There are a lot of things to see and experience in this world, but time is not so generously supplied. If you had only a single day or perhaps a few days in the Palatinate, what would you see? This short list should narrow down the options quite significantly and help you decide where to go. Though if you have more time on your hands, then check out the more detailed itineraries.
3. The City of Mainz
At rank three we have the city of Mainz and its collection of baroque and medieval cityscapes. Mainz is a charming destination with everything you might want out of a European city. It has bits of old-world flair with rich local traditions including carnival, Christmas markets and its own native cuisine.
Despite heavy damage in WWII, the urban planners opted not reconstruct the city tabula rasa and substantial old-town was spared. At the heart is the inspiring cathedral overlooking the old market square, surrounded by medieval alleyways. The city offers the only collection of high-quality Baroque churches in the Rhineland, in St. Peter, St. Ignaz, the Augustine Monastery and the Choir of the Cathedral. In addition, the reconstruction of the market square offers a fantastic glimpse into the dramatic pre-war cityscape of Mainz. For a more detailed guide to the city see my guide below:
Despite severe wartime losses, Mainz still retains some of its rich architectural heritage. We can follow in the footsteps of powerful medieval Archbishops and explore symbols of civic pride. This guide to Mainz will take you through all the key things to see and experience in the city.
2. The Town of Speyer
Here in Speyer the Imperial image program of the Holy Roman Empire reaches its dramatic apogee. The Imperial cathedral was built into a city with the goal of transforming it into a capital worthy of an Empire (or rather a sepulchral monument worthy of an Emperor). Though the city was destroyed twice, in the Nine-Years-War and later by Napoleon, there is still a lot too see. However, only the Cathedral belies its medieval heritage.
In terms of the Baroque, Speyer has a beautiful, but small old-town on the main street leading to the Cathedral. The main sight in this case would be the Trinity Church, a splendid baroque wood-paneled Lutheran church, one of a series made in the early 18th century.
Unlike Mainz, Speyer is a village, but it ranks higher for the completeness of the cityscape. Spared destruction in WWII, you will find Speyer to be a fully immersive trip into the 18th century Palatinate.
1. The Old Capital of Heidelberg
In first place there are no surprises. Heidelberg is one of the top destinations in Germany and the best destination in the Palatinate by a large margin.
As such, Heidelberg may at times feel like a historical theme-park comparable to Venice or Dubrovnik. It possesses one of the nicest old-towns in Germany and sits on the ICE-Line between Paris and Frankfurt. This deposits tourists in the morning for pick-up later in the afternoon. Getting past the tourists is worth an off-season trip, since its deserves the popularity it gets.
Heidelberg was once the medieval capital of the County Palatine, an Elector of the Holy Roman Emperor. The city owes its ancient grandeur to King Ruprecht III who turned it into a city worthy of this Imperial title. All of this was put to the torch by the French in the War of Palatine Succession. The cityscape we see today is the result of a planned reconstruction effort that would introduce the Baroque principles of urban planning to Germany.
The city has one of the best preserved old-towns in Germany. It tells a coherent narrative of the reconstruction and artistic innovation, from the Mannerist facades of the mighty castle ruin to the ornaments on each individual house.
Heidelberg’s cityscape tells the story of a city returning from the ashes, of artistic exploration and the costs of irreconcilable conflict. Its worth a visit, even with its reputation for tourists.
The charm of the Palatinate lies in its many small villages and hidden castles. However nice they might be though, it would be impossible to recommend one over a destination as grand as Heidelberg. If you have the opportunity though, there are many worth investigating and here are some suggestions:
The Village of Ladenburg
Sitting right next to Heidelberg, it too was devastated by the French, but more of Ladenburg survived than in other locations. Along with Bad Wimpfen, it probably has the oldest surviving cityscape in the Electoral Palatinate. Its streets are filled with half-timbered houses from the Renaissance and Baroque periods.
It was once a major city under the control of Worms, and the Emperor was there on numerous occasions. Roman Ruins can be found scattered round the town, a relic of its origins as a military way-station. The crypt of the church of St. Gallus and the Towers of St. Sebastian are some of the earliest constructions of the Romanesque in the Rhineland.
The Town of Oppenheim
The High Middle Ages come to an end for the Holy Roman Empire here. Oppenheim possesses the only “French” styled church in this region with its rich late Gothic ornamentation, flying buttresses and rich stained glass. It reflects a shift in power away from the Empire and towards local authorities. The styles from Cologne, Freiburg and Strasbourg, but here the cities of Mainz, Worms and Speyer are absent. History has moved on, and the fragmented Empire would never again see a unified style so dominant as the Romanesque.
In addition, Oppenheim has a charming old-town of Baroque and 19th century half-timbered houses overlooking some spectacular vistas of the Rhine valley. Of course, here you are in wine-country so make sure to enjoy the town’s many wine producers.
The hidden gem of Meisenheim
Hidden away in the highlands of the Palatinate is the small village of Meisenheim. The County of Veldenz was a minor state with its capital in the small village of Meisenheim on the Glan River. At the twilight of the Middle Ages, the Counts of Veldenz died out and ownership passed to the now-Counts of Pfalz Zweibrücken, who briefly moved their residence here.
During this time it was transformed into a capital city with a Late-Gothic / Early Renaissance Church to serve as the burial site for the nobility. Shortly after its completion, the Counts moved their capital leaving behind a city trapped in the past. While much of medieval Meisenheim was destroyed by the French, today it offers an immersive glimpse into the old-world cityscapes of the Palatinate.