Our Munich-based reporter, Nick Selby, visits Augsburg where, amid the venerable buildings and cobbled streets, he finds a few decent hotels and a surprising number of good restaurants.
At first glance, Augsburg seems a rather meek little city, with a medieval skyline, a lovely walled town center and a couple of brightly sparkling canals. But beneath that mild-mannered exterior lies the heart and spirit of a lion. Straddling two of Germany's wealthiest states, Augsburg has long been prosperous and decidedly independent.
About 15 years before the birth of Christ a bevy of Romans first settled here, at the convergence of the Lech and Wertach Rivers. As it grew and the first incarnation of the stunning Dom Maria Heimsuchung cathedral was erected, the town evolved into a walled fortress and eventually one of Europe's most important trading centers.
A Walk Through History
The Old City's cobblestone streets are a pleasure to explore. Lanes and alleys twist and swerve and become impossibly narrow passageways in a manner more Anadalusian than Germanic. The city's architecture not just the palaces but even ordinary buildings clearly reflects the international influence.
By the 11th century the town had already established itself as a major trade post, and by 1530 had bred its own Middle Ages version of Donald Trump: Jakob Fugger.
In the late 1300s, a weaver named Hans Fugger established a flourishing textile business, later taken over by sons Jakob and Andreas, who eventually became goldsmiths.
Jakob married the daughter of the owner of the Roman mint and by the late 1400's he and his sons, carrying on the family tradition, were, well, minting money.
The Fugger monopoly became powerful enough to include them on the list of Europe's wealthiest traders. They had their hands in just about everything, and Augsburg, as the seat of their operations, enjoyed a Renaissance some would argue has never really ended.
In 1516, the family established the Fuggerei, touted as the first low income housing project in Europe and certainly worth a visit.
What to See
Augsburg's focal point is its delightful and airy central square, the Rathausplatz, which is packed every spring and summer weekend with café society Augsburgians watching the world swirl past the statue of Emperor Augustus.
The square's pride and joy is the onion-domed Rathaus, whose treasure is its third-floor Goldener Saal. Standing in this enormous baroque salon and gawking at the 100-foot long ceiling painted in gold, it's hard to believe this is a restoration the entire Rathaus was demolished and reconstructed after the war. For a look at the layout of the ancient city, stop at the wooden model in the lobby. Right next door is the Perlachturm, formerly a guard tower.
Leave the Rathaus, turning left and then left again, down the stone staircase to peaceful Elias Holl-Platz, home to both the 16th-century St. Maria Stern Kloster and my favorite restaurant in town, Die Ecke. Go right at the end of the square and navigate the maze of narrow, cobblestone, canal-lined streets which will eventually lead you to one of the entrances to the Fuggerei.
Designed to assist Catholics in hock through no fault of their own, the Fuggerei complex is a collection of little three-room homes and one-room "widows flats" the annual rent being roughly five US dollars, for which is still a rather fair, plus a daily prayer and the occasional fine for coming home after midnight. One of the Fuggerei's most famous residents was Franz Mozart, Wolfie's great grandfather, who lived here for a dozen years. Right next to his house is the fascinating Fuggerei Museum.
Exiting the north gate, stroll up towards the center and turn right on teeny Schmiedgasse, where you'll pass the lovely home where poet/dramatist Bertolt Brecht was born in 1898. Now it's a museum dedicated to the playwright's life and work.
From here you have a choice; keep walking or stop and eat. My recommendation is to take Augsburg slowly and get to know it through its restaurants. Enjoy a long lunch or even a picnic, and afterwards, take on opulent Maximilianstrasse. This grand boulevard is home to the astoundingly ornate Schaezler Palais, in which an afternoon is easily killed amidst the offerings of the Bavarian Baroque Art Gallery, including works by Drer, Holbein, and Cranach. Nearby is the Fugger Haus, a former family residence.
Places of Worship
The Romantic Road has many great churches and Augsburg which stands at its geographical center seems to have more than its fair share of them. Aside from the St. Ulrich and Afra Basilika, whose tower is visible throughout the city, and the Art Nouveau Synagogue, now open as an important Jewish Cultural Center, the ecclesiastic star of the show here is the Dom Maria Heimsuchung, a Gothic and Romanesque gem. You can visit with a walking tour, but leave at least an hour to view the grounds—replete with Roman ruins—the absolutely amazing bronze doors at the south, and several panels by Hans Holbein the Elder.
Another important church is St Anne's, the tomb chapel of the Fugger family, which also boasts works by Cranach the Elder.