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At first glance, Bremerhaven doesn't look like the world's most exciting port of call. Originally known as Wesermunde -- the seaport for nearby Bremen -- it was in the frontline of bombing raids during World War II, and nearly all its old buildings were obliterated.
But, out of the ashes, a smart, modern city has emerged. Modern-day Bremerhaven (which received its new name just after the war, in 1947) offers some unexpected treasures like a pretty harbor and a long promenade that offers views across the River Weser to the mouth of the North Sea area.
If you want historic buildings, you'd better head off to explore Bremen, about an hour's train ride away. Bremen is a lovely old Hanseatic League city, and it's well worth seeing for its museums, 11th-century cathedral and medieval old quarter, so tours there are popular. More than half of the passengers on our cruise opted for the day trip.
But, stick around, and you'll find Bremerhaven has a charm of its own, as well as a rich history it celebrates in some excellent museums. Of these, the award-winning Deutsches Auswandererhaus (German Emigration Museum) is quite rightly the most famous.
And, if you love the sea, this is very much the place for you because Bremerhaven likes to make the most of its maritime tradition. You can spend a day happily immersed in it, touring historic vessels at the harborside Maritime Museum, picking up nautical memorabilia at some of the quirky shops nearby, and even tucking into a lunch of freshly caught fish aboard a sailing ship dating from the turn of the 20th century.
A note for cruise travelers: Bremerhaven is more of an off-the-beaten-path cruise port, especially for English-speaking travelers, and it makes the occasional appearance on Northern Europe itineraries. Mostly German lines -- including Hapag Lloyd, Transocean Tours and Phoenix Reisen -- call there between May and September. However, a few British lines, namely Fred. Olsen and Saga Cruises, visit in the late fall for pre-Christmas shopping cruises.
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Other Baltic & Northern Europe Cruise Ports:
Aarhus • Amsterdam • Bergen • Bremerhaven • Copenhagen • Flam • Gdansk • Geiranger • Helsinki • Ilulissat • Moscow • Odessa • Oslo • Reykjavik • Riga • Rostock (Warnemunde) • Spitsbergen (Svalbard) • St. Petersburg • Stavanger • Stockholm • Tallinn • Travemunde (Lubeck) • Trondheim • Visby
Fans of nautical memorabilia -- and particularly models of ships, both inside and outside bottles -- will find plenty for sale in Bremerhaven, either at the maritime museum or in one of the little shops around the harbor.
German is the official language. Some English is spoken, but a smattering of German will be a big help there, so consider bringing along a phrasebook.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The currency is the euro; see www.oanda.com or www.xe.com for the latest conversion rates. You'll find ATM machines in the Columbus Center shopping mall.
Where You're Docked
The cruise terminal is roughly a 20-minute bus ride from downtown Bremerhaven and the Weser Dyke, a long waterfront promenade area where most of the city's main attractions are found.
A bright, airy, two-level passenger terminal at the port features an excellent information desk staffed by English speakers. It also has clean and spacious restrooms, a shop that sells newspapers and some basic souvenirs, and a coffee bar. On the top floor, a well-equipped Internet cafe charges 5 euros per hour for online time.
The port authority runs a bus that departs from right outside the cruise terminal to downtown. The 20-minute ride costs about 10 euros per person. If you prefer a cab, ask the staffmember at the cruise terminal's information desk to call you one.
Once you get down to the Weser's banks, you can enjoy a refreshing stroll along the waterfront, with great views out to the North Sea. You'll also find all of Bremerhaven's main attractions within walking distance, as the harborside promenade runs in front of Columbusstrasse, where you'll find shops and restaurants in the Columbus Center mall. Take the bus back to the port, or ask the staff at the tourist office in town to call you a taxi.
Bremerhaven has three railway stations, the most accessible being Hauptbahnhof, about a 10-minute walk from the Columbus Center. Choose between fast (40 minutes) and slow (one hour) trains to Bremen. There are also regional connections to Cuxhaven, Osnabruck and Hamburg. Because of the convenient rail service and difficulties with parking in Bremen and other destinations, most cruise travelers do not rent cars.
Watch Out For
Uneven cobblestones around the harbor area are definitely a tripping hazard. We recommend that you wear sensible, flat shoes to tour the town.
Bremerhaven's 100-year-old fishing harbor area has developed into something of a tourist haven, with restaurants and cafes, cozy waterfront pubs and nautical-themed shops (good for finding the aforementioned ship models). It's a great place for a stroll or a stop.
The Deutsches Auswandererhaus (German Emigration Center), right on the harbor, opened in 2005 and was voted European Museum of the year in 2007. It tells the moving stories of some seven million German, Eastern European and Jewish emigrants, who sailed from Bremerhaven for the New World of America between 1830 and the mid-1970's. Exhibits include reconstructions of steerage accommodations aboard sailing and steam ships, and of the Registration Hall at New York's Ellis Island. Visitors can follow the story of one of 18 migrants, and American visitors can even start tracking their European ancestors there. A play area is available for children. (Columbusstrasse 65. Open Sunday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and until 7 p.m. on Saturdays.)
Bremerhaven's Zoo am Meer Bremerhaven (waterfront zoo), also at the harbor, is home to polar bears, seals, Arctic foxes and other terrestrial and marine wildlife of the Far North. You'll find monkeys there, too, since Bremerhaven's seafarers brought them back from their travels. It's great fun for kids, who can pit their skills against the animals on parallel adventure trails or watch seals being trained and animals being fed. (H.-H.-Meier-Strasse 7. Open daily, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., April through September.)
Bremerhaven's most famous landmark is its old lighthouse. Built in 1853, it's the oldest mainland lighthouse on the North Sea coast that's still in service. Look at the sea from Columbusstrasse, and you can't miss it. While you can't tour the lighthouse, it does make for a great photo opportunity.
Been There, Done That
If you have time, take the train (or a tour) to Bremen to see the museums, 11th-century cathedral, Hanseatic architecture and medieval old quarter. Here are some Bremen highlights.
The Uberseemuseum (Overseas Museum) celebrates Bremen's maritime connections and takes visitors on a virtual tour of the globe, taking into account evolution and the ecosystem. (Bahnhofsplatz 13. Open Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., closed Mondays.)
The Universum Science Museum has 250 hands-on, interactive displays that explore the human body, the earth and the cosmos. It's a 15-minute ride aboard Tram 6 from the Bremen railway station. (Wiener Strasse 1a. Open weekdays, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and weekends from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.)
St. Petri Dom Cathedral, Bremen's oldest church, was built in 1041. It lies at the heart of downtown Bremen, near the banks of the River Weser and adjacent to the spectacular medieval buildings of the old Marktplatz. It's also within easy strolling distance of The Schnoor, Bremen's small but very picturesque old quarter, a warren of narrow streets lined with houses that date from the 15th to the early 20th centuries. (Open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sundays from 2 to 5 p.m.)
Northern Germany's great Hanseatic cities -- Bremen, Hamburg and Lubeck -- have a distinctive cuisine all their own. Look out for Braunkohl und Pinkel (cabbage and sausage). It's one of Bremen's best-known dishes -- also sometimes called Grunkohl und Pinkel, when kale is used instead of cabbage.
Other goodies include Pinkelwurst (a smoked sausage made with pork, oats, barley, suet, onions and other spices) and Bremer Labskaus, which originated as a dish for sailors serving onboard 18th-century sailing ships. Originally made with salt beef (Pokelfleisch), which kept well on long sea voyages, modern variations may use corned beef and even include herrings.
Here are some good eats in Bremerhaven.
Seute Deern is a turn-of-the-20th-century tall sailing ship on permanent exhibit at Bremerhaven's Maritime Museum. Its forward cabin is now a good quality restaurant, serving fresh seafood in an atmospheric setting. Salmon, eel, crab and herring fillets are on the menu, and catfish is a particular speciality. (Van-Ronzelen-Str. Tel. 0471 41 62. Open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.)
The German Emigration Museum's restaurant, Speisesaal, is a big hit with visiting Americans as the chef, Sven Krause, is a huge fan of U.S.-style steakhouses and recreates their style with his "steak and fish" menu. (Columbusstrasse 65. Open for lunch, noon to 3:30 p.m.)
You can't miss the Strom restaurant at the eye-catching Atlantic Hotel Sail City; it's just off Columbustrasse, right on the Weser waterfront, and looks a little like Dubai's iconic Burq al Arab Hotel. It's a good place for lunch, serving up international dishes and panoramic sea views. Try the goulash soup, fillets of plaice with sauteed potatoes and salad, or traditional German roast pork with Sauerkraut (pickled cabbage). (H-H Meierstrasse at Columbustrasse. Open for lunch from noon to 5:30 p.m.)
Staying in Touch
In addition to the Internet cafe in the port terminal, there's one called AWO Senioren Internet Cafe, just inland from Columbusstrasse at Hafenstrasse 156 (Tel. 0471 800 7616)
Best for Nautical Lovers: If time is at a premium and you're in love with the sea and all things maritime, the three-hour "Maritime City" tour will give you a taste of Bremerhaven's Maritime Museum, which is home to one of the world's largest collections of ship memorabilia. The indoor/outdoor museum features originals and scale models of ships, dating from the Roman Empire to the present day. Highlights include polar expedition ship Gronland, WWII U-boat Wilhelm Bauer and one of Germany's last great sailing boats, Seute Deern, which now houses a popular restaurant. The tour includes a break onboard for a fish sandwich and a drink.
Best for First-Timers: The five-hour "Medieval Town" tour is a combined coach and walking tour that visits Bremen's old town, including its cathedral and town hall. It also reveals the legacy of the city's membership in the Hanseatic League (from 1358), which brought great prosperity from trade in coffee and wool; this translated into fine houses built by local merchants to display their wealth. The tour also takes in the town hall's famous Roland Statue and the statue of the Bremen City Musicians -- a donkey, dog, cat and cockerel, who, according to the Grimm Brothers' fairytale, trekked to Bremen.
Best for Art Lovers: The five-hour "Paula Moderson Becker and the Worpswede Artists' Colony" tour travels by coach from Bremerhaven through the countryside of Lower Saxony to the picturesque village of Worpswede, which has been an artists' colony since 1884 and was home to one of Germany's most important Expressionist painters, Paula Moderson Becker (1876-1907). Visitors can enjoy the unusual design of some of the artists' houses, spot current talent and possibly snap up a future masterpiece.
Best for Beer Aficionados: Essentially, the five-hour "Bremen and Beer" tour is the same as the "Medieval Town" tour, but you trade touring the interior of the Town Hall for a visit to a microbrewery for a giant pretzel and a glass or two of the local beer. I'll drink to that!
For More Information
On the Web:
Bremerhaven Tourism: http://en.bremerhaven.de or www.bremerhaven-tourism.de
Bremen Tourism: www.bremen-tourismus.de
Official Tourism Website of Germany: www.cometogermany.com
Bremerhaven Tourist Information Office (H-H Meierstrasse 6, 0471 946 46 120 or 0471 41 41 41, email@example.com)
Bremen Tourist Information Office (Obernstrasse/Liebfrauenkirchhof or in the main railway station, 0421 30 800 10)
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--by Maria Harding, Cruise Critic contributor