Bulwarked by low mountains this Thuringian City is the home of one of Germany’s ten oldest universities. So it follows that many eminent literary figures, thinkers and scientists have lived or spent time here over the last 560 years. We’re talking about cultural and scientific giants like Goethe, Schiller, Nietzsche, Ernst Haeckel, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Johann Gottlieb Fichte.
But that’s leaving out the 19th-century instrument makers and opticians like Carl Zeiss and Otto Schott, whose names are still carried by international brands. For a bit of fun, a Seven Wonders of Jena was written up by Jena’s students in the 17th century. This once secret list can be an itinerary, although some of the five surviving “wonders” are a little odd.
Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Jena:
Jena’s modern landmark is this 144.5-metre skyscraper built as a research facility for VEB Carl Zeiss Jena.
The tower went up in the 1970s with a design by East Germany’s foremost architect, Hermann Henselmann.
To this day the JenTower is the tallest skyscraper in the former GDR states, and its observation platform at 128 metres is open every day.
From this height you can see all of Jena its crucible of wooded hills, which are breathtaking in autumn when the leaves turn.
One floor below is the tower’s restaurant if you’d prefer to save on the fee for the observation platform and have a sit-down meal instead.
2. Zeiss-Planetarium Jena
Since you’re in the home city of Carl Zeiss you’d be remiss not to visit the planetarium.
This is the oldest planetarium in the world still in business, having first opened its doors on 18 July 1926. The building was a precursor to Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, using a Fuller-esque metal framework for its concrete shell.
And while the venue may be historic, the planetarium uses the latest projection equipment by Carl Zeiss, with a 4096 x 4096 pixel display showing the stars and planets in awesome clarity.
Many of the shows are produced in-house and accompanied by a state-of -the-art 3D “SpatialSoundWave” system.
3. Botanischer Garten
Jena has Germany’s second oldest botanical garden, the origins of which can be followed back to 1586 with the foundation of a medicinal garden (hortus medicus). The garden adhered to Carl Linnaeus’ new taxonomical rules from 1770 and that same decade became associated with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who helped set up the Jena Institute of Botany.
This period proved to be the garden’s apogee because it was damaged in the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt in 1806 and languished for much of the 19th century before a redesign in the 1870s.
Managed by the University of Jena, the garden now has 12,000 plants.
There’s an arboretum with 900 different tree and shrub species and wonderful displays of roses, dahlias and rhododendrons in spring and summer.
The five greenhouses contain succulents and cactuses, aquatic plants, but maybe most exciting of all is the evolution house, with ancient ferns and cycads.
4. Optical Museum Jena
If you’re wondering how Jena came to be the centre of Germany’s optical instruments industry this museum will fill you in.
You’ll get in touch with the careers of 19th-century trailblazers like Carl Zeiss, Otto Schott and Ernst Abbe and track the development of lenses over eight centuries.
The museum’s beginnings are interesting too: When Carl Zeiss was assembling microscopes in the 1800s he had a side business repairing other manufacturers’ instruments as a way of keeping up with their technological advances.
These are a now a big part of the collection.
But going back through history there’s a camera obscura, and a spectrum of magic lanterns and peep shows (in the historical sense!). You’ll also learn how eyeglasses, telescopes, microscopes and photographic lenses have evolved , and can marvel at holographs, learn about the science of colours and watch a show at the museum’s own planetarium.
5. Stadtkirche St. Michael
Jena’s main Protestant church has been at the heart of ecclesiastical life in the city for more than seven centuries.
It was built in phases from the 1380s and once linked with a Cistercian monastery from the High Middle Ages.
The choir came first, at the end of the 14th century, while the nave wouldn’t be started until 1474 and was completed in 1557. Martin Luther preached at this church many times between 1524 and 1529, and the pulpit he used is still intact.
There’s a bronze grave epitaph for Luther, cast in 1549 by a local bell founder using the portrait by Lucas Cranach the Elder.
One of Jena’s Seven Wonders is also here: Known as Ara, this is a 3.5-metre-high vaulted passageway under the altar, which once led to the Cistercian monastery next door.
Also one of the Seven Wonders of Jena, the Fuchsturm (Fox Tower) is the keep of a medieval castle on the slopes of the 400-metre Hausberg mountain overlooking the city from the east.
In the 10th century this castle was the easternmost Ottonian court, and was owned by a succession of ministeriales, powerful nobles whose families had humble histories.
Eager hikers could make the climb from Marktplatz in the city centre to this scenic vantage point.
The tower has been in the hands of a local preservation society for more than 150 years, and there has been a restaurant in the house below since 1868.
7. Stadtmuseum & Kunstsammlung
On the north wall of the historic marketplace stands the Göhre, a half-timbered house with foundations laid in the 1200s.
The building is named after Paul Göhre, who ran a wine tavern here at the turn of the century.
The city’s museum had a few locations before moving into this building in 1988, and there’s a timeline on the stairway leading from Jena’s first mention in the 9th century to 1850. One of curiosities inside is Draco, a bizarre 17th-century sculpture made of papier-mâché, wire and animal bones.
Back then Draco qualified for that list of Seven Wonders! Also look for the Jena Wartburg flag from 1816, the first time the German colours of black, red and gold were united on one banner.
Military historians can venture onto the slopes of the Windknollen north of Jena, where the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt took place on 14 October 1806. And while the trek and view from this grassy hill may be glorious, that day more than 210 years ago was anything but pleasant.
Upwards of 10,000 people died at this place alone.
The Prussian defeat that day would see the Kingdom of Prussia absorbed by the French Empire.
Nine days later General Louis-Nicolas Davout’s French army marched into Berlin under the Brandenburg Gate.
Etched onto the stone is a quote about Germany’s attitude towards Napoleon by author and historian Golo Mann, as well as the distances in kilometres to other Napoleonic battlefields like Austerlitz, Cairo, Leipzig and Waterloo.
9. Phyletisches Museum
This museum on phylogenetics was founded over a century ago by none other than the influential biologist Ernst Haeckel.
The foundation stone had been laid on August 28 1907, Goethe’s birthday, while its Art Nouveau architecture has earned it listed status.
The museum’s permanent exhibition is on the middle ground between art and science.
The Medusa Hall for instance still has beautiful frescoes of marine life painted in 1908. There are also artistically designed showcases, and these are paired with insights about the phylogenetic development of organisms, evolutionary theory and the genetic science that informs it.
In-depth studies show how HIV spread so quickly in the 1980s, and how sexual selection affects the behaviour and appearance of animals.
10. Schillers Gartenhaus
This museum preserves the house and garden that belonged to the playwright and national icon Friedrich Schiller at the end of the 18th century.
Schiller picked the house for its large garden as he had health problems at the time and was recommended fresh air.
During his stay he wrote one of his most famous works, Wallenstein, as well as sections of Maria Stuart and the Maid of Orleans.
The oval stone table under an arbour where Schiller and his friend Goethe would chew the cud is exactly where it was more than 200 years ago.
There are also little revelations that will bring a smile to your face, like Friedrich’s wife Charlotte having a separate bedroom because he would get up suddenly in the night when he had an idea.
A city that has had as many illustrious residents as Jena is bound to have some famous burials.
At the Johannisfriedhof, next to the Botanischer Garten, you can track down Carl Zeiss’ final resting place.
But at the same time the cemetery is uncommonly beautiful: There have been no new burials at the Johannisfriedhof since 1948, and for the last forty years the wide avenues, century-old trees and ivy-covered mausoleums have become a public park.
Some other interesting graves to look out for are Caroline von Wolzogen (Schiller’s sister in law), and the respected physician Johann Christian Stark the Elder who treated both Goethe and Schiller.
12. Schott Glasmuseum
The chemist and glass technologist Otto Schott helped advance optical instruments in the 19th and 20th centuries.
In 1884 he co-founded the Glastechnisches Laboratorium Schott & Genossen, which would evolve into today’s glass-making multinational Schott AG. His biggest contribution came in 1893 with the invention of borosilicate glass, which is more resistant to chemicals, heat and sudden changes in temperature.
To get to grips with one of the most brilliant scientists and inventors of the day you can enter Schott’s palatial villa where he lived and had his own laboratory.
There are details about his life, insights into the changing methods for glassmaking and how his discoveries led to ever more powerful telescopes and microscopes.
There are now interactive science museums for kids all over the world, but one of the very first opened in a disused substation in Jena in 1995. Over 20 years later there are still more than 100 engaging experiments and exhibits, finding unconventional ways to get young minds thinking about mathematics, physics and optical illusions.
Imagination has a big role to play in helping kids learn, so they’ll be plunged into outlandish situations like riding a bike over a tightrope, riding a one-person rollercoaster and lying inside a grand piano.
At the turn of the 18th century a generation of authors, poets, literary critics, scientists and philosophers put Jena at the vanguard of thought in Europe.
This museum captures the spirit of those first Romantics, paying special attention to the publisher and patron Carl Friedrich Ernst Frommann, who had a wide circle of friends that included Goethe.
The museum’s venue is the house that philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte lived in when he was lecturing at the university in the 1790s.
One of the museum’s showpieces is the experimental cabinet by the chemist and philosopher Johann Wilhelm Ritter.
This shows the scientific commitment of the early Romantics and the complex relationship between art, philosophy and science.
15. Thüringer Rostbratwurst
Out and about in Jena you’ll catch the scent of grilling sausages.
This goes especially for market days (Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays). But the rest of the time you’ll never be far from a moving “Grillteufel” stands.
Real Thüringer Rostbratwurst is up to 20 centimetres long and cooked over a charcoal fire.
Unlike, say, a frankfurter, it packs a herby punch and is heavily seasoned with garlic, caraway and marjoram.
It will come in a bun and with a dollop of mustard.
And being an East German student town, there’s a great price to quality ratio for snacks and meals in Jena.