Weimar is a name that resonates in German history, politics, art, music, and literature. A relatively small town, but one with a big reputation, it has attracted an impressive list of European luminaries throughout the centuries. Yet with a population of only 60,000, its quiet, pleasant aura is of a nineteenth-century provincial capital, rather than a major cultural center that commands three separate entries on UNESCO’s World Heritage List and was chosen “European City of Culture” in 1999.
The earliest written record of Weimar dates to 899, but its “golden age” of high culture during the “German Enlightenment” period, lasted from the mid-1700s to the death, in the mid-1800s, of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, perhaps its most famous resident. The period following, until the end of World War I in 1918, is considered only slightly less important culturally—Weimar’s “silver age” when the city was home to a number of notable artists, architects, philosophers, and composers who left their mark not only on the town but on the wider world.
Long a political center, too, the town has been shaped by European dynastic marriages, nineteenth-century political philosophies, and the rise and fall of modern German political systems. In 1919, Germany’s first democratic constitution was adopted here by the country’s National Assembly, which met in the German National Theater. In front of the theater stands the Goethe-Schiller Monument to those two famous writers. It is the best known symbol of the city that gave its name to the so-called Weimar Republic, which lasted only until the Nazis came to power in 1933
From 1920 to 1948 Weimar was the capital of Germany’s federal state of Thuringia, but for more than four decades following World War II, it was just a provincial town behind the Iron Curtain in the GDR (German Democratic Republic). Because of its important cultural heritage and attraction to tourists, however, it was kept in better condition than many other East German cities. After German reunification in 1990, Weimar was spruced up even more and today attracts millions of visitors annually.
Many come to walk in the footsteps of Goethe, Germany’s great writer, philosopher, scientist, critic, and politician who lived in Weimar from 1775 until his death in 1832. Located in adjacent buildings, Goethe’s Home and the Goethe National Museum are a must-see for any visitor. Inside the house wander through rooms filled with period furniture, then outdoors take a stroll in the beautiful little garden he loved so much. The museum features fascinating exhibits about Goethe’s life, works, travels, and friends. Regardless of your interest in Germany’s most revered writer and thinker, you will come away from the museum with an appreciation of the man and his accomplishments.
Goethe fans will also want to visit his Garden House, in a lovely large park and garden away from the city center where he wrote many of his poems.
The Goethe-Schiller Archive is another pilgrimage point and the oldest literary archive in Germany.
Visit the Friedrich Schiller House to see how Goethe’s great friend, the German poet, playwright, philosopher, and historian, lived in Weimar during the last three years of his life. (The famous and familiar “Ode to Joy,” sung in the 4th Movement of Beethoven’s towering 9th Symphony, was written by Schiller.)
The coffins of both Goethe and Schiller are on view in the Ducal Vault of the Historical Cemetery, adjacent to the ornate Russian Orthodox Chapel, burial site of the Russian Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, granddaughter of Catherine the Great.
And for a change of philosophical pace, visit the Friedrich Nietzsche Archive located in another historic Weimar house, where Nietzsche lived for seven years at the end of the nineteenth century.
Lift your spirits with a little music by following in the footsteps of Franz Liszt, another famous resident. Visit the Franz Liszt House where he lived and gave music lessons, then attend one of the numerous concerts offered throughout the year. Many are held in the city’s historic palaces and gardens.
The Palace Museum, in three wings of the former residential palace, is too often overlooked. It contains an impressive collection of fine arts and decorative arts, from paintings by Lucas Cranach in the sixteenth century to Max Beckmann in the twentieth, from Russian icons to classical sculptures, from entire rooms of beautiful antique furniture to a Franz Liszt piano. Other notable collections of fine and decorative arts are found in the Belvedere Palace, Wittumspalais, New Museum, and the Tiefurt Mansion.
Twentieth-century Weimar was home to the modern Bauhaus art, craft, and architectural movement founded by Walter Gropius there in 1919. Today the Bauhaus Museum’s exhibits illustrate the creative work of the Bauhaus school and its notable artists. And finally, for a more sobering side of modern history, visit the Buchenwald Concentration Camp Memorial, located on the Ettersberg mountain only 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the placid city center.
Whatever you do, don’t miss eating an authentic Thüringer Bratwurst, hot off the grill, from a stand selling these famous sausages on Marktplatz (Market Square). Then head up the Frauentorstrasse, between the Marktplatz and the Goethe House Museum, to the bakery that advertises “Original Thüringer Blechkuchen,” flat “sheet cakes” baked with a variety of sweet toppings, a specialty in this region. The Marktplatz is also the site of a colorful Easter Market, a three-day Pottery Market in September, and, in October, Weimar’s famous Onion Market, Thuringia’s oldest and largest local fair (dating to 1653), which attracts more than 300,000 visitors annually. And, from the last week of November through the first week of January, several city squares are decked out with white lights, food stands, and craft stalls for the annual Christmas Market, voted the “world’s finest” by CNN bloggers and journalists—authorities all.
Weimar Hotels and Restaurants
As a major cultural and historical attraction, Weimar has plenty of good places to stay, in all price ranges, from student hostels to expensive hotels. Many lodgings have historic roots, such as the centrally located Grand Hotel Russischer Hof (now a Best Western Premier Hotel), whose many notable guests have included Tsar Alexander I, Ivan Turgenev, Goethe, Liszt, and Richard Wagner, as well as contemporary artists, film and stage stars, musicians, and politicians. Another historical hotel is the Elephant (a Luxury Collection Hotel), located on the Marktplatz in a building where the long list of luminaries who slept there ranges from European philosophers and musicians to Leo Tolstoy and Adolph Hitler. Inside the Elephant, the Restaurant Anna Amalia boasts a Michelin star, and the Restaurant Anastasia in the Grand Hotel Russischer Hof rates a Michelin Bib Gourmand. Among many places serving traditional Thuringian regional food, the Gasthaus zum Weissen Schwann is a historic inn where Goethe used to hang out.
The following recommendations are for smaller, moderately priced hotels and restaurants that deserve mention, too.
Hotel-Pension am Goethehaus Conveniently located in a renovated eighteenth-century building near Weimar’s central square, this new three-star hotel-pension is clean, modern, and almost monastically minimalist in decor, with white walls, wood floors, and large windows in the rooms (16 doubles, two singles, and two holiday apartments). The breakfast room looks out onto a small terrace where you can eat in nice weather, and there is even shaded parking behind the hotel. Free Wi-Fi, friendly staff, and the hotel’s own ice cream shop nearby.
Pension Köstritzer Schwarzbierhaus Situated above the restaurant of the same name, this small, three-star pension offers seven spacious double rooms and one single in a beautiful half-timbered house built in 1547 and featuring country-style furnishings. Ask for the corner room on the back, which is unusually large and where you’ll feel like you’re in a Thuringian farmhouse. Parking behind the building and a generous breakfast with local specialties are included in the very moderate price. Book in advance, since the pension fills up fast.
Restaurant Elephantenkeller Head to the basement of the famous Elephant Hotel for this historic restaurant, with its stone pillars, vaulted ceiling, red marble floors, and romantic lighting. The menu features several well prepared Thuringian regional dishes as well as other tempting appetizers and entrées, all plated in a modern style, with a small but quality selection of regional German wines. Start with the delicious apple-elderberry cream soup, and if you’re in the mood for beer, enjoy the unfiltered (naturtrüb) Elephantenkellerbier with your meal.
Zum Schwarzen Bären Next door to the Elephant, the cozy little Zum Schwarzen Bären claims to be the oldest Gasthaus in Weimar. In a building dating from 1540, you can dine on classic onion soup, Thuringian dishes (including potato and bacon Hüllerchen dumplings served on the same plate with a huge mixed salad), a large omelet filled with mushroom ragout, and curd cheese-stuffed dumplings with strawberries and vanilla sauce for dessert, all washed down with wines by the glass or mugs of fresh draught Köstritzer beer.
Restaurant Köstritzer Schwarzbierhaus Moderate prices and good quality make the restaurant in this historic half-timbered house an understandably popular place. Thuringian potato dumplings, made with a light hand and plated with an artistic eye, are the specialty, along with other classic regional dishes. Most main courses are priced under €10, and the Köstritzer dark beer on tap makes you want to linger over another mug...then another.
Gretchen’s Restaurant & Café This modern little restaurant is in a newly-constructed “green” (ecologically sound) building on a side street near the Goethe House Museum. The restaurant emphasizes fresh, seasonal, local, and sustainable ingredients prepared in tasty, reasonably priced dishes. Start with the Mediterranean fish soup or the generous salad bar, followed by fagotti pasta packets filled with cheese and garnished with asparagus tips and chopped pistachios, or the long sweet red peppers stuffed with grilled calamari and fresh vegetables. Above the restaurant is Gretchen’s four-star rated “family hotel,” which has several modern holiday apartments that welcome children. (Seifengasse 8, in central Weimar)