A city with more than 1,200 years of history, Erfurt is the capital of the Free State of Thuringia and has one of Germany’s most complete Medieval centres.
Here, St Mary’s Cathedral shines for its Romanesque and Gothic art, and the Krämerbrücke is a bridge traced by quaint timber-framed merchants’ houses.
It was in Erfurt that Martin Luther became a monk at the Augustinian Monastery, and at the end of the 18th century the city was at the forefront of the Enlightenment, frequented by cultural heavyweights like Goethe, Schiller and Wilhelm von Humboldt.
One of Europe’s oldest intact synagogues is also in Erfurt, along with a complete Baroque fortress, charming squares and moving memorials to the days of the GDR and Holocaust.
Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Erfurt:
1. Krämerbrücke (Merchants’ Bridge)
An enchanting slice of Medieval history, the Krämerbrücke is a bridge lined with half-timbered houses crossing a branch of the River Gera.
At 79 metres, it’s the longest Medieval bridge in Europe to have inhabited houses.
These quaint old merchants’ houses are now galleries, cafes, antiques shops, ateliers, wine merchants, delicatessens and boutiques, while the upper floors are apartments.
The first mention of the bridge is from the 1100s, and following seven different fires in the 12th and 13th centuries it was rebuilt with limestone and sandstone in 1325. This crossing was part of Europe’s medieval trade network, the Via Regia, which accounts for its long association with merchants.
2. Erfurt Cathedral
On the brow of a hill stands Erfurt’s magnificent Gothic cathedral, built mostly during the 1300s and 1400s.
There has been a religious building in this place since 742 when St Boniface founded a church.
The cathedral is unbelievably rich with Medieval art, starting with the 18-metre tracery windows in the high choir, which are almost all original and were fitted between 1370 and 1420. The oak stalls in the choir are also exceptional, carved in the 1360s, and with 89 seats in twin 17.5-metre rows.
There’s a stucco retable depicting the Virgin and Child from 1160 and the astonishing Wolfram candelabra from dating to around the same time.
The cathedral’s middle tower also holds the Maria Gloriosa, the world’s largest free-swinging Medieval bell, cast in 1497 and weighing 11.45 tons.
The largest square in the city is the grand 3.5-hectare plaza below the cathedral.
In the morning from Monday to Saturday there’s a market selling fruit and vegetables, sausages, eggs, honey, cheese and exotic delicacies: The square’s market tradition could be as old as the 8th or 9th century.
Domplatz is also the main location for Erfurt’s excellent Christmas market in December.
There are also a couple monuments catching the eye: The Erthal-Obelisk went up in 1777 to commemorate the first visit by the new Archbishop-Elector Friedrich Karl Joseph von Erthal and was mostly funded by Erfurt’s citizens.
Crowned with a statue of the Roman Goddess, the Minervabrunnen from 1784 is Erfurt’s oldest surviving fountain and the last of the city’s original 55 public drinking fountains.
4. Zitadelle Petersberg
Taking up 12 hectares right on the Petersberg hill in the centre of Erfurt is the largest and best preserved Baroque city fortress in Central Europe.
There are eight bastions, linked by a two-kilometre parapet wall which reaches heights of 23 metres and has wonderful vistas of the city.
Under these walls are counter mines, a system of tunnels to prevent mines made by attackers during sieges: You can go underground to see them on tours organised by the tourist office.
The citadel was founded in 1665 by the Archbishop-Elector of Mainz and was later used by the Prussian Empire.
After Reunification the site was turned into a tourist attraction, while its buildings belong to government offices, cultural amenities and private apartments.
A prime stop on Germany’s Luther trail, this Augustinian monastery is where Martin Luther became a monk and stayed between 1505 and 1511. Luther returned many times, including in 1521 when he gave a sermon here against the theology of the Catholic church.
You can visit a reconstruction of Luther’s cell and find out more about his relationship with Erfurt at the monastery’s exhibition.
The complex itself dates to the end of the 13th century, and much of the architecture was completed in the first decades of the 14th century.
West of Krämerbrücke is Fischmarkt, which was the social centre of the city in the Middle Ages.
The first town hall was built here in 1275 and its current Neo-Gothic building from 1875 is on the exact same plot.
Poke your head inside to see the fabulous murals recording moments from Thuringian history and scenes from the life of Martin Luther.
In front is the Römer, a monument from 1591 of a Roman soldier holding the city’s flag in his right hand.
On the borders of the square are a number of gorgeous Renaissance houses built by Erfurt’s prosperous Burghers: On the north side Haus zum Breiten Herd has a sumptuous polychrome facade designed by the Brabantic master Frans Floris, while on the west side you can’t ignore Haus zum Roten Ochsen, which has a frieze on the ground floor depicting the muses.
Once dominated by a fortress, this 265-metre hill to the southwest of Erfurt became a public park in the 1880s and has been expanded since then.
In the time of the GDR the garden was developed for the International Gardening Exhibition in 1961. The architecture and landscaping for the project by Reinhold Lingner is celebrated today, and since Reunification the park has been turned into one of Germany’s favourite horticultural attractions.
The largest ornamental flowerbed in the country is here, boasting 150,000 flowers in spring.
There’s also a rose garden with 450 different varieties, as well as a Japanese garden and greenhouses for butterflies, cactuses, tropical flora and 300 species of orchids.
There are also two towers surviving from the fortress, dating to the 16th century, and one of these has a viewing platform 21 metres above the park.
8. Old Synagogue
Going back as far as the 1000s, Erfurt’s Old Synagogue could be the best preserved Medieval synagogue in Europe.
Most of the architecture is from the 13th century, but its history as a place of worship ends abruptly in 1349 when Erfurt’s Jewish community was massacred and expelled from the city.
From that time on it was used as a warehouse.
And because its history had been forgotten by the 20th century this vital piece of Jewish heritage was left untouched during the Nazi regime.
In 2009 the Old Synagogue opened as a museum, enriched with artefacts found around Erfurt during excavations.
There’s a 13th-century Mikveh (ritual bath), facsimiles of Medieval religious manuscripts, as well as the Erfurt Treasure.
This hoard of coins, ingots and jewellery was discovered in the wall of a Medieval house in 1998 and is believed to date from the time of the massacre.
Erfurt’s art museum is in one of the city’s most beautiful buildings, a Baroque early 18th-century facility for packing and weighing at the central Anger square.
The museum has an extensive reserve of fine arts and applied arts from the Middle Ages to the present day.
Seek out the sacred art from the second half of the 14th century, most of all the sandstone sculptures and four panels from the altar at the Augustinerkloster.
There are also later Renaissance altar paintings believed to have been produced by Lucas Cranach the Elder or his workshop.
Also make time for Erich Heckel’s stunning Expressionist mural, and the porcelain collection, presenting Thuringian figurines, tableware, sculptures and reliefs from the 1700s to the 1900s.
At the eastern end of the Krämerbrücke is another cute square, which has roughly the same proportions as Fischmarkt on the opposite bank of the Gera.
The Ägidienkirche on the north side of the square is the eastern bridgehead for the Krämerbrücke and in its current form dates to around the 16th century.
In good weather the square is taken up by bar and restaurant seating, and at Christmas Wenigemarkt becomes a small village of stalls illuminated by fairy lights.
On the southeast side of the square is a fountain, Raufende Knaben (scuffling boys) designed by Madeburg sculptor Heinrich Apel in the mid-1970s.
If you still have an appetite for religious architecture the Predigerkirche (Preacher’s Church) will keep you fascinated for an hour or so.
This former monastery church was founded in the 1200s and upgraded in the Late Gothic style in the 1300s and 1400s.
In 1989 the Predigerkirche was Erfurt’s meeting place for protesters during the Peaceful Revolution: In October of that year one New Forum meeting in the church drew up to 4,000 participants.
Allow some time to view the many ledger stones members of Erfurt’s noble families, unearthed during restoration works in the 1960s and dating to between the 1300s and 1700s.
An interesting piece of trivia is that Johannes Bach, great uncle of composer Johann Sebastian Bach, was organist at the Predigerkirche from 1636-1673.
12. Erinnerungsort Topf & Söhne
The company J. A. Topf und Söhne became insolvent in 1994, and in 2011 this memorial was opened at its headquarters.
During the war the company had supplied the ovens and ventilation equipment for the gas chambers at Auschwitz.
In that sense this site is unique, because it is the only place where the complicity of private companies in the Holocaust has been remembered.
There’s an exhibition on the top floor of the building and this has some interesting items like telegrams showing direct communication with SS officials and documents confirming orders and delivery of the equipment.
Special attention is paid to the experience of Sonderkommandos, the work units made up of prisoners at death camps.
On the level below is a conference room where videos are shown and where people can exchange their thoughts about the memorial.
13. Gedenk- und Bildungsstätte Andreasstraße
On Andreasstraße there’s a former detention centre run by the Stasi in the days of the GDR. More than 5,000 political opponents were imprisoned here.
In December 2013 an exhibition established here on three floors, with restored prison cells, archive photos and video in which firsthand witnesses give accounts of the detention centre as well as the events of 4 December 1989. On that day protesters occupied the Stasi’s Erfurt district administration on Andreasstraße, and it was a symbolic moment as it was the first time that a Stasi facility had been taken over during the Peaceful Revolution.
14. Thüringer Zoopark Erfurt
Always an option if you’re travelling to Erfurt with kids, Erfurt’s zoo has almost 350 different animal species and prides itself in its big African mammals.
There are lions, giraffes and white rhinoceroses, while in 2014 the zoo opened a massive new habitat for African elephants.
You can observe them indoors and outside, in an environment landscaped with rocks and pools.
Another expansive habitat is Afrika-Savanne, where zebras, ostriches, impalas and antelopes occupy the same enclosure.
There are also a variety of monkeys, reptiles, kangaroos, emus, an open space for bison and two farm areas for sheep, goats, pigs, donkeys and horses.
Of the total 63 hectares, 15 are reserved for lawns and woodland, so it’s easy to find a quiet spot for a picnic.
15. Thüringer Bratwurst
The local sausage in Erfurt has Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) under EU Law.
A Thüringer Bratwurst is thin, up to 20 centimetres long, and has a famously spicy flavour.
The blend of pork and beef is seasoned with garlic, pepper, marjoram, caraway, and occasionally coriander and nutmeg.
By law, more than half of the sausage’s ingredients must have been produced in Thuringia.
The sausage will be cooked over charcoal and served in a round roll so that the ends of the sausage poke out from each side.
The condiment of choice in Erfurt is mustard by the local Born brand, which has been in business for almost 200 years.