In Thuringia, Gera is a former textile city sitting in the Weiße Elster River valley. For hundreds of years the city was ruled by the House of Reuß-Gera. And for about a century up to 1919 Gera was even the capital of a sovereign state. The old monuments belonging to the Reuß family like their orangery and former castle are now visitor attractions.
Since Reunification Gera’s appearance has changed markedly. As the population has shrunk, the GDR-era apartment blocks in the city centre have been demolished, while historic houses damaged in the war have been restored.
In 2007 the city also staged the Bundesgartenschau (Federal Garden Show), revitalising its green spaces. In Germany people will often refer to Gera as the Otto-Dix-Stadt, as it was the famous artist’s birthplace in 1891.
Here are the best things to do in Gera:
1. Kunstsammlung Gera – Orangerie
Gera’s strong art collection is in the resplendent Baroque orangery ordered by Count Heinrich XXV of Reuß-Gera in the late 1720s.
Overlooking recently restored formal gardens, this dignified monument would only serve as a greenhouse and orangery until the death of the last count of Reuß-Gera in 1802. After that it had a variety of uses over the next 160 years, as a military hospital, stables, gym, cafe and then a museum about the labour movement during the GDR. Since 1972 the orangery has held the city’s art collection, which has 11,000 paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings from the Medieval period to today.
Make time for the pieces by Tintoretto, Jan van Goyen, Lucas Cranach the Elder and Rembrandt.
2. Kunstsammlung Gera – Otto Dix Haus
Otto Dix, the much Objectivity painter who was famous for depicting characters in Weimar society in the 1920s, was born at this building in Gera’s Untermhaus area in 1891. As the son of a seamstress and blacksmith, Dix had humble origins, and his parents had a two-room tenement inside this large listed 18th-century building which was only bought out and converted into a museum in 1991. The family’s home recalls Dix’s working class upbringing, while the museum around it has one of the largest collections of Dix’s art.
There are 400 works, from his Impressionist beginnings as a schoolboy, through his First World War sketches, to his last self-portrait in 1969, with his daughter Marcella.
3. Haus Schulenburg
From 1913 the textile manufacturer and art collector Paul Schulenburg hired Art Nouveau virtuoso Henry van de Velde to build him a villa.
Van de Velde took charge of even the most minor furnishings inside, and when the garden was extended later in 1919 his student Thilo Schoder drew up the plans.
The house is held as one of van de Velde’s masterpieces and in 1997 the interiors, outbuildings, gardens and courtyard were all restored.
The original stucco, fabric, wood and paper wall-coverings are in place, while the furniture and light fittings are all as the architect intended.
There are also gouaches and oil paintings by the artist couple Heinrich Linzen and Hilde Linzen-Gebhardt, commissioned by Paul Schulenburg.
4. Historische Geraer Höhler (Beer Cellars)
In 1487 all property owners in Gera were granted the privilege to brew their own beer.
For the next 300 years this gave rise to mass excavation under the streets of the town, as the citizens needed ever more space and the right climatic conditions to store their brews.
Two surveys and restorations of the cellars were carried out in the 1970s and 80s and some 250 metres of tunnels have been set up as a museum.
There are two guided tours on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, leading you around these historic vaulted passages still lined with barrels.
Gera’s largest park was given a makeover for the 2007 Bundesgartenschau.
Beside the Weiße Elster River, the Hofwiesenpark is a 30-hectare green space dividing the Gera’s city centre from the Untermhaus area in the west.
The park has lush meadows, high shady trees, public art and flowerbeds that take turns to erupt in bloom in spring and summer.
The facilities are extensive too and include a cafe, mini-golf course, indoor pool, outdoor performance stage, roller skating rink and even a sports stadium, Stadion der Freundschaft.
Anyone in town in spring or summer should see if there’s something worth catching at the Veolia stage, or catch a public celebration like Karibische Nacht (Caribbean Night) or Lichternacht (Night of the Lights).
6. Museum für Naturkunde
Gera’s natural history museum is in the Schreibersche Haus, a Baroque mansion commissioned by a Leipzig merchant in the 1680s.
The name comes from the Schreiber textile family, who lived here between 1716 and 1847. But the house’s main claim to fame is that it was the only residential building to survive the city fire of 1780. The museum is about the natural world in Gera and East Thuringia, revealing the plant and animal species that live in the region’s forest, meadows, rivers and lakes.
Upstairs is a historic natural history cabinet, and rare finds from nearby Ronneburg’s uranium ore deposit.
Below, in the house’s beer cellar are 340 spectacular minerals gathered from all over the world, and outside is a 19th-century botanical garden with 300 species.
7. Stadtmuseum Gera
The city museum is in a lovely Baroque hall at Heinrichstraße 2. The building has a chequered past: Dating from 1739 it was established as a home for orphans and Gera’s mentally ill citizens.
The basement had cells, and for most of the 19th century this building functioned as a prison and workhouse.
The museum first opened in 1914, and then again in 1956 after damage during the Second World War.
While the facade may be in its historic Baroque form, the galleries inside are all new.
The exhibitions deal with the absorbing history of the Reuß family, as well as Gera’s textile, tin and porcelain trades.
You can peruse a vast photo and graphic collection and see beautifully presented artefacts from all eras, like a preserved tram from the early 20th century.
8. Rathaus Gera
On Marktplatz, Gera’s town hall was constructed in the Renaissance style in 1574. As the city grew, the initial building merged with neighbouring houses and is now compound of historic buildings.
At street level check out the portal, which was carved in 1576. In the pediment, over a wealth of statuary is the Holy Roman double-headed eagle, and below are the coats of arms of the ruling Reuß and Solms families.
The wooden carving in the centre of the door itself represents a blindfolded Lady Justice.
If you ask at the tourist information desk you’ll be handed a key to access the town hall’s tower.
As well as giving you a fantastic view of the city centre, there’s a small exhibition about the tower’s Türmer, or watchman in the tiny quarters where he lived until 1939.
Bordered entirely by fine old facades, the square in front of the town hall has to be the first port of call for any walk around Gera’s old centre.
In the centre is the Simsonbrunnen, a Baroque fountain first carved in 1686 and then updated after heavy weathering and storm damage in 1932. On the northwest corner of the square is the municipal pharmacy from the turn of the 17th century.
The pharmacy’s most beautiful feature is the bay window, decorated with two reliefs, the lowest showing the four seasons and the one above sporting the coats of arms of the local ruling families, interspersed by images of the apostles.
There’s always a special atmosphere at Marktplatz on market day, which falls on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
10. Schloss Osterstein
High on the opposite bank of the Weiße Elster is what’s left of the oldest building in Gera.
Schloss Osterstein is on a plateau that has been fortified since the Bronze age, while the castle from the 1100s has Slavic origins.
From 1550 up to Second World War, Schloss Osterstein was in the hands of the various branches of the Reuß family.
The property was almost completely destroyed in the Second World War, and only the Romanesque keep and the Gothic Revival Wolfsbrücke remain.
The keep puts on exhibitions and doubles as an observation tower, while there’s a restaurant and children’s playground on the castle’s old terrace.
Next door to the Otto Dix Haus on Mohrenplatz is a Late Gothic Church from the middle of the 15th century.
Marienkirche was built over a much earlier Romanesque church, and the chancel belongs to that original structure, dating to 1193. Here you can inspect the 15th-century altarpiece that was funded by the local Kudorf and Waltheym families.
The Untermhaus area around the church was only incorporated into Gera in 1919. Mohrenplatz, the square, is fringed by fine historic houses with mansard roofs, like the former guildhall at no.
3. And behind, at the foot of the slope are the lower outbuildings for Schloss Osterstein.
Gracing the top of the Nicolaiberg hill in the centre of Gera is an 18th-century Baroque church that was rebuilt after the fire.
From 1903 the city councillor Adolf Marsch oversaw a redesign of the interior, hiring the Munich painter Josef Huber to create a stunning Art Nouveau glass mosaic.
The pulpit and its stairway are in the same style, with dainty stuccowork borrowed from the Rococo period.
In the upper gallery is one of the largest playable organs produced by master organ-maker Ernst Röver, dating from 1903 and comprising 2,013 individual pipes.
On the way to Gera’s zoo (Tierpark) and on the eastern fringe of the Stadtwald is a multi-coloured dahlia park, open for exhibitions and tours in summer and autumn.
The garden is in a former clay pit that was filled in with topsoil removed from the building site of the Handleshof (1928), Gera’s first skyscraper.
With scores of dahlia varieties in geometric flowerbeds, the garden was enhanced in 2006 in time for the Bundesgartenschau the next year.
The highlight of the annual calendar is the Dahlienfest, in late August or early September, when the public votes for its favourite dahlia.
14. Museum für Angewandte Kunst (Applied Arts Museum)
Gera’s applied arts museum is also in a graceful period property.
The Ferbersche Haus is an 18th-century merchant’s residence, and while the portal dates to 1760 the rest of the edifice was redesigned and extended after the fire in 1780. The applied arts museum opened in 1984 and is geared mainly towards 20th-century and contemporary design.
In the permanent collection, look for the ceramics by the Bauhaus artists Theodor Bogler and Otto Lindig, and the photography of Aenne Bierman.
The museum also has constant temporary exhibitions, on anything from industrial design in the GDR to Art Deco jewellery and porcelain.
15. Tierpark Gera
Gera’s zoo is within the wooded environment of the Stadtwald (City Forest). Most of the park’s 500 animals are native to the Northern Hemisphere and Europe, but there are some African, Asian and South American species, like mischievous Barbary monkeys, which live in a walk-through enclosure and interact with you.
Also exotic are the Chinese leopards, rheas and llamas, while in the zoo’s farm are regional domestic breeds like Thuringian goats and Thuringian forest donkeys.
Along with adventure playgrounds, youngsters can ride on the miniature railway, which runs on an 800-metre track through the woodland.
This attraction is from 1975 and was originally built to train teenagers to become railway drivers, conductors and engineers in the GDR.