Spend a day in Darmstadt, a city rich in history with plenty to see
By MICHAEL ABRAMS | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 26, 2016
Let’s take a trip to Gut City.
Name not appealing? Well, that’s the literal translation of Darmstadt, but that’s probably not the origin of this central German city’s name. It possibly was named after a medieval nobleman named Darmunde.
Darmstadt calls itself a “City of Science.” It’s home to a university and college, the European Space Agency, chemical giant Merck and a host of software companies. It also once was home to the margraves and grand dukes of Hesse and the wife of the last Russian czar, and it was the center of the German Art Nouveau movement.
First mentioned in the 11th century as Darmundestat, it belonged to the counts of Katzenelenbogen and fell to the landgraves of Hesse in 1479. From then until the end of World War I, the margraves, the grand dukes and their wives left their impressions on the city, building theaters, parks and palaces.
On Sept. 11, 1944, a British air raid killed more than 9,000 people and destroyed half of the city’s buildings, including most of its center. After the war, hasty rebuilding left the city rather uninspiring, but the ducal palace, the old city hall and some other buildings were restored.
A good place to start a visit to Darmstadt is Luisenplatz, at the city’s center, with a statue of Grand Duke Ludwig I atop a 100-foot-tall column.
Beyond the square you can see the Schloss, the ducal palace, a conglomeration of buildings comprising various architectural styles through the centuries. Today it belongs to the Technical University.
Across the street is the Marktplatz, which has a big market on Saturday, but the cafes and restaurants lining the square are open daily. At its head stands the rebuilt 16th-century old city hall, with its popular micro-brewery.
Behind the palace is the Darmstadtium, a modern congress center completed in 2007 with fragments of the old city wall integrated into the entrance.
To its right is the Erich-Ollenhauer-Promenade, a path that leads up to the jewel in the grand duke’s crown, the Mathildenhoehe.
In 1899, Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig invited seven Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) artists to work and live in Darmstadt. Building a colony of houses and studios into their plans, they created a body of work that, when exhibited in 1901, made the city the center of the German Art Nouveau movement. More exhibits were held in 1904, 1908 and 1914.
Also in 1899, Russian Czar Nicholas II, who was married to Princess Alexandra of Darmstadt, had a small Orthodox chapel built here.
It was in honor of another marriage, that of Ernst Ludwig, that gave Darmstadt its most famous landmark, the Wedding Tower. Built in 1908, the 157-foot-high tower is also called the Five Finger Tower because of its hand-like form.
The artists’ studio is now the Artists’ Colony Museum.
Heading back into town via Dieburgerstrasse, you come to Mauerstrasse. Here you are in the student district with pubs, clubs and cafes. Check out the Achteckiges Haus, an eight-cornered, 17th-century building that houses a jazz cellar.
Nearby is the university and the Herrngarten, formerly a grand ducal park. Attached to it is the Prinz George Garten, a rococo garden with a small 17th-century palace that houses the grand dukes’ porcelain collection.
From Luisenplatz, walk up Wilhelminenstrasse to St. Ludwig’s Church. It is a copy of the Pantheon in Rome, at one-fifth the size, but its dome is still about 100 feet across.
From the end of World War II to 2008, Darmstadt was home to thousands of U.S. servicemembers and their families. Today, two of the facilities, Jefferson Village and Kelly Barracks, house refugees, while Cambrai-Fritsch Casern stands empty. A new city quarter is being established in Lincoln Village where new houses will be built and many of the old ones are being renovated.
Darmstadt is just off Autobahn A5 and A67, about 30 miles southeast of Wiesbaden. It is about 65 miles from Kaiserslautern. There is a direct train from Wiesbaden to Darmstadt. Once there, take bus F, K or H or tram 2, 3 or 5 to Luisenplatz. There are no direct trains from Kaiserslautern.
Any time, but a nice sunny day is best. Museums are closed Mondays.
There is no free parking in the city center, and parking garages are not cheap. Be prepared to pay 2 euros per hour at most places.
There are plenty of restaurants in all price classes, many on the market square. When the weather is nice there is an outdoor cafe on the Mathildenhoehe as well as a beer garden on the palace’s bastion.
Go to www.darmstadt.de and click on the British flag for English-language info on the city.
The tourist information center is on Luisenplatz, on the left corner of the Luisencenter mall.