In southern Lower Saxony, Göttingen is a university town in the Leine Valley. Life in the city almost revolves around the University of Göttingen. This institution was founded in 1734 by King George II of England and Elector of Hanover, and is the oldest university in Lower Saxony.
As one in five people in the city are students, a lot of the best things about Göttingen are related in some way to the university. Take the botanical garden that was established by the brilliant anatomist Albrecht von Haller or Emil Wiechert’s pioneering geophysics institute. There are also lots of quirkier sights like the statue that students kiss when they get their doctorates, or the little house where Otto von Bismarch lived during his time at the uni.
Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Göttingen:
On Göttingen’s central marketplace in front of the old town hall is an Art Nouveau fountain and statue that has been here since 1901. The statue is pretty enough, and represents a girl carrying a pair of geese, one in a basket and another in her right hand.
She also stands below an intricate wrought iron canopy.
But what makes the Gänseliesel such a landmark is the traditional connected to it.
As soon as the statue was finished, students at the University of Göttingen began climbing up to kiss the statue after gaining their doctorates.
In the same ritual they also put a flower in the girl’s basket.
In 1926 the town tried to crack down on the practice by forbidding kissers but that law doesn’t stop students celebrating their doctorate degrees in this time-honoured way.
2. Altes Rathaus
Göttingen’s old town hall was first raised in 1270 and spent more than 700 years as the city’s administrative centre.
Since 1978 the building has held Göttingen’s tourist office, while its spectacular main hall is hired out for weddings.
From the square in front the town hall’s merlons and turret give the building a military aspect.
You’re allowed to go inside for a peek at the main hall.
The beams in the ceiling here go back to the start of the 1400s, but the frescoes on the walls are a little newer than they seem and were painted in the 1880s in a Romantic style by Hermann Schaper.
These represent everyday moments from Renaissance Göttingen, like beggars receiving alms, a court scene and a merchant paying tax.
3. St. Jacobi
A three nave Gothic hall church, St. Jacobi was begin in 1361 and completed by 1433. The tower, crested by a white Baroque dome, is the tallest structure in the old town at 72 metres.
You can go to the top for a small fee.
But most of the interest is down in the central nave and choir.
The Gothic winged altarpiece is remarkable and dates to 1402. The central panel tells the story of James, son of Zebedee, and when opened the inner panels have 16 scenes from the life and passion of Christ.
Also very unusual are the geometric patterns in red on the church’s pillars.
These are from the Renaissance and were rediscovered during a restoration.
4. Old Botanical Garden of Göttingen University
In 4.5 hectares on the northern curve of Göttingen’s former defensive wall is an astounding botanical garden founded in 1736 and maintained by the university.
The man behind the garden was none other than the Swiss anatomist and naturalist Albrecht von Haller, who planted it with medicinal species.
The garden now is one of Germany’s largest and most important scientific collections of plants, with more than 14,000 species across eight greenhouses and outdoor gardens.
There are tunnels joining the garden’s inner and outer sections on either side of the wall.
And those greenhouses hold a wealth of cactuses, bromeliads, ferns, carnivorous plants, orchids, succulents, tropical water plants and rainforest species.
5. Kunstsammlung der Universität Göttingen
The art collection of the University of Göttingen dates back to the same decade that the university was founded.
The first big donation was by the Mayor of Frankfurt Johann Friedrich Hermann von Uffenbach in 1736. Purchases and donations down the years have enriched the collection further, to the point where it’s now highly regarded and one of the things that needs to be on your agenda in Göttingen.
There are now 300 paintings, 100 sculptures, 2,500 drawings and 15,000 prints in the museum’s reserve.
To name just a handful of the artists represented there’s Rembrandt, Albrecht Dürer, Botticelli, Hans von Aachen, Goya, Lovis Corinth, Mac Beckmann and Emil Nolde.
6. Plesse Castle
Barely 10 minutes north of Göttingen cresting a hill over the village of Bovenden is a castle built in the 12th century as the seat of the Lords of Plesse.
After this line became extinct in the 16th century the castle and its lands were ceded to the Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel.
But after a siege in the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century the castle became a ruin and was left to deteriorate for the next 200 years before a restoration in the first half of the 19th century.
Now you can go on tours of the building, come up to admire the view, visit the restaurant, or catch a concert or play in summer.
The cherished 19th-century humorist and illustrator Wilhelm Busch spent much of his youth in this historic water mill in bucolic countryside east of the city.
He moved to Göttingen at the age of nine and befriended the miller’s son, Erich Bachmann.
The 18th-century mill, together with its grinding mechanism was restored to working order when it was turned into a museum in 1977. Busch’s exploits with Bachmann were the inspiration for his characters Max und Moritz, and there are little nods to the pair around the mill.
The military commander and chancellor of the German Empire Otto von Bismarck studied law at the University of Göttingen in 1832-1833, and was commemorated with a tower 60 years later.
Unlike many of the memorial towers to Bismarck in Germany, this one on the 332-metre Kleperberg hill was started while he was still alive and was named after Bismarck with his permission.
The tower was begun in 1892 and finished the year Bismarck passed away in 1898. This Medieval-style edifice is made up of two conjoined towers, one hexagonal and the other circular.
There are viewing platforms at the top of both structures, one at 20 metres and the other at 30. Up here you can contemplate the whole ridge of the Göttinger Wald and look north to the Harz mountains.
9. Wiechert’sche Erdbebenwarte
On the slope of the Hainberg hill to the east of Göttingen is a geophysics institute established by Emil Wiechert for the university.
Wiechert was a physicist and geophysicist who practically invented the modern science of seismology.
The institute was founded in 1902 and houses a number of seismographs, the first of their kind and which became a model for instruments that followed.
Some of these seismographs have been continuously recording data for more than a century, so this institute is the only one on earth that can directly compare events like the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake with modern seismological data.
There are a lot of neat things to check out around the site like a four-ton steel ball that was dropped to simulate earthquakes.
10. Half-timbered Houses
A lot of Göttingen’s Medieval and Renaissance architecture either survived the Second World War intact or was quickly restored afterwards.
Most people agree that the prime example is the Junkernschänke at Barfüßerstraße 5, a quaint old wine tavern that dates back to the middle of the 1400s.
Even older is the Gothic house at Rote Strasse 25, dating to 1273, putting it among Germany’s oldest half-timbered buildings.
Also worth a photo is the Ratsapotheke pharmacy from 1332 at the corner of Weenderstraße and Barfüßerstraße, as well as the Schwarzer Bär, a Renaissance tavern in use under the same name from 1637 all the way up to 2011.
11. Studentenkarzer der Universität Göttingen
Behind the west wing of the university’s Aula building at Wilhelmsplatz 1 is one of the best-preserved student jails in the country.
The jail was in use from the unveiling of the Aula Building in 1837 through to 1933. As you might be able to tell from looking at the graffiti on the walls, spending some time in the jail wasn’t something students were ashamed of.
Nearly every available surface of the cells is covered with charcoal and chalk messages and drawings.
Students could find themselves in the jail for offences like public drunkenness, insubordination, making too much noise at night and riding too fast in the city.
12. Ethnologische Sammlung der Universität Göttingen
The museum for the university’s ethnology institute is out of the ordinary and is made up of some vital collections from 18th-century expeditions.
One element is the Cook-Forster collection of liturgical items, weapons and tools assembled from New Zealand, Tahiti, Tonga and Hawaii during James Cook and Johann Reinhold Forster’s journey through the South Seas from 1772 to 1775. Another is the Baron von Asch collection of human artefacts from Siberia and the North Pole, gathered at the turn of the 1800s.
13. Städtisches Museum Göttingen
The city’s last remaining noble residence is the setting for a museum all about Göttingen.
This half-timbered Renaissance palace was built for the Braunschweig chancellor Johann von Jagemann, while the museum also takes up the old post office next door, also half-timbered.
At the time of writing this post, the museum was under renovation.
But it was still possible to see examples of religious art such as Romanesque sculpture and illuminated manuscripts.
Temporary exhibitions are also ongoing: In 2017 the main show was about the Reformation in Göttingen in the 1520s and 1530s.
Impressive outside, but even more special inside, the 50-metre-long Paulinerkirche is a deconsecrated church that has become a library and lecture hall for the university.
The church has been Göttingen’s minster and was founded as a Gothic hall church dedicated to St Peter and St Paul in 1304. From 1341 the Paulinerkirche was endowed with the relics of Saint Thomas Aquinas, which made it a major pilgrimage destination.
The university itself was inaugurated in this church in the 18th century and was used as a library from the 1730s.
Eventually the library grew so large that services could no longer be held here, and the transformation to a library hall was completed in 1803.
Otto von Bismarck stayed in a cute little house on the city’s south wall during his time as a student at the University of Göttingen.
This polygonal tower took shape in 1447 and was a gun position in the fortification defending the Leine Canal, which was vital for powering the city’s mills.
At the start of the 19th century it was converted into a home in the surrounding “Oeconomischen Garten” and was rented out to students.
Bismarck lived here from spring to autumn 1833 and today the house has a small exhibition on his life and his time in Göttingen.
The Bismarckhäuschen is open Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.