7 of the most unusual World Heritage sites in Germany

written by Jeroen van Marle

updated 15.07.2021

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, or the Baroque approach to sustainable living. Here are 7 of the most unusual World Heritage sites in Germany.

1. 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 best fossil site in the world. It contributes 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 (Senckenberg Museum).

How to get there

Messel Pit is 9km east of Darmstadt; bus F/U passes Messel before dropping you near 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 German 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.

Built in stages between 1881 and 1935, and in use until 1986, the ironworks preserves installations covering every stage in the pig-iron production process, from raw materials handling to blast-furnaces. Technological innovations developed or first applied here are now in use worldwide, making the ironworks a symbol of human achievement during the Industrial Revolution. The factory has been made accessible via a walkway that curves around and through the main parts of the factory, and the large halls are now used for exhibitions, theatre productions and concerts. The visitor centre can arrange special tours.

How to get there

The ironworks is directly beside the station of Völklingen, 13km west of Saarbrücken.

Völklingen: Völklinger Hütte

Völklingen Ironworks © GNTB/Francois Thierens

3. Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex in Essen

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, combining form and function and reflecting the era of globalization. The visitor centre offers various tours through the complex, which also houses the museum of the Ruhr area and the excellent Red Dot Design Museum, with 2000 exhibits.

How to get there

Zollverein is a 20-minute bus ride from Essen Hauptbahnhof station.

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 - Frontiers of the Roman Empire

The Roman border through Europe stretched for thousands of kilometres from Britannia to the Black Sea, with walls, fortresses, watchtowers, infrastructure and civilian settlements along the whole route as a physical manifestation of Roman imperial policy.

The so-called Upper German-Rhaetian Limes, the 550-kilometre section between Rheinbrohl on the Rhine and Eining on the Danube, was built in the 2nd century, and the remains of these structures are a German World Heritage Site. The Limes introduced a complex military installation in existing societies, and formed a cultural and economic border between the Roman Empire and the Germanic tribes. A signposted road route, biking and hiking trail follows the Limes, passing museums and many original and reconstructed border defences and fortresses.

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 German World Heritage Site at first glance, the extensive and sustainable water management system of Augsburg comprises 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 – all developed from the 14th century to the present day.

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 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. The Archeological Border Complex of Hedeby and the Danevirke

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, but 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 3km east, 5 minutes by bus, from Schleswig's station. Dannewerk – with the Danevirke Museum – is 4 kilometres 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 – seventeen of those sites in Germany – are grouped into one international 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, spanning 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 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 and 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

Find out more about Germany's World Heritage gems by downloading our free eBook

GNTO-Logo-4-196x100 This content was created in partnership with the German National Tourist Board.

Jeroen van Marle

written by Jeroen van Marle

updated 15.07.2021

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