People familiar with Germany would likely assume that the capital of the state of Hessen was Frankfurt am Main, undoubtedly because it was one of the major transportation hubs and commercial centers of continental Europe. But, they would be incorrect -- it was just like New York City, which was not the capital of New York. The capital of Hessen was actually a smaller city just a little to the west, a former Roman bath town called Wiesbaden.
I visited Wiesbaden on a very cold winter Sunday in 2003, which unfortunately meant that the residents were huddling indoors to stay warm rather than out in the marketplaces. This was a shame as I was told that on a pleasant day, Wiesbaden was a very active place just like any other capital city. I found that it had plenty going for it, so together we returned for its Christmas market in 2004, and then again in the spring of 2005 and fortunately caught a bright sunny, though chilly day. Much of this travelogue was based on the original 2003 visit.
Wiesbaden was a city of parks, lots of parks, that shaped the downtown almost in an 'L' south-to-north-to-east as it followed a ridgeline near the confluence of the Rhein and Main rivers. I began my tour at the train station, on the south end, and followed one park about two city blocks northward to the Rhein-Main Halle, Wiesbaden's major convention center. Like all the parks there, this one had lots of fountains and walking paths -- but all shut down for the winter.
The first real sight I reached was in the first picture, the Marktplatz with the Rathaus (town hall) and the Marktkirche. These two buildings and the Hessische Landestag (Hessian State Building) behind them formed a second marketsquare, sitting at the corner of the downtown pedestrian zone. The Landestag was formerly a palace, a bright white concrete building that contrasted completely with the city's red brick landmarks.
Wiesbaden's pedestrian zone was very large and heavily modernized, particularly along the main streets of Michaelsberg Marktstrasse and Kirchegasse/Langgasse. It being a Sunday, all the shops were closed, but there were a number of points of interest along the way. For example, the second photo shows the Römertor, or Roman Gate, along Langgasse, sitting at the base of the ridgeline. This gate included ruins of the old city wall, and included a modern bridge allowing pedestrians to cross over the highway from the high suburbs.
The "Altstadt", or old city zone, was a collection of smaller pedestrian streets in the center and was the place to go to find the popular cafés and clubs. It was a very pretty section of town, and those cafés were doing pretty decent business on that cold day!
Speaking of cold, there was a public fountain where one could easily warm up if needed. In the middle of the Altstadt, I found an innocent little building called the Backerbrunnen that had a running fountain with water from the thermal streams underground. This was a good find, because minutes later I enjoyed a batch of potato pancakes from a street vendor, eaten the German way -- by hand. As potato pancakes were known for being greasy, going back to the Backerbrunnen to wash my hands was nice.
I circled around the downtown, starting north, then following west and south past the Luisenplatz (third photo) and back to the Rathaus. There were a number of interesting buildings I passed along the way, mostly spas and churches. These included the Kaiser Friedrich Therme (a spa), then the Bergkirche (the small "city" church) and the Alt Katholiche Kirche uptown, the Ringkirche (a church that looked like a clone of Cologne's Gross St. Martin, and finally the St. Bonifatius at the Luisenplatz.
It was then time to visit the Eastern end of the 'L' which, in effect, was saving the best for last. The fourth photo shows the Hessische Staatstheater, Wiesbaden's best known building. This theater sat at one end of the Warmer Damm, a park and duck pond adjacent to the Marktplatz. The Chancellor's House sat on the opposite side of the park, and was an equally magnificent structure, but it was so well surrounded by trees I couldn't see much of it, even from up close.
True to Wiesbaden's Roman bath roots, it had a number of large spa houses, and they were behind the Staatstheater. The Kurhaus, marked with the words "Aquis Mattiacis" across the front is shown in the fifth photo, was the main attraction -- housing both a spa and a major casino. Roman-style colonnades containing ritzy shopping complexes marked the square on either side.
Behind the Kurhaus was the Kurpark, yet another huge park with more ponds, streams, and ducks that wound deep into the suburban landscape. I followed the park trails through the handsome east side and its upscale neighborhoods. It was there that I encountered the greatest number of brave souls who were outside braving the bitter cold and getting some exercise. Based on the rather full parking lot at the time (which in the 2005 visit was torn up for the construction of an underground parking garage), so I suspected there were far greater numbers of less-brave souls spending the afternoon bathing.
I would classify Wiesbaden as a place to go if you are on business or living in the southern part of Hessen. It was less of a tourist destination, per se -- for tourists, I would recommend going further north on the Rhein to more scenic locales like Cologne or Koblenz. But like any capital city, Wiesbaden was ordinarily a busy place. Certainly worth considering for those who liked spas and wanted to avoid a bitter cold Sunday afternoon in February.
Trip taken 1 February 2003 -- Page last updated 25 October 2006 -- (C) 2006 Tom Galvin