For many visitors – particularly those arriving at Frankfurt airport – Hesse is their first taste of Germany. It can be a disconcerting experience, for at first sight there’s little about Frankfurt’s steel-and-glass modernity or its easy internationalism to summon up childhood notions of a Hansel-and-Gretel Germany. Yet dig a little deeper and you’ll find reminders of the world-famous German figures who were either born here, made their home in Hesse or passed this way: of Goethe in Frankfurt; of the Brothers Grimm in Marburg and Kassel; and of St Boniface – the English bishop who became the patron saint of Germany – in Fritzlar and Fulda. In Darmstadt, meanwhile, there are reminders of Germany’s complex relationship to the British royal family.
The modern Land of Hesse was created by the occupying Americans after World War II, who joined the Prussian province of Hesse-Nassau – itself an amalgamation of the old Electorate of Hesse-Kassel, the comic-opera statelet of Hesse-Homburg and the Duchy of Nassau – to the former Grand Duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt.Confusing? Perhaps. But the complexity of its history helps explain the richness and diversity of Hesse’s attractions. If it’s big-city buzz that you crave, then Frankfurt – Germany’s fifth largest city and the financial capital of the Eurozone – has much to offer, from heavyweight museums to evocative reminders of its literary, imperial and Jewish pasts. In the south, laidback Darmstadt is unmissable for fans of Jugendstil, and also a base for visiting a brace of UNESCO World Heritage sites – the Messel fossil site and the monastery at Lorsch. The genteel spa-towns of Wiesbaden and Bad Homburg make the perfect antidote to Frankfurt’s urban stress. Away from the Rhine–Main region, Hesse is archetypal Germany, with a rolling and often forested landscape that reaches near-mountainous heights in the Taunus and Rhön.
Other than Frankfurt, the towns are mostly small, but they’re an appealing bunch, from picture-book cathedral towns such as Fritzlar, Limburg an der Lahn and Wetzlar to the proud university town of Marburg or the handsome former prince-bishopric of Fulda. Smaller than them all, yet well worth a visit, is the tiny ducal seat of Weilburg. In the north, Kassel lures visitors for the documenta contemporary art fair, but then surprises with its exceptional Baroque gardens and excellent museums.