7 of the most unusual World Heritage sites in Germany

Jeroen van Marle

written by
Jeroen van Marle

updated 03.05.2024

Some of the many World Heritage Sites in Germany are distinct and unusual. What to think of a Modernist coal mine, a medieval water system or the remains of a Viking town? These spots nevertheless offer up some surprising lessons about society in times gone by. Here are seven of the most unusual World Heritage Sites in Germany.

1.  The Messel Pit fossil site

With the dinosaurs safely out of the way after their unfortunate extinction, it was the mammals' turn. During the Eocene, around 48 million years ago, mammals evolved rapidly and became established in all principal land ecosystems. The Messel Pit (Grube Messel), a former quarry, is the one of the best fossil sites in the world. It has contributed invaluable knowledge about the evolution and environment of primates, birds and insects.

Over one thousand species of animals and plants have been found sandwiched between layers of oil shale so far. Many of them are exceptionally well preserved fossils, with full skeletons, feathers, skin, hair and even stomach contents. 

The visitor centre has views over the pit and offers tours to active fossil excavation sites, where you can try your luck finding a fossil yourself. The most spectacular fossil finds can be viewed at museums in Messel town, Darmstadt and Frankfurt (at the Senckenberg Museum).

How to get there

The Messel Pit is accessible by train. Take the train to Darmstadt Ostbahnhof  and you will be a 12 minute walk away. Otherwise, you can catch a bus in Darmstadt that will drop you directly at the visitor centre.

Primeval horse from the Messel Pit Fossil Site

Primeval horse from the Messel Pit Fossil Site © GNTB

2. Völklingen Ironworks

Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but not many people expect to see a rusty industrial complex like the Völklingen Ironworks listed on the World Heritage List. However, this particular factory is the only intact example of an integrated pig-iron blast-furnace complex in the world, which employed 17,000 workers in the 1960s.

Pig iron is a brittle, high-carbon form of iron produced by smelting iron ore with coke in a blast furnace, used as a raw material for making steel and other iron products.

The ironworks, which were constructed in different phases from 1881 to 1935 and operated until 1986, showcase the entire process of producing pig iron, from handling raw materials to operating blast furnaces. 

Many of the technological advancements pioneered here have been adopted globally, making the ironworks a significant symbol of human progress during the Industrial Revolution. Nowadays, visitors can explore the factory through a walkway that winds around its main sections, and the spacious halls are utilized for various events such as exhibitions, theater performances, and concerts. Special tours can be arranged through the visitor center.

How to get there

The Ironworks are just a give minute walk from Völklingen train station. You can transfer here easily from Saarbrücken Hoptbahnhof. 

Völklingen: Völklinger Hütte

Völklingen Ironworks © GNTB/Francois Thierens

3. Zollverein 

The remarkable Zollverein industrial complex, employing up to 6900 workers before it closed in 1986, is a monument to the evolution of coal mining. It retains all installations of a historical mining site, from the pits, coking plants, railway lines and pit heaps to the miner’s housing and welfare facilities.

What makes this mine special however is the magnificent 1930s functional Bauhaus design of the buildings, with red bricks, large windows and red steel trusses, which combine form and function. The visitor centre offers various tours through the complex, which also houses the museum of the Ruhr area. While here don't miss the excellent Red Dot Design Museum, with over 2000 exhibits.

How to get there

You can reach Zollverien directly by tram or bus via the stops: Zollverein, Kulturlinie and Zollverein-Nord.

Essen: Architecture by SANAA at the heritage-protected colliery Zollverein

Architecture by SANAA at the heritage-protected colliery, Zollverein © Lookphotos/Guenther Bayerl

4. The Limes

The Limes refers to the border fortifications and defensive structures built and maintained by the ancient Romans to protect their empire. 

Stretching over 550 kilometers (340 miles), this frontier system, known as the Limes Germanicus, once served as a vital defense against Germanic tribes. Exploring its remnants, including watchtowers, forts, and sections of walls, provides a tangible connection to the strategic military infrastructure of ancient Rome. 

 A signposted road route, biking and hiking trail follows the Limes, passing museums and many original and reconstructed border defences and fortresses. Here you can walk along reconstructed segments, and marvel at the ingenuity of Roman engineering.

Limesstraße - Main gate of Saalburg Roman fort (83 AD) in Bad Homburg

Limesstraße - Main gate of Saalburg Roman fort (83 AD) in Bad Homburg © GNTB/Gregor Dinghauser

5. The water management system of Augsburg

Perhaps an unlikely candidate for a World Heritage Site at first glance, the extensive and sustainable water management system of Augsburg is one of the oldest in Germany, dating back to the 14th century. 

It is comprised of a clever network of canals, water towers, pumps, hydroelectric power stations, a water-cooled butchers’ hall, three monumental fountains and a completely separate drinking water system.

The technical innovations required for this system made Augsburg a pioneer in hydraulic engineering and the derived benefits of plentiful and clean water, cheap electricity and expertise formed the foundation of Augsburg's prosperity. Twenty-two water management sights along the waterways can be visited with information from the Augsburg tourism office, which also organizes guided tours.

How to get there

Augsburg is 75km (45 miles) west of Munich, taking 30 minutes by train or an hour by car.

Herkules Fountains, part of Augsburg's water management system © Lookphotos/Guenther Bayerl

6. Hedeby or Haithabu

In Viking times, Hedeby – or Haithabu – was one of the most important trading towns in northern Europe, on the crossroads of the Frankish Empire and the Danish Kingdom. Later, in the 10th century, the town was incorporated in the Danevirke, a system with defence works, a harbour and settlements that stretched from the North to the Baltic Sea.

Nothing of the town is visible today apart from the semicircular defence wall. However, excavations have unearthed well-preserved foundations, roads, cemeteries, shipwrecks and artefacts from near and far. This helped interpret developments in Europe during the Viking age. The Viking Museum Haithabu, near the site, has a collection of original artefacts, rune stones, a royal ship and a reconstructed Viking village. Further inland, the Danevirke Museum is close to the main rampart and fortress of the defence system.

How to get there

Hedeby is 3 kilometres (2 miles) east, 5 minutes by bus, from Schleswig's station. Dannewerk – with the Danevirke Museum – is 4 kilometres (2.5 miles) to the west.

Hedeby Viking colony finds near Busdorf © Beate Zoellner/Ostseefjord Schleswig GmbH

7. The Erzgebirge/Krusnohori Mining Region

The Ore Mountains ( Erzgebirge) on the German-Czech border have been mined for metals since the Middle Ages. Today, 22 mining landscapes and sights related to eight hundred years of continuous mining  are grouped into one World Heritage Site. 

Over the centuries, silver, tin, cobalt and uranium were the main ores of interest, their exploitation requiring countless technical innovations and inventions. These span from mining, water management, metal processing and smelting, as well as education, science and finance.

Especially silver brought wealth and change to the region, and for a century the Ore Mountains were the main source of silver in Europe. Many of these World Heritage Sites can be entered, and are set in a lovely mountainous landscape with attractive towns like Annaberg and Schneeberg, and plenty of opportunity for hikes in between mining excursions.

How to get there

The Ore Mountains in southern Saxony are about 100km from Dresden and are best explored by car. While you're there don't miss Saxony’s most spellbinding palaces and castles.

Hiking in the Montanregion Erzbegirge © Tourist Office Erzgebirge e.V./Renée Gaens

Planning your trip to Germany

Why not skip the hours research it takes to plan a great holiday, and leave the details to us instead? Our tailor made trip service takes care of the planning and booking for you. Our trips are created by local travel experts and are completely customisable.

  • Explore Saxony (8 days): One of Europe’s most versatile destinations for art and culture.
  • Best of Germany (12 days) : Enjoy guided tours in Berlin and Dresden, followd by Schloss Neuschwanstein, and the Black Forest.
  • Self drive from the Rhine Valley to Bavaria (7 days): Explore the heart of Germany on a road trip from Heidelberg to Rothenburg to Nuremberg, concluding in Munich. 

Or browse our other existing itineraries for inspiration.

Jeroen van Marle

written by
Jeroen van Marle

updated 03.05.2024

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