Germany’s easternmost city is in the state of Brandenburg. Cottbus is the unofficial capital of Lower Lusatia, home to a minority known as the Sorbs, who have their own Western Slavic language and culture.
Someone who left a lasting impression on Cottbus was the nobleman Prince Pückler, an accomplished 19th-century landscape architect who designed his own whimsical gardens. Brantizer Park is one of a line of parks flowing from the southeast of the city.
The old centre was built from the 12th century at the nexus point of Medieval trade routes, and much later became one of Europe’s big textiles producers. A reconstruction after fires in the 17th century left Cottbus with lots of Baroque architecture, best enjoyed at the cultured Altmarkt square.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Cottbus:
1. Branitzer Park
The finest of the city’s parks was the work of Prince Hermann Ludwig Heinrich von Pückler-Muskau.
This nobleman was one of the foremost landscape architects of the day, and Branitzer Park is regarded as his masterpiece.
Enveloping Schloss Branitz is the “pleasure ground”, which was intended by Prince Pückler as a continuation of the palace and is embroidered with little flowerbeds.
Away from the house, a great deal of work was needed to turn the flat terrain into a rolling landscape, etched with waterways.
The most extraordinary project of all was the Pyramidensee: Here Prince Pückler is buried, along with his wife Lucie, in an earthwork pyramid in the centre of a man-made lake.
2. Schloss Branitz
The palace on the eastern end of the of the gardens was built in the Baroque style in the early 1770s and then restored some 80 years later by the feted architect Gottfried Semper.
The rooms have been faithfully restored to their appearance when Prince Pückler lived here in the 1800s, and the salons, music hall, breakfast room, oriental rooms and library all offer a glimpse of his and Lucie’s lifestyle.
In the palace there’s also an exhibition of paintings by the Cottbus-born Romantic landscape painter Carl Blechen.
3. Spremberger Turm
One of the city’s wayfinders, the Spremberger Turm is the tower of Cottbus’s southern Medieval gate.
The structure dates from the 13th century, and was remodelled in the 15th century and then again in the 1820s when it was given its crenellations.
Now this 31-metre tower is open to the public seven days a week.
There are 131 steps to the observation deck where you can look as far as 50 kilometres into the distance, picking out landmarks like the cooling towers of Schwarze Pumpe power station.
Closer in, you can look over the streets of Cottbus’s old town to find your bearings.
The city’s old marketplace was drawn up in the 1200s, and the location is no accident as it at the intersection of three ancient trading routes.
Home to all kinds of local and independent shops, there’s a captivating ensemble of historic buildings framing the square.
The oldest of these is only from the last decades of the 17th century as before then Cottbus was almost totally wiped out by fires in 1600 and then 1671. The plots meanwhile are much older, so while the upper floors maybe no more than 300 years old, the basements go back to Medieval times.
Seek out the two cute gabled houses at no. 14, dating to 1693 and the grand Baroque merchant houses at 22, 25 and 27.
5. Kunstmuseum Dieselkraftwerk
East of the old town in the Goethepark is a contemporary art museum in a Bauhaus-style power station from 1927. The plant was decommissioned in 1958 and would lay idle until the 2000s when it was chosen as the new home of the city’s contemporary art collection.
The museum was founded at a different location in 1977 and at first only exhibited works of artists who had remained in East Germany or had moved to the GDR. After 1990 the collection was enhanced and now has 30,000 pieces of painting, poster art and sculpture, from Dresden Expressionism to the 21st century.
But the main reason to pay a visit is for the temporary shows, which in the last decade have featured famous names like Otto Dix, Picasso, Emil Nolde, Edvard Munch and Emil Schumacher.
Near the zoo and Branitzer Park in the southeast of the city is a dreamy 55-hectare park redesigned for the Bundesgartschau (Federal Garden Show) in 1995. The park is sprinkled with exotic trees and framed by venerable oak avenues.
There are large, flowing meadows, and a medicinal herb garden, farmer’s garden, rose garden, sound garden and rhododendron grove, all around a 1.2-hectare pond.
When it’s warm there will be families out enjoying the sunshine on the terrace next to the water.
7. Brandenburgisches Apothekenmuseum
At Altmarkt 24 there’s a museum in the historic pharmacy, founded back in 1568. At the only pharmacy museum in the state of Brandenburg you’ll take a whistle-stop tour of healthcare over the last 400 years.
There are intact pharmacy ensembles from the 1830s and the start of the 20th century, as well as equipment used during the GDR. Also fascinating are the individual chambers for herbs and poisons, as well as a laboratory for “Galenic” medicine.
Out back in the courtyard is a preserved well from the 1600s.
8. Cottbuser parkreisenbahn
For more than 60 years, the string of parks in the southeast of Cottbus has been linked to a narrow gauge railway.
This is a Pioniereisenbahn, first set up to be operated by youth organisations to help train the next generation of train drivers and other railway employees.
The train sets off from the Sandower Dreieck station by the Stadion der Freundschaft and makes a 3.2-kilometre trip to the Branitzer Park via the zoo and the Spreeauenpark.
Since the Federal Garden Show in 1995 the trains have been pulled by bright green electric-powered locomotives.
9. Staatstheater Cottbus
Even if you’re not in the mood for an opera or ballet performance, the Staatstheater is a sight worth sizing up from the outside.
The theatre is a monument to the wealth and aspiration of Cottbus at the turn of the 20th century, when a roaring textiles trade gave rise to a bourgeoisie that was hungry for culture.
Opened in 1908, the theatre has the organic curves of the Art Nouveau style and is held as the greatest achievement of its architect, Bernhard Sehring.
And if you would like a bit of high-class entertainment there’s a programme of opera, ballet, musical theatre, soloists and philharmonic concerts throughout the year.
There are also two-hour guided architectural tours every Sunday.
10. Oberkirche St. Nikolai
The largest church in Lower Lusatia, the Oberkirche is a three-aisled Late Gothic church constructed with bricks in the 15th century.
The nave and choir walls are perforated by tall lancet windows with dainty tracery, and although the church was burned out in 1945 there’s a lot of art and interesting things to be found inside.
Most memorable of all is the 11-metre early Baroque altarpiece from 1664, etched with figurative reliefs and an image of the nativity on its pedestal.
In the choir you can browse a few 16th and 17th-century ledger stones, while the richly gilded organ case in the gallery is from 1759.
11. Flugplatzmuseum Cottbus
The airfield on the city’s western outskirts was used by the military from the 1930s right up to Reunification.
And as the base was used by the GDR’s Air Forces of the National People’s Army for 40 years you’ll encounter a lot of Soviet technology at this museum.
In the 40-strong aircraft collection there’s a Yakovlev Yak-11, a Mil Mi-24 helicopter and a newly acquired Tupolev Tu-134 airliner, which had the distinction of being able to land and take off on grass runways.
Many of the exhibits are open so you can sit inside the cockpit.
There are also ground vehicles and all kinds of equipment, together with weapons like the S-75 Dvina surface-to-air missile.
The oldest surviving church in Cottbus was given its current Late Gothic design in the 15th century, but was founded around the year 1300. In the Middle Ages it was attached to a Franciscan monastery, but this was disbanded during the Reformation in the 1500s.
Unaffected by the war, the church has a lot of historic fittings for antiquarians to browse.
Inside and out there are a number of ledger stones from the 14th to the 17th centuries.
The most beautiful of these is for the 14th-century couple, Fredehelm of Cottbus and Adelheid of Colditz, and has a sandstone high relief Fredehelm in armour embracing his wife, whose hands are raised in prayer.
Some other pieces to take in are the baptismal font (1500), a crucifix from 1720 and a pulpit from the first half of the 17th century.
13. Stadtmuseum Cottbus
Cottbus’s city archives and municipal museum are in the same building, a former printworks at Bahnhofstraße 52. Since 2015 there has also been an additional building in an old bank directly opposite.
The museum recounts the city’s history from both social and natural angles.
There’s a lot of detail about the city’s Medieval Sorbian culture (Western Slavic), Cottbus’s status as a trading hub, as well as its cloth and carpet-weaving industries that exploded in the 1800s.
In the galleries are black and white photographs, clothing made in Cottbus, models of steam turbines and pieces of Sorbian folk art.
The natural history rooms have fossils, minerals and taxidermies of regional birds.
14. Tierpark Cottbus
Tucked between the Spree and Branitzer Park, Cottbus’s zoo has 1,200 animals in quiet parkland.
Children will be particularly pleased to find a host of exotic animals like elephants, zebras, a variety of monkeys, tapirs and ostriches.
Big cats have always been the main attraction at the zoo, and in 2014 the new predator enclosure was completed for leopards and Malayan tigers.
Always popular are the feeding times, during which you can observe lemurs, elephants, penguins, dwarf otters, leopards and tigers at close quarters.
15. Burg (Spreewald)
Minutes from Cottbus is the spa town of Burg, lying in the UNESCO Spreewald Biosphere Reserve.
Burg dates back to the 13th century and was built on a salt spring, which bubbles to the surface from a depth of more than 1,300 metres.
These mineral-rich waters continue to attract visitors who come for treatments at the thermal baths.
But there’s more to Burg besides its spring, as the landscape in the northwest of the town is exceptionally picturesque.
On a canoe or typical wooden boat you can discover Burg-Kauper, a low-lying rural settlement scattered on the many narrow arms of the River Spree.
In old times this maze of waterways edged by willow trees and meadows was the only means of transport.