Few towns on the North European coast preserve a sense of the glory of their medieval selves like LÜBECK. For over two centuries as flagship of the Hanseatic League, it was one of the richest and most powerful cities in Europe, a Venice of the Baltic that lorded it at the head of a medieval trading-cartel with nearly two hundred members, and which challenged policy of the Holy Roman Emperor himself. Mercantile wealth found its expression in architecture: from the oldest Rathaus in Germany – an expression of civic independence from the bishopric – to churches crowned by soaring spires or a streetscape of merchants’ mansions. The highly decorative red-brick Gothic pioneered here served as a blueprint for the entire North European coastline, and it’s a measure of the enduring splendour that Lübeck was the first town in North Europe to make it onto UNESCO’s list in 1987. The league imploded in the late 1600s, puncturing Lübeck’s status as a regional superpower, but by then its artistic legacy was as valuable as its architectural one.
The flipside of stagnation is preservation, and the delicately crumbling past is the town’s main draw – Lübeck’s appeal lies as much in side streets where houses lean at crazy angles as its architectural show-stoppers. It’s no stuffy museum town, however. While it can be terrifyingly cultured, a vibrant university life balances the opera and classical music served in concert halls, and 20km north lies the chirpy resort of Travemünde for sand between your toes.