There are regattas, and then there's Kieler Woche, or Kiel Week. Every summer, the city of Kiel, on Germany's bracing north coast, plays host to the world's largest sailing event. More than 3 million visitors pour into town to cheer on 5,000 sailors from over 50 countries, taking part in some 400 races on 11 courses. This year's event takes place from June 16 to 24 and will culminate in an epic flotilla of towering historical and military craft.
"There's a real maritime tradition here," says Sven Christensen, head of race organization for the Kieler Yacht-Club, which co-sponsors the regatta. "When you see younger people walking around, they're always carrying sailing bags, even if they're just to hold schoolbooks."
Along with the sailing, Kiel Week features concerts, carnivals and exhibitions. There are also shop-lined cobbled streets to enjoy and the bustle of Hamburg, just a short train journey away. New to Kiel Week? Here are some of the maritime must-sees.
Laboe Naval Memorial
Located on the banks of the Kiel Fjord, a 15-minute taxi ride from downtown, is the Laboe Naval Memorial (deutscher-marinebund.de). This 72-m red brick building, reminiscent of a submarine's conning tower, features an outdoor observation platform offering great views of lush countryside and kilometers of sandy coastline, with sailboats dotting the water. Completed in 1936 and rededicated in 1954, it honors sailors of all nationalities who died in both world wars. On the nearby beach is a German submarine that was used in combat during World War II. After exploring the sub's well-preserved interior, go for a stroll on the sand or try kite surfing with the locals.
The most renowned of the city's many sailing institutions remains the venerable Kieler Yacht-Club (kyc.de). Its sailors have won umpteen global events, including the Olympics and world championships. Originally established in 1887 as the Naval Regatta Association and catering to military officers, it now boasts nearly 1,500 members and is one of the most popular destinations for regatta spectators. Visitors are welcome to stay in the club's 21 guest rooms (some of the nicest in town), dine and drink at the old-fashioned clubhouse and bask in the sunshine on the deck, which overlooks the boatyard across the street.
Kiel's postrace drinking scene is famously cordial. Hot spots popular with the international sailing crowd are the Seebar (seebad-duesternbrook.com) and the Foerdeblick (foerdeblick-seit1893.de), both of which feature spectacular oceanside views. At the comfy Schiffercafé (schiffercafe-kiel.de), maritime memorabilia graces the walls and diners look onto the tall ships moored at Thiessen Dock.
Hindenburg Embankment and Kiel Canal
A 3-km ramble down the central fjord, the Hindenburg Embankment is the city's best spot to get fresh air (during Kiel Week it's also among the best places for a close-up view of the action). If you've more time on your hands, check out the 98-km Kiel Canal, which connects the North Sea to the Baltic and is one of the world's busiest man-made waterways. You can rent a bike and make a day of it, pedaling alongside massive freighters and cruise vessels.
Hamburg Fish Market
An hour away by train, Hamburg Germany's second largest city also remains rooted in maritime tradition. Its fish market (fischmarkt-hamburg.de) is only open to the public from 5 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. on Sundays but is worth it for the behind-the-scenes glimpses of seafaring life and for some of the best people-watching in Hamburg. Join the crowd in munching on the local specialty, fischbrötchen (fried-fish sandwiches).