Travel inspiration and insider tips

3 years, 10 months ago

UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Germany

Efficiency, discipline and determination are national characteristics that define many of Germany’s 38 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It’s not that they don’t have opulence and extravagance – nobody would call Cologne Cathedral restrained – or that the few factories, ironworks and fossil pits with UNESCO status set a universally sober and functional tone. It’s Germany’s response to a more recent history that marks it as a conservation leader, particularly when it comes to the built heritage.

WWII saw much of the country decimated by bombing, including a large number of historic buildings, entire towns and architectural masterpieces that were considered irreplaceable – by everyone except the Germans that is. Using original plans, impeccably sourced materials, traditional skills and legendary patience and attention to detail, the country restored almost everything that was damaged or partially destroyed. It’s taken decades, innumerable setbacks and enormous investment, but without a doubt this remarkable achievement adds an even more fascinating and impressive dimension to today’s World Heritage Germany.

Classical Weimar

Goethe's House interior

A good example of Germany’s commitment to precise post-war reconstruction and restoration is UNESCO World Heritage Site ‘Classical Weimar’ in the town of Weimar in Thüringen. A thriving and creative cultural community since the 16th century, Weimar was an important influence on some of the greatest names in German art, literature and music including Bach, Liszt, Goethe, Schiller, Henry Van de Velde and Walter Gropius. But the town’s true ‘classical’ period spans 1775 to 1832 and principally focuses on the creative relationship between Goethe and Schiller. Goethe’s magnificent family home is now the National Goethe Museum and even the garden is maintained as it was in the early 19th century. By complete contrast to this Baroque splendour there’s Goethe’s Garden House: sweetly pretty, simple and very charming. Residenzschloss is a vast, eccentric sprawl but somehow it works. And archetypal German ‘fairy tale’ is referenced in the delicate spires and fragile beauty of St. Peter and Paul Church. Almost every building in Classical Weimar’s architectural collection suffered some WWII damage but it’s impossible to tell. The restoration is almost as astonishing as the original buildings themselves and I can highly recommend Classical Weimar for both.

The Main Building, Bauhaus University, Weimar

Bauhaus University, Main Buildingcredit: Nathalie Mohadjer

Since you’re in Weimar anyway you’ll like the complete contrast between Classical Weimar and the town’s other UNESCO World Heritage Site, The Main Building, Bauhaus University. Designed by Henry Van de Velde and built between 1904 and 1911, the building precedes the Bauhaus Movement but the influence of de Velde on Walter Gropius is obvious and it’s one of the earliest examples of ‘Modernity’: the collaboration of art and technology. The Main Building is worth a visit for the foyer alone with its lovely Art Nouveau staircase and poignant Rodin sculpture.

Cologne Cathedral

Cologne Cathedral

Cologne Cathedral is so immense it dwarves everything, even the mighty River Rhine it looms over isn’t so mighty compared to this vast Gothic masterpiece. Well, technically Gothic: the Cathedral stood half-finished for nearly 400 years and today’s building probably owes as much to 19th century construction as it does to Medieval. Provenance aside, the most visited landmark in Germany is quite simply astonishing. Huge, twin spires give the Cathedral the largest church façade in the world and overall it’s the largest Gothic Cathedral in Northern Europe. It was built in the style of Amiens so, for all its size, the interior’s light and soaring – although, if you have even a hint of vertigo, plant your feet firmly before you look up into the roof space from the nave. During WWII, Cologne Cathedral was a bit of a target, but even bombed over a dozen times it never wavered and any damage has long since been repaired – seamlessly, of course. The reliquary of the Three Kings is Cologne’s main ‘treasure’ and defines the Cathedral as an important place of pilgrimage even today. But most of the 20,000 daily visitors are here to climb the towers, admire the art and magnificent stained glass (the contemporary ‘pixelated’ windows are strangely appropriate and lovely) and hear the bells. For that last part you need to take a tour, wear ear defenders – they’re supplied – and prepare to be shaken: the 24 ton ‘Petersglocke’ alone is the largest free swinging bell in the world.

Museuminsel, Berlin 

Museum Island, Mitte

I like the idea of museums conveniently clustering – drawn to ‘lists’ and ‘box ticking’  as I am. But, Museuminsel (Museum Island) in Berlin is a bit like Madrid’s Museum Trinity: all those museums might be in one place but it doesn’t mean they won’t take days to explore. There are five museums on Museuminsel collectively covering art from Ancient Civilisation through to 1900. The museum buildings alone are grand and imposing – even the re-built Neues Museum is constructed in the same classical style as the 1859 original. The collections are vast and significant (hence the UNESCO World Heritage status). Construction has now started on The James Simon Gallery which will give Museuminstel its first, dedicated Visitor Centre. And if you’re on a budget find out about ‘Free Thursdays’

Garden Kingdom of Dessau-Wörlitz

Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Realm

The largest ‘English Park’ in Europe, Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Kingdom is 142 km.sq of lakes, forests, rivers, gardens, castles, grand houses, follies and palaces, and it’s magical. One of the most romantic and enchanting UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Germany, you could get lost for days in Dessau-Wörlitz . Or you could follow the maps, have someone sail you around and just imagine you’re back in the days of ‘Grand Tours’ and ‘Gentlemen Gardeners’.


Only Italy, China and Spain have more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than Germany (France is joint equal), so the best I can do here is give an idea of the range and point you in the right direction. Here are a few more names from my long list to add to the mix: Bremen Town Hall (yes, the same Bremen from the Grimm folktale involving animal musicians. Bremer Ratskeller pub in the town hall basement has Germany’s oldest barrel of wine, supposedly): Würzburg Residence for the Tiepolo frescoes: City of Lübeck for Medieval architecture: and Wartburg Castle (just for the name). And no, I didn’t mention the 65km of the Middle Rhine Valley because it’s like a country all on its own, but that’s where you’ll find those fairytale castles, sweeping vineyards and iconic little German villages. Enough said, just go to Germany, stick a pin on a map and it’s probably a UNESCO World Heritage Site or as near as.

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