The placid university town of BONN was “provisional” capital of West Germany for fifty years, from 1949 until the Bundestag and many government departments began relocating to Berlin in 1999. Bonn was dubbed “Federal Capital Village” for the sheer improbability of its choice as capital; likelier candidates included Frankfurt, which even built a parliament building to fulfil its anticipated role. But Bonn prevailed, and it was changed by the experience, so that by the time the federal government moved to Berlin it was no longer quite the “small town in Germany” of John Le Carré’s Cold War spy story. The two houses of the German parliament may no longer reside here, but several ministries do, along with the United Nations and the headquarters of Deutsche Telekom, T Mobile and Deutsche Post.
Bonn’s pleasant, traffic-free Altstadt benefits from its associations with Ludwig van Beethoven, who was born here, while the setting – at the beginning of a particularly scenic stretch of the Rhine – is a delight, and easily explored on foot, but the modern city stretches far along the Rhine. Sandwiched between the city proper and its spa-town suburb of Bad Godesberg is the old government quarter, the Bundesviertel, and its strip of modern museums along the so-called Museumsmeile, planned before the Berlin Wall fell but which, in the event, proved to be a generous goodbye present to the city. Facing Bonn across the Rhine are the inviting, wooded hills of the Siebengebirge – a hugely popular destination for walkers and day-trippers alike, right on Bonn’s doorstep.Read More
From the Hofgarten, a boulevard named for three of Germany’s political giants leads south through the Bundesviertel or former government district. It begins as Adenauer Allee, continues as Willy-Brandt-Allee and then becomes Friedrich-Ebert-Allee, named after the Weimar-era socialist who was Germany’s first democratic president.
The western side of this avenue constitutes the Museumsmeile, an impressive strip of museums that ensures Bonn’s heavy-hitter status among Germany’s cultural centres.
The first museum on Museumsmeille is the Museum Koenig, a stately sandstone pile that was the venue for the first elected postwar national assembly on September 1, 1948. The museum’s zoological exhibits have been given a child-friendly makeover, though the lack of English labelling limits its rainy-day appeal slightly – pick up the English-language leaflet at the entrance. Displays are grouped by habitat and include African savanna, rainforest and the Arctic; the Vivarium in the basement has live lizards, snakes and fish, as well as the Zwergmaus – a particularly tiny rodent.
Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland
A little way to the south of Museum Koenig, the Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland charts the history of the Federal Republic of Germany in a lively and entertaining way; as you leave the U-Bahn the first thing you see is the luxurious railway carriage used by chancellors Konrad Adenauer and Ludwig Erhard but originally built for Nazi bigwig, Hermann Göring. Rubble marks the start of the story in 1945, with grim footage of concentration camps and of destroyed German cities; it continues through the beginnings of democratic politics and of artistic rebirth to the 1950s Wirtschaftswunder – the “economic miracle” – the Cold War and division of Germany, and moves finally to the period post-1989.
A recent revamp to the exhibition has put the years of division in stronger focus, with an examination of the way both halves of Germany were bound into opposing ideological camps. Along with the political developments post-1989, recent German history is also examined in the light of globalization, the life of migrant groups and the increasing deployment of German forces overseas. It’s not all dry politics by any means: along the way, fun exhibits like the 1950s-style ice -cream parlour lighten the mood. Labelling is now in English as well as German.
The most architecturally refined of the area’s museums is the Kunstmuseum Bonn, whose starkly beautiful modernist interior provides a fitting home for its collection of works by August Macke and the Rhine Expressionists. Macke, who was born in 1887 and killed in action in France in 1914, grew up in Bonn but was no mere “regional” artist, as his gorgeous, colour-filled canvases demonstrate: poignantly, the most confident are the 1914 Tightrope Walker and Turkish Café. The museum has a substantial collection of post-1945 German art, with works by heavyweights including Gerhard Richter, Georg Baselitz and Joseph Beuys; a recent re-hang has given stronger emphasis to photography, video installation and film.
Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland
The Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland next door to the Kunstmuseum provides a venue for large-scale touring art exhibitions and is big enough to host several simultaneously. Don’t miss the striking roof garden, dominated by three ceramic-clad light spires.
Deutsches Museum Bonn
The Deutsches Museum Bonn is a resolutely contemporary museum of science and technology whose themed displays allow you to find out how a car airbag works, learn about medical research and see various Nobel Prize-winning discoveries. There’s also a Transrapid hoverrail train.