In the state of Saxony, Chemnitz is a manufacturing city that came to the fore during industrialisation in the 19th century. That boom era is recorded by an excellent industrial museum, and the wealth generated for industrialists and new middle class is still evident in Kaßberg, the largest contiguous Art Nouveau district in Germany.
In the days of the GDR from 1953 to 1990 Chemnitz was named Karl-Marx-Stadt, even though there was no real historical connection between the city and Marx. In 1971 the city was presented with a monument to the man, a heavy-duty piece of Socialist Realist art still there today. The Kunstsammlung Chemnitz is a superb art museum whose four branches will keep you inspired for hours, while the natural history museum has a grove of petrified trees 291 million years old.
Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Chemnitz:
1. Industriemuseum Chemnitz
In the former foundry hall of the “Hermann und Alfred Escher AG” tool factory is a comprehensive exhibition about Saxony’s industrial heritage.
Lathes, machine tools and steam engines were produced at this evocative brick-built factory from 1895. The exhibition looks into the many businesses that have helped change Saxony since the end of the 18th century, from textile manufacturing to mining, mechanical engineering and car production in the 21st century.
There are preserved spinning machines, bicycles, motorcycles, trucks and cars, and you can get a close look at state-of-the-art welding and assembly robots from a car production line.
Other show-stoppers are a Meyer series 98.0 locomotive from 1925 and an epic steam hammer dating to 1923.
2. Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz
Housed in four venues around the city, the Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz is an award-winning art museum.
Combined, these exhibition halls have a phenomenal collection of European art, shining for their 19th and 20th-century collections.
Illustrious names like Caspar David Friedrich, Max Liebermann, Ferdinand Hodler, Edvard Munch, Aristide Maillol, Edgar Degas and Georg Baselitz are all featured.
With 60,000 exhibits, the palatial Museum am Theaterplatz is the largest and most worthwhile of the four branches.
And along with that line-up of painters is also furnished with more than 200 works of sculpture spanning 150 years.
There are pieces by Rodin and Wilhelm Lehmbruck, as well as modern abstract sculptors like Heinz Mack and Hermann Glöckner.
3. Staatliches Museum für Archäologie Chemnitz
There’s 300,000 years of human history at this museum in a converted Art Deco department store.
The oldest exhibits date to Middle Palaeolithic Period, while the most recent are from the last days before industrialisation.
Some of the many intriguing things to see are an anatomically correct glass model of a Neanderthal, Bronze Age treasures, the wooden frame of one of the oldest buildings in Europe dating back 7,000 years, and a comprehensive exhibition of Roman archaeology.
And from the Middle Ages there’s a gallery of 1,200 everyday objects excavated in cities around Saxony, chronologically ordered and presented in glass cases on a 40-metre wall.
4. Roter Turm (Red Tower)
This square tower dating to the 1100s is the oldest building in Chemnitz, and is actually older than the city itself.
The Roter Turm started out as a Bergfried, a free-standing defensive tower, before being adapted into the city defences around 1230. That reddish colour comes from the stone, which is volcanic ignimbrite and occurs in most of Chemnitz’s oldest buildings.
But until quite recently the Red Tower would probably have been plastered and painted white . The building was a prison for hundreds of years, and today opens up for guided tours which you can join by consulting the tourist office at the town hall.
5. Karl Marx Monument
Chemnitz retains a substantial monument for its former namesake.
The sculpture of Karl Marx’s bust is on Brückenstraße (formerly Karl-Marx Allee), and was cast in the Monument Skulptura foundry in Saint Petersburg (Leningrad at the time). The Russian sculptor Lev Kerbel appointed to design the monument in 1953, and his Socialist Realist work would finally be unveiled in 1971. Standing on its plinth the sculpture comes to 13 metres and weighs about 40 tons.
When it was cast it was broken up into 95 pieces and then reassembled in Chemnitz.
Like all GDR-era monuments the sculpture was the subject of intense debate after Reunification, but remains a part of Chemnitz’s identity.
6. Villa Esche
One of the branches of the Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz, Villa Esche is an Art Nouveau mansion designed by Henry van de Velde for the Chemnitz textile manufacturer Herbert Eugen Esche.
The building from 1903 is seen as a Gesamtkunstwerk (all-embracing art-form) and you can go in to view the parquet floors, sculpted wooden fittings and stained glass skylights.
The museum inside details van de Velde’s plans and contains the furniture and decoration he designed for the villa; it’s fascinating to see how van de Velde’s style evolved as he was commissioned to design more items down the years for the family.
7. Wasserschloss Klaffenbach
In the countryside south of the city is a preserved Renaissance and Baroque moated castle.
The four-storey keep is unforgettable for its peculiar curved gables and arched roof.
You can go in for a cafe on the ground floor, beneath an exhibition hall supported by impressive wooden beams.
There are short-term art exhibitions for painting and sculpture in this space.
The castle’s outbuildings form a u-shaped courtyard, and contain a hotel and restaurant, but also interesting little workshops now accommodating a silversmith and candle-maker.
And lastly, if golf is your game the castle’s grounds are now an 18-hole course.
8. Gunzenhauser Museum
There’s another branch of the Kunstsammlung Chemnitz in the former headquarters of the city’s savings and loan association.
This edifice was constructed at the end of the 1920s in the New Objectivity style, while the museum inside houses the sizeable collection of the 20th-century Munich art dealer Dr. Alfred Gunzenhauser.
His main interest was for Expressionism and there are pieces by luminaries of the movement like Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Karl Schmidt-Rotluff who all studied in Chemnitz and were members of Die Brücke.
From Der Blaue Reiter, the other famous Expressionist group, there are paintings by Gabriele Münter and Alexej von Jawlensky.
9. Schlossbergmuseum Chemnitz
On high ground over the Schlossteich pond is a museum in a former Benedictine monastery.
That monastery was founded by Holy Roman Emperor Lothair III in 1134 and its final reconstruction took place in the Late Gothic style in the 15th century.
Almost immediately after that it was shut down during the Reformation and has had many different occupants since.
Now you can navigate the restored Gothic and Renaissance interiors, and examine some wonderful pieces of liturgical art.
One is the Holy Sepulchre from 1500, sculpted with figures of Joseph, the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, Mary of Clopus, Nicodemus and two of the apostles John and Peter.
Also noteworthy is the 16th-century epitaph of the local nobleman Peter Pfefferkorn, comprising a 180cm representation of the man and his coat of arms.
10. Burg Rabenstein
The Schlossbergmusuem also operates this compact castle a few kilometres west of the city.
First erected on its rocky pedestal in the 13th century, Burg Rabenstein has the honour of being Saxony’s smallest castle.
The property used to be much larger, but the outer walls were wrecked by battles in the 14th and 15th century, while the castle itself burned down in 1480. Burg Rabenstein was restored in the 16th century when its tower was topped with a Baroque dome and its ceremonial hall was painted with frescoes of animals.
From May to October you can visit for a 45-minute tour of the building to get the lowdown on its eventful past.
11. Chemnitzer Opernhaus
The solemn ensemble on Theaterplatz is completed by the city’s resplendent Neo-Baroque opera house.
Constructed in the 1900s, it took heavy damage in the Second World War and was restored in the 1950s.
Wagner and Strauss are the mainstays of the repertoire, but in the last few years the Opernhaus has also put on performances of more obscure works like Iris by Pietro Mascagni, Il Templario by Otto Nicolai and Die Rose von Liebesgarten by Hans Pfitzner.
The venue has also won awards recently for its stage technology that includes a special rotary platform.
And if you’re up for something a little broader than opera, the Opernhaus also stages productions of popular international musicals like Flashdance.
12. Museum für Naturkunde Chemnitz
In the DAStietz cultural centre, Chemnitz’s natural history museum is the oldest museum in the city, established in 1859. These collections of minerals, insect specimens and fossils go back to this time and were all housed in what is now the Museum am Theaterplatz before moving home in the 1960s.
But it’s the Lichthof, the central courtyard, that is indispensible.
Here you’ll be confronted by the towering columns of petrified trees.
These giant ferns were alive 291 million years ago and were discovered in and around Chemnitz in the 16th century.
Amazingly they are just a few of many petrified tree trunks that have shown up in the city’s soils down the years.
Across the Chemnitz River, Kaßberg is a city quarter that was first developed in the 1850s.
Over the next 80 years, coinciding with an industrial boom, a grid of long and wide Parisian-esque boulevards was drawn up.
These are fronted by multi-storey housing blocks that constitute the largest Art Nouveau district in Germany.
In 1991 Kaßberg was named a German heritage area, and on these streets are some 480 listed buildings.
Architecture aficionados could lose a good couple of hours viewing the highly ornamented facades.
Art Nouveau is the dominant style, but there are also fabulous examples of Historicism as well as the later New Objectivity from the 1920s.
14. Botanischer Garten
In the north of the city, the botanical garden is in 12 hectares and has been redesigned since Reunification.
The outdoor gardens showcase Central European habitats and have moorland, dunes, heath, steppe ponds and 20 different forest environments.
The three greenhouses hold 800 species combined, and are for tropical species, Mediterranean plants, while the third is for cactuses and succulents.
The garden also tries to bring children into contact with nature, creating a small farm with horses, goats and pigs and putting on lots of themed events throughout the year, like a “Wild West” weekend in September.
15. Chemnitzer Doppelrathaus
Both Chemnitz’s old and new city halls are combined into one monumental complex in the centre of the city.
It’s easy to tell the two buildings apart because the old city hall is whitewashed, while the newer, larger one from the 1910s has a bare stone facade.
The old city hall dates to the end of the 15th century, though it has changed a lot in its time.
The element to seek out is the Renaissance Judith-Lucretia-Portal under the main tower, carved in 1559 and once belonging to a Burgher house.
Chemnitz’s rapid growth required a new city hall, which has a Neo-Renaissance design outside and Art Nouveau interiors.
Despite the destruction wreaked on Chemnitz in the war the new city hall came through with only minor damage.