Don’t be fooled into thinking that World Heritage sites only come in the form of old buildings and stoking skylines. Cultural legacy is just as important, and preserving Germany’s industrial heritage is firmly on the agenda. From vast mining landscapes and sprawling ironworks to complex water-management systems, Germany has frequently been at the vanguard of technological and industrial developments. These sites might not be as conventionally pretty as rows of half-timbered houses, but they are truly fascinating.
Mines of Rammelsberg, Historic Town of Goslar and Upper Harz Water Management System
With one thousand years of mining heritage, the Mines of Rammelsberg combined natural resources and human innovation to become one of the world’s largest interlinked repositories of its time. Located in the Harz region of Lower Saxony, a wealth of ore materials were discovered in the nearby mountains, where more than 30 million tonnes of tin, lead and copper were eventually extracted from the mines. This practice went on for close to a thousand years, until the mining site eventually closed in 1988.
Today, the site is a museum; upon boarding an old mining train, visitors are toured through the authentic tunnels as they are told more about the mining methods and history of the site. The Rammelsberg mines shaped and developed Goslar, a neighbouring town where Emperor Heinrich II established an imperial palace. Assemblies took place here from 1009 and Goslar remained a royal seat until the mid-13th century. With its imperial palace, ornamental carvings and decadent guildhalls, visitors today can still enjoy the rich splendour of this medieval town, with its 1500 timber-framed houses dating back to the 15th century – amongst other picturesque buildings that together create a beguiling skyline.
Also on the World Heritage Site list are the nearby Grube Samson mine, located in St Andreasberg, and the Upper Harz Water Management System. This water-management system was first developed by Cistercian monks, and was expanded into a dizzying complex of 107 ponds, 310km of ditches and 31km of waterways. It was a standout feat of irrigation technology for the time, and went on to inspire and lead by example across Europe. To find out more about the history of the water-management system, make time to visit the Cistercian monastery of Walkenried Abbey, where visitors can explore the atmospheric remains of the site.
Taken together, the mining sites and water-management system are a testament to forward-thinking techniques that have been honed and embraced throughout the ages. The best way to explore this feat of history? Choose from a network of waterside trails, which allows visitors not only a glimpse into prominent pre-industrial sites but also the wondrous beauty of the surrounding landscape.
- Best for: Spirited travellers enjoying history with a touch of industrial heritage
- Nearest major city: Goslar
- Nearest airport: Hanover
- Websites: www.rammelsberg.de and www.goslar.de
Erzgebirge Mining Region
The Erzgebirge Mining Region, located in southeastern Germany and close to the border with the Czech Republic, developed from the nearby Erzgebirge mountains (otherwise known as Saxon-Bohemian Ore mountains). The area became a prime source for mining silver, first discovered in 1168, and later, tin. Along with other raw materials such as lead, iron, lime and hard coal being discovered and extracted, this welcomed a new wave of settlers, who in turn embraced a burgeoning industry that allowed the region to thrive. In fact, the Erzgebirge mountains were the primary source of silver for a hundred years between 1460 and 1560, with mining work ongoing until 1968.
It’s the mines and water-management systems that have shaped the region’s landscape, both physically and culturally. But it’s not just the Erzgebirge area that thrived; highly trained miners emigrated to improve mining technology and share their skills across other regions.
Raw metals aside, the Erzgebirge region was also a leader in producing blue colours right up until the 18th century: the Schneeberg mining region stands testament to this. Producing cobalt blue not only benefited the likes of high-quality Meissen porcelain, but it was an internationally renowned colour: cobalt pigment from this region can be found in Venetian and Bohemian glass making, as well as Chinese porcelain. The final string to the region’s bow was uranium mining, which came into its own in the 20th century, endowing the area with even more worldwide trading success.
The mountains have developed the region – both economically and socially – since the Middle Ages, with its mining sites, transportation layouts, sustainable forestry and agricultural significance all painting a picture that visitors enjoy in the modern day. It’s an excellent hiking spot, too. And with over eight hundred years of mining history, this World Heritage Site provides a captivating insight into the ingenuity that created its facilities and structures, from its canals and railroads to smelting sites. While much of the area is well-preserved, some of the buildings have been adapted for modern-day use. Visitors will also appreciate the traditional handcrafts which are sold here: and so the region continues to thrive with its charming, village-like feel.
- Best for: Hikers, nature lovers
- Nearest major city: Dresden
- Nearest airport: Dresden
- Website: www.montanregion-erzgebirge.de
Water Management System of Augsburg
Augsburg is a leader in its field when it comes to hydraulic engineering. The water-management system of the city has developed successfully over time since the 14th century, and a number of key ideas have come to fruition here. The current system is the result of successful alterations, adaptations and processes that have been in place for more than seven hundred years; it’s rare to find a single management system that has such a rich and extensive history.
The World Heritage Site shows off the impressive water-system network in all its glory. The system is formed of water towers that date from the 15th to 17th centuries with pumping tools inside, a butchers’ hall cooled by water, three fountains, canals and hydroelectric power stations. Today, these power stations generate sustainable energy for the city.
Engineers and scholars successfully dammed and redirected the rivers Lech, Singold and Wertach so their waters could be accessed by the entire city. Augsburg is one of the top cities in Germany for its endless number of canals – it even claims more bridges than Venice in Italy, numbering more than five hundred.
The system in Augsburg introduced the separation between process and drinking water in the early days of 1545. This happened long before the hygiene of water was researched and the conclusion that contaminated water could lead to an array of harmful diseases. Today, the city produces some of the best drinking water in all Europe. Pure water even reaches a selection of the 100+ fountains dotted around Augsburg.
With an excellent water-management system, it’s unsurprising that water sports are aplenty here. Take a dip in the refreshing waters of the Eiskanal and the Proviantbach canal in the summer, while you spot other swimmers plunging into the Fribbe pool. The Alte Stadtbad, the old city pool, is one of the last Art Nouveau-inspired swimming pools in the country. If you’re looking to relax by the water, head to the Kuhsee (Cow Lake) for a drink or two, or to the Lech canals – popular places to spend an evening catching up with friends. Make sure to end your trip with a tranquil boat trip at the Augsburg city moat. Incredibly peaceful, it’s a favourite spot for locals.
- Best for: Excited engineers
- Nearest major city: Augsburg
- Nearest airport: Munich
- Website: wassersystem-augsburg.de
The city of Völklingen is famed for its truly impressive ironworks. Spread over six hectares, they are the only surviving example of smelting works dating back to the 19th and 20th centuries – the industrial Golden Age – in western Europe and North America. The ironworks were the first industrial space to be given World Heritage Site status.
The Völklingen Ironworks evoke the heyday of Germany’s industrial past in the 19th century. They stand proudly as one of the country’s grand achievements of the time, the sole example of a blast-furnace complex that displays the whole process of pig-iron production, and you can see installations which cover every stage of the process. Back in the day, 17,000 people were employed here to look after the stoves, furnaces, ovens and sintering machines.
Today, the Völklingen Ironworks provide an afternoon of adventure. A uniquely interactive experience, you can learn all about the history of the ironworks up until the present day. Delve deep into the burden shed and afterwards make your way up to the blast-furnace viewing platform. Take a look at the ore shed – its roof presents an incredible, sprawling view of the town of Völklingen below – a great spot to visit at any time of the day. Trundle down the coal track and notice the intricate spiral chute which stretches to 20 metres long. Look out for the blowers, huge pieces of iron and steel which once generated the blasts of air for the furnaces.
In addition, there is a picnic area where you’ll find plenty of greenery – stop by to discover all sorts of aquatic plants while you soak up the great outdoors after your memorable visit of the complex. A tour of the whole Völklingen Ironworks will take you around two or three hours. And if you’re a music fan, you’ll be pleasantly surprised – the complex plays host to a variety of musical events from open-air rock gigs to chamber music, so there’s something for everyone here.
- Best for: Art lovers, fans of reused old industrial complexes
- Nearest major city: Saarbrücken
- Nearest airport: Luxemburg
- Website: www.visitsaarland.co.uk
Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex in Essen
The Ruhr area of Germany covers around 5,000 sq km (1,800 sq miles) and is considered the industrial powerhouse of the country. Though most of its coal mines and steelworks have since gone, the region has become a fascinating part of Germany to visit for its collection of attractions relating to the country’s impressive industrial heritage. Around 1.5 million travellers from all over the globe come to the Ruhr each year. Book onto a guided tour of the Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex to make the most of the area.
The Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex sits proudly in Essen. It’s an architectural triumph as the most modern coal-mining complex in existence, and since 2001, has proudly boasted World Heritage Site status. The complex embodies Bauhaus influences and showcases the outstanding architecture of Martin Kemmer and Fritz Schupp; the buildings mix function and form in an expert manner.
The Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex displays a mishmash of tools used in the 19th and 20th-century industrial works – a clever combination of railway lines, pits, miner’s housing, consumer and welfare facilities and coking plants. It was a hub for thousands of workers right up until 1986, who together made 240 million tonnes of coal through the day and night.
After exploring the complex, enjoy the delights of Zollverein Park. It’s a wonderful and lush space, with around seventy percent of the grounds being forested or full of greenery. It makes Essen one of the greenest cities in Germany and the park is among the most important ecosystems in the city. You’ll find rare botanical species and wandering animals while you enjoy a peaceful walk. Take your time marvelling at over five hundred types of fern and flowering species while you follow the flutter of twenty types of butterflies and listen to the pretty sing-song of more than fifty bird species in the background. You can also cycle around the 3.5km ring promenade and enjoy the city on two wheels.
- Best for: Families, explorers, history buffs, supporters of industrial heritage
- Nearest major city: Essen
- Nearest airport: Düsseldorf
- Website: www.zollverein.de/zollverein-unesco-world-heritage-site
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This content was created in partnership with the German National Tourist Board.