Up to 1945 the city of Hildesheim in Lower Saxony was feted for its 1,900 half-timbered houses. Many of these were wiped out towards the end of the Second World War, and modern concrete constructions took their place. But since the 1980s the ensemble of Renaissance guildhalls, municipal buildings and patrician houses on the Historic Market Square has been resurrected to wonderful effect.
Hildesheim is also on the UNESCO World Heritage list for St Michael’s Church and St Mary’s Cathedral, two extraordinary Ottonian monuments from the High Middle Ages, abounding with preserved and restored art from the period. The cathedral treasury is a museum gleaming with riches from the Holy Roman Empire.
Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Hildesheim:
1. St Michael’s Church
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this church was completed in the early 11th century in the Ottonian style, which came before the Romanesque in Germany.
The layout is unusual, as the church has two choirs, east and west, and both transepts are crowned by one central square tower and two flanking circular ones.
High in the nave look up to the 13th-century painted wooden ceiling, which is totally unique north of the Alps and depicts the Tree of Jesse (Christ’s family tree). The columns here have blocks in alternating patterns and have the simple cubic capitals that are characteristic of Ottonian design.
In front of the west choir is the choir screen from the late 12th century, expertly decorated in stucco with ornamental patterns, mythical beasts and figures of angels.
2. St Mary’s Cathedral
Hildesheim’s Romanesque cathedral was razed during the Second World War, but was quickly restored in the 1950s and then again over the last few years.
The monument reopened in 2014 and is part of the same UNESCO Site as St Michael’s Church.
The original was finished at the start of the 11th century, and like the St Michael’s it has a symmetrical layout with two apses.
On the west portal are the famous Bernward Doors, a pair of Ottonian or Romanesque bronze doors from the early 11th century, with reliefs evoking scenes from the bible made using the lost wax process.
The crypt survived the war and has a 12th-century shrine to the local saint Godehard, while you have to see the exquisite Ottonian Bernward column from the early 1000s and the 13th-century bronze baptismal font, cast with images like the baptism of Jesus and the Israelites crossing the Red Sea.
The most photographed half-timbered house in Hildesheim was first built on the Historic Market Place in 1529. This multi-storey edifice with a big slate-clad gable was the old city’s butchers’ guildhall, and is replete with decoration, on its carved corbels and in the panels above the windows.
The mind-boggling thing about the Knochenhaueramtshaus is that the monument that stands before you is little more than 30 years old.
The original burned down, along with the rest of the Historic Market Place, during an air raid in the Second World War.
And from 1986 it was rebuilt inside and out at great expense.
Some 7,500 wooden pegs and 19,000 roof tiles were used in its construction.
Inside, among other things there’s a hotel, restaurant and the municipal museum with artefacts like the Medieval city seal.
4. Historic Market Place
You wouldn’t believe it now, but in the decades after the Second World War the Historic Market Place was surrounded by modern concrete buildings.
Only two of its old monuments, the city hall and the 14th-cetury Tempelhaus were restored.
But with the Knochenhaueramtshaus came a wave of restorations, and other buildings were resurrected, like the Bäckeramtshaus (Bakers’ Guildhall) and the Wedekindhaus, a stunning patrician house from the late 16th century.
Much of the funding for the project came from donations by Hildesheim’s citizens, who also donated historic prints and photos so the reconstructions could be as accurate as possible.
A little later, the beautiful Renaissance fountain from 1542 was restored to complete the picture-book scene.
The Gothic city hall was completed with local sandstone in the second half of the 13th century, putting it among the oldest municipal buildings in the country.
The monument took some damage in 1945 and was quickly restored and inaugurated in 1954. One element that survived almost unharmed is the imposing Lilie tower, which looks the same now as it did in the 13th century.
In its eastern wall is a Medieval inscription indicating the length of a yarn measure for the market.
The remainder of the building has a Late Gothic design from the 15th century, with a crow-stepped gable and an ogival arcade.
You can catch the city hall’s glockenspiel at 12:00, 13:00 and 17:00, as well as 09:00 on market days.
6. Hildesheim Cathedral Museum
While the cathedral underwent its most recent renovation, its treasures went on a tour of museums around the world, but have now returned to the museum that reopened in 2015. With vestments, vessels, books, paintings, sculpture and reliquaries there’s a millennium of liturgical art to marvel at here.
The most enthralling pieces are from the time of Bernward of Hildesheim, bishop at the turn of the 11th century.
He donated the sublime Rich Bernward Gospels, an evangeliary (book), with 232 parchment pages and a carved oak cover.
Then there’s the Cross of Bernward, cast in gold and embellished with pearls, crystals and gemstones.
7. Roemer- und Pelizaeus-Museum Hildesheim
This museum of world cultures was set up back in 1844 and moved into a new building in the year 2000. At the start of the 20th century the collection was enriched by a donation of Egyptian antiquities by the banker Wilhelm Pelizaeus, who spent much of his life in Cairo.
Many of the artefacts are from the Old Kingdom up to 2170 BC, making up the most significant assortment of objects from this period outside Cairo and Boston.
There are statues, sarcophagi, wall reliefs, busts and all manner of smaller carved items.
One unforgettable piece is the 4th-dynasty statue of Hemiunu, believed to be the architect of the Great Pyramid of Giza.
Also see the museum’s Peruvian art collection, and the second largest set of Chinese porcelain in Europe.
8. Half-Timbered Houses
Outside the city centre many beautiful half-timbered houses came through the war unscathed.
Areas where you’ll come across original Medieval and Renaissance buildings are the Hildesheimer Neustadt, Moritzburg to the west and Brühl to the south.
Almost every old building has its own unique style, and if you look closely you can make out centuries-old inscriptions and carvings.
One monument that warrants closer attention is the Waffenschmiedehaus (Weaponsmith’s House) on Gelber Stern, which is decorated with vibrant Renaissance sculpture and bears the coat of arms of the armourers’ guild.
Also in the south, on Godehardsplatz is the Wernesche Haus, a burgher residence from the early 17th century adorned with friezes representing hope, faith, charity and patience.
9. St Andreas
The church of St Andreas on the eponymous square has the highest church tower in all of Lower Saxony, rising to 114.5 metres.
The building goes back to the 11th century, and has a Romanesque westwork that leads into a Gothic nave, which was designed after the great cathedrals of northern France.
Adding to the Romanesque structure below, the tower was first topped off at the start of the 16th century and then extended to its current height in 1883. The goal of any visit has to be to take on the 364 steps to the top for a panorama of the city and far-ranging views of the Lower Saxony countryside and the Harz mountain range.
10. Umgestülpter Zuckerhut
In the northeast corner of Andreasplatz, across from the church is another adorable half-timbered monument.
Translating to “Inverted Sugarloaf”, this top-heavy house with exaggerated eaves was first raised at the beginning of the 16th century.
It catches the eye as the two cantilevered upper levels are so much larger than the bottom floor, and is one of Hildesheim’s most recent replicas.
The original structure was lost in the firebomb raid on 22 March 1945 that claimed much of the city.
The reconstruction wouldn’t take place until 2009, and since 2010 the house has had a cute little cafe inside.
Just past St Michael’s Church, against a length of Hildesheim’s western moat and rampart, is one of the oldest parks in Lower Saxony.
This was once a garden for an adjacent monastery, Magdalenenkloster, and in the 1720s it was given its geometric Baroque layout.
That design was lost when the old monastery was turned into an asylum in the 19th century, but a faithful restoration was made in the early 2000s, going by historic prints and paintings.
As a classic parterre the garden is arranged on eight squares divided by a 100-metre path.
Half of the squares are given over to a rosarium, with more than 1,500 individual rosebushes.
Another square is a herb garden, while there are Baroque statues like an 18th-century putto and a statue of the Roman goddess Ceres.
12. St Godehard
Head south of the cathedral and you’ll arrive at another breathtaking Romanesque church.
Unlike many of the other monuments in the city, the 12th century Church of St Godehard was hardly affected by the war.
Outside, take a couple of minutes to study the northwestern portal, which has a tympanum carved with Christ flanked by the saints and former Hildesheim bishops Goldehard and Epiphanus.
Also see the figurative carved capitals on the columns in the nave, as well as the statue of St Godehard, the choir stalls and crucifixion group on the southern transept wall, which are all Late Gothic.
At the crossing, look up at the chandelier, donated by Queen Marie of Saxe-Altenburg in 1864.
13. Schloss Marienburg
For a day out you could head to Schloss Marienburg, a Gothic Revival castle from the mid-19th century, 15 minutes west of Hildesheim.
The castle was built over almost a decade up to 1867 as a birthday gift from King George V of Hanover to his wife Marie of Saxe-Alteburg.
To this day the property is in the hands of one of their direct descendants, Prince Ernst August of Hanover.
The museum inside tells the history of the House Hanover, and on the tour you can admire fine silverware from the 18th century, the richly decorated Queen’s library and an enormous kitchen packed with big copper vessels and antique bakeware.
For a regal dining experience you could book a table at the castle restaurant in the old stables.
14. Wildgatter Hildesheim
On a 322-metre hill in the southern Ochtersum district is an animal park amid forest, ponds and streams.
The habitats at the Wildgatter are on six hectares of land, and you’ll come to each enclosure via wooded trails.
On your walk you’ll see moufflons, wild boar, red deer, fallow deer, sika deer, pygmy goats and ferrets.
The park also runs a rescue station for injured birds of prey that can’t be returned to the wild.
Be here in spring and there’s a good chance you’ll see baby animals like piglets and fawns.
15. Christmas Market
Following its restoration the Historic Market Square has become an fairytale backdrop for an idyllic Christmas market from the end of November to the end of December.
An annual tradition is the Weihnachtspyramide (Christmas Pyramid), a brightly-lit 10-metre structure standing next to the tree, which itself is illuminated by 7,500 LEDs.
The little huts in the square have a half-timbered style, like the houses of Hildesheim, and sell handmade decorations and toys, as well as perennial Christmas favourites like steaming hot mulled wine (Glühwein) and gingerbread (Lebkuchen).