When people plan a trip to Germany, most head for Berlin. Hightail it to Munich. Fly into Frankfurt. Head for picturesque Heidelberg. All good options…but Germany is also brimming with small towns that are perfect for slowing down, soaking up the history of a place, discovering lesser visited art treasures, and simply enjoying the finer things in life—by which I mean food, wine, and art, of course. The following series of articles will highlight 3 dynamic cities to add to your next Germany travel itinerary.
Delve into Art in the Franconian Wine City of Würzburg
Würzburg is known for great wine and great art. Located in Franconian wine country, Würzburg is filled with wine bars and a skyline dominated by rolling vineyards. Here wine lovers will find everything from vineyard hikes to wine festivals and plenty of wineries and cellars to visit for wine tastings.Centrally located, mid-sized Würzburg is an easy train ride from many German cities, especially Frankfurt, Munich, Köln, and Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Würzburg lies in Franconia, and is technically located in Northern Bavaria, although residents will be sure to point out that they are Franconian, not Bavarian. The regional dialect is of course, Franconian.
Most of the city’s big sights are packed into a compact little area between the train station and the banks of the Main River, making Würzburg an good city to see on foot in a day or two. The star sight of the city is the opulent Residenz.
The Würzburg Residenz, former residence of the Würzburg prince-bishops, is one of the most important baroque palaces in Europe. Built from 1720 to 1744, with the interior completed in 1780, the Residenz combines German baroque styles with French château architecture, the imperial baroque style of Vienna, and architecture of Northern Italy. Spanning gardens ornamented with rococo sculptures, a intricately decorated baroque Court Chapel (Hofkirche) and 40 period rooms open to the public, the Würzburg Residenz is brimming with 18th century furniture, tapestries, paintings, and art treasures.
One of the highlights of the Residenz is a massive fresco by Venetian artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, who moved to Würzburg to paint the fresco and completed it in only 13 months—record timing for the size. Luckily the fresco was not damaged during WWII when a large portion of the Residenz was destroyed first by fire, then by weather due to large portions of the roof being damaged and missing. The Residenz was eventually reconstructed for roughly 20 million euros, and is now sparkling new with many of its original furnishings which had been stored elsewhere during the bombings. The most impressive restoration work may have occurred in the Mirror Cabinet, which was reconstructed in 1987 through a detailed verre églomisé glass gilding technique in which the back side of glass is gilded with gold or metal leaf which results in a mirror-like, reflective finish. Other rooms of note include the frescoed Garden Hall (Gartensaal), the refreshingly simplistic White Hall (Weißer Saal) and the sumptuous Emperor’s Hall (Kaisersaal).
For something modern, the best art museum in the city is Museum Kulturspeicher. Occupying a former granary along the Main River in the city’s old port, this stunning historical building was converted into a museum from 1996-2001 and retains its original stone facade, towering smokestacks, and portal windows among new modern elements and an abundance of glass. This one-of-a-kind museum houses two fantastic, vastly different collections. Their collection of Concrete Art—one of Europe’s true hidden gems—showcases a colorful sampling of Concrete Art by artists from nearly every European country, with a special emphasis on the British Concrete Art movement as well as concrete imagery in photography. There’s also the museum’s municipal collection, which includes 19th century to present works, including figurative Romantic works, German Impressionism, and works by Franconian and Southern German artists, plus special exhibitions.
The city’s best traditional architecture is found in Old Town, where you can wander among beautiful churches, baroque buildings, and along the picturesque banks of the Main River, where the signature Alte Mainbrücke, or Old Bridge, calls out to be crossed. Lined with sculptures of saints like Prague’s Charles Bridge, Alte Mainbrücke also houses wine bars and affords spectacular views of the surrounding rolling hills filled with wineries. Cross here to reach Fortress Marienberg (Festung Marienberg) looking grand up on the hill, surrounded by wine trails. (The fortress grounds are free.)
The center of the city is Market Square (Marktplatz), the sight of both Würzburg’s “Winefest” in June featuring 75 vintners, and the fabled Christmas Market where vendors sell holiday goodies and Gluhwein (hot spiced red wine) from stalls that resemble gingerbread houses.
Würzburg has its share of standout churches, the most interesting being St. Kilian’s Cathedral, which is surprisingly filled with modern religious art juxtaposed with traditional church elements. For example, the front doors are carved with abstract forms, and just inside the church to the left is an alcove with a giant gold artwork with a cross cut out of it, forming the backdrop to a modern pieta sculpture juxtaposed with sculptural stair-step candle holders. Furthermore, the paintings on the ceiling depict interpretative visions of the prophets in abstract form, while the church’s altar showcases modern sculptures that are uniquely beautiful. Along the side of the church are doors with intricate sculpted gates, contrasting with the church’s more traditional features.
Two more must-see churches in old town are the late Gothic Marienkapelle with its salmon and white facade, and the romanesque Neumünster Basilica with its baroque facade, lit by glowing green lights at night, its interior accented by abstract oil paintings along the nave.
Getting to Know Würzburg
For a little modern goodness at the edge of Old Town, Ghotel features simple, colorful rooms with high-rise views.
By air: Frankfurt airport is 1.5 hours away.
By car: the A3, A7, and A81 autobahn routes go through Würzburg, as does the Romantic Road.
By boat: you can reach Würzburg via boat cruises up and down the Main River, some coming from destinations as far as Rotterdam or Budapest.
During World War II, 90% of the city was destroyed by aerial bombing. By 1970 reconstruction of the Old City was nearly complete. 2004 marked Würzburg’s 1300 year anniversary.
In Würzburg you’ll find an overflow of great art and great wine, making a stop here essential.