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.
Mainz is a somewhat unique city in Germany, in the sense that it offers both a strong cultural identity and a reason for tourists to come visit. 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 previous centuries while possessing bits of old town that survived World War 2. In contrast, Düsseldorf, which is also a major city and also has bits of surviving old town in comparable quantity, was never really that important. This means Mainz has both an epic medieval cathedral, a collection of Baroque palaces and and old town worth visiting, whereas Düsseldorf just has some old town-houses from the 19th century. The only cities comparable to Mainz in this regard are the much larger cities of Berlin and Munich, and the more well known city of Dresden (Mainz has more old town than Dresden though).
Mainz is one of the major historical and cultural centers of the Rhenish-Palatinate, the other being Heidelberg (well actually Mannheim, but there’s no reason to go there.) You can read more about the region Mainz is in here.
How to see Mainz
Getting to the old-town is not necessarily obvious since the main station is rather far away from the main tourist areas. The advantage of travelling through the main station is that walking up to Schillerplatz isn’t too far, and is worth seeing its own own regard. However, I would recommend taking the S-bahn or light rail to the Roman Theater station and either walking up the Augustinerstraße street or visiting the fortress first.
The area of old town in Mainz is fairly concentrated to the South East side of the Cathedral. Unlike other towns in Europe which faced systematic destruction, Mainz does not have any additional hidden islands of historical architecture in other parts of the city. You could make the argument that Schillerplatz, when looked at from the right angle, counts as concentrated old town, but I think that’s rather generous. There are also some nice streets above the city near St. Stephan and the citadel and you may find a few nice corners in the Historicist new town, but they are not worth your time. To help guide you through the main sites, I will group them in a rough chronological order.
For more detailed travel information and opening hours check out this post here:
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 an Elector of the Imperial Throne for the Holy Roman Empire. This power was provided by the legacy of Mainz as a Roman city, of which almost nothing remains (there’s a ruined aqueduct outside the city and a bit of a Roman theater). The legacy of this medieval ambition is the soaring cathedral, the dozens of churches scattered across the city and a few surviving secular buildings.
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 only accessible with a guide. Instead move on to the Cathedral of St. Martin.
Construction of the cathedral likely started in the 10th century but little substance survives from this period, primarily in the western flanking towers. The visible architecture can be divided into four parts:
- The 12th century Romanesque of the Salian Dynasty in the style of Speyer and Lombardy. This firms the core architecture of the building and especially the Nave.
- The 12-13th century Romanesque of the Hohenstaufen Dynasty based on the Worms school of architecture. This is most evident in the vaulting and western crossing tower, but also in much of the ornamentation.
- The Gotthard Palace chapel in the Salian style
- Later additions of the Gothic, Baroque and Historicism, which includes the Eastern Choir and Cloister
The interior is noteworthy for having survived the iconoclastic purges of the Reformation and French invasions and thus retains a substantial inventory of medieval altars and sculpture. Especially noteworthy but difficult to see without a tour guide is the high altar of St. Martin.
In the Cloister you will find one of the most beautiful locations in Germany, often overlooked. Also located here is the Treasury Museum, also one of the best in Germany for ecclesiastical art. Of special note are the remnants of the Medieval rood screen by the legendary Naumburg Master. This influential work of art went on to influence countless others, the best preserved of which is in Gelnhausen.
Other Medieval Monuments
As the Empire went to decline after the 13th century so did it’s 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 gate houses are the best reserved Romanesque gate-towers from the Romanesque 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. This is probably the one most worth a visit. It’s built in a style typical of the upper Rhine and is comparable to Oppenheim and Freiburg. It was however totally destroyed in the war and the part worth spending time in is the spectacular late Gothic Cloister.
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 inherited the Archbishop’s scepter for over a century, and in Würzburg the Schönborn Dynasty was ascendant. Mainz, however, was characterized by a diffusion of power, with the Bishop’s Throne passing between a variety of 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 city and surrounded by palaces of the elite. This plaza once marked the edge of the city, and was once the location for many mendicant monastic orders, whose legacy has 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 buldings constructed in the city. It draws heavily on the late Renaissance “House of the Roman Emperors”, which is currently home to the Guttenberg museum.
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 palaces nearby.
However, all of the aforementioned palaces fell victim to the allied bombing raids of the WWII, which makes the final palace on Schillerplatz quite special. 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 magazine, it is built in a simple style reminiscent of the classically influenced French Baroque of Louis XIV. Unlike virtually 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 week day and hope nobody notices.
The Palaces of the Prince-Bishop Elector
From here the next destination are the palaces of the Prince-Bishops, but along the way stop at the Dalberg Palace, the largest preserved palace in Mainz. Built in the reconstruction period around 1715, its styles are reminiscent of the South German Baroque but are 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 during the French revolution and its inventory sold off and its interior ruined. It was later turned into a prison, and its current state is due to the 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 support by Mainz. The palace conforms in style to the other great palaces the Elector built in Höchst (destroyed in 30 Years War, only the gate house 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 Palaces 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 one of the greatest marvels of the German reconstruction, the Rococo Church of St. Peter. This beautiful example of the Rhenish Rococo was build around 1750 and displays a wealth of commonalities with other churches from this period. It is notable that very few buildings of this style were constructed on the Rhineland outside of Mainz and that care was taken to reconstruct it in such a precise manner. Though much of the inventory survived the fire bombing attack as it had been moved 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 effort involved.
The Old Town
The final two things on this itinerary are the churches of the Augustine Monasteryand St. Ignaz. Both Churches lie in the core section of surviving old town in Mainz and should be enjoyed both individually and in the context that they sit in. The Augustine church is a splendid example of the late Baroque in Mainz and St. Ignaz is a fairly unique example of early Rhenish Classicism, constructed just before the Empire came to an end.
The oldtown itself dates mostly from the latter end of the 19th century filled in with tasteful post-war buildings. The half-timbered houses are of a style 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 probably 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.
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. 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.
You can read more about them here.
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.
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.
- 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.
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