A Guide to Old Mannheim

Summary: There is almost nothing to see here, but if you get stuck at the train station, why not look around a bit

The city of Mannheim was once the illustrious capital of the Upper Rhine. From here ruled the Palatine Electors, the Dukes of Baden, and the industrial barons of the German Empire. Of their legacy, virtually nothing survives. Nevertheless, since you might find yourself here, waiting to change trains, let me give you a quick tour of what’s left.

For a quick overview:

Palace in Mannheim

Should You Visit Mannheim?

For a city that did not survive the Second World War, Mannheim does better than most of its counterparts. I can only recommend it as a destination for people interested in Baroque Architecture specifically.

How to See Mannheim

Different from the other cities of the Rhineland, Mannheim has a shorter history. (If you are more interested in the ancient past, I have an article with some itinerary guides for this portion of the Rhineland.) Sitting at the mouth of the Neckar River as it flows into the Rhine, there are traces of small settlements from the Roman period and evidence of a castle built here in the Middle Ages.

Mannheim emerged only after the destruction of the Palatinate in the Nine Years’ War in 1697. The catholic Elector Karl III Philipp needed a new capital after he was evicted in 1720 from the old one in Heidelberg by its protestant inhabitants. Mannheim was built from the ground up, according to the urban planning ideas of classical Rome, which offered a new approach to urban design. We see this in the rather modern-looking grid pattern of streets, contrasting it with other planned cities built with radiating avenues like Karlsruhe.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel

Before its destruction in WWII, Mannheim had a collection of buildings from two eras, the Baroque cityscape of the Palatinate and the architecture of the German industrial revolution, namely late historicist and art nouveau.

The Mannheim Court

Palace in Mannheim
Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The Palace of the Elector is one of the largest Baroque palaces in Europe

We have several scattered landmarks from this period in the city’s history. The most impressive and worth visiting are the Electoral Palace and the Jesuit church, located conveniently near the station.

The Palace would end up being the second largest in Europe at its completion in 1760. According to legend, the Elector demanded that it have exactly one more window than Versailles to reflect his status as Elector. Though constructed in a late Baroque style, the design is heavily influenced by several traditions, especially French and Italian, resulting from three different architects and 40 years of construction.

The Palace has been lovingly reconstructed since the 1960s and has returned to its historical appearance. While only one room survived the destruction, several others, including the Knight’s Hall and Grand Staircase, have been rebuilt down to the last detail on the ceiling frescos originally by Egid Asam. The museum is worth your visit and won’t take too much time.

Travel tip: The Palace is open every day except Monday from 10:00 – 17:00. It’s worth a brief stopover if you happen to already be in Mannheim

Before you leave the Palace, note the pavilion on the left side as you face away from the entrance. This building is the palace chapel and is also restored, though not to its original configuration. The reconstruction approach sought to rebuild a church representative of the age rather than a replica of the former building. It’s worth a few minutes.

The next stop should be the Jesuit Church, easily visible with its massive dome and façade. The Elector was interested in enforcing the tenets of the Counter-Reformation and invited the Jesuits to set up a branch office in Mannheim as a symbol of Catholic power. The building was spared total destruction and was reconstructed accurately, though without its lavish ceiling frescos.

Jesuit Church in Mannheim
Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The Jesuit Church is a powerful symbol of the Counter Reformation

The church was built in the style of the late Italian Baroque, generally copying the Church of the Gesu in Rome. As with the grand Palace, the interior is an eclectic combination of influences reflecting its lengthy construction period and the myriad of architects and artisans working on it.

Now if you are in the mood to walk, the last notable relic of the city’s origins is the town hall and old market square. The old square retains about 60-70% of its prewar architecture and has the potential to be quite lovely. However, the cityscape here is poorly maintained, and the area feels run down and dirty. Maybe in the future, this will be a more atmospheric place to visit.

The town hall was the first building constructed following the French invasions, starting around 1707, and is stylistically distinct from the Palace and Jesuit church. The town hall was built to reflect the physical symmetry of the city and the theoretical symmetry of the church and state. On the right side is the church of St. Sebastian, and on the left the offices of the town.

Old Market in Mannheim
Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The old Market in Mannheim is one of the last partially preserved images of Old Mannheim

The last thing worth noting is the collection of other Baroque monuments scattered around the city, mainly statues and fountains. Paradeplatz features the largest fountain. The most historically significant statue is the statue of the four elements on the old market square. Initially meant for the palace gardens in Heidelberg, it arrived in Mannheim in 1719.

Now if you are bored and want to catch glimpses of the illusive German art nouveau or see the closest Mannheim has to a preserved cityscape, join me in the next section.

The Architecture of the Machine Age

The architecture of the late 19th century and early 20th century has many different names, depending on the country. In the English-speaking world, we use the blanket term “Victorian” to colloquially describe the many styles that arose between 1850-1914. A more precise name is “late historicism,” which refers to the increasingly eclectic evocation and synthesis of historical styles in urban architecture.

Late historicist architecture is bound up in the romantic movement and the consequences of a nascent national identity. The industrial revolution brought substantial wealth to Germany and Mannheim. Now it was time to replace the old buildings of an impoverished feudal state with something more representative of the future. The new city would represent Germany’s wealth and power, so it had to look the part. This modernization also raised the standard of urban living, even for the working classes, who were this given an additional incentive to migrate to the cities.

Old Mannheim
Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel A glimpse into the late historicist cityscape of Mannheim

The industrial wealth of Mannheim ensured that it had the capital to reshape its cityscape and the power to draw new workers from the countryside. Most of the large apartment homes of the Victorian or historicist period are actually tenement homes for the working class. The expense of such ornamental buildings was about the city’s prestige and those financing it. In Germany, in particular, the styles of the late historicist architecture reflected the city’s geography and local history. In Mannheim, this would have been marked by yellow bricks, neo-baroque ornamentation, and the rise of Art Nouveau.

Old Mannheim
Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel Despite some major gaps, the Neckarstadt appears to have largely survived WWII

None of this survived the war, unfortunately, though Mannheim still has several neighborhoods of relatively middling and low-quality historicist architecture. The northern quadrants of the city have some quantity of preserved buildings, but the missing buildings or modernist replacements are frequent enough to distort the overall historical image. The Neckarstadt, on the opposite side of the river, has the most intact cityscape in Mannheim and evokes the feeling of the late 19th century.

The most imposing monument to German historicism is the eclectic water tower (Wasserturm), built in 1885, combining the baroque and classical revival. It predated its direct surroundings by a decade and was subsequently surrounded by a beautiful art nouveau neighborhood and park.

Towards the end of the 19th century, artistic reactions against the industrial revolution and historical romanticism began in various countries. Depending on where you look, Art Nouveau emerges as either the last gasp of historicism as the style is taken to its logical extreme or the first hint of the coming functionalist modernity. With its philosophical roots in the Arts and Crafts movement in Britain, it would be Belgium, France, and later the German-speaking lands that would see the richest development of the style.

Considering that Art Nouveau, or Jugendstil, is an urban-industrial style, its no surprise that Mannheim would have been a major center for its development. Despite the losses that Mannheim’s cityscape suffered in WWII, the small collection of surviving monuments to the Art Nouveau in Mannheim is one of Germany’s best, especially given the high quality of buildings and sculpture. Even beyond the immediate surroundings of the water tower, you will find all manner of facades from this period.

Art Nouveau Mannheim
Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel Mannheim was once a major center of the Art Nouveau

Mannheim Opening Hours

The few destinations of note in Mannheim have fairly convenient opening hours:

DestinationOpening Hours
Electoral PalaceTuesday-Sunday 10am–5pm
Palace ChapelTuesday-Sunday 10am–5pm
Jesuit ChurchEveryday 9am–7pm

In addition, a few other smaller museums in Mannheim might be of special interest, such as the Schiller House and the Reiss-Engelhorn Art/History Museum.

Explore the region around Mannheim

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Mannheim has several very nicely reconstructed buildings. However, these don’t make up for the catastrophic losses in WWII and the later decades of the 20th century. If you have already seen all the other European palaces, I could make a case for Mannheim. Otherwise, get on that train to Heidelberg.

Selected Bibliography

  • Luzie Bratner, and Rheinland-Pfalz. Generaldirektion Kulturelles Erbe Rheinland-Pfalz. 2014. Mit Allen Sinnen : Reisewege Zum Barock in Rheinland-Pfalz. Regensburg:Schnell & Steiner.
  • Mueller, Carla, and Katrin Rössler. 2007. Barockschloss Mannheim. München: Dt. Kunstverl.
  • Lieb, Stefanie. Was Ist Jugendstil? : Eine Analyse Der Jugendstilarchitektur ; 1890-1910. Darmstadt Wbg, 2010.

Image Credits

  • All Maps made with Datawrapper

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Electoral Palatinate

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