The Lüneburg Heath is an extensive region of heath and farmland in the state of Lower Saxony which has become a popular holiday and excursion destination. It lies roughly between the cities of Hanover, Hamburg and Wolfsburg. Historically it was where Montgomery received the German surrender at the end of the Second World War.
The area has very rural feel to it. Dense pine forests alternate with green meadows and cultivated fields with purple heath. Its leafy villages are clustered around ancient Low Saxon farmhouses - typical of North Germany - with their vast thatched roofs sweeping down over red brick and timber-framed walls.
The area has lots of attractions suitable for families such as the Heide Park near Soltau, the Walsrode Bird Park, the Serengeti Park and 3 wildlife parks. More recently a big indoor ski slope has been opened, the SnowDome near Bispingen, as well as the Schumacher go-kart hall.
For those interested in exploring the culture and history there is also a wealth of museums - covering every field from agriculture to science, from warfighting to local history.
Lying on the great North German Plain, the region is relatively flat and there are excellent cycling routes over a network of cycle paths.
The Heath is a magnet for day-trippers and holidaymakers from the three major cities near the Heath: Hanover, Hamburg and Bremen. There are no cities (defined in Germany as Großstädte i.e. places with a population over 100,000). The only sizeable towns are Celle and Lüneburg with populations of around 70,000.
Drive along the picturesque Elbe Riverbank Road (Elbuferstrasse) from Winsen (Luhe) to Langendorf, stopping en route to enjoy the riverside towns and villages or to park and walk along the bluffs above river. The section from Neu Darchau to Hitzacker, known for its challenging hills and bends, is closed to motorcyclists at weekends. Hitzacker is a pretty, little timber-framed town, steeped in history from where you can take a boat on the river or a ferry to Saxony-Anhalt. The area is teeming in bird life.
The Lüneburg Heath forms a natural region within the North German Plain, with its own geography and climate. It is a vast expanse of pine and birch forests, open heathland, pleasant farmland, market towns and picturesque villages; stretching from the lazy waters of the River Elbe to the north, the pine-clad hills of the Drawehn to the east, the flat depressions of the River Aller to the south and Wümme to the west, and the low ridge guarding Hamburg's southern flank to the northwest. Ideal for walking, cycling or just chilling out, it has become a popular tourist destination, especially for the cities and large towns that lie nearby.
Its highest spot is the Wilseder Berg, a modest affair just 169 metres (555 feet) high, but with fine views to all points of the compass. The hills on the Lüneburg Heath are moraines - ridges of sand and gravel left by the last Ice Age. Its natural forests of birch, pine and sessile oak were grazed or cleared by prehistoric farmers to leave open heathland on the poor sandy soils. The heaths are particularly attractive in autumn covered by purple heather in bloom and buzzing with honey bees. Today the use of fertiliser has allowed much of the old heath to be reclaimed as farmland and the remaining areas of heathland have to be actively managed to prevent the woods returning. Thus the traditional moorland sheep or Heidschnucke, whose rugged character is well-suited to conditions on the heath, continue to play their part in preventing the return of trees.
The Lüneburg Heath is divided into five major natural areas:
The High Heath (Hohe Heide) in the centre is largely preserved as heathland and is more rugged than elsewhere. This is heart of the region, where the Lüneburg Heath Nature Park (Naturpark Lüneburger Heide) has been established.
The South Heath (Südheide) in the south towards Celle, with the South Heath Nature Park (Naturpark Südheide), is heavily wooded with areas of open heathland.
The East Heath (Ostheide) much of which is cultivated. In the north is the Elbe Heights-Wendland Nature Park (Naturpark Elbhöhen-Wendland) along the River Elbe
The Uelzen Basin and Ilmenau Depression is a largely agricultural region sandwiched between the High and East Heaths.
The Luhe Heath (Luheheide) in the north with wooded ridges split by rivers draining northwards into the Elbe.
As elsewhere in Germany, High German (hochdeutsch) is taught in schools and widely spoken. However, some of the older folk still speak Low German (plattdeutsch) and you will sometimes see signs and phrases in Low German especially where a historic feel is intended, as in Dat ole Huus, the open-air farm museum in Wilsede on the Heath.
Children have to learn English in school, but outside the cities and large towns the locals may not have such a good grasp of it, so a phrase book is handy. As a rule it's always polite and a good move to open a conversation in German - even if it's just "Entschuldigen Sie, bitte, sprechen Sie Englisch?" - you are much more likely to get a favourable response!
There is a good network of roads in addition to the motorways and federal roads mentioned above. As well as the aforementioned railways the East Hanoverian Railways (Osthannoversche Eisenbahnen or OHE) maintains a goods network, much of which is on the Lüneburg Heath, which runs occasional heritage specials such as the Heath Express (Heide-Express).
Most petrol stations sell local maps. In addition there is a good bus service e.g. the CeBus routes that operate out of Celle.
Bergen-Belsen Memorial, near Belsen. Memorial site to victims of the POW and concentration camp freed by British forces in 1945. Marked graves and monuments are reminders of the suffering. Large visitor centre with comprehensive exhibition chronicles the history of the camp, which began as a POW camp. 70,000 people are buried here, including Anne Frank who wrote a poignant diary of her life during the Nazi era.
Celle Palace - Celle's ducal palace, a former fortified castle, is one of the most impressive sights in the lovely town of Celle in the south of the Lüneburg Heath. Once the residence of the mighty dukes of Lüneburg and summer residence of the kings of Hanover, it is the oldest building in the town. There are guided tours to take in the unique Renaissance chapel, ducal state chambers, Baroque theatre and full palace kitchen.
Lüneburg's Old Town - Lüneburg's Old Town was one of the few town centres in North Germany to survive the Second World War largely unscathed and has also been carefully restored. As a result the area around the market square is still dominated by an impressive array of Brick Gothic buildings in the most unusual designs and colours. Inside there are formerly hidden ceiling frescos, medieval pottery workshops and many historic features which paint a colourful picture of life in the Middle Ages. Any historic stroll through the Old Town should take in the Bell House (Glockenhaus), the Town Chemist (Rathsapotheke) and the wonderfully historic Town Hall, said to be one of the most beautiful in Germany, only rivalled by Lübeck's city hall. Don't miss a trip up the Old Water Tower with panoramic views of the town or a relaxing coffee in the Old Port with its replica barge and medieval keyside crane (Alter Kran).
Walled village street in Wilsede at the heart of the Lüneburg Heath
Animal World at Serengeti Park
Toucan, emblem of the Bird Park
Explore the Heath. There are plenty of easy walking trails in the area with good car parking facilities. A good starting points for walks are the car parks at Overhaverbeek and Niederhaverbeek northwest of Bispingen. From there you can walk or catch a horse and coach ride to the Heath's highest hill, the Wilseder Berg - all 169 metres of it! From here there is a great panorama of the surrounding area and, on clear days, you can see as far as Hamburg. Beware, it is often teeming with tourists on summer weekends! But there are many other quieter walks all over the area as well as long distance walks like the Freudenthalweg and Hermann Billung Weg that are over 100 kilometres long. Many of the trails are suitable for cyclists and Nordic walkers too and there are cycle paths beside many of the roads.
Heide Park, in Soltau. The biggest amusement park in North Germany. Expensive, but fun for families and groups alike.
Serengeti Park, south of Bad Fallingbostel. The largest safari park in Europe, the Serengeti Park is a top attraction for visitors to the area. It features 4 zones: Animal World, an open safari park which can be toured by car or bus; Water World, with a mix of water rides, whitewater rafting, pedal boats and more, as well as lakes of waterfowl; Monkey World, with safari tours through the terrain, and Leisure World, a fairground and leisure complex with high rope course, baby park and play parks for children. Pricey, but a great day out for families.
Walsrode World Bird Park(Vogel Park), in Walsrode. The world's largest bird park and one of the top ten zoos in the world for numbers of species, this park is a must for families and quite reasonably priced as one of the area's major attractions.
International Wind- and Watermill Museum(Wind- und Wassermühlen-Museum) in Gifhorn
Hankensbüttel Otter Centre, in Gifhorn. A great place to relax and enjoy wildlife. As well as otters, there are polecats, minks, otter hounds, badgers and much more besides. Well worth a detour.
The SnowDome at Bispingen
Snow Dome Bispingen, in Bispingen. Go skiing all year round at this superb indoor ski slope equipped with a 300 metre slope and snowboard park served by a six-seater chairlift. Children's slope. Ski and snowboard hire. Shop. Bavarian-style restaurant. Equally good for warming up before a skiing holiday or just for a fun day out.
Unsurprisingly many of the local dishes and delicacies are simple farm fare rather than haute cuisine. Asparagus (Spargel) is a particular favourite and much is made locally of it when it comes into season around May with many restaurants offering a separate asparagus menu.
Very typical of the Heath are Heidschnuckenbraten or mutton chops from the local moorland sheep, the Heidschnucke. Very tasty, but more like venison or beef than lamb.
Of course, being an area with a strong hunting tradition, other forms of game are common on the menus of local restaurants, especially wild boar (Wildschwein), venison (Hirsch) and hare (Hase).
Buckwheat is the basis of the delicious local cake with cranberry cream filling known as Buchweizentorte.
As well as the usual beers, restaurants and bars sell shandy known in North Germany as Alsterwasser after the lakes in Hamburg and no doubt a pejorative reference to its relatively low alcohol content.
The Germans like their local distilleries and the Heath is no exception. Especially potent and sold in tiny bottles (25 ml) as well as larger sizes, are Ratzeputz, a strong ginger-based liqueur from Celle, and Heidegeist a minty, 50% proof spirit from the Heath itself.
If you're based in the Lüneburg Heath, here are some suggestions for day excursions:
Holstein Switzerland(Holsteinische Schweiz) – just an hour north of Hamburg is an expansive lake district nestling like a hidden jewel amongst the hills and fields of Holstein. Take a cruise on Lake Plön or a tour around Eutin Castle. Hire a bicycle and just explore the lakes.
Hamburg – Tour Germany's biggest port by boat, stroll round the Alster Lakes, visit the Warehouse Quarter (Speicherstadt) and HafenCity, where an industrial wasteland has been converted into a posh shopping district. Or check out the Hamburger Kunsthalle, one of Germany's biggest art museums.
Bremen – Visit the Marktplatz, one of the most beautiful market squares in Germany, walk down the tiny lane of Böttcherstraße, educate yourself at the Overseas Museum or take a tour of the port by boat.
Hanover – Shop in the capital of Lower Saxony, devastated by the war, but completely rebuilt. Follow the red line guided tour around all the important sites - you can even get a recorded commentary in English. Enjoy the wildlife at Hanover Zoo. And don't forget to visit the amazing Herrenhausen Gardens!
Harz Mountains – if you want a change of scenery, head for the Harz with its breathtaking ravines, rocky crags, castles and spruce-covered slopes. Mining museums recall the days when the wealth of the Kingdom of Hanover was underpinned by silver mined in these hills. Go canoeing, mountain biking, climbing or just chill out with a beer by a mountain lake or enjoy a coffee in a former mining village.