Head to Germany's north because you love the water. From the posh pleasures of Sylt in the west, to the fabled Baltic heritage of historic towns like Lübeck, Wismar, Stralsund and Greifswald, you can sense the legacy of the Hanseatic League in beautiful old quarters created with iconic black and red bricks.
Even inland there is water. Mecklenburg's lakes are a maze of places to paddle. But really, most visitors will be happiest right at the edge of the sea. There are beaches everywhere, and while the temperatures aren't tropical, the drama of the sea crashing onto the white sand is irresistible.
Then there's Hamburg, a city with a love of life that ignites its fabled clubs, where proximity to the water has brought the city both wealth and vigour through the centuries. It's well on its way to being one of Europe's coolest cities.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Northern Germany.
Gothic and Renaissance turrets, Slavic onion domes, Ottoman features and terracotta Hanseatic step gables are among the mishmash of architectural styles that make up Schwerin’s inimitable Schloss, which is crowned by a gleaming golden dome. Nowadays the Schloss earns its keep as the state’s parliament building. Crossing the causeway south from the palace-surrounding Burggarten brings you to the baroque Schlossgarten (palace garden), intersected by several canals.
St Nikolai church was the world’s tallest building from 1874 to 1876, and it remains Hamburg’s second-tallest structure (after the TV tower). Mostly destroyed in WWII, it is now called Mahnmal St-Nikolai. You can take a glass lift up to a 76.3m-high viewing platform inside the surviving spire for views of Hamburg's centre, put into context of the wartime destruction. The crypt houses an unflinching underground exhibit on the horrors of war.
Here's the perfect excuse to stay up all Saturday night. Every Sunday in the wee hours, some 70,000 locals and visitors descend upon the famous Fischmarkt in St Pauli. The market has been running since 1703, and its undisputed stars are the boisterous Marktschreier (market criers) who hawk their wares at full volume. Live bands also entertainingly crank out cover versions of ancient German pop songs in the adjoining Fischauktionshalle (Fish Auction Hall).
Central Rostock’s pride and joy is the 13th-century Marienkirche, the only main Rostock church to survive WWII unscathed (although restorations are ongoing). Behind the main altar, the church’s 12m-high astrological clock was built in 1472 by Hans Düringer. At the very top of the clock is a series of doors. At noon and midnight the innermost right door opens and six of the 12 apostles march out to parade around Jesus (Judas is locked out).
Welcome to one of the most Europe's most exciting recent architectural creations. A squat brown-brick former warehouse at the far west of HafenCity was the base for the architecturally bold Elbphilharmonie, a major concert hall and performance space, not to mention architectural icon. Pritzker Prize–winning Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron were responsible for the design, which captivates with details like 1096 individually curved glass panes.
Built in 1464 and looking so settled-in that it appears to sag, Lübeck’s charming red-brick city gate is a national icon. Its twin pointed cylindrical towers, leaning together across the stepped gable that joins them, captivated Andy Warhol (his print is in the St Annen Museum), and have graced postcards, paintings, posters and marzipan souvenirs. Discover this and more inside the Museum Holstentor, which sheds light on the history of the gate and on Lübeck's medieval mercantile glory days.
A treasure trove of art from the Renaissance to the present day, the Kunsthalle spans two buildings linked by an underground passage. The main building houses works ranging from medieval portraiture to 20th-century classics, such as Klee and Kokoschka. There’s also a memorable room of 19th-century landscapes by Caspar David Friedrich. Its stark white modern cube, the Galerie der Gegenwart, showcases contemporary German artists.
This masterpiece of medieval architecture dates to 1270 and is modelled on Lübeck's Marienkirche. Its interior is awash with colour and is filled with art treasures. The main altar (1708), designed by the baroque master Andreas Schlüter, shows the eye of God flanked by cherubs and capped by a depiction of the Last Supper. The main portal of is reached via an entrance off the Alter Markt.
Opened in 2015, this brilliant museum tells the remarkable story of the Hanseatic League, Lübeck and the region. For 600 years, city states in northern Europe and along the Baltic discovered that shared interests in trade made everybody's life better than war. Transfixing exhibits use every modern technology to tell a story as dramatic as anything on Game of Thrones. The complex includes the beautifully restored medieval Castle Friary.