The fine old Hanseatic red-brick town of Rostock and its neighboring seaside resort, Warnemunde, are best known as the jumping-off points for Berlin, which is three to five hours away by train (so make sure you have adequate time in port before embarking on a journey to the German capital). Many cruise passengers head straight for Berlin.
But if you've been there before, or if you live in Europe and Berlin is an easy weekend break for you, take time instead to explore Rostock and Warnemunde instead. These fascinating places offer traditional architecture and long-standing maritime traditions.
Warnemunde -- the mouth of the river Warnow -- gets most of the attention, despite being a tiny suburb of Rostock. With a population of 35,000 compared with Rostock's 200,000, Warnemunde is an operational fishing port and an attractive seaside resort with vast dunes and sweeping stretches of sand on each side of the river's mouth. You'll see rows of ancient, timber-framed houses, sleepy squares, modern hotels with spas and boats galore. Ice cream stalls and hundreds of screeching seagulls complete the seaside feel.
Summer is regatta season, and -- in addition to the constant buzz of ferries coming from and going to Denmark, Finland and Sweden -- hundreds of sailing boats may be on the water at any one time. The season peaks with Warnemunde Week each July, when 2,000 sailors gather for seven days of yacht races and nighttime parties.
Medieval Rostock appears even smaller thanks to miles of undulating countryside and forest around the town. The city's merchants made a fast buck on beer and fish exports in the 12th century and -- to facilitate trade and protect their powerful fleet -- were instrumental in the formation of the Hanseatic League, a famous union of rich trading towns in northern Germany. The city later became famous for aircraft manufacture; the Heinkel factory was located at Warnemunde and produced airplanes for the Luftwaffe in the 1930s.
Although some of the city's magnificent, old buildings were destroyed in World War II, you can still see grand marketplaces, bridges, city ramparts and gates. Even newer buildings are designed in the traditional style of red brick and stepped gables. The skyline is dominated by three massive churches, including St. Peter's, which used to be one of the tallest buildings in the world.
Rostock has the distinction of being northern Germany's oldest university town and also has a top school for performing arts. Like many places in Germany, the city brews excellent beer, but its income today is mainly from cruise ship tourism and, to an extent, the manufacturing of ship parts. The lively pedestrian zone of Kropeliner Strasse is lined with shops, restaurants and bakeries and is fun to wander. From there, it's an easy walk to the Cultural History Museum (whose treasures include a splinter from the cross of Christ), Petrikirche (St. Peter's Church), with its observation tower, and Marienkirche (St. Mary's Church), built in 1230 and home to a famous astronomical clock.
Rostock has a long-standing association with tall ships, and aficionados could time a cruise to coincide with the annual Hanse Sail Rostock in August, when 200 or so square-riggers and other classic sailing boats sail into port for four days of regattas, fireworks and markets. This event draws local sailors, who moor for the festivities, along with hundreds of thousands of visitors.