Simply put, this article is a list of superlatives. Visiting these six German World Heritage sites – from ancient buildings to mining regions and cracking culture – will open your eyes to Germany's history in a way like no other.
There's no better way to enter Trier than through the enormous Porta Nigra. This city gate – dating from the 2nd century – was built with huge stones that have been blackened by time. It is flanked by two towers, and was conceived as both fortification and palace, being converted into a double church 850 years later – making it a symbol of Europe’s historical development. Trier, on the Moselle river near the Luxembourg border, began as a Roman colony in the 1st century, went on to become a major Roman trading and administrative centre.
Today, it has the most and best-preserved Roman buildings north of the Alps. Other striking examples include the basilica, Emperor Constantine's throne room, which has the largest interior space dating from Classical times, the monumental Imperial Baths and a 30-metre-high Roman burial monument in nearby Igel. Trier's castle-like Cathedral was started in the 4th century, making it the oldest church in Germany, while next door the Gothic Basilica of Our Lady (from 1243) is the oldest Gothic church in the country; both are on the World Heritage List for their stunning old architecture.
Trier is 130km southwest of Koblenz (1.5 hours by train), best approached by rail or road along the looping Moselle Valley. The Igel Column is 15 minutes away by train.
Watery locations allow for the perfect preservation of archeological material, and this World Heritage Site comprises the remains of dozens of small prehistoric pile-dwelling settlements strung along lakes and rivers around the Alps. Built around 2500 to 7000 years ago, excavations of these stilt houses have revealed a wealth of information about early agrarian societies in the Neolithic and Bronze Age.
The study of the submerged pile stumps and finds like flint, gold, amber, pottery, tools, canoes, some of the oldest wooden wheels in the world and even Europe's oldest textile allow us to understand how the villages of various prehistoric cultural groups functioned, interacted with their environment and traded. The family-friendly Pile Dwelling museum (Pfahlbaumuseum) at Unteruhldingen, founded in 1922 and the oldest open-air museum in the world, has 23 reconstructed stilt houses built on the lake, 500 metres north of the most significant archeological site in Germany.
Unteruhldingen is on the north coast of Lake Constance and can be reached by ferry from Konstanz, with a dozen departures per day.
Copper, tin, silver and lead ore has been mined below the Harz mountains for some three thousand years. Rammelsberg mine, now a museum, is the oldest in Europe and was in continuous operation from the 11th century until as recently as 1988. Nearby Goslar became one of the seats of the Holy Roman Empire, and the 900-year-old Kaiserpfalz Imperial Palace, the residence of kings and emperors for two centuries, is a must-see.
Goslar’s beautifully preserved medieval centre shows off its mining wealth with its 1500 timber-framed houses. Early on, the mines needed to control ground and surface water, and over the centuries a pioneering water-management system was built over a huge area, including artificial ponds, drains, underground shafts and water wheels.
There's a brand new visitor centre dedicated to the World Heritage sites at the ruined 1127 Cistercian abbey of Walkenried, 60km south of Goslar, where monks transformed the marshy landscape by creating 365 ponds. Two further visitor centres are set to open in Goslar and Clausthal-Zellerfeld in 2021. This Heritage site is great for a visit in winter – Goslar’s Christmas market is fantastic, there’s skiing in the mountains, and the temperature down in the mine shafts still feels positively balmy.
Goslar is 90km southeast of Hanover, an hour by train or car. Rammelsberg can be reached from Goslar in around 10 minutes by car or taxi.
You know you’re looking at something special when a museum building is worth the trip in itself – let alone when five such museums, dating from 1824 to 1930, are crammed together on an island in the heart of Europe's most exciting capital city. The unique ensemble of buildings on Berlin’s Museum Island (Museumsinsel) and their outstanding collections reflects the evolution of more than one hundred years of modern museum design.
Built by the star architects of the time in Neoclassical, Neo-renaissance and Neo-baroque styles, all the museums have been subject to major renovation works in recent years. The Altes Museum from 1830 with its classical antiquities, is the oldest on the island. The Neues Museum from 1855, for years a bombed-out shell but renovated to retain its war wounds, now houses the Egyptian collection with the world-famous bust of Queen Nefertiti.
The Acropolis-like Alte Nationalgalerie (1876) contains Neoclassical and Romantic art, while the elegant Bodemuseum (1904) at the tip of the island has impressive collections of sculptures and coins. The Pergamonmuseum from 1930 (scheduled to reopen in 2023) is the star attraction, holding the magnificent Pergamon Altar, Babylon’s Ishtar Gate and a fine collection of Islamic Art.
The island also houses the bulky Berlin Cathedral and the controversial reconstructed Berliner Schloss palace which will open in stages from late 2020, hosting the ethnological collection and a museum about Berlin.
Museum Island is easily visited by all forms of public transport in Berlin.
The monk Martin Luther caused a religious, political and cultural revolution – with global consequences – when in 1517 he questioned many Catholic teachings by putting the emphasis on personal faith while rejecting the practice of selling indulgences to cancel sins. His influence grew and the movement known as the Protestant Reformation spread rapidly across Europe after he nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the portal of Wittenberg's castle church.
He made the New Testament accessible to everyone by translating it from Latin into German, popularized hymns and even married a former nun. Memorials related to Luther and his collaborator Philipp Melanchthon include their homes in Wittenberg and Eisleben and the town church and the All Saints castle church of Wittenberg. Luther's birth house in Eisleben was to become Germany's first ever museum and remains one of the oldest in the world.
Wittenberg is 100km south of Berlin, an hour by train or 1.5 hours by car. Eisleben lies another 120km to the southwest, near Halle.
Set on a high hill in the forests of Thuringia, majestic Wartburg Castle is an important symbol of Germany, as well as being an exceptional historical monument, with both extensive original features and 19th-century reconstructions.The castle was not only home to the legendary Saint Elizabeth, but it was also here that Luther translated the Bible.
In fact, the first German literature has been linked to the castle, which also played a key role in the beginnings of the German nation. Originally dating from the 12th century, Wartburg Castle is one of the best-preserved secular German buildings from the time. An audio tour leads you through the halls and rooms; come early to avoid the rush as Wartburg is an immensely popular destination. The hike to the charming medieval town of Eisenach at the foot of the hill passes through impressive canyons.
Eisenach is 200km northeast of Frankfurt, 2 hours by train or car. Buses from near the station run to Wartburg.
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This content was created in partnership with the German National Tourism Board.