One of the oldest cities in Germany’s eastern federal states, Magdeburg is 1,200 years old and was once a member of the Hanseatic League of merchant cities. In the 10th century Magdeburg was the residence of Holy Roman Emperor Otto I, and his tomb is in the astonishing cathedral. That monument was the first example of Gothic architecture in Germany and warrants as much as half a day if you love Medieval art.
Magdeburg is also the country’s second greenest city and even though it has been repeatedly visited by war it has been carefully rebuilt every time. Today, Magdeburg has modern wonders like a 60-metre wooden tower built for the millennium, the final project by architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser and Europe’s largest canal underbridge.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Magdeburg:
1. Magdeburg Cathedral
Magdeburg cathedral’s present appearance dates to the 13th century when the worldly Prince Archbishop, Albert I of Käfernburg adopted the new French Gothic style.
The cathedral took 300 years to complete and the architects learned by trial and error as in the beginning they had no frame of reference for Gothic architecture.
The scale is epic, at 120 metres long and with towers 100 metres high, and even after hundreds of years of war and looting there’s still a wealth of art.
Most remarkable are the 13th-century carvings of the five wise and five foolish virgins from the bible story at the entrance to the northern transept.
Other virtuoso pieces are the 13th-century “Royal Couple” sculpture in the sixteen-sided chapel, the tomb of 10th-century Holy Roman Emperor Otto I, ancient Roman pillars reused in the Apse and a baptismal font carved from Egyptian porphyry that could be thousands of years old.
2. Kloster Unser Lieben Frauen
An 11th-century Romanesque monastery is the rousing backdrop for a contemporary art museum.
The exhibitions opened in the atmospheric barrel vaults of the north wing in 1975 and concern themselves mainly with sculpture, photography and video art.
Most of the work is post-1945, but there is an assortment of sculpture from antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Baroque period, and pieces by Maillol, Rodin and Wilhelm Lehmbruck.
The complex is one of Saxony-Anhalt’s most celebrated monuments, constructed between the 11th and 13th centuries and composed of a basilica, cloister, convent and school.
Shaped like an irregular cone, this edifice in the Elbauenpark was built for the new millennium and at 60 metres high is one of the tallest wooden buildings in the world.
Inside, on five floors the Jahrtausendturm has an exhibition chronicling the development of science across 6,000 years of human history.
With each new level you’ll jump forward in time, starting on the ground floor with Ancient Egyptian mathematics, and moving through Medieval medicine, Renaissance mechanics and alchemy and inventions like the telescope and printing press.
The fourth floor shows all the discoveries of the Early Modern Age, like electricity, stellar parallax, radio, while the fifth is about science in the 21st century.
At the top, after 243 steps or 450 metres on the exterior ramp there’s a scenic viewpoint.
4. Rotehorn Park
The largest park in the city takes up most of the Werder river island on the Elbe and is billed as one of Germany’s loveliest English landscape parks.
There are two tram lines serving Rotehorn Park from the centre of the city.
The island had been undeveloped for hundreds of years when the city first laid out the park in the 1870s and in 1898 it was extended to its current 200 hectares.
If you have an eye for 20th century architecture, look out for the Stadthalle, which was built in the Bauhaus style for the German Theatre Exhibition in 1927. Also designed for the event was the Albinmüller-Turm, a lookout tower 60 metres high.
Tuesday to Sunday in summer you can rent a rowboat on the Adolf-Mittag-See, the tranquil lake at the centre of the park.
Funded by the city’s merchants around the 10th century, the Johanniskirche is no longer a consecrated church, and is instead used as a concert hall, museum and convention centre.
In 2014, from January to June it was also where Saxony-Anhalt’s State Parliament met.
The Johanniskirche has been destroyed and rebuilt no fewer than four times: Twice after Medieval fires, then again after being sacked during the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century and finally after the Second World War.
You can go in any day of the week except Monday and see how the nave has been turned into an impressive open space.
There’s also an observation platform at 52 metres after 277 steps to the top of the south tower.
6. Grüne Zitadelle von Magdeburg
On the northwest corner of Domplatz (Cathedral Square) is a fantasy-like mishmash of irregular striped towers, creating the impression of a medieval castle viewed underwater.
The Green Citadel is the work of the rebellious Friedensreich Hundertwasser and was his final project before he passed away in 2000. Making liberal use of colourful ceramic tiles, the complex is a mixed-use development home to shops, a cafe, a restaurant, a theatre, hotel, children’s playground and residential space.
The name “green” comes from the abundance of vegetation in the citadel, in line with Hundertwasser’s environmental ethics.
There are trees growing in the courtyard and the building is topped with a grass roof.
You can hear anecdotes about the citadel and get an inside look at the upper floors on a guided tour.
7. Kanalbrücke Magdeburg (Water Bridge)
When this navigable aqueduct was completed in 2003 Berlin’s inland waterways could finally be accessed from Germany’s inland ports on the Rhine and Ruhr to the west.
The Magdeburg Water Bridge had been in the pipeline for more than a century, but plans were scrapped because of war and Germany’s division.
The aqueduct channels the Mittelland Canal over the River Elbe and is almost a kilometre in length.
Work began in 1998 and the final construction costs for this technical masterwork came to more than €500m.
There’s a path next to the canal, and it’s a sight worth seeing for anyone inspired by modern engineering.
8. Alter Markt
Between Breiter Weg and Jakobstraße, the city’s marketplace has existed since the time of Bishop Wichmann von Seeburg in the 12th century.
This square was hard-hit, first in the Thirty Years War’ and then in the Second World War, and most of the buildings on its margins are now modern.
But on the eastern end is the newly refurbished town hall, which has been on this plot in some form since the 13th century.
In front is the Roland statue, an ever-present on German town squares, and representing Magdeburg’s independence.
The main reason you’ll find yourself on Alter Markt is for the market stalls, trading seasonal fruit and vegetables, meat, dairy, baked goods, homewares, handicrafts and freshly made snacks.
9. Magdeburger Reiter
Also on east side of Alter Markt, just in front of the town hall is a statue in place since at least 1240. The equestrian sculpture is believed to represent Otto I, who is buried at Magdeburg cathedral.
He is flanked by two allegorical maids, one carrying a shield sporting the Holy Roman imperial eagle, and the other with a pennon.
The whole set is made of sandstone from Bernburg to the south, and was only gilded and placed under its current Baroque-style canopy in the 17th century.
Given the age of the ensemble the current Magdeburger Reiter is a copy, and the original is at the museum of cultural history, which follows.
10. Kulturhistorisches Museum Magdeburg
The Magdeburger Reiter is presented in the Kaiser-Otto-Saal in its original un-gilded form.
Considering the time that the statues were created, the realism is staggering, and the work is regarded as one of the most accomplished of the period.
In the same room are items from the Ottonic crypt and a three-part mural depicting scenes from the life of Otto I by artist Arthur Kampf in 1905-06. We’ve only just scratched the surface of what the museum has to offer though, as there thousands of exhibits comprising textiles, handicrafts, prints, pieces furniture, military regalia, coins, as well as fascinating Medieval artefacts unearthed in the city.
In the archaeology galleries a hundreds of thousands of finds charting 200,000 years of human history, not just in Magdeburg but France, Italy, Hungary and Czechia.
One of Magdeburg’s most famous sights was placed on Leiterstraße when the city’s pedestrian zone was being built.
Historically Leiterstraße was the divide between the secular town and Magdeburg’s episcopal quarter.
The Faunenbrunnem is a fountain designed by the Magdeburg sculptor Heinrich Apel, who crafted the model in 1976, ten years before it was cast in Lauchhammer and Rostock.
The fountain is made up of a big bronze cauldron, 3.2 metres in circumference, accompanied by a host of figures (22 in total), including fauns and sirens, animals like a snake, cat, dog and turtle, two women, a man and boys play-fighting.
The fountain was inaugurated in 1986 and appeared on GDR stamps in 1989.
On the right bank of the Elbe is a park that has been attracting guests since the 17th century when an inn, called the Herrenkrug was built by the river.
In the 1820s the great Prussian landscape architect was called in to Peter Joseph Lenné to create a manorial park and that design is what greets you today.
There are a few monuments from the 19th century in Herrenkrugpark, like a cast-iron lion from 1845 and a sturdy ball sundial dating to 1818. Botanists will be astounded by the amazing diversity of trees, too many to list but comprising a Japanese larch, a Swedish whitebeam, an American sweetgum, an Iberian oak, Norway maple and dozens more.
In parkland on the Elbe is an octagonal defensive tower more than 20 metres high and dating to the 13th century.
This structure would have seen heavy fighting during the 16th and 17th centuries.
Now, in the tower and a modern annexe is a museum for the 17th-century physicist Otto-von-Guericke whose experiments on air-pressure helped establish the physics of vacuums.
The museum gives a sense of Guericke’s life and his contribution to science.
Historic rooms are decorated with period furniture and historical documents, while his experiments have been restaged using antique and modern equipment.
14. Magdeburg Zoo
The city’s zoo opened in 1950 and since reunification has been given a host of updates.
There are more than 200 species in a cultivated natural landscape 16 hectares in size, and the attraction is known for its walk-in habitats.
You can walk among mantled guerezas ( a type of small monkey), lemurs, owls and Australian parakeets.
There’s also a 20,000-square-metre savannah enclosure for grazing species like zebras and giraffes, installed with panoramic platforms that let you greet the giraffes eye-to-eye.
Look out for the daily feeding session for the park’s penguins and African elephants.
The best mode of transport in one of Europe’s greenest cities is the bicycle.
Like many German cities Magdeburg’s streets have wide, accommodating cycle lanes so all members of the family can ride in safety.
And being on the Elbe Magdeburg also links with the largest and most popular cycling network in Germany.
The Elberadweg is almost 1,000 kilometres long, and starts in Prague, ending at the Elbe’s mouth in Cuxhaven on the North Sea.
If you’re up for a proper trip you could ride to Dessau-Roßlau or Tangermünde, which can both be done in three hours or so.
You’ll ride through woodland, meadows, past medieval towers and villages, and can stop at restaurants and beer gardens as you go.