Where the Mulde River empties into the Elbe, Dessau is a city that you’ll often hear described as the “Bauhausstadt”. And with good reason, as Walter Gropius brought the Bauhaus school to Dessau in 1926. The main building for the Bauhaus school is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the same goes for the houses Gropius designed for the school’s teachers.
And yet another UNESCO site is the magical Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Realm. Much older, this is a string of English parks and palaces initiated by the Duke of Anhalt-Dessau in the 18th century. Among these refined properties were the first English Parks and the first Neoclassical palaces in the German-speaking world.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Dessau:
1. Bauhaus Dessau
Walter Gropius designed the highly influential main building of the Bauhaus school in 1926, and he drew up the plans in his own office as the school didn’t have an architecture department until 1927. Funding came from the city of Dessau and the building has many of the things that would become hallmarks of Bauhaus design, with a glass facade constructed into the load bearing framework and an absence of visible supporting elements on the corners.
There are regular tours inside, although English language visits are less frequent and you’ll need to check the time in advance.
Either way, it’s not to be missed because you can enter Gropius’ s private office, where he worked until 1928 before leaving Bauhaus and moving to Berlin.
2. Bauhaus Masters’ Houses
Dessau also funded the Gropius-designed houses for the Bauhaus teachers, who rented them from the city.
Gropius and his wife Ise lived in the largest, detached property, built in a row with three semi-detached houses, each with identical modular floor-plans.
These homes were named after the distinguished figures who lived in them: Moholy-Nagy/Feininger, Muche/Schlemmer and Kandinsky/Klee.
And while these were all designed to be lived in, the Masters’ Houses were also model homes for educational purposes.
The houses, hidden in pine woodland, are in great shape, and show off those characteristic clean Bauhaus lines.
The Gropius and Moholy-Nagy houses were destroyed in the war, but were reconstructed recently and opened again 2014. The Kandinsky-Klee House is open for tours, while the Feininger House is a museum and documentation centre for the German-American composer Kurt Weill, born in Dessau in 1900.
3. Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Realm
Across Dessau there’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site for stately buildings and gardens from the 18th-century reign of Leopold III, Duke of Anhalt-Dessau.
The impetus for the project came from Enlightenment ideals.
But the design ideas came from a Grand Tour to Italy, the Netherlands, France, England and Switzerland that the duke took in the 1760s and 1700s with the architect Friedrich Wilhelm von Erdmannsdorff.
On his return he ordered Germany’s first English park at Wörlitz, which is still the showpiece of the Garden Realm and was meant as a resource to inspire visiting architects and gardeners.
The landscape is strewn with eccentric follies like Europe’s only artificial volcano, at the centre of a lake and Rock Island topped by the pavilion, Villa Hamilton.
The duke also founded the Wörlitz Synagogue, a testament to his religious tolerance but also a decorative element, borrowing from the Temple of Vesta in Tivoli.
4. Schloss Wörlitz
The Garden Realm has the first Palladian palace built outside England.
Schloss Wörlitz took the place of a Baroque hunting lodge, and was finished in 1773 to celebrate the duke’s recent marriage to of Margravine Louise of Brandenburg-Schwedt.
That Neoclassical architecture is undeniable in the imposing portico and tympanum on the main facade.
Tours are given Tuesday to Sunday, and the decor, though rich, is noticeably pared down compared to the Rococo houses of this time.
Schloss Wörlitz has amenities that can be found in no other palace from this period, like food lifts, retractable doors, folding beds, a water pump to supply the upper floor, an early refrigerator and cast iron stoves.
In the Garden Realm is an intimate Neoclassical palace built by Leopold III for his wife, Margravine Louise.
The palace was started in 1774 and took English country houses of the day as a model.
On the ground floor is a solemn ballroom with reliefs, frescoes and marble-effect columns, and further up the apartments are less imposing, with elaborate stucco and family paintings.
You can go on guided tours of the interior from May to September.
The palace is in another English landscape park containing an elegant Gothic Revival stud building, an orangery, artificial ruins and old growth forest inhabited by herds of wild boar.
6. Dessau-Törten Housing Estate
While Bauhaus was based in Dessau the city called on Water Gropius to come up with an answer to the city’s affordable housing shortage.
His response was the housing estate in the district of Törten, where Dessau’s citizens today have the pleasure of living in Bauhaus homes.
The estate was built between 1926 and 1928, and was made up of 314 units when it was finished.
The project was partly experimental, as Bauhaus tried out new building materials, typologies and prefabricated elements.
The imperative was to keep construction costs low, and also to encourage residents to be self sufficient.
For this reason, all houses had kitchen gardens and enclosures to keep animals.
The main landmark in Törten, the Konsum Building has exhibitions about the project, and there are also guided tours of the neighbourhood.
Back in the Garden Realm the Georgium is the most treasured landscape park after Wörlitz and was created for Leopold III’s younger brother, Johann Georg.
The Georgium, in woodland on the floodplain about a kilometre from the Elbe has its fair share of follies like the ruins of a Roman portico, an Ionian temple, a triumphal arch and the enigmatic vestiges of a bridge.
The Neoclassical palace houses the Anhaltische Gemäldegalerie (Anhalt Painting Gallery), and has works from the 1700s to the 1900s by Dutch Golden Age painter Johannes Mytens, the landscape painter Jacob Philipp Hackert and the Realist Wilhelm Trübner.
Most engaging though are the graphics by Albrecht Dürer and Hieronymus Bosch.
8. Technikmuseum Hugo Junkers
Hugo Junkers was the man who paid for Bauhaus’s move from Weimar to Dessau.
The aviation engineer and aircraft designer’s set up his factory in the city back in 1895. This museum opened at the factory in 2001, retracing Junkers’ life and displaying the groundbreaking machines he designed.
Inside are machines relevant to Junkers’ career like the iconic Ju 52, used for both civilian and military flights, as well as a host of Junkers engines (Jumo 207, 211, 213 A, 213 AG-1, 004 A, L 5), many of which are presented in cross-section.
Outside you’ll see the immense remnants of a wind tunnel from 1934, as well as GDR-era hardware like a MiG-21 jet fighter and a Ilyushin Il-14 personnel aircraft.
9. Schloss Mosigkau
Returning to the Garden Realm, there’s a sumptuous palace that came a little earlier than Leopold’s works.
Schloss Mosigkau is in the Rococo style from the 1750s and was for Prince Leopold I’s favourite daughter Princess Anna Wilhelmine.
When she passed away in 1780 her will requested that the house become a monastery for unmarried noble women, which it remained until 1945. Since the 50s the palace has been a museum for Rococo decor and an art gallery for Flemish and Dutch masters like Rubens, Jacob Jordaens, Brueghel the Elder and Anthony van Dyck.
The gardens are also still in their Rococo format, with a bowling alley, trimmed hedges, a maze and fish pond.
The orangery is still used for wintering the garden’s exotic and centuries-old potted plants, which then line the main route to the palace in summer.
10. Arbeitsamt von Walter Gropius
Walter Gropius furnished Dessau’s with a job centre after the Institute for Employment and Unemployment Insurance was founded in 1927. Gropius won the design competition and his plan had been realised by 1929. The office was neatly configured to funnel visitors according to sex and five different professions to smooth their job hunts.
Natural light is also central to the design, with a semi-circular rotunda that has a glass saw-toothed roof, illuminating the interior and equipped with ventilation that can be opened via a cable system.
The building served as a job centre until the end of the Second World War.
Since Reunification it has become Dessau’s office for public safety and order, and you’re free to go inside for a peek.
11. Museum fur Stadtgeschichte
The Residenzschloss in Dessau’s former old town was one of the first Renaissance buildings in Central Germany when it was completed in the mid-16th century.
Of this multi-winged palace on the central section know as the Johannbau still stands today after the complex was hit by bombs in the Second World War.
The surviving section, with curved gables and tower with a spiral staircase, is the venue for Dessau’s museum of city history.
Some standout exhibits are the model of the Dessau Synagogue, which was burned down during Kristallnacht in 1938, a cast iron collection and a trove of some 5,000 coins and medals.
Also seek out the educational models from the Philanthropium, an Enlightenment-era school from the late-18th century.
One remarkable model depicts a lightning strike on the spire of a church.
In Dessau you can join a cycling and walking trail that begins in Czechia and weaves its way across Germany for almost 1,000 kilometres before it meets the North Sea at Cuxhaven.
The riverside scenery in Dessau is as green as it gets, and the landscape is scattered with noble estates for detours.
If you’re in the mood for a day trip by bike you could reach Wittenberg upriver in a couple of hours.
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Wittenberg goes by the nickname “Lutherstadt” and is where the Reformation took root in the 16th century.
On the way, take a break in Coswig under the hulking towers of the Baroque Schoss Coswig.
Whether you go by bike or on foot, keep this restaurant building next to the Elbe in mind.
The Kornhaus was designed by Bauhaus architect Carl Fieger who worked under Gropius for many years as his draft artist.
He had a hand in the design of both the main Bauhaus building and the Masters’ Houses.
The building’s name comes from a granary going back to the 1700s and as a restaurant quickly became a favourite with tourists after it opened in 1930. The Kornhaus has two stories on the street side, with a stairway leading up to the beautiful, single-storey riverfront dining area, lit by tall windows and with a rotunda offering clear views of the river.
This settlement changed its name in the 17th century when the Dutch Countess Henriette Catherine of Nassau moved here marrying Prince John George II of Anhalt-Dessau.
The Dutch Baroque palace built for Henriette Catherine still has ties to the House of Orange, the Dutch royal family.
The former Dutch Queen Beatrix was named as a patron for the palace’s recent renovation and came here in 2004 and 2012. The symmetrical Baroque gardens are a real joy, with a five-storey pagoda and Chinese tea house.
The orangery at 175 metres is one of the longest in Europe and still stocked with citrus plants and exotic shrubs.
15. Tierpark Dessau
This 11-hectare space a few steps from the Hauptbahnhof (main train station) is the largest recreation area in Dessau.
The park surrounds the former mausoleum for the Dukes of Anhalt, a striking Neo-Renaissance monument finished in 1898. The main draw in the park is the zoo, which has won awards for animal welfare.
A lot of the 120 species at Tierpark Dessau are native to Central Europe, though there are a few exotic animals like jaguars, coatis, tamarins and alpacas.
These share the zoo with more familiar creatures including goats, lynxes, wolves and deer.
A recent addition to the park is a reproduction of the dune environments of the Wadden Sea, home to pied avocets, lapwings and other waders and waterfowl.