Germany’s cultural and intellectual history is as captivating as it is wide reaching. From Ice Age art to Roman defences, Viking settlements to modern museums, a wealth of World Heritage sites bring Germany’s long and varied history to life.
Berlin’s SpreeInsel, the island on the River Spree, is famed for the gathering of museums in the Museumsinsel (Museum Island), a World Heritage site since 1999. The museums were built during the 19th century as a result of a decree by Friedrich Wilhem III, who wanted the royal art collections to be made accessible to the public. They really took off when German explorers and archeologists returned with bounty from the Middle East. Despite war losses and Soviet looting, some of the world’s finest museums reside here, and are becoming ever greater, thanks to a large-scale reorganization and a new all-glass entrance building, the James Simon Gallery.
The first to be opened, in 1830, was the Altes Museum (Old Museum). Its beautiful neoclassical rooms house the collection of classical antiquities. The reconstructed Neues Museum (New Museum), reopened after painstaking restoration works by British architect David Chipperfield, hosts the Egyptian art collection. The star of the show is the 3300-year-old Bust of Queen Nefertiti, a treasure that’s become a city symbol.
The Alte Nationalgalerie is a grandiose interpretation of a Corinthian temple that houses a museum of European art from the 18th to the 20th centuries, particularly strong on 19th-century German Romantics, such as Liebermann, though it also has great works by Cézanne, Rodin, Monet and Degas.
The massive Pergamonmuseum, built in the style of a Babylonian temple, is home to the city’s vast Middle Eastern treasures. The highlight here is the Pergamon Altar – a huge structure depicting a furious battle between the Gods and the Titans – as well as the enormous deep-blue-tiled Ishtar Gate, a 6th-century processional way from Babylon, and the impressive marble Market Gate of Miletus.
The neo-baroque Bode Museum hosts one of Europe’s most impressive sculpture collections as well as Byzantine art and around half a million coins of the city’s Numismatic Collection.
The Berliner Dom is Museum Island’s most striking building, a hulking symbol of Imperial Germany that managed to survive the GDR. Its vault houses ninety sarcophagi containing the remains of various Hohenzollern royalty, the dynasty that bequeathed these glorious treasures to the world.
The Swabian Jura is located in the eastern part of Baden-Württemberg. It’s a thinly populated agricultural region with wonderful limestone scenery that affords fantastic hiking opportunities. Another highlight are the caves containing Ice Age artefacts, which were added to the World Heritage list in 2017.
When the first modern humans arrived in Europe around 43,000 years ago, some decided to settle in the sheltered caves of the Aach and Lone valleys in the Swabian Jura. Excavated since the 1860s, so far more than fifty artefacts made of ivory or bone – dating between 35,000 and 43,000 years ago – have been found. Some were utensils used in daily life, but archeologists also unearthed a collection of carved figures, jewellery and musical instruments – a testimony to the advanced skills of these first modern settlers.
Most of these artefacts depict the local glacial fauna: woolly mammoths, bisons and bears, including the ivory mammoth unearthed in the Vogelherd cave. But intriguingly there are also depictions of creatures half-human half-animal, such as the lion-man from the Hohlenstein-Stadel, or Löwenmensch. Another exceptional discovery was the Venus of the Hohle Fels cave, also made of woolly mammoth tusk and thought to be the oldest depiction of a human being. Her enhanced feminine assets are understood to represent a goddess of fertility, causing speculation that these could be the earliest signs of religious beliefs ever recorded. Bone flutes found in the caves are the oldest musical instruments to date and indicate that these Upper Paleolithic men and women were already making music. The nearby Ulmer Museum and Prehistoric Museum of Blaubeuren are the places to go to admire these remarkable finds.
Though modest in size, Weimar is the spiritual capital of German culture. From the mid-18th century, Weimar was the hub of the German Enlightenment – a movement heralding tolerance, humanism and education for the masses – spearheaded by the aesthete Duke Karl August, and its former residents read like a who’s who of German arts. It is, above all, Goethe and Schiller who are associated with Weimar and the great literary epoch known as Weimar Classicism, now part of World Cultural Heritage.
Goethe’s house, on the Frauenplan, still looks as if the great poet has just popped out and will be back any minute. He was given the house by Karl August and lived here for fifty years until his death in 1832, penning his crowning achievement, Faust, here. The library’s 6500 volumes are still arranged according to Goethe’s system and there are myriad objets d’art collected from his Italian travels. It wasn’t all work though, and he liked to indulge in a beer or two at Zum Weissen Schwan opposite – still open today. Goethe had another residence, also a gift from the duke, the riverside Gartenhaus, where he and his wife spent some of their happiest days.
The Schillerhaus is where the dramatist lived for the last three years of his life, and where he wrote his William Tell. More modest than Goethe’s house, the permanent exhibition “Schiller in Thuringia” gives a great overview of his life and work.
Duke Karl August’s wife was the equally erudite Duchess Anna Amalia, and her library is housed in the Grünes Schloss. Restored after a severe fire in 2004 that destroyed 50,000 tomes and damaged 93,000 others, the Rococo library is once more an exquisitely sensuous Gesamtkunstwerk (complete work of art), housing one the world’s finest collection of German Enlightenment manuscripts (limited entrance).
Weimar is not just a pretty city-museum, it’s also host to the popular “Weimar Summer” festival of open-air concerts, theatre and exhibitions, as well as the hugely popular onion festival in October. The latter attracts crowds of 350,000 plus for three days of revelry around food and beers stalls, concerts and onions aplenty.
The Romans under Emperor Augustus planned to annex troublesome Germania, but after a disastrous defeat, the Romans opted to withdraw and accept the Rhine and the Danube as the frontier of the empire. They secured their territory by building a 550km line of fortifications – forts, watchtowers, walls and palisades – known as the Limes, linking the two rivers. Theatres, public baths, roads, bridges and villas were also built along this distant frontier in order to make life more bearable for the Romans in remote Germania.
The Deutsche Limes-Strasse runs from Bad Hönningen on the Rhine near Koblenz to the Eining fort on the Danube, not far from Regensburg, connecting more than eighty towns. The route passes through the Taunus hills and the Westerwald forest, where moats and ramparts are the best-preserved and most visible vestiges.
Highlights along the route include the reconstructed Roman fort at Saalburg in Bad Homburg, which provides a vivid impression of what a lonely military outpost of the empire might have actually looked like. There’s also the Roman Museum in Osterburken, with its Mithras altar, and the comprehensive Limes Museum in Aalen, which presents military and civilian life on the Limes. Exhibits include numerous excavation finds on the fort site in Aalen and Rainau Buch where various special events take place every year. Another important stop on the route is the Roman Museum in Weissenburg with its collections of archeological finds, Roman baths and the Limes information centre.
The Upper Germanic-Rhaetian Limes is listed as a World Heritage Site as part of a wider network called Frontiers of the Roman Empire, of which Hadrian’s Wall in Britain is the most significant part, and also includes Scotland’s Antonine Wall. It doesn’t undermine in any way its status as a wonderful treasure trove of Roman legacy in Germany.
The 16th-century Protestant Reformation which divided the Christian Church was originated by one Martin Luther, and his aura still permeates the towns of Lutherstadt Eisleben and Lutherstadt Wittenberg today, where all Reformation memorials were declared World Heritage sites in 1996.
The reformer was born and died in Eisleben. It became a place of pilgrimage as early as 1689 when it started preserving its Luther-related landmarks and finally renamed itself Lutherstadt Eisleben in 1946. Luthers Geburtshaus, where Luther was born in 1483, is now a modern museum showcasing memorabilia including valuable old Bibles and retables.
At the centre of Eisleben’s compact old town is the Marktplatz, where a large bronze of Luther stands proudly on a plinth decorated with scenes from his life. The Gothic St Andreaskirche is where Luther delivered his last four sermons. Nearby is the Luthers Sterbehaus, a late-Gothic patrician house where he died in 1546; on display here is a copy of his death mask.
The neat little town of Wittenberg also renamed itself Lutherstadt Wittenberg, and basks in the glory of its golden era by celebrating the homes, workplaces and graves of the cast of characters who triggered the Reformation, including professor and theologian Philipp Melanchthon and painter and printmaker Lucas Cranach the Elder.
Luther’s and Melanchthon’s houses are open to the public. The Lutherhaus is set within the Augustinian monastery that Luther entered upon arrival in the city in 1508. It’s now the largest museum in the world dedicated to the Reformation. Among its treasures are first editions of Luther’s books and priceless oils by Cranach. The nearby Stadtkirche was Luther’s family church and holds a fabulous altar by Cranach depicting several Reformation figures in biblical contexts. Cranach’s house is also a museum on the work he produced to publicize the Reformation, including printing presses in the courtyard.
Last but not least is the Schlosskirche, or Castle Church, where in 1517 he nailed his 95 theses to its door. Inside the church are Luther’s and Melanchthon’s tombstones. The town’s Reformation Tag, or Reformation Day festival, celebrates the publication of the theses on 31st October.
Richard Wagner casts a long shadow over Bayreuth. For most of the world Bayreuth and Wagner are synonymous, but the town owes more to the passions of another remarkable individual, Wilhelmine – the Prussian king’s daughter and favourite sister of Frederick the Great and wife of Margrave Friedrich von Brandenburg-Kulmbach. Educated Wilhelmine wanted to bring worldly sophistication to Bayreuth, embarking on an extravagant building programme.
Wilhelmine’s cultural ambitions were nurtured with more than a backward glance at her beloved brother’s court in Berlin. If Frederick the Great entertained Voltaire, then so must she, and if Berlin had an opera house then, too, must Bayreuth. Only the best would do: and she commissioned the renowned Italian theatre designer Giuseppe Galli Bibiena and his son, Carlo, for the job.
The results let Bayreuth look Berlin in the eye, for the Margravial Opera House is commonly regarded as the best-preserved example of a free-standing Baroque court theatre and one of the most beautiful Baroque theatres in all Europe. Since 2012, it has also been inscribed as a World Heritage site. Built between 1746 and 1750, the handsome but relatively restrained exterior gives no hint of the opulence within. Modelled on Italian loge theatres of the era, the fully preserved tiers of loges (theatre boxes) are made primarily of wood and canvas. The ornamental sculptures glorify the Hohenzollern dynasty and of course Wilhelmine and her husband.
The Opera House was inspected – and rejected – by Wagner, but it is nevertheless still a functioning opera house. Wagner loved the town so much he built his own opera house here in 1876, and every August it is the setting of the Wagner festival.
The meticulous restoration of the Margravial Opera House that took place from 2013 to 2018 has re-established the opera house to its former glory, preserving this Baroque gem for future generations.
A great 111 pile dwellings scattered around Germany, France, Italy, Austria, Switzerland and Slovenia constitute an archeological legacy that dates back almost 7000 years. Nine pile dwellings pepper the shores of Lake Constance, in the region of Baden-Württemberg.
The pleasant district of Unteruhldingen, hugging Lake Constance north of Friedrichshafen, is best known for its museum of prehistoric dwellings, the Pfahlbau Freilichtmuseum, featuring open-air reconstructions of Stone and Iron Age dwellings, whose forms are based on archeological remains found here. The museum clearly shows how the fishermen and hunters of the Stone and Iron ages lived and worked, building their houses on stilts in order to protect themselves from their enemies and predators. A lively guided tour takes visitors on a barefoot track, while interactive Stone Age experiences transport you way back to prehistoric times.
The museum dates to the 1920s, when the area was extensively excavated. Thanks to scientific advances, the plentiful finds gave a remarkable insight into the daily lives of these early settlers and how they evolved in their environment. Textiles, dugout canoes, wagons and wheels were unearthed, and in fact the wheels found here are the oldest ever recorded in Europe, dating from 3000 BC. This paints an evocative picture of a mobile population, using vehicles to go about their fishing and farming activities.
More finds have been relocated to the Federsee Museum in Bad Buchau and the State Archaeological Museum in Constance, but this open-air museum gives context and brings the extraordinary vestiges to life.
Along the Moselle river, sitting among gentle hills, is the exquisite city of Trier. Founded in 16 BC by the Emperor Augustus, Trier is considered to be Germany’s oldest city. It is best known for having northern Europe’s greatest assemblage of Roman remains, but Trier is not a place defined entirely by its past, and the vineyards around the city, along with a large student population, help liven things up.
Trier was the residence of Diocletian, Constantine the Great and other Roman emperors. After it became a bishopric in the 4th century, the town was a centre of Christianity north of the Alps.
The Porta Nigra (2nd-century), which was once the gate of a Roman fortress, is considered the best-preserved structure of its kind north of the Alps. The gate gets its name from the dark patina that has built up on the limestone blocks. A feat of design, the entire structure is supported by its own weight and a few iron rods.
There is also the Aula Palatina, a basilica built in the 4th century as Constantine the Great’s coronation chamber, and the Roman Bridge, which is still supported by five Roman-era pylons. Also Roman are the Kaiserthermen (Imperial Baths), the largest in the Roman world. Little of the buildings remain, but their foundations and underground heating system are intact.
Nearby are the ruins of the antique amphitheatre, where 25,000 spectators once attended bloody gladiatorial battles. The Rheinisches Landesmuseum houses a wealth of Roman treasures, including mosaics, sculptures, glass and coins. Prize exhibit is the Neumagener Weinschiff, a Roman sculpture of a wine ship.
Trier is not all about the Romans. Also of note is the fortress-like St Peter’s Cathedral, one of Germany’s oldest churches in the Romanesque style (11th–12th century). Among its treasures is the 10th-century gold Portable Altar of St Andrew. Hauptmarkt (Main Market) is a picturesque square surrounded by Gothic, Renaissance and rococo buildings. And from here, it is not far to Brückenstrasse 10, the house where Karl Marx was born in 1818. From Roman emperors to Karl Marx, Trier is certainly a historical gem of a city.
Up until the 11th century, the settlement of Hedeby (now known as Haithabu in Germany) on the south bank of the Schlei river was a hub of the Viking world. Founded in 800 AD, the community flourished at the crossroads of trade routes to North Atlantic and Baltic settlements, populated by a cross section of Europeans and serving as a base for Christian missionaries to Scandinavia. Indeed, it is only due to its destruction in 1066 that the town of Schleswig emerged opposite, roots that the town celebrates with rollicking Wikingertage (Viking Days) at the end of July/early August.
Haphazard archeological excavations of the area gained momentum with the discovery of a Viking longship in 1980 – this was the impetus for the creation of the Viking Museum in Schleswig. The ship occupies one of a series of buildings; others house archeological finds that reveal the sophisticated domestic culture usually omitted in tales of rape and pillage. There are also the replica Viking dwellings built within the original village earthwork beyond. This miniature Viking open-air museum has boardwalks leading around a settlement of workshops and homesteads gathered around a civic longhouse. In summer craftsmen don Viking-style tunics and cloaks for demonstrations of trades practised in what was one of the largest crafts centres in northern Europe.
Another, more complete Viking longship is the Nydam-Boat, a 23m oak vessel built around 350 AD displayed inside the Schloss Gottorf’s Nydamhalle.
Hedeby could only flourish thanks to the defensive system of the Danevirke, a network of walls and palisades stretching for 30km from Hedeby in the east of the peninsula to the marshlands in the west. It protected the settlement from the Christian Franconian Empire in the south and the Kingdom of the Danes in the north. Remains can still be seen today and such is the importance of Hedeby and Danevirke that the complex became a World Heritage site in 2018.
The town of Bremen comprises Germany’s smallest state – a declaration of Bremeners’ independence that is a leitmotif of a 1200-year history.
There’s no better introduction to Bremen than the Marktplatz, one of the finest squares in North Germany. From the Hanseatic Cross set in cobbles to the flash patricians' houses, it is a paean to mercantile prowess in Rococo and Renaissance. When the town joined the Hanseatic League in 1358 to free itself from its ecclesiastical governors, Bremeners set about to build the Rathaus (Town Hall) and the chivalric Roland statue, both now World Heritage sites.
The Town Hall dominates the square. The Gothic original, with trademark hanseatic striped blackwork, lies beneath a flamboyant Weser Renaissance facade that makes this one of the prize buildings in North Germany. No piece is more extravagant than the balustrade. Among its allegorical images are reliefs that mock the clergy as a crowing cock with sceptre and crown, and a man riding a bishop. Rooms within live up to the looks outside: there’s an ornate Renaissance staircase; model trading-ships that salute the Hansa heritage; and in the Golden Chamber, gilded Jugendstil leather wall-hangings from Worpswede artists Heinrich Voegler.
Almost as renowned as the Town Hall is the Ratskeller, a warren of cellars that rambles beneath the Town Hall and Markt. Much admired by Romantic poets Wilhelm Hauff and Heinrich Heine, it remains the world’s foremost cellar of German wines (over 650 varieties) – you can explore for yourself on a tour, washed down with a glass of wine.
The city’s traditional hero is chivalric knight Roland, Charlemagne’s nephew and star of the medieval French epic Chanson de Roland. Since 1404, the 10m symbolic stone guardian of civic rights has stood before the Town Hall, heralding Bremen’s independence. The statue also served a more practical purpose: the distance between Roland’s knees is exactly one Bremen “elle”, a unit of measurement of the day, and local merchants came here to measure out their material. Legend says that if you rub Roland's knees, you will return to Bremen – and who wouldn’t want to?
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