Summary: An overlooked city with a lot to offer but not too much
Mainz is a unique city in Germany because it offers a strong cultural identity and a reason for tourists to visit. Here you can enjoy local delicacies and wine native to Mainz while enjoying the atmosphere of an old Rhenish cityscape. Tourists often skip Mainz due to the destruction the city faced in WWII, and this argument has some validity. Mainz is a large city, and the old town is proportionally small. With all things considered, though, Mainz has enough activities, sights, and food to make for an exciting day trip.
With the total destruction of every German city in WWII, the general pattern is for a city to offer either a cultural experience or a historical one, but not both. Large cities with many people tend to be centers of culture and identity, but they suffered the most wartime destruction. Think of Cologne, Frankfurt, Hamburg, and Berlin. These are lively places to live but offer little to tourists compared to cities like Paris, Florence, or Prague.
Whereas the largest city to escape destruction in Germany was Görliz. This “city” is, in actuality, a large town in a truly remote corner of the continent. What Görliz does have, though, is one of the most beautiful old towns in central Europe. Ideally, we would have both a beautiful city and a local cultural identity, but this is not usually possible in Germany. It is on this spectrum that we should consider Mainz.
In ages gone by, Mainz was an important city, and this legacy is reflected in both the cityscape and its local identity. Mainz has a rich collection of architectural heritage, including an epic medieval cathedral, a group of Baroque palaces, and a small old town worth visiting. In contrast, Düsseldorf, a major city with bits of surviving old town in comparable quantity, was never really that important. That city has essentially just some old townhouses from the 19th century. Düsseldorf falls into the same category as Cologne and Berlin, large cities with a strong local identity but very little surviving heritage.
In contrast, Mainz is one of the primary cultural centers of the Rhenish-Palatinate, and as a result, it has a remarkably resilient identity. Known in Germany primarily for its carnival celebration, wine, and jovial student population, the city also has unique local traditions and cuisine. The combination of cultural and historical aspects makes Mainz an immersive destination for exploring the Rhineland. In this regard, the only other Rhenish cities comparable to Mainz are Strasbourg, Basel, and the much larger German cities of Munich and Leipzig. Thus, Mainz falls in the middle of the spectrum, offering an optimum typically not found in German cities.
Should you visit Mainz?
I try to give ratings relative to the best that Europe has to offer. For Germany, with its war-torn cities, 6.5 is above average. Typically, you would expect a score of 5-6.
From a tourism perspective, Mainz is a relatively well-established destination with all of the offerings you would expect. While it is well suited for day trips from Frankfurt, it lacks the overnight accommodation and experience that would make it worth staying there. So for that, I give it a solid 7.
In terms of historic preservation, the city was not reconstructed tabula rasa, so much of the older city grid has been preserved. This means that many individual buildings have survived scattered around, giving parts of the city an old-world atmosphere, even when not in the central tourist district. On a European level, it’s about average, so 5 is appropriate.
Mainz has its own flair for food and drink and a lively student population, making cultural immersion rather natural. The downside is that the small tourist district can easily fill up with tourists and locals. During peak travel season or on market days, the volume of people can be overwhelming. I give it a 6 for cultural flair, but it might be too touristy sometimes to score higher.
Like most German cities, everything has published opening hours at reasonable times. Mainz has the advantage of being a large city, so there will always be places to eat or drink, regardless of the time or day. It loses points in interactivity because some of the compelling things to see are behind locked doors, such as Erthaler Hof, St. Johns, and the Antonine Chapel. For that reason, it gets an 8.
Should You Visit?
Mainz is worth visiting … sort of. It’s not worth going out of the way to see, probably only as a day trip or on the way to see something else.
How to see Mainz
Getting to the old town is not necessarily apparent since the central station is far from the main tourist areas. The advantage of traveling through the central station is that walking up to Schillerplatz is pretty close and is worth seeing in its own regard. However, I recommend taking the S-bahn or light rail to the Roman Theater station, then walking up the Augustinerstraße street, or visiting the fortress first.
The area of the old town in Mainz is relatively concentrated to the South and East side of the Cathedral. Like other cities in Europe, which faced systematic destruction, Mainz has a few other hidden islands of historical architecture elsewhere in the city. Schillerplatz, when looked at from the right angle, gives an impression of what was once Mainz’s most illustrious boulevard. There are also some pleasant streets above the city near St. Stephan and the citadel. You may also find a few nice corners in the Historicist new town, but they are too far away to be a destination.
For a more detailed guide to Mainz
Uncovering the Old Empire in Mainz
Check the opening hours for Mainz
Mainz Opening Hours
Explore the traditional food of Mainz
The Traditional Food and Drink of Mainz
Explore the region around Mainz
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Mainz is an underrated destination, especially as a day trip from Frankfurt. There is a lot to see and experience here. However, there is not enough left to make it a premier destination on a long trip to Europe or Germany.