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- World heritage sites
From Romanesque to Gothic to Renaissance and from Baroque to Rococo – Germany has fantastic examples of architectural styles common north of the Alps. The following World Heritage sites give insight into the brilliance of the architects and artists working on these exceptional architectural structures of Germany.
1. Cologne Cathedral
It's fun to watch first-time visitors emerging out of Cologne's main station and standing still in awe of the massive, dark bulk and the spiky flying buttresses of the Kölner Dom cathedral, towering 157 metres high in front of them; so close that it's perfectly feasible to do a quick visit between trains. After starting construction in 1248, it took well over six hundred years to finish the world-famous cathedral – much longer than the 160 years between the invention of steam engines to the opening of Cologne's station. But it was well worth the wait. Even when the massive towers were added in the 19th century, the architects stuck to the spirit and techniques of the original medieval plans, making this church a Gothic masterpiece unlike any other. The oldest section is the choir to the rear with astonishing 14th-century art: carved oak stalls, painted screens, statues, archbishops' tombs and the great cycle of stained-glass windows. Other treasures include the golden Shrine of the Three Kings, the Milan Madonna statue and the large Gero-Kreuz crucifix.
How to get there
2. Margravial Opera House in Bayreuth
The astonishing five hundred-seat auditorium of Bayreuth's Baroque opera theatre, with wooden Italian-style tiered loges and illusionistic painted canvas, is even more special for being completely original, the roof, facade and stage remaining unchanged since the curtains were first raised in 1748. Novel prefabrication methods allowed theatre architect Giuseppe Galli Bibiena to finish his masterpiece in just five years. Margravine Wilhelmine had it built as one of the first free-standing court theatres rather than a palace theatre, foreshadowing the trend of independent public theatres. Witnessing a performance here with the original acoustics of the 18th century is magical, but otherwise it's possible to visit on tours of the building.
How to get there
Bayreuth is 80km north of Nuremberg, an hour's drive or train ride away.
3. Quedlinburg church, castle and old town
This well-preserved medieval town doesn't just have streets full of enchanting half-timbered houses, Quedlinburg also has all the elements that demonstrate the development of a typical town: an impressive castle hill that was the core of the original village and several parish churches that were incorporated into the town and surrounded by the town walls in 1330. The Collegiate Church of St Servatius within the castle walls towers over Quedlinburg, and is a fine example of Romanesque architecture. As the capital of the East Franconian German Empire, the town flourished and added many more half-timbered buildings during the boom years of the 17th century. Near the Harz mountains, Quedlinburg makes a good base for hiking and biking, taking steam trains across the hills and visiting other chocolate-box towns.
How to get there
Quedlinburg is 60km southwest of Magdeburg, 1.5 hours by train or car.
4. Bremen's town hall and Roland statue
As a cosmopolitan trading centre between the North Sea and the hinterland, Bremen was always a proud city, so it's fitting that two symbols of civic pride, autonomy and sovereignty have been added to the World Heritage List. The grand 15th-century town hall, originally Gothic but later renovated in local Weser-Renaissance style, is the last remaining original town hall in Europe from that period. The ground-floor hall with oak pillars was used for trade and theatre, while upstairs the richly decorated main hall has Gothic-era statues and Renaissance decorations. The large vaulted basement houses Germany's oldest barrel of wine, dating back to 1635 and apparently tasting more like sherry nowadays, and the Ratskeller restaurant which dishes out hearty north-German meals. The Roland statue on the market square outside the town hall is 5.5 metres tall, dates back to 1404, and represents the rights and privileges of the free and imperial city of Bremen. Bremen is a fun city to visit and the expressionist-style Böttcherstrasse, the medieval Schnoor quarter and the riverfront are well worth seeing as well.
How to get there
It takes around an hour to reach Bremen from Hamburg by train, or just under two hours by car.
5. Pilgrimage Church of Wies
This story starts in tears. Legend goes that in 1738, in the foothills of the Alps, tears were seen on a wooden figure of Christ. Word of the miracle spread, and soon a flood of pilgrims from across Europe were making their way to pray in Wies. Starchitect Dominikus Zimmermann was given the job of building a sanctuary to replace the wooden field chapel, and his perfect Rococo masterpiece was finished in 1754. Harmoniously set in an Alpine valley, the oval church is flooded with light inside, and is smothered with overwhelming clouds of stucco, marble, angels, frescoes and a trompe-l'œil ceiling – all bringing across the central message of sacrifice and redemption. Pilgrims still visit Wies, and the church also stands as a monument to centuries of cultural and religious traditions.