Uncovering the Old Empire in Mainz

Summary: Mainz was one of the most important centers of power in the Holy Roman Empire, and you can still find traces of this lineage today.

Map of Mainz, where Mainz is Located
Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel

Mainz is a unique city in Germany because it offers a strong cultural identity and a reason for tourists to visit. (Usually, you find just one or the other.) Here you can enjoy local delicacies and wine from Mainz while also enjoying the atmosphere of an old Rhenish cityscape. It is often overlooked due to the destruction the city faced in WWII, but that should not be a reason to skip Mainz, as there is enough left to make it worth your time. This guide to Mainz will take you through all the key things to see and experience in the city.

Mainz finds itself in the unique situation of having been an important city in ancient times while possessing bits of an old town that survived World War II. In contrast, Düsseldorf, a major city with bits of surviving old town in comparable quantity, was never really that important. As a result, Mainz has a rich collection of architectural heritage: an epic medieval cathedral, a group of Baroque palaces, and an old town worth visiting. In contrast, Düsseldorf has some old townhouses from the 19th century. In this regard, the only other Rhenish cities comparable to Mainz are Strasbourg and Basel, as well the much larger German cities of Berlin and Munich.

Mainz is one of the important historical and cultural centers of the Rhenish-Palatinate, the other being Heidelberg (well, actually Mannheim, but there’s no reason to go there.)

If you want to know if Mainz is worth visiting first, see this article below:

Should You Visit Mainz

Should You Visit Mainz

★★★ 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…

How to see Mainz

Guide to Mainz, Location of Places to Visit, Places worth Seeing
Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel My guide to Mainz with the areas of the old town marked in gray

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 in this guide. To help guide you through the main sites, I will group them roughly chronologically.

For more detailed travel information and opening hours, check out this post here:

Mainz Opening Hours

Mainz Opening Hours

The logistics of trying to see everything can be a challenge, especially in a location is complicated opening times. Fortunately Mainz is both highly interactive and tourist friendly. Below I have summarized the opening hours for each of the accessible destinations in my guide.

The sights and things to do can be broadly grouped into two historical categories, the Medieval Empire and the Age of Absolutism.

Legacy of the Empire

Mainz was the most powerful of the Ecclesiastical Prince-Archbishops of the Middle Ages and was an Elector of the Imperial Throne for the Holy Roman Empire. The church’s strength arose from the Roman heritage beneath the city streets. As one of the largest Roman settlements on the Rhine, the city’s ruins were quickly resettled during the Early Middle Ages. The church represented a continuation of the late Roman institutional legacy, and Mainz emerged as a center of power during this period.

The legacy of this medieval ambition is the soaring cathedral, the dozens of churches scattered across the city, and a few surviving secular buildings. (Almost nothing remains of the great Roman city, though a few ruins and archeological finds are scattered around the city.)

The Cathedral(s) of Mainz

For this historical period, we start with the church of St. John, just behind the cathedral. This building is all that remains of the 10th-century Carolingian cathedral, with foundations dating back to the 8th century. This makes it one of the oldest continuously inhabited churches in Europe. Destroyed in WW2, the interior is an archaeological dig site and thus only accessible with a guide. Instead, move on to the Cathedral of St. Martin.

Main Square in Mainz with the Cathedral
Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The Cathedral of St. Martin dominates the market square as it has for centuries, though in a greatly altered form

The visible architecture can be divided into four parts:

  • Fragments of 11th-century architecture
  • 12th-century Lombard Romanesque of the Salian Dynasty
  • 13th-century Late Romanesque of the Hohenstaufen Dynasty
  • Late Gothic Renovations from the 15th century

The prominent remnants of the 11th-century church are two western towers, which survived the first fires of the church, and the foundations of the west facade. Otherwise, the main observation from this period is that the overall shape of the building did not change later on. Numerous towers and belfries were part of an early Romanesque image program that associated the church’s strength with the “fortress of god.” Similar image programs can be found in many Romanesque churches across Europe.

Most of the cathedral dates to the 12th-century construction efforts of Henry IV of the Salian Dynasty. He funded the reconstruction of the Mainz Cathedral just as he was building his personal Imperial Cathedral in Speyer. As a result, the two buildings have much in common. The notable details include the easter exterior facade, rounded apse, and upper gallery. Likewise, the church’s central nave, or hall, is built on three levels: the windows at the top, the arches at the bottom, and an early triforium in the middle. This three-part division is most common in English and Norman churches of the period and is quite unusual for Germany.

However, the church’s vaulting came later, at the end of the 12th century. The use of early Gothic vaults is notable, as it required adjustments to the hall’s design. Instead of just square pillars, the vaults are supported on an alternating pattern of plastered columns, a feature of the late Romanesque in the Rhineland. The use of pointed arches greatly enhanced the structural integrity of the buildings and prefaced much more extensive renovations to come in the following century.

Mainz Cathedral of St. Martin Interior looking west
Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The Salian and Staufen periods were separated by over a century in time but blend seamlessly together today.

The 13th century was the Golden Age of the Medieval Holy Roman Empire. Under the Hohehnstaufen Dynasty, particularly under Emperor Frederich II Barbarossa, Imperial building programs reached an apogee. For Mainz, this meant renovating the western part of the church and the crossing tower. Here, you see a dramatic shift in the style, now imitating the great churches of Cologne. Early Gothic ribbed vaulting enabled a much larger cupola, windows, and more enclosed space. Though Gothic elements were used, the structure remains fundamentally Romanesque in design. The use of geometrical patterns as the main ornamentation, rather than intricate carvings, is a notable departure from the typical archetype set in Cologne and prefaces the later design preferences of the Rhenish Gothic.

The final significant remodeling of the church occurred in the 14th century when the exterior wall of both naves was expanded to include side chapels. This gives the lower level of the church an immense source of light that would have previously been absent from the interior. Later changes also include a redesign of the cupola’s exterior and the construction of the cloister. 

The interior is noteworthy for having some original inventory survive the iconoclastic purges of the Reformation and French invasions. The primary collection concerns the ancient epitaphs and effigies of the Prince-Bishops and the remarkably well-preserved late Baroque choir stall. The latter of which is best seen with a guided tour.

In the cloister, you will find one of the most beautiful locations in Germany, and often overlooked. Located here is the Treasury Museum, a renowned museum for ecclesiastical art. Of particular note are the remnants of the Medieval rood screen by the legendary Naumburg Master. This influential work of art influenced countless others, the best preserved of which is in Naumburg and Gelnhausen.

Mainz Cloister, late Gothic, beautiful medieval architecture
Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The beautiful late Gothic arcades of the Mainz cloister evoke a quiet and forgotten space.

Other Medieval Monuments

As the Empire declined after the 13th century, so did its symbolism, creating a vacuum filled by the elaborate forms of the Gothic. Mainz has only a few Gothic monuments which survive and are worth seeing:

  • The two remaining medieval gatehouses are the best preserved Romanesque gate-towers from the period in Germany.
  • The Carmelite church, a simple 14th-century building with an impressive collection of Gothic frescos in the choir
  • The Antonine Chapel, a small building with the most intact Gothic fresco cycle in Mainz
  • The parish church of St. Stephan, completed in 1340, represents the arrival of the international Gothic in the Rhineland. It was the first hall church of the period in the region. It also has a spectacularly beautiful cloister, often with fewer tourists than the cathedral. That said, the war destroyed the church, and the interior was not rebuilt.

The Age of Absolutism

By the end of the Middle Ages, the great ecclesiastical principalities of the Holy Roman Empire had become mirrors of their secular counterparts. In 17th-century Cologne, the Wittelsbach family had controlled the Archbishop’s scepter for over a century, and in Würzburg, the Schönborn Dynasty was ascendant. In contrast, Mainz was characterized by a diffusion of power, with the Bishop’s Throne passing between various leading families. Among other things, this alternating power dynamic and the repeated destruction of the city would shape the architecture of the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Palaces of Schillerplatz

This part of the tour starts in Schillerplatz, once located at the edge of the city and surrounded by palaces of the elite. In the Medieval City, the poor lived along the city’s edge, clustered at the wall. This location made it an ideal ground for many mendicant monastic orders preaching to the poor. However, the Thirty Years War saw most of those institutions destroyed. By the 17th century, they had long since disappeared from the cityscape. The Schönborn family would construct their Palace here in 1688, long before taking their turn upon the throne. Their Palace, the Schönborner Hof, is one of the first Baroque buildings constructed in the city. For influence, it draws heavily on the late Renaissance “House of the Roman Emperors,” currently home to the Guttenberg Museum.

Mainz Schillerplatz
Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel Despite its total destruction in the war, it retains its charm as the center of the elite

At the head of Schillerplatz is the mighty Osteiner Hof Palace, built in the style of the Würzburg baroque around 1747, with its rounded avant-corps showing a direct link with the Prince-Bishop’s Palace in Würzburg. Next to it is the Bassenheimer Hof palace, built in a strict French late baroque style, which contrasts nicely with the other buildings nearby.

However, all of the palaces above fell victim to the Allied bombing raids of WWII, which makes the final Palace on Schillerplatz quite extraordinary. The Erthaler Hof Palace is an unimposing construction you likely passed without realizing it. Located at the beginning of the plaza across from the old armory, the Palace is built in a simple style reminiscent of the classically influenced French Baroque of Louis XIV. Unlike every other building in Mainz, an innovative fire-resistant roof design preserved the interiors of the buildings, which display a beautiful collection of rooms from the mid-18th century, just as the Baroque began its transition to the Rococo. Unfortunately, despite such heritage, the building is not even remotely accessible to the public. Your best bet at being able to see anything is to walk in during a weekday and hope nobody notices.

The Palaces of the Prince-Bishop Elector

From here, the next destination is the collection of palaces belonging to the Prince-Bishops. Along the way, stop briefly at the Dalberg Palace, the largest preserved Palace in Mainz. Built in the reconstruction period around 1715, its style is reminiscent of the South German Baroque but is likely based on Italian examples. Nothing of the interior survives, not, however, as a result of WWII (though that certainly didn’t help). The Palace was sacked and burned during the French Revolution. Later converted into a prison by Prussia, and its current state resulted from reconstruction efforts after the war.

The Electoral Palace is one of the last major examples of the German Renaissance style, which flourished on the Main River and was heavily supported by Mainz. The Palace conforms in style to the other great palaces the Elector built in Höchst (destroyed in the 30 Years War, only the gatehouse and tower survive) and in Aschaffenburg (Palace was rebuilt in a slightly modified form after the war). Of the three palaces, the exterior of the Electoral Palace is the richest in form. Though the Palace currently houses a small museum for Roman archaeology, nothing of the interior survived the combination of the French Revolution and WWII.

Equally imposing right next door is the Deutschhaus Palace, built for the Prince-Elector Francis Louis of Neuburg in 1729. As he was also Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights, he wanted to separate his duties as Prince-Elector and Grandmaster into separate palaces. Virtually nothing about this building is original except for, perhaps, its location. It is a more-or-less interpretive post-war reconstruction and now hoses the Parliament for the state of the Rhineland Palatinate.

The Palace Church of St. Peter

The final thing to see here is the Rococo Church of St. Peter, one of the greatest marvels of the German reconstruction. This beautiful example of the Rhenish Rococo was built around 1750 and displays a wealth of commonalities with other churches from this period. Notably, very few buildings of this style were constructed on the Rhineland outside of Mainz, and that care was taken to reconstruct it in an extremely precise manner. Though most of the inventory survived the firebombing attack as it had been relocated elsewhere, virtually nothing of the church remained. That its current appearance accurately reflects what the Prince-Elector would have seen in 1750 is a testament to the effort involved.

The Old Town

The final two things on this itinerary are the Augustine Monastery and St. Ignaz church. Both churches lie in the core section of surviving old town in Mainz and should be enjoyed individually and in their urban context. The Augustine church is a splendid example of the late Baroque in Mainz, and St. Ignaz is a unique example of early Rhenish Classicism, constructed just before the Holy Roman Empire came to an end.

Manz half-timbered houses
Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel A variety of styles can be seen even in half-timbered homes.

The old town itself dates mainly from the latter end of the 19th century, filled in with elegant post-war buildings. The half-timbered houses are typical of the Rhenish baroque period, and you might even find a few with a classical pediment. There are a few interesting examples of late Renaissance buildings, specifically in the Louis XIII style, that would have been common in the region (especially Frankfurt) prior to WWII.

This is the best spot to end a day in Mainz, so stop here and find one of many places to sit and enjoy a glass of wine and a local Mainz specialty.

Mainz Old Town
Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel Augustinerstraße isn’t the only street with old buildings on it

As the cultural center of the Rhenish-Palatinate, Mainz offers a number of fairly local delicacies focused on wine and cheese. It’s not common for a city to have such a unique local identity. Make sure to try some of them before you leave. A good idea might be to simply visit the weekend market or a local grocery store and look for some there.

Mainz Market

The Traditional Food and Drink of Mainz

As the cultural center of the Rhenish-Palatinate, Mainz offers a number of fairly local delicacies focused around wine and cheese. Make sure to try some of them before you leave. A good idea might be to simply visit the weekend market or a local grocery store and look for some there.

In Conclusion

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 quite enough left to make it a premier destination on a longer trip to Europe or to Germany.

Mainz Old Town
Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel Mainz has a wide variety of architectural styles, here ranging from the early baroque to the late historicist

Selected Bibliography

  • Meinrad Von Engelberg, Felicitas Janson, Georg Peter Karn, Generaldirektion Kulturelles Erbe Rheinland-Pfalz, and Akademie Des Bistums Mainz. 2017. Mainzer Barock : Ein Vergessenes Erbe? : Zur Prägung Und Ausprägung Der Barocken Kunst Im Mainzer Raum. Regensburg: Schnell + Steiner.
  • Luzie Bratner, and Rheinland-Pfalz. Generaldirektion Kulturelles Erbe Rheinland-Pfalz. 2014. Mit Allen Sinnen : Reisewege Zum Barock in Rheinland-Pfalz. Regensburg:Schnell & Steiner.
  • Hotz, Walter. 1985. Die Wormser Bauschule 1000-1250 : Werke, Nachbarn, Verwandte : Studien Über Landschaftsbezogene Deutsche Baukunst. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.
  • Dethard Von Winterfeld. 2000. Die Kaiserdome Speyer, Mainz, Worms : Und Ihr Romanisches Umland. Regensburg: Schnell & Steiner.
  • http://www.mainz-schmecker.de/regionale-kueche-mainz/

Image Credits

  • All Maps made with Datawrapper

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Electoral Palatinate

At the Heart of an Empire

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