The third oldest German city after Neuss and Trier, Augsburg was founded by the Romans in 15BC. The city had always been at the nexus of European trade, but its glory days arrived in Early Modern Age when the Fugger and Welser banking families amassed inconceivable wealth. That gave Augsburg the first Renaissance buildings north of the Alps, at the sublime City Hall and the lavish residence of the Fugger family.
Augsburg’s churches and galleries are brimming with Renaissance art, while the central Maximilianstraße has long rows of historic facades and three Mannerist fountains built for the city’s 1,600th birthday. With wealth came culture, and Hans Holbein the Elder and Leopold Mozart are just two Augsburg citizens who helped change the course of art and music.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Augsburg:
The world’s oldest social housing project was started in 1516 by Jakob Fugger, the powerful merchant banker.
Within a decade 52 houses had been constructed, and the sequence of streets and squares, served by a church, became a kind of town of its own.
On eight streets, these long terraces of ivy-clad homes still have residents and the Fuggerei’s gates are still locked every day at 22:00. Those residents have to abide by similar rules to the ones set out 500 years ago, stipulating that they must be of the Catholic faith and pray for the souls of the Fuggers! The annual rent is a token €0.88, less than a quarter of what it costs to visit as a tourist.
One of the ground floor apartments has been kept as a museum to this extraordinary initiative.
2. City Hall
Built at enormous expense in the 1610s when Augsburg was at the peak of its powers, the City Hall is a reflection of the wealth and power of the city during the Renaissance.
On the outside that confidence is summed up by an outsized image of the Reichsadler, the Imperial Eagle beneath the pediment on the gable.
And inside the piece de resistance is the Goldener Saal, the Golden Hall, which is almost overwhelming for its brilliant gilded coffered ceiling, doorways and mural frames that hold allegorical paintings.
A bit more intimate and reserved is the Fürstenzimmer, which has intricate coffered ceilings, parquet floors and oil paintings on its wood-panelled walls.
3. Augsburg Cathedral
The oldest elements at Augsburg’s majestic cathedral are Romanesque and date to the 1000s, but the overriding style is Late Gothic from the 14th century.
This is what confronts you at the southern portal, which is rich in sculpture carved around 1356. The central column and tympanum has scenes from the Life of Mary, while the jambs and archivolts tell the stories of the apostles.
The northern portal from 1343 is just as decorative and depicts episodes from the Life of Jesus.
This is just for starters, at a church blessed with a wealth of art.
On the nave pillars are paintings by Hans Holbein the Elder, while medieval stained glass abounds, the oldest of which are high in the southern clerestory and were crafted at the end of the 11th century.
The former home of the 18th-century banker Benedikt Adam Liebert is a Rococo treasure in its own right.
It has dazzling gardens, courtyards and interiors, culminating in an exceptionally rich ballroom from the 1760s embellished with chandeliers, a grand ceiling fresco, high mirrors and masses of gilded stucco.
But the palace is also valued for its lavish art collections.
The German Baroque Gallery has pieces by 18th-century painters like Johann Heinrich Schönfeld and Georg Philipp Rugendas.
The Karl und Magdalene Haberstock Foundation is endowed with works by Canaletto, van Dyck and Veronese.
But maybe best of all is the State Gallery of Old German Masters, where you’ll find paintings by Hans Holbein the Younger, Lucas Cranach the Elder and Albrecht Dürer’s enduring portrait of Jakob Fugger.
In the course of its 1,000-year history, Augsburg’s emblematic watchtower has come through a lot of changes.
The most significant was in the 1610s when it was altered to match the redesign of the City Hall.
Perlachturm now forms one of the most beautiful Renaissance ensembles north of the Alps.
The tower is 70 metres high and is open to visitors daily from Easter to November, as well as from Friday to Sunday during the Christmas market.
There are 258 steps to the top, and if a yellow flag is flying on the tower that means you’ll be treated to dreamlike vistas of the Alps.
Around St Michael’s Day on 29 September a gilded automaton of St Michael attacking the devil appears in the tower’s lowest window.
6. St Ulrich’s and St Afra’s Church
As an Imperial Abbey, St Ulrich’s and St Afra’s was essentially an independent enclave within the Free City of Augsburg.
The abbey was founded in the 900s while the current building has a Late Gothic design from the 15th century, easily recognised by its tower topped with a Baroque onion dome.
In the 93.5-metre nave you have to take some time to study the intricate star vaults, and the patterns become even more complex in the aisles.
In the choir you can inspect the altars carved from oak at the start of the 17th century by the sculptor Johann Schermer.
The church also holds the sarcophagi for the saints Ulrich, Afra and Simpertus, all former Bishops of Augsburg.
7. St Anne’s Church
Originally attached to a 14th-century monastery, St Anne’s Church experienced one of the key moments in the Reformation: In 1518 Martin Luther stayed here among the monastery’s Carmelite friars when he met the Papal Legate who wanted him to yield to the pope.
The church became Lutheran in 1545 and about 200 years later was given a Rococo update, decorated with dainty stuccowork and bold frescoes by Johann Georg Bergmüller.
The burial chapel of the Fuggers was started in 1509 and is Germany’s oldest example of Renaissance architecture.
You can locate the most famous member of the family, Jakob Fugger’s tomb and appreciate the vaults, stained glass and wall reliefs.
8. Augsburger Puppenkiste
Since 1948 the 17th-century Heilig-Geist-Spital (Holy Ghost Hospital) has been the home of Augsburg’s renowned puppet theatre.
The theatre earned a lot of fame in Germany during the second half of the 20th century when its adaptations of fairytales and contemporary children’s books were televised.
In this beautiful historical setting there puppet shows for kids, and still some more cerebral performances in the evenings aimed at grown-ups.
Upstairs all the theatre’s most famous marionettes are on display in the museum, and characters like Kater Mikesch, Urmel, Jim Knopf and Lukas der Lokomotivführer are beloved by generations of Germans.
The Fuggers themselves lived in a complex of interconnected houses and courtyards at Maximilianstraße 36. The first house and warehouse annexe was designed by Jakob Fugger himself from the 1510s onwards, using notes that he had made during his travels in Italy.
They became the first Renaissance home north of the Alps, and the complex expanded when neighbouring houses were bought absorbed into the original.
The courtyards are where the palace shines, and are the only elements open to the public.
The Damenhof for example was designed for the women of the family and has a beautiful arcade supported by marble Venetian columns.
You may be keen to know more about the two merchant families who left an indelible mark not just on Augsburg, but also Europe and the rest of the world.
The Fuggers for instance took over from the de’ Medici family and had the European copper economy nailed down, while the Welsers’ power stretched to new German territories in the Americas like Venezuela.
The museum about the families is less about original artefacts, and instead tries to create an impression of the period through movies, ambient sound, projections and interactive displays.
It also tries to knit contemporary economic events into the time of these Renaissance mercantile families.
The building itself is a listed monument, built in 1530 and has loggias that have been closed up with windows.
People have been walking this north to south street through the centre of Augsburg since the days of the Romans.
The northern stretch is on the Via Claudia Augusta Roman Road, a trade route from Germany to Rome.
The sheer number of historically significant monuments and buildings on Maximilianstraße is almost bewildering, and even after the attractions on this list there are three that deserve a mention.
These are the Mannerist fountains which as a trio are known as the Augsburger Prachtbrunnen (Augsburg’s magnificent fountains). They are the Augustus Fountain from 1594, the Mercury Fountain from 1599 and the Hercules Fountain completed in 1600. And all three are a link to Augsburg’s ancient origins having been crafted to commemorate the city’s 1,600th anniversary.
12. Augsburg Zoo
The city has had exotic animals since the 8th century when Charlemagne kept his pet Asian elephant here.
Fast-forward 1,300 years and Augsburg Zoo is now more than 80 years old, and one of the 20 largest in Germany, providing habitats for 1,600 creatures from 300 species.
The zoo is on the northernmost reaches of the Siebentischwald, a wide strip of woodland that pushes on to the south for 10 kilometres along the River Lech.
Some of the animals to keep in mind are the fur seals, the three-hectare savannah habitat with rhinos and giraffes, a new reptile house that opened in 2015. A big cat enclosure contains lions and tigers and there’s a sculpted rocky environment for mountain goats, ibexes and West Caucasian turs.
13. Botanischer Garten
What began as a nursery in the 1930s has flourished into a 10-hectare repository for flora from around the world.
There are now 3,100 species at this attraction, 1,200 of which are tropical and subtropical and grow in greenhouses.
Outside there’s an atmospheric Japanese garden, a rockery, a rose garden with 280 varieties, an apothecary garden, a farmer’s garden and a sunken garden for summer flowers.
On your amble along the paths you’ll pass some 450 species of shrubs and perennials.
The main greenhouse is a paradise of tropical specie like vanilla, banana trees, coffee bushes and cocoa trees.
And in late winter the smaller Victoria-regia house is filled with butterflies.
Such is the impact on European culture made by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart that even places related to his family have become the objects of fascination.
The gabled 17th-century house where the great composer’s father, Leopold Mozart was born in 1719 is now a museum.
Leopold’s career was distinguished in its own way, as he also wrote music and became known as a leading music teacher through his “Violinschule”. He also taught Wolfgang Amadeus, discovered his talent and managed his career.
The audio-guided tour reveals handwritten letters, books, engravings, sheet music and musical instruments including an original grand piano by Johann Andreas Stein.
One of the must-dos in Augsburg is to grab a slice of Zwetschgendatschi, a sheet cake with a shortcrust or yeast dough base covered with a layer of zwetschge plums.
It goes great with a cup of coffee, but there are few ways to try your Zwetschgendatschi: You can have it with whipped cream or a layer of Streusel, which is a crumbly mixture of sugar, butter and flour.
Purists on the other hand prefer it plain.
The cake has such a place in Augsburg’s heart that the city is sometimes called “Datschiburg”, and is supposed to be where the recipe was perfected.