A lovable town of timber-framed houses, Michelstadt is a tourist favourite in the Hessian Odenwald. Michelstadt’s coil of little streets and squares could be in a fantasy movie, while the Gothic town hall is known all over Germany for its timber stilts.
People have lived in Michelstadt since the time of Charlemagne in the 9th century, and the town has one of the only complete churches in Germany from that period, where 1,200 year-old masonry and frescoes await inside.
After the Middle Ages, the town was shaped by the Counts of Erbach, who built castles and parks, and whose tomb monuments have pride of place on the walls of the 15th-century town church.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Michelstadt:
1. Old Town
Michelstedt is like a town from a different time, where every street and sequestered little square is trimmed by adorable Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque half-timbered houses.
Some are painted in jaunty colours, while others have slate cladding on their upper floors, and many are now occupied by restaurants, cafes, taverns and tempting specialty shops.
A couple of spots to keep on your radar are the town’s castle (also known as the winery), the 15th-century town church and the timber-framed Wehrmännerhaus, just next door to the synagogue on Mauerstraße.
But the show-stopper is the old town hall, which we’ll talk about next.
2. Historisches Rathaus
Your first port of call, and Michelstadt’s best photo opportunity, has to be the old town hall on the east side of the cute market square.
This building is a startling piece of half-timbered architecture, dating to 1484. The whole structure is lifted by mighty oak timbers, one of which is etched with the founding date.
This framework supports the town’s council chamber, which is flanked by a pair of turrets with pointed roofs on the side facing the market square.
And capping it all is a steep hipped roof topped with a ridge turret.
In the Steinbach district this astounding 9th-century church is one of the few surviving examples of Carolingian architecture in Germany.
The Einhardsbasilika was completed in 827 and its master builder Einhard was a confidant and biographer of Charlemagne.
It was intended to house the bones of Saints Marcellinus and Peter, which had been plundered from Rome and were later moved to Seiligenstadt.
Over the last 1,200 years the Einhardsbasilika has been a parish church, monastery, almshouse/hospital and then a warehouse, before its great value was finally understood in 1873. There’s original Carolingian masonry in the crypt, nave and choir, and you can view five tomb slabs on the north wall of the nave, the oldest of which is from the 1000s.
In the apse there are very faint, but still visible traces of painting from the 9th century.
As it appears today, the town church was built between 1461 and 1537, but there are signs of the Carolingian building that came before in the stonework of the antechoir.
You can also just about decipher an early medieval fresco of St Martin in a sacrament niche in the choir.
Up in the majestic net vaults are tendril patterns painted in 1543, while the Late-Renaissance scrolls framing the choir’s windows were composed in 1624. The walls of the aisles and choir are embedded with some 66 grave monuments, the oldest from the 11th century.
These become more elaborate in the choir, where you’ll come across the monuments for Counts of Erbach, Friedrich Magnus, Georg III and Johann Casemir, all of which are magnificent.
5. Burg Michelstadt
Michelstadt town’s castle originated from a Frankish noble estate in the 10th century and lies in the oldest settled part of the town.
The half-timbered building today is mostly from between the 14th and 17th centuries, backing onto the town wall where there’s now a park next to the moat.
The central courtyard is the castle’s most memorable part, enclosed by the great hall, Michelstadt’s former town hall, a winery warehouse now containing the town museum, and the old coach house on the east side.
6. Kainsbacher Getreidemühle
In the 1990s the coach house at the castle was dilapidated and needed a new purpose.
Eventually a private association came up with the idea of relocating a disused water mill here.
The mill had previously been powered by the Kainsbach stream, making flour for bread from 1426 all the way to 1956. The mechanism was painstakingly dismantled and put back together at its new home.
In the absence of water-power the mill was fitted with an electric motor.
On Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays you can come in for free to see the mill operating.
The most striking vestige of Michelstadt’s wall is from the 13th century and is just west of the warehouse in the castle.
Right on the moat, the Diebsturm was probably part of the castle when it was built, but found a new vocation as a prison (the name translates to “thief’s tower”). This circular structure has an octagonal half-timbered top floor, which is actually modern and replaced the old dome in 1798. In the days of the prison there was no entrance or even a window on the ground floor, and prisoners were lifted to the upper levels by pulleys.
Look at the stonework and you’ll catch sight of a Roman relief of Mercury (this spolia is a copy and the original is in the town museum).
8. Schloss Fürstenau
A sight to be seen from the outside, Schloss Fürstenau is one of Odenwald’s most romantic moated castles.
As was often the way in Germany, the original medieval castle, erected by the Electorate of Mainz in 1250, was turned into a luxurious Renaissance palace once it lost its strategic value in the 16th century.
This has given the complex a mix of styles, from the bulky circular towers to the north to the Neoclassical “Neue Palais” from the 18th century.
Also part of the complex is a charming Renaissance-era water mil.
The estate has been in the noble Erbach-Fürstenau family for the last 300 years and is private property, but the courtyard, much of the gardens and a small art gallery are all open to visitors.
In the winery warehouse at Burg Michelstadt is a free museum about the town.
You’ll get to know the area’s prehistory and see ancient artefacts like the original relief of Mercury from the Diebsturm.
There’s more depth on how Michelstadt developed as an outpost for the county of Erbach in the Middle Ages, and reconstructions of interiors paint a picture of everyday life in each period.
You can also find out how people made a living in Michelstadt, viewing local pottery, tinware and weapons for hunting.
Two local 20th-century artists are exhibited here: Illustrator and graphic artist Fritz Kedel, and Jan Holschuh, known for his amber creations.
There’s also a toy museum inside, with dolls, miniatures and wooden toys from 1880 to 1940, and an Odenwald model railway in the attic that you can visit on Saturdays and Sundays.
10. Eulbacher Park
A stone’s throw east of Michelstadt are 400 hectares of English landscape park, conceived for the hunting lodge of the Counts of Erbach-Erbach.
In the north are game enclosures for European Bison and local game.
These are a small holdover from the vast 3,000-hectare game park that the counts once maintained.
Eulbacher Park could also claim to be the world’s oldest archaeological park.
Franz I, the Count of Erbach-Erbach at the turn of the 19th century was fascinated by ancient art and was an amateur archaeologist: He transported stones from genuine Roman sites and Medieval ruins in the area to build columns, walls, obelisks and a triumphal arch.
The idea would be frowned upon today, but the park is a perfect snapshot of the philosophies and fashions of the Romantic period 200 years ago.
11. Synagoge Michelstadt
In the 18th century Michelstadt had a small Jewish community, permitted to live within the walls in a ghetto in the northeast of the old town.
The synagogue on Mauerstraße is from 1791 and is one of just a few in southern Hessse to survive the National Socialist persecution of the Jews: Although the interior was ransacked the basic Late Baroque architecture remained, as did the Hebrew inscription above the lintel.
Head in for a small exhibition about the religious and social background of Odenwald’s Jewish population, drawing on liturgical artefacts and archive photographs.
Opposite the town hall surrounded by outdoor restaurant tables is Michelstadt’s market fountain.
This monument was donated by Count George II of Erbach in 1575 and is carved from sandstone.
The Marktbrunen has an octagonal basin around a column with water spouting from the mouths of little bronze dragons.
Further up is a capital bearing Michelstadt’s coat of arms.
And on top is the patron saint, St Michael holding his sword and scales.
13. Römerbad Würzberg
Count Franz I took the material for his “ruins” from sites like this Roman bath in Michelstadt’s Würzberg district.
The baths are a remnant from the Odenwald Limes, a long chain of fortifications, each known as a “Kastell”, at Germania’s Roman frontier.
Every Kastell had its own bath, and in Würzberg this has been restored up to the ground floor to show off the hypocaust.
The bath is from 100 AD and would have served about 120 men.
14. German Ivory Museum
Count Franz I also had a thing for ivory, and his collection was the basis for this museum a few minutes down the road in Erbach.
In the late-18th century Erbach became Germany’s premier ivory city and there are still ivory-carving workshops in the town.
Since the ban on the ivory trade in 1989 they have switched to fossil ivory and alterative materials.
The museum has 2,000 pieces from the Middle Ages to the present, and from Africa, Asia, Greenland and all over Europe.
The focus is on the town’s workshops in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the artist Jan Holschuh, who worked with ivory as well as amber.
15. Christmas Market
In a town that looks like a movie set brought to life, the Christmas Market is source of cheer and seasonal magic in December.
Michelstadt isn’t a large town, so opening times are restricted to afternoons and evenings Wednesday to Friday, and all day on weekends.
But there are more than 100 stalls in village huts selling handmade toys, jewellery and decorations.
And of course everyone’s favourite treats are here, from hot chocolate with whipped cream to Glühwein, roasted almonds and chestnuts, Lebkuchen (gingerbread), bratwurst and lots of other favourites.
The market square is the centre of the show, where there’s a tall Christmas tree, and music from local brass bands, choirs and youth ensembles.