved out of sugary almond paste depict its history.

At a nearby café-confectionery, the Marzipan-Speicher, guests can try shaping roses and pigs for themselves during a "marzipan show". When owner Burkhard Leu is not instructing, he can be found standing at the front of the shop in a funny red hat, doling bite-size samples to shoppers off a baking tray. Upstairs you can see newspaper clippings from the time Leu made the Guinness Book of Records for building the world's biggest marzipan pig, weighing in at just over one ton.

Uncork & unwind

Deutschland Lübeck Weinprobe

Wine tastings on offer at the H.F. von Melle shop

Lübeck's other much-loved delicacy is Rotspon wine. When Napoleon took over the city in 1806, his officers discovered that French red wine stored in German cellars tasted a lot better than the Bordeaux back home. It turns out the cool northern climate does wonders for the aging process, making the wine more full-bodied and flavourful. So today Rotspon is a tradition carried on by various wine traders around the city, like the 162-year-old shop H.F. von Melle. Guests can come in and try Rotspon at the tasting bar. The wine is also available at various restaurants around town, including the Schiffergesellschaft, a fine-dining establishment that was once a meeting place for merchants and ship captains.

Pop culture treats

Despite all it's history, Lübeck's also got a taste for the contemporary too. The city is associated with three Nobel Prize laureates: novelist Thomas Mann and former German chancellor Willy Brandt were born here and author Günther Grass, spent decades living in Lübeck even though he was born elsewhere. They all have small museums dedicated to their work.

For almost 60 years, the city's also held its own Nordic Film Festival showing movies from Nordic and Baltic countries, which continue to be maritime trading partners with Lübeck to this day. At Kino Koki, a cinema across the road from the von Melle wine traders shop, foreign films play almost every night of the week - sometimes with English subtitles, but mostly in German.

Get on board to see the whole picture

Deutschland Lübeck Salzspeicher

Salzspeicher or salt warehouses, also a Gothic horror film backdrop

A boat tour around the city lets you enjoy both the old and new world of Lübeck. Besides historic buildings, there are glimpses of shore-side restaurants, fishermen and lumberyards in full action. The best part is passing by the Salzspeicher, a collection of six old brick warehouses where “white gold” was stored during Hanseatic times. The structures are best known today for their importance in cinematic history, first as Count Lork's home in the 1922 silent horror film Nosferatu and then again in the 1979 art house remake by Werner Herzog.

I left Lübeck on a sugar rush, loaded down with bags of nougat and marzipan pigs. I knew I'd be back again before long. It's not often these days you find a tourist hotspot, that's anything but a tourist trap.