The German nickname for Karlsruhe in Baden-Württemberg is “Fächerstadt”, which means “Fan City”. When you see a map the city you’ll know why. Karlsruhe follows a clean geometric plan devised in the 18th century by the Margrave Charles III William. His palace would be at the northernmost point and to the south, east and west there are 32 radiating avenues shooting off like the ribs of a hand fan.
Karlsruhe’s strengths lie in its Neoclassical monuments, and the collections gathered by Baden’s margraves, prince electors and grand dukes who held sway here until 1918. Since the end of the war Karlsruhe has been in known in Germany as the home of the Federal Constitutional Court and the Federal Court of Justice.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Karlsruhe:
1. Karlsruhe Palace
Charles III William, Margrave of Baden-Durlach effectively founded Karlsruhe when he built his residence to the west of Durlach in 1715. And given the street plan of the city, it’s fair to say that almost all roads in Karlsruhe lead to the palace.
For the next two centuries up to 1918 Karlsruhe Palace would be the seat of power for Baden’s margraves, prince electors and grand dukes.
The current Baroque facade dates to the second half of the 18th century, and it was in 1785 that the building got its characteristic dome.
The palace was badly damaged in the war, and rather than restore it the city decided to keep the facade and turn the rest into a regional museum for Baden, which we’ll come to next.
2. Badisches Landesmuseum
The Baden State Museum first opened in the castle in 1921 and then again after the reconstruction in 1959. The museum explores thousands of years of human history, delving into Baden-Württemberg’s plentiful collection of classical antiquities and prehistoric artefacts, shown in the basement and on the ground floor.
Over the course of the Ottoman Wars in Europe the margraves also assembled a trove of Turkish treasures and curios, which are exhibited on the first floor.
Also up here are regional porcelain, furniture, weapons, the margraves’ cabinet of curiosity and an exhibition about the history of the palace.
3. State Art Gallery
Karlsruhe’s fine arts museum has 800 years of European art with an accent on Dutch and French works from the 17th and 18th centuries.
The museum’s Neoclassical building was constructed in the 1840s beside the botanical garden expressly to show off the Baden house’s brilliant collection.
This had been started by Landgravine Caroline Louise of Hesse-Darmstadt in the 18th century, who herself was a dilettante artist.
You’ll be treated to pieces by Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Hans Baldung, Rubens, Caspar David Friedrich, Delacroix, Gustave Courbet, Degas, Pissarro, Gauguin and Cézanne.
There’s also 20th-century art up to 1945 by Kandinsky, Kirchner, Delaunay, August Macke, Franz Marc and Otto Dix.
4. ZKM: Centre for Art and Media
In a reconfigured munitions factory is a cultural institution that occupies the frontier between art and technology.
The factory’s cavernous courtyards are under a glass roof and now accommodate two museums, one for contemporary art and the other for new media, as well as three research facilities.
Both museums put on temporary shows on ever-changing themes.
Some of the exhibitions can be challenging, but the space is so large, and there are so many things going on that there will always be something clever, memorable and thought-provoking.
Children are also kept in mind, and before your trip to Karlsruhe you could find out what workshops are scheduled.
A popular day out from Karlsruhe is this hill over the suburb of Durlach.
Turmberg is the northwesternmost peak of the Black Forest, and resting on top at a height of 246 metres are the ruins of a castle.
This belonged to the Margraves of Durlach who abandoned it in favour of a residence in the town in the 16th century, leaving just the keep behind as a watchtower.
That tower has been fitted with an observation platform and you can gaze west to Karlsruhe’s geometrical cityscape and even as far as the Vosges in France.
To get to the top of the hill you can either take the stairway with 528 steps, built in 1781, or opt for the more comfortable Turmbergbahn.
Built in 1888, this the oldest continuously functioning funicular in Germany.
6. State Museum of Natural History
The predecessor of this highly-rated museum was the Landgravine Caroline Louise of Hesse-Darmstadt cabinet of curiosities.
The “Naturalienkabinett” was first opened to the public in 1785, before finding its own home at this distinguished-looking hall in 1872. Over time the collections have been expanded and now there are large exhibitions for zoology, entomology, mineralogy, geology, as well as some mesmerising fossils.
One of these is the skeleton of a giant salamander, which was named Andrias.
At the time of its discovery in 1726 the Swiss naturalist Johann Jakob Scheuchzer mistakenly identified Andrias as a human.
The museum also has a vivarium, made up of 30 tanks for tropical freshwater and marine species and a terrarium for reptiles and amphibians.
7. Botanischer Garten
It was under the rule of Margrave Charles Frederick that the municipal botanical garden was first planted to the southwest of the palace grounds.
They were designed by the distinguished botanist Karl Christian Gmelin and Neoclassical Friedrich Weinbrenner who conceived the orangery and winter garden.
The greenhouses came a little later, in the middle of the 19th century.
Now, although the garden is no longer a scientific institution, it’s an idyllic green space framed by historic buildings, sculptures and basins.
There 20 species of exotic trees growing in the garden and small but beautiful collections of tropical and Mediterranean plants in the greenhouses.
The Karlsruhe Pyramid, one of the city’s main identifiers is in the middle of Karlsruhe’s historic market square.
The feted architect and city planner Friedrich Weinbrenner drew up the design for the square and the ensemble of imposing buildings around it, like the evangelical church and town hall, at the start of the 19th century.
This plan was titled “Via Triumphalis”, and is now seen as a masterpiece of Neoclassical urban planning, and beyond a few modern signs looks a lot like it did when it was completed 200 years ago.
And as for that sandstone pyramid at the centre, it holds the tomb of the city’s founder Margrave Charles III William and borrows from its design and purpose from the Egyptian pyramids.
9. Zoo Karlsruhe
In 22 hectares just north of the Hauptbahnhof, Zoo Karlsruhe opened in 1865, putting it among Germany’s first public zoos.
Ever since it opened the park has combined the botanical exhibits of the Stadtgarten (City Garden) with animal enclosures that are updated to meet modern ethical standards.
One of the innovative recent attractions is the Exotenhaus (Exotic House), a climate controlled space in a repurposed indoor swimming pool.
There are 2,000 animals from 100 species inside, and the main hall birds, bats and two sloths are free to go where they please.
Other recent improvements have been the largest enclosure for coatis in Germany and a Himalayan mountain zone housing snow leopards and red pandas.
In the Stadtgarten there’s a rose garden with 15,000 bushes, and one of the country’s first Japanese gardens, dating back to 1918.
10. Durlach District
The suburb to the east of Karlsruhe is far older and only became part of the city in 1938. On the cusp of the Black Forest, Durlach is the largest single district in Karlsruhe and home to 30,000 people.
Where Karlsruhe is about Neoclassical ceremony, Durlach is quainter and has scurrying medieval alleys that are still partly defended by the town walls.
Marktplatz is the picturesque core of Durlach, and this square is overlooked by the Renaissance town hall, which has a crow-stepped gable and the statue of a knight on its balcony.
This is believed to be Margrave Charles II, who moved the capital of Baden to Durlach in 1563. His palace, Schloss Karlsburg would be the residence for the Margraves for the next 150 years until Charles III William founded Karlsruhe.
11. Pfarrkirche St. Stephan
The Neoclassical architect Friedrich Weinbrenner was also called upon to design Karlsruhe’s catholic parish church by Grand Duke Karl Friedrich at the start of the 19th century.
The choice of Saint Stephen is a tribute to Stéphanie de Beauharnais, half-sister to Napoleon’s first wife Joséphine, and an ancestor of the Prince of Monaco.
The building is modelled on the Roman Pantheon, except for a 43-metre tower, which was put up against Weinbrenner’s wishes.
The church was hit during the war, and fittings like the high altar and organ were replaced in the 1950s.
12. Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe
For devotees of the classical arts the Baden State Theatre by Ettlinger Gate is one of the most prestigious opera houses in Germany.
You can scrub up and attend opera, ballet and theatre performances at this modern complex, constructed after the 19th century hall was lost in the war.
The ballet and musical theatre performances are accompanied by the Baden State Opera Choir and the Baden State Philharmonic, which are both attached to the theatre.
If you’re in town in February there’s an annual Handel Festival, with concerts scheduled to coincide with the Baroque composer’s birthday on 23 February.
A couple of blocks down from the palace, the pedestrianised Kaiserstraße is where people do their shopping in Karlsruhe.
As with most of the streets in the centre, it’s an arrow-straight thoroughfare, cutting east to west through nine of Karlsruhe’s radiating streets for about two kilometres.
All of Germany’s large retail chains are on Kaiserstraße, but independent and family run shops still have their place too.
There are cafe terraces all the way along, which do a roaring trade in summer.
Make sure to veer off down one of the intersecting streets Herrenstraße, known for its antiques shops.
And you have to pay a visit to the Postgalerie, where the listed Neoclassical post office building has become a modern shopping centre.
14. Karlsruhe Majolica Manufactory
In the Schlossgarten around the palace you may spot a long strip of blue tiles on the ground.
You’re looking at the Blauer Strahl (Blue Beam), which has 1,635 majolica tiles and runs from the palace to Karlsruhe’s Majolica Manufactory.
Grand Duke Frederick I founded the manufactory in 1901, and despite all the upheaval of the last 116 years it is still in business today.
There’s a museum in the old workshops, showing how the ceramicists adapted to each new style from Art Nouveau through Expressionism, Nazi art and the styles of the 50s and 60s.
And in the factory shop are bowls, tiles, vases and plates bearing the signatures of the most celebrated ceramicists in the business.
15. Alter Schlachthof
In Karlsruhe’s Oststadt a former urban abattoir and cattle farm that closed down in 2006 have been reborn as a cultural venue and office space.
The evocative industrial buildings from the 1880s and 1890s are now nightspots and a restaurant.
One former meat market has been converted into an exhibition hall, while the old pig market is now a hub for startups in which 68 former shipping containers have been turned into small office units.
The main anchor though is the Kulturzentrum Tollhaus, a performance venue for a broad range of disciplines, including music, dance, comedy and street theatre.