While many of us are familiar with the German cities of Munich, Hamburg and Frankfurt, you may never have heard of the cities I visited on my latest trip to Germany. Pity too because these are steeped in history and culture and are amazing destinations to explore.
Coming from the United States, it always seems a little strange to me that cities such as Augsburg have been around for so much longer than America. About 1,800 years, in fact, making it the oldest city in Bavaria.
Founded in 15 BC by the Romans, Augsburg was the seat of the provincial government of the Roman Empire. The military arteries that were established eventually turned into trade routes, which attracted merchants and bankers and started the city’s prosperity. Among the more famous of these merchant families were the Fuggers, who implemented one of the first social housing enclaves for impoverished families. Amazingly, this tradition continues today with housing available to the needy for, wait for it, €0.88 per year! You can tour this community, which is understandably quite popular.
Augsburg became a Free Imperial City during the 13th century. Since then, many notable figures of history have either lived or visited here, including Leopold Mozart, father of the famed composer. The Mozart Museum has a nice self-guided tour along with some rare artefacts from the family collection.
Other historical personalities who have called this city home include the poet Bertolt Brecht, Rudolph Diesel (inventor of the steam engine) and Martin Luther. In 1518, Luther was summoned here to defend his now famous 95 Theses. The succeeding debate resulted in the Augsburg Confession, a major theological tenant of the Protestant Reformation.
Today, Augsburg is a thriving city with remnants of former times still visible in the medieval architecture and trade facades gracing many of the buildings. During the Renaissance period, there were more silversmiths than bakers and exterior symbols identified whether the owner was bookmaker, tanner, silversmith or other artisan.
Much of Augsburg (about 75%) was bombed during World War II, but the pine cone, the town’s symbol since antiquity of renewed life as well as its ability to endure hard times, is visible and ever present. If you like art, you will love Augsburg with its many public sculptures, gardens and cathedrals and churches that dot the landscape. Visiting them is, well, a religious experience where one can see mixed architectural styles including Roman, Baroque, Rococo and modern.
Augsburg is a town of short walks with pedestrian-friendly streets making it easy for visitors to shop, dine or sightsee. Meandering streets and lanes give way to open plazas where locals congregate to enjoy a coffee, snack or meal.
The people of Augsburg are friendly and helpful and most speak at least some English making it easy for Brits and Americans to get around. Trains and trams are the major means of travelling from one town to another, and after my brief visit it was time to move on to the next historical city on my list, Würzburg.
Where to stay
The Romantik Hotel Augsburger Hof is a nice mid range-priced hotel located within steps of the Mozart Museum and a short walk to the downtown area. Rooms are more traditional in style, cozy and warm. They offer free Wi-Fi and a free breakfast.
The history of Würzburg dates back to 1000 BC when it was a Celtic stronghold. Later, around 742 AD, St. Burchard became the first bishop and constructed a stronghold around his church. Today, the city’s landmark, the Marienberg Fortress, stands guard atop a hill and is one of the most popular spots to visit with a couple of museums and an expansive garden on site. Many locals go there to enjoy the scenery overlooking the city while enjoying a glass of wine.
Speaking of wine, one of the bridges (reputed to be the oldest stone bridge in Germany) leading across the river Main has become something of a local gathering spot following the establishment of a wine shop right on the bridge. Residents and tourists alike seem to get caught up in the fervor and each day you can find throngs of people hanging out all over the bridge with a glass of red or white while enjoying each other’s company.
Next to the fortress, the Residence Palace is a must see. Movies such as The Three Musketeers were filmed at what was the former residence of the Prince-Bishops of Würzburg. The original construction was completed in 1744 and is considered by many to be the most beautiful example of a Baroque castle in southern Germany. The Imperial Hall boasts the largest ceiling painting in the world by Tiepolo Giovanni and it was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 1981. You can tour this impressive palace and its gardens for a nominal fee.
With more than 5,000 vineyards in this region of Bavaria, it isn’t surprising that wine plays a big part of life in Würzburg. The state cellar winery has one of the largest collections of wine in Germany. The large casks once held liquid payment given to the servants for part of their wages. Today, you can tour this cellar; however, the tours are, for now, only in German. Even if you don’t speak the language, it is still a great place to visit and sample some of the region’s white wine.
About one in five of the residents of Würzburg are students owing to the university located here. You will find them mingling with locals and visitors in the open squares, along the banks of the river Main and on the aforementioned bridge.
Most restaurants are locally owned, adding to the town’s charm. Michel’s, for example, is an Austrian-style café that has been family operated since the early 1900s and serves some of the best-tasting, moistest cakes I have ever had. On sunny days, you can sit outside and enjoy a slice while watching the world go by in a picture-perfect postcard setting.
Where to stay
The modern GHOTEL hotel & living, as it is called, is located within easy walking distance to the downtown area of Würzburg. Many of the rooms offer great views of the city along with free Wi-Fi and satellite TV.
The first thing I noticed stepping out of the train station in the city of Münster was the huge number of students and bicycles. Crossing the street, it seemed like a river of both flowing around me. I guess that’s why it is called Germany’s bicycle capital.
The earliest roots of the city started with the emperor Charlemagne who sent out missionaries to Münsterland in 793. This sowed the seeds for the first cathedral in 850 followed by the construction of some parish churches and a protective city wall. Today, the wall has been replaced by a scenic tree-lined promenade greenbelt which runs alongside the River Aa and is a very popular place for strolling or, of course, cycling.
In 1648, the Peace of Westphalian, which effectively ended the Thirty Years’ War, was signed in a room of the town hall known as the Hall of Peace. This building was destroyed during World War II but has been lovingly restored back to its original splendour and you can take a look inside for €2. The room contains some rather ornate furnishings and wooden panels along with rare artefacts and portraits of the emissaries involved in the peace agreement.
The first university of the region was also formed here in 1773 and today, there are more than 50,000 students who study in Münster. Local residents and students can be found in all of the city’s quarters including the popular Prinzipalmarkt, Münster’s main shopping area. The 48 gabled buildings and covered arcades have been reconstructed since the war and now house all manner of retail shops, boutiques and restaurants.
Speaking of food, there seemed to be a bakery around every corner and shops offering fine chocolates, gelato, coffee and traditional regional cuisine from the state known as North Rhine-Westfalia. One of my meals included a sausage, fried potatoes and sauerkraut— quite tasty. You can then wash all this down with a local brew and there are several pubs here and a nice brewery (Pinkus Muller).
Münster is a pedestrian city and very easy to navigate. I found the tall church landmarks an easy way to remember where to find my hotel. Since everything is close by, you won’t need to take a car or taxi but you may want to think about renting a bicycle, if for no other reason than to fit in with what everyone else is doing.
Here are a couple of tips for things I particularly enjoyed. First, I found the best thick-cut pommes frites and perfectly-cooked bratwurst on a crispy roll at a little stand right outside the train station. Then, for a nice evening out, try the GOP Variete-Theater (also across from the train station). They have a first-rate show featuring a blend of light, sound, acrobatics, dance and well… bubbles (you have to see it to understand!).
Where to stay
The Treff Hotel is centrally located in the old town and part of the Ramada chain. The rooms are modern, comfortable and affordable plus you will be steps away from shopping, dining and most of the attractions that Münster has to offer.
Just a short 20-minute train ride from Münster, the town of Osnabrück is the only major German city located within a nature park. The Natural Reserve of the Northern Teutoburg Forest, Wiehengebirge Hill (or TERRA.vita for short) is the largest one of its kind in the country, covering 1,200 square miles.
Osnabrück played a significant role in the development of Germany’s history. In 9 AD, 10,000 Roman troops came through an area nearby called Kalkriese. Bounded on one side by bog and the other by forest, they found themselves marching through a narrow choke point where they were then ambushed by Germanic tribes hiding among the trees. The Battle of Valus and the resulting slaughter of the better-trained and equipped Romans was one of the turning points in the fall of the Roman Empire and the Germanic victory is still a symbol of national pride.
Today, you can tour the award-winning museum at the battle location, which includes interactive exhibits and rare artefacts that have been found here over the last 26 years. Every couple of years they also do a re-enactment of some of the battles fought on the grassy fields.
Charlemagne also played a part in the development of Osnabrück. After the 780 establishment of a mission, the town grew into an important cultural and commercial city. St. Peter’s Cathedral towers over the old-town area, and after climbing 120+ stairs you will have a bird’s eye view of the winding cobblestone streets and historical landmarks.
Osnabrück is alive with culture, charm and historical personality. You can find half-timbered homes with ornate facades, an abundance of retail shopping areas and seasonal festivals and museums, including one featuring the works of the renowned artist Felix Nussbaum. Nussbaum was born in Osnabrück in 1904 and his surrealist paintings are widely regarded throughout the country.
When the Nazis came to power, Nussbaum, who was Jewish, was deported to an internment camp. His art, which has survived, shows an ever increasing darkness reflecting his own fears of his impending fate, which was sealed in Auschwitz in1944. The uniquely-designed museum carries about 100 of Nussbaum’s works.
For foodies, Osnabrück is the veritable pot at the end of the rainbow. There are coffee houses, sidewalk cafes, a turn-of-the-century ice cream shop (Fontanella Eis Café), a three-star Michelin restaurant (La Vie), a confectionery with gourmet chocolates (Leysieffer) and a family-owned cake shop I had to visit twice just to make sure the first experience was real (Café Am Markt).
For 10-12 days in May, the town plays host to a large spring celebration called May Week. I would describe this as a massive mix of music, food, beer, wine and fun. If you have ever been to a German Christmas market, you will have some idea what this is like. Booths offer things like grilled bratwurst, potato pancakes, regional beers and anything else you can imagine. Marching bands playing old favorites from groups like Herman’s Hermits roam the city while others delight the crowds in a beer hall with pulse-pounding Oktoberfest music.
Where to stay
Steigenberger Hotel Remarque is located just across from the main city centre. The property is sleek, modern and very comfortable and they have a lavish morning breakfast that is included as part of the price.
If you have ever been to Germany but have never let your trip planning go beyond some of the large cities, you are missing some of the best that this country has to offer. The cities I visited on this trip – Augsburg, Würzburg, Münster and Osnabrück – are only four out of 13 historical cities that are part of the Historic Highlights of Germany. I have been to many of these 13 and only wish I had more time to spend in each one. Come and see why Germany is one of my favorite places to visit year after year.
For more information visit Germany Historical Highlights.
Promotional considerations were provided on this trip by Germany Historic Highlights as well as the partners mentioned in this story.