Although modest in size, Darmstadt has a multifaceted appeal. If you’re dazzled by the luxury and wealth of Germany’s nobility, the Landgraves of Hesse-Darmstadt and the Grand Dukes of Hesse lived in the city and they definitely lived well. Their art, porcelain, hunting gear and furniture is spread across museums around the city.
The last Grand Duke, Ernst Ludwig is remembered for turning a whole neighbourhood into an Art Nouveau wonderland, and this century-old ensemble is as special as ever. But Darmstadt also has a scientific feather in its cap: Not only does it now have a place on the Periodic Table thanks to Darmstadtium, it’s also the home of the European Space Agency’s operations centre, as well as the source of some of the most complete fossils ever found.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Darmstadt:
1. Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt
More than a century old, Hesse’s regional museum has a bit of everything from natural history to ancient archaeology to modern painting.
With such a massive and diverse collection, what you see will depend on your taste, but there are a few exhibits with universal appeal.
First up is the large collection of astoundingly detailed fossils from the Eocene Epoch recovered from the nearby Messel Pit.
Some of these specimens were so well preserved that it was even possible to extract stomach contents.
Also indispensible is the Ortenberg Altarpiece painted anonymously in the 1410s, as well as pieces by artists as varied as Brueghel the Elder, Oswald Achenbach, Lovis Corinth and Joseph Beuys.
In 1899 the Grand Duke of Hesse, Ernst Ludwig had the idea of attracting artists to build a colony in Darmstadt to breathe new life into the city’s culture and commerce.
He recruited some of the leading members of Germany’s Jugendstil movement (Art Nouveau) to design houses, studios and monuments in a wave of construction divided into four exhibitions across 13 years.
The Mathildenhöhe neighbourhood is littered with these amazing buildings, now listed monuments, designed by Peter Behrens, Hans Christiansen and Joseph Maria Olbrich.
You can download a map of the area with all of its wonders.
If there’s one sight that cannot be missed in Mathildenhöhe it’s Olbrich’s iconic Hochzeitsturm (Wedding Tower). The tower is just shy of 50 metres tall and was built in 1908 to commemorate Ernst Ludwig’s wedding to Princess Eleonore of Solms-Hohensolms-Lich.
Olbrich called on a team of craftsmen and artists for the tower’s masterful fittings and decoration.
The most sumptuous is the Zimmer der Großherzogin (Room of the Grand Duchess), which can be hired out for weddings.
The tower’s five looped gables are rumoured to depict Ernst Ludwigs hand, and they contain an observation platform that is open to the public.
The possessions belonging to Darmstadt’s Landgraves and Frand Dukes are revealed at this museum in the bell-tower of their former residence opposite Marktplatz.
The historical artefacts, applied arts, paintings, photographs and documents help piece together hundreds of years of Hesse and Darmstadt’s past.
The museum has been open to all since 1924, six years after Ernst Ludwig handed his ancestral collections over when he abdicated in 1918. From the 1600s to the 1900s there’s silverware, gold, dresses, porcelain, tapestries, paintings, clocks, glassware, and furniture in 15 splendid rooms.
5. Messel Pit
Within Darmstadt’s city limits is a UNESCO World Heritage Site regarded as the world’s richest fossil source from the Eocene Epoch.
The pit was only discovered by science in the 1970s; before that it was a mine for brown coal and a well for shale oil.
When the site was given a serious survey the unprecedented wealth of its natural heritage was revealed.
Now the pit is open to tourists on hour-long tours, on which guides go into depth about the history and methods of fossil excavation and even allow you to touch recently unearthed specimens.
The visitor centre also opened in 2010 and has set up information boards and a viewing platform at the site.
6. Museum Künstlerkolonie Darmstadt
One of the Art Nouveau buildings constructed in the first exhibition was the Ernst-Ludwig-Haus, intended for ateliers and designed by Joseph Maria Olbrich.
The south facade catches everyone’s attention for its curved portal with fastidious gilded vegetal ornamentation and a pair of sculptures representing man and woman.
The museum’s galleries give you the inside story on Mathildenhöhe’s Art Nouveau exhibitions from 1899 to 1914. You can peruse marvellous examples of applied arts produced for those exhibitions, including furniture sets, sculpture, glassware, ceramics, textiles and metalwork.
From 1904 a lot of these decorative pieces were produced by factories around Darmstadt set up by Ernst Ludwig.
Friedensreich Hundertwasser designed this apartment building in his inimitable quirky style.
Work started in 1998 and was completed in 2000, the year Hundertwasser passed away.
Set in the Bürgerparkviertel, the Waldspirale holds 105 apartments and rises to 12 storeys high.
From the outside its spiralling bands of texture, curved edges and apparently random window designs give it a playful, childlike quality.
As it happens the windows are so random that no two on the entire tower are the same.
That name “Waldspirale” (forest spiral), partly refers to the roof, which is planted with a grove of lime, beech and maple trees.
Darmstadt’s largest and oldest park has roots that go back to the 1500s when three smaller parks were combined into one.
In 1766 it was redesigned in the English style on the orders of the Landgrave Caroline, and then in 1811 Grand Duke Ludwig I opened the park to the public.
The sculptor Ludwig Habich contributed a couple of noteworthy monuments at the start of the 20th century.
One is the monument to polymath and cultural icon Johann Wolfgang von Goethe from 1903, and the other is for Princess Elisabeth of Hesse and by Rhine (Queen Victoria’s favourite great granddaughter) who died from typhoid aged just eight years old in 1903.
Nicknamed “Langer Ludwig” (Tall Ludwig), this 40-metre column and statue on Luisenplatz is one of Darmstadt’s major landmarks.
This honours the first Hessian Constitution and depicts Ludwig I, the first Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine, who ruled from 1830 to his death in 1848. The Neoclassical monument was begun in 1841 while he was still alive and was composed by the architects Georg Moller and Balthasar Harres.
If you look up you’ll see Ludwig, dressed in Roman garb holding the constitution in his right hand.
For a small fee you can scale the 172 steps to reach a platform under the statue at a height of 30 metres.
10. Park Rosenhöhe
The last Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig had a big hand in the design of this park on a hill to the east of the city.
The park’s history begins a century before in the early 1800s: It was first landscaped on what used to be a vineyard, and in the 1820s a Neoclassical mausoleum was built here for Princess Elisabeth Grand Duke Ludwig II’s daughter who also passed away as a child.
Later Ernst Ludwig built tombs for his parents, modelled on the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna.
But where Ernst Ludwig really made his mark is at the Rosarium at the highest point of the park, where more than 200 rose species bloom at different times from June to November.
11. Russian Chapel
Sitting under the Hochzeitsturm the golden onion domes of this church are a reminder that Darmstadt was the birthplace of the last Empress of Russia.
The sixth child of Grand Duke Ludwig IV, Alexandra Feodorovna was born in the city in 1872. Her husband Nicholas II commissioned architect Leon Benois to build him this orthodox chapel for when he visited Darmstadt with her.
Leading Russian artists of the period, like Viktor Vasnetsov came to produce paintings and mosaics for the chapel’s interior.
Beyond that, all of the building materials for the church were sourced in Russia, and the building is even claimed to have been built on Russian soil transported here by rail.
12. Großherzoglich-Hessische Porzellansammlung
In 1908 Ernst Ludwig decided to open his stash of porcelain and other ceramics up to the public at the Rococo Prinz-Georg-Palais, which dates to 1710. The museum opens of Fridays and weekends, and along with the collection of the Hessian Grand Dukes, has variety of pieces acquired over the last century.
Much of the porcelain and faience was produced by manufactories not far away in Kelsterbach, which were patronised by the Landgraves of Hesse-Darmstadt.
Other famous manufactories represented include Vienna, Sèvres, St Petersberg, Frankenthal and Meissen.
13. Jagdschloss Kranichstein
In countryside to the northeast of Darmstadt is a sublime Baroque palace first raised during the reign of George I, the Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt in the late 16th century.
Jagdschloss Kranichstein was a hunting lodge on the edge of forest and connected to a spacious deer park, and entertained generations of Landgraves and Grand Dukes on their court hunts.
In the 18th century it became Landgrave Ludwig VIII’s main home when it got a theatrical Baroque makeover.
Now the palace is divided between a hotel and restaurant and a museum all about the court hunts.
While it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, the museum is a snapshot of the noble lifestyle in Darmstadt and has an arsenal of rifles, shotguns and crossbows, as well as hunting daggers and sabres.
14. European Space Operations Centre (ESOC)
Over the last 50 years more than 70 satellites built by the European Space Agency and its partners have been controlled from this facility on the west side of Darmstadt.
This purpose of this centre is to operate spacecraft that are in orbit, design and build systems to manage space missions and also take care of the ESA’s network of global tracking stations.
At any one time over 10 spacecraft are being controlled from this one facility, and the centre is staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
If you’re keen to know more there are regular tours of the ESOC.
15. Zoo Vivarium Darmstadt
The city’s zoo is by no means large, at two hectares, but has around 190 species in green enclosures, terrariums and aquariums.
Instead of big beasts, these are smaller primates, birds and reptiles.
The many indoor habitats here allow the zoo to stay open in winter.
These hold species as diverse as Celebes crested macaques, binturongs and dwarf crocodiles.
Outside there are plenty of opportunities for kids to interact with animals, in a walk-in enclosure that has Bennett’s tree-kangaroos, or the petting zoo hosting African dwarf goats.