Darmstadt rarely makes it onto the tourist route. About an hour from Frankfurt, this small town in the German state of Hesse seems like any other average German industrial town, but upon closer inspection you’ll find it’s rich in cultural curiosities and sites.
I used to work at the particle accelerator (GSI) located in a forest just outside the town, in the unfortunately named village of Wixhausen (if you know German you’ll get why this sounds funny, but let’s say it sounds very much like another word that indicates self pleasure), so I know Darmstadt pretty well. While I lived in Frankfurt, I often traveled to Darmstadt on the weekends, as my friends from work lived there, meaning I got to know Darmstadt’s nightlife more than in Frankfurt. Even when I moved to Spain, I made trips back and forth to GSI for my PhD research, visiting Darmstadt around once or twice a year until I gave up my career in physics.
Go beyond the industrial suburbs and the grey areas around the train station and Darmstadt unravels its charms. After getting to know the town it becomes transparent why it earned its title as “the City of Art and Science.”
With two particle accelerators (GSI and the recently constructed FAIR on the same grounds), the German site for the European Space Agency, the industrial centre of the German pharmaceutical industry (with big companies such as Merck basing their main plants here), Darmstadt has earned it’s scientific wings. It even has a chemical element named after it: Darmstadtium (atomic number 110, which was discovered in GSI in 1994).
For the arts, just head up to the Artists’ Colony, Mathildenhöhe. Artists from the German Jugendstil movement both lived and worked in this community, financed by patrons while they worked together with other members of the collective. Darmstadt Artists’ Colony is not just a movement but lies embedded in the history of German Jugendstil, but it also refers to the modernist buildings left behind. From the exhibition hall to the houses artists houses, Mathildenhöhe’s modernist architecture has put Darmstadt on Europe’s map of art nouveau cities.
Darmstadt’s avant-garde cachet doesn’t stop there. The Waldspirale by Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser is also hidden away in this small, industrial city.
Darmstadt might have earned its title as the city of art and culture, so what specifically should you see?
If you’re staying in nearby Frankfurt, then Darmstadt is just a short train ride away. If you’re looking to get out of the city and away from Mainhatten’s high-rises, it makes a nice escape. Or, if you’re travelling down towards Heidelberg, Darmstadt is a great place to break the journey.
Visiting the center of Darmstadt will take you to the area surrounding Luisenplatz. This is the largest square in the city, and it’s also the central hub for any public transportation. You’ll find many shops and restaurants in this pedestrianised area, but it’s also easy to navigate the city from here.
Many of the monuments are walking distance from Luisenplatz, such as the ducal palace of Darmstadt. This was once the palatial residence of the counts of Hesse-Darmstadt, and then the Grand Dukes of Hesse.
The palace’s look stems from its 18th century refurbishment and additions, but the castle itself actually dates back to the 13th century.
Opposite the square is the historic Marktplatz. Facing the front of the ducal palace is the old town hall, which now houses a tavern. The “Ratzkeller” (link in German) serves its own beer (there is a brewery in the basement) and traditional food from the Hessen region. It sports a cozy atmosphere and bags of character, not to mention the high quality food and delicious selection of wheat beers.
The Artists’ Colony in Mathildenhöhe is a little out of town, but worth a visit. Here you’ll find the iconic five fingered “wedding tower” which has become a symbol of the city. In addition, there is a Russian chapel and a number of the artists’ houses in the Jugendstil style.
The colony was founded at the end of the 19th century by the Grand Duke of Hesse, Ernest Ludwig. Mathildenhöhe was created by Ludwig to promote the art scene of the Hessen region, helping to combine trade and art so it would act as an economic stimulus for the land. Artists housed in the colony sought to develop the modern and avant-garde into a way of living and construction.
As a result, Ernest Ludwig brought many of Germany’s top Jugendstil artists to live in Darmstadt, such as Peter Behrens, Paul Bürck, Hans Christiansen, Rudolf Bosselt, and more.
A short walk from Mathildenhöhe is Hundertwasser’s surreal Walspirale. Hidden away between allotments, concrete block apartments and an Aldi supermarket, this is hardly a prime location.
The Hundertwasser House in Vienna is famous, and always full of tourists. When I visited the Austrian capital it was marked on my list of key things I had to do while I was there. The Hundertwasser House was stunning, a modern-day rival to the modernist buildings of Barcelona, yet the Waldspirale in Darmstadt is even more spectacular. It’s downfall is that it’s hidden away in Darmstadt’s uglier outlying neighborhoods.
Darmstadt is an attractive destination for those looking to immerse themselves in the German countryside. The nearby Bergstrasse (part of the larger Odenwald), a chain of low mountains that run between Darmstadt and Heidelberg, offers stunning hikes. The rolling mountains of the Odenwald are rich in woodlands, vineyards and are dotted with historic, ruined and romantic castles. The most famous, Castle Frankenstein, is located in Darmstadt’s suburbs.
Legend has it Mary Shelly drew inspiration for her novel Frankenstein after a trip to the to the region. Whether this is true or not is another matter.
Looking beneath the surface, Darmstadt has a lot to offer any traveler interested in science, art history or even Gothic literature.
Featured image by Esther Westerveld