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Experience Germany’s Maritime Past and Eco-Friendly Future at These UNESCO Sites

From the protected Wadden Sea to the historic warehouse districts of Hamburg and beyond, a visit to the former Hanseatic League is a dream trip for sustainably minded travelers who love history.

A birds-eye view of the Baltic Sea and cliffs of the Jasmund National Park on Rügen Island, Germany.

The stunning Jasmund National Park on Rügen Island in the Baltic Sea

©TMV/Felix Gaensicke

To grasp how Northern Germany attained its power in the modern age, the discerning, history-loving traveler should begin with a look to the sea. For most of the medieval age, the North Sea was profoundly influential in the development of one of Europe’s most powerful regions long before it began attracting bird watchers and nature lovers. Forming what was called the Hanseatic League, northern German cities like Hamburg and Bremen made a mint in collaboration with other port cities, from Bruges to Tallinn, leaving behind a lavish legacy of modern architecture and maritime culture at an intersection of urban and natural beauty.

Recognizing this extraordinary bond between man and nature, UNESCO has designated several World Heritage Sites in the region to help protect the delicate and ever-evolving coastal ecology and the man-made marvels that have survived after centuries of war, pollution, and other existential threats. Thanks to these measures of sustainability and conservation, visitors can travel back in time to the dawn of the modern European city while also marveling at an ecosystem that continues to support untold avian and marine life as well as small island communities, making for an uncommon example in which man and nature live in balance.

Hamburg’s merchant history

It might be easiest to arrive by train or plane, but those who want to stick to the nautical theme can opt to arrive by river ferry along the Elbe. Arriving at St. Pauli’s Landungsbrücken Piers, you can explore the historic Fish Market or catch some live music in the Reeperbahn district, long the domain of the city’s rowdiest sailors and sinners. Walking through the Old Elbe Tunnel, a free passageway dating to 1911 that connects the piers to the city docks with art deco flair, travelers have a 30-minute walk before arriving at the abandoned St. Nikolai Church.

Dating to the 12th century, the church first succumbed to the Great Fire of 1842. Its replacement was destroyed almost exactly a century later by Allied air raids, and now offers visitors a World War II museum in its crypt, plus a viewing platform from its 250-foot spire. Those interested in learning more about the war and its impact on locals might also consider a visit to the Bunker Museum, highlighting how Hamburg managed to emerge unscathed relative to other German cities, with another perspective on the city’s ongoing conservation efforts.

A view of the lobby in Hamburg’s Hampton by Hilton Hamburg City Centre

Stop for a drink in Hamburg’s Hampton by Hilton Hamburg City Centre

Courtesy of Hilton

Taking the 20-minute train ride back to town, the Hampton by Hilton Hamburg City Centre is a five-minute walk from the main station, found in the heart of the business district on the Sonnin Canal. Offering free breakfast, a modern fitness center, and spacious rooms overlooking the city, plus a business center and multiple meeting rooms, the hotel is especially ideal for conducting business, maritime or otherwise, while the floating restaurants and houseboats of Mittelland Canal found just a few feet away allow one to dine like a local.

The Speicherstadt and Kontorhaus districts

Tall, residential, 19th-century style buildings flanking a river in Speicherstadt, Germany

The Speicherstadt is a 19th-century model of a new kind of European city

©GNTB/Francesco Carovillano

Hamburg’s canals were long the lifeblood of the city at a time when maritime trade made it among Europe’s most powerful centers, and they remain a wonderful way to explore, whether by ferry, canoe, or paddle board. In the harbor, guided tours are also available via repurposed ferries called barkasse, which provide the ultimate views of the Speicherstadt and Kontorhaus districts.

A view of the night sky surrounded by the rectangular courtyard of a building in the Kontorhaus district, Germany

Kontorhaus is a well-preserved glimpse of Hamburg’s golden age

©GNTB/Ralf Brunner

Speicherstadt is the largest warehouse district in the world and Kontorhaus is an immaculate collection of massive, modernist office buildings—most notably the uniquely Expressionist Chilehaus. Both have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites as well-preserved testimonies to that late-19th century boom in trade that asserted Hamburg’s importance on the global stage, leaving behind a vision of how the modern city could look and function.

The Hamburg Wadden Sea National Park and Wadden Sea World Natural Heritage Site

Greenery in foreground of a sunset over the Wadden Sea, Germany

The sun sets over the stunning Wadden Sea

©GNTB/Francesco Carovillano

Given the crucial role that the river and sea have played in Hamburg’s history, it’s only appropriate that the Hamburgians repay the favor by keeping these bodies of water pristine and protected. Collaborating with UNESCO, who declared the Hamburg Wadden Sea National Park to be a biosphere preserve back in 1992 and part of the greater Wadden Sea World Natural Heritage Site as of 2011, the local governments have ensured that the estuaries, tidal flats, and outlying islands continue to remain viable safe harbors for marine life well into the future.

Located just under 70 miles from downtown Hamburg, the Wadden Sea National Park is an excellent area for spotting some of the 340 bird species among the seals, porpoises, and marine plants, and a boat tour is the best way to make the most of one’s day trip. While out there, be sure to grab lunch at a seaside shack on the island of Neuwerk, home to approximately 30 full-time residents at any given point during the year.

Bremen’s Rathaus and Roland Statue

A view looking up at Bremen’s Roland Statue in front of the ornate brick facade of the old Town Hall in Bremen, Germany

Bremen’s Roland Statue in front of the ornate brick facade of the old Town Hall

©WFB Bremen/Melanka Helms-Jacobs

From the hotel in Hamburg, it’s just over an hour’s train ride to Bremen, another important Hanseatic city that remains remarkably well-preserved today and is the perfect size for a relaxing stroll. Right in the town square, visitors are greeted by Bremen’s 15th-century Rathaus, or town hall, an important example of Weser Renaissance architecture exclusive to Northern Germany.

Together with the neighboring Roland Statue, which stands as a symbol of the city’s independence, the building represents the height of Bremen’s power despite its small size. Having survived wartime bombardments, these sites were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004 and are well worth a visit to deepen one’s understanding of the period.

A view of Bremen, Germany's main street, Böttcherstrasse, with its brick and stained glass buildings

The cinematic charm of the Böttcherstrasse

©WFB/Carina Tank

While there, the street art and stylish shops of the Böttcherstrasse are good for a gander, as are the famous flower market, and the massive Überseestadt docks. Speaking to the role of sea trade in Bremen’s development, the docks have been recently redeveloped and are now a singular destination for dining, artisanry, and spectacular sunsets over the water.

Music and art in Kiel, the Gateway to the Baltics

A panoramic view of boats and a riverfront walkway along the Port of Kiel, Germany

A panoramic view of the bustling Port of Kiel

©GNTB/Francesco Carovillano

Kiel is another important port city that was part of the Hanseatic League until 1518, when it was expelled for providing safe harbor to pirates who sought refuge from the open waters of the Baltic Sea. Since the founding of the University of Kiel in 1665, the city has become renowned for its vibrant arts scene. The Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival features excellent classical acts throughout the summer, while the German Maritime Museum celebrates the city’s maritime history in a converted fish auction house with retired ships, original frescoes, and rolling art exhibitions.

The dining area in the Hampton by Hilton Kiel in Germany

Dining in the Hampton by Hilton Kiel

Courtesy of Hilton

Another notable site is the City Hall which was modeled after St. Mark’s Campanile in Venice, Italy. Located just a few steps away from the Hall, and less than 10 minutes from other attractions like the Kiel Opera House and the Aquarium GEOMAR, Hampton by Hilton Kiel is perfectly situated to help you get the most out of the city. Guests can stretch out in tasteful rooms overlooking the harbor, enjoy a free breakfast buffet, savor drinks at the hotel bar, and stay in shape at the hotel’s fitness center, all while remaining within half a mile of Kiel Central Station.

Going deeper into the North Sea

For those who can’t get enough of Northern Germany’s striking seaside, this nine-day Coastal Route is a great way to take in even more highlights that span the Viking Age to the present day. Featuring eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites from Cuxhaven along the Wadden Sea all the way to Rügen, Germany’s largest island, this itinerary features archeological excursions, unforgettable ocean views, and much more, with options to navigate the region by bike, boat, or several modes of public transportation.

Hilton and the German National Tourist Board
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