Jugendstil, the German version of Art Nouveau, is the reason most people visit DARMSTADT, thanks to Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig (1868–1937), under whose aegis the remarkable Mathildenhöhe artistic colony flourished in the years before World War I. Nowadays it boasts of its scientific as well as its artistic credentials; students at the Technische Universität ensure an easygoing nightlife, while Darmstadt is popular with families downshifting from the hurly-burly of Frankfurt. The laidback ambience is infectious; in summer a day or two here is liable to induce a certain feel-good languor.
Darmstadt lost its Altstadt to a nightmarish 1944 air raid, and its bland central shopping streets can safely be skipped in favour of the cluster of monuments around the Schloss and Herrngarten. The most significant attraction, Mathildenhöhe, is to the east, while south of the centre there are more formal gardens in Bessungen. Away from the main sights, much of Darmstadt – particularly the districts fringing its parks – has a villagey charm.
Darmstadt is a good base for forays into the unspoilt southern Hesse countryside, much of which forms part of the Geo-Naturpark Bergstrasse-Odenwald. To the east, the city gives way to woodland and a remarkable archeological site, the Grube Messel. To the south, the Bergstrasse passes through one of Germany’s mildest climate zones on its way to Heidelberg. Protected from easterly winds by the Odenwald uplands, the region produces almonds, cherries, peaches and apricots, and in spring is a profusion of blossom. The major attraction, however, is Charlemagne’s abbey at Lorsch.