An former royal seat in Lower Saxony, Oldenburg has a legacy left by generations of counts, dukes and grand dukes. Studying Oldenburg’s aristocratic history can be tricky as the House of Oldenburg had German, Danish and Russian branches.
Just to illustrate, the future Russian Tsar Alexander II lived at Oldenburg’s Prinzepalais for a time in the 19th century. The tremendous art collections of the Grand Dukes of Oldenburg awaits you across three resplendent properties. Keep the palace garden and stunning opera house in mind, and catch up with Oldenburg’s past at engrossing museums and old landmarks like the “Lappan” belfry.
Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Oldenburg:
The tallest building in the city, the Lutheran St Lambert’s Church has five towers, the highest of which measures 86 metres above the western facade.
The church goes back to the 12th century, but by the end of the 18th century had become dilapidated and was rebuilt in the 1870s and 80s with Brick Neo-Gothic architecture.
The interior had been redesigned a few decades earlier and you won’t be blamed for having a double-take when you step inside.
Because that dark Neo-Gothic facade gives way to a bright, ceremonious Neoclassical rotunda modelled on the Pantheon in Rome, with a glorious circular dome above Ionic columns.
The church is one of just five in Germany with this layout.
The multitalented 20th-century artist Horst Janssen grew up in Oldenburg and lived here most of his life, becoming an honorary citizen in 1992. The dedicated museum opened in a purpose-built edifice in 2000 and gives you a timeline of his career and shows the many different mediums he used for his art: There are watercolours, posters, etchings, drawings and lithographies.
And as for paintings, the museum presents Janssen’s landscapes, self-portraits, still lifes and also his erotic paintings.
There are also information panels, interactive terminals and video displays to give you a better sense of Janssen’s career and what this famously eccentric man wanted to communicate in his work.
There are also personal items from the artists’ home and studio, as well as a silk carpet and grand piano designed by Janssen.
3. State Museum for Art and Cultural History
When the land Grand Duke of Oldenburg abdicated in 1919, the Duchy’s art collections and valuable ensembles of decorative arts were made available to the public.
Today the museum is in three separate buildings, two of which we’ll cover below.
The dazzling Baroque Oldenburg Palace was the seat of the Counts (up to 1667), the Dukes (from 1785) and then the Grand Dukes of Oldenburg from 1815. Inside you can revel in their fabulous collections of medieval manuscripts, porcelain, period furniture, carved ivory and Art Nouveau handicrafts.
A delight here is the Idyllenzyklus, a cycle of 40 works by the court painter Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein.
Oldenburg’s first art museum goes back 1867, making it one of the oldest purpose-built museum buildings in North Germany.
The Augusteum now holds the Galerie Alte Meister, showing Dutch, Italian, French and German Old Masters from the 1400s to the 1700s.
This trove of painting grew steadily after Peter I, Grand Duke of Oldenburg snapped up the personal collection of the painter Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, made up of 80 works.
There’s much to see in these galleries, and some pieces to look out for are the Virgin and Child with St Anne (1470) by Master of the Housebook, Portrait of a Florentine Boy (1541) by Francesco d’Rossi and Willem Claesz’s Breakfast Still life (1645).
Dating to 1826, the Prinzepalais was the residence for the Russian princes Peter and Alexander.
The latter would became Tsar from 1855 until his assassination in 1881. It was only in 2003 that the palace became home to Die Galerie Neue Meister (The New Masters Gallery), for art from the Romantic Period to post-War.
Some of the gallery’s many prestigious names from the 19th century include Lovis Corinth, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Max Liebermann and Max Slevogt.
But fans of Expressionist art will be most pleased with the Prinzepalais: All of the prominent members of the Die Brücke group are here, like Kirchner, Emil Nolde, Erich Heckel, Max Pechstein and Otto Mueller.
6. Schlossgarten Oldenburg
In 16 hectares, the grounds of Oldenburg Palace push out to the south of the city’s historical centre.
The garden is in the English landscape style and in 2014 celebrated its 200th anniversary.
Apart from the great height of the mature trees, what you see now isn’t so different from the park that was overseen by Peter I, Grand Duke of Oldenburg.
There are spacious, flowing lawns, winding paths and rhododendron bushes that erupt with colour in May.
The historic buildings are all still here, like the tea pavilion, winter house and gardener’s lodge.
7. Stadtmuseum Oldenburg
With a deceptive, modern lobby next to the Horst-Janssen-Museum, Oldenburg’s municipal museum is actually an ensemble of three interconnected historic villas.
These are the Ballin’sche Villa, the Jürgens’schen Villa and the Francksen Villa.
Together they offer a comprehensive summary of changing tastes and lifestyles from the Baroque period to Art Nouveau at the turn of the 20th century.
In the Ballin’sche Villa you’ll come across one of the museum’s marquee attractions, a collection of paintings by the Oldenburg painter Bernhard Winter.
He was part of the Heimatbewegung, at the end of the 1800s, which sought to conserve regional traditions and identity.
There’s also a lot of information about Oldenburg’s evolution from the 800s to the 1800s, with the help of historical documents, military regalia and six large scale models.
This grand belfry at the start of Langenstraße has an intriguing story to tell.
The tower is from the 1460s and was actually the bell-tower of a church and hospital that became defunct during the Reformation and were lost in the city fire in 1676. The Lappan meanwhile was secularised and became a habitable watchtower, while its current Baroque dome was added in 1709. All bus lines running through the centre of Oldenburg stop in front of this popular landmark, which now contains a travel agency.
The last Burgher house to be found in Oldenburg also came through the fire of 1676 undamaged.
The Degodehaus is at Markt 24 a little way from the town hall, and is an early-16th-century residential house.
Five floors tall, the building is half-timbered and cantilevered and its facade is painted with pretty patterns on the panels between the beams.
On the ground floor is a shoe shop, and if you go inside something unforgettable is in store.
On the ceiling are allegorical paintings of Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas from 1645. These images were plastered over in 1790 and were only rediscovered in 1992.
10. Botanischer Garten
In 3.7 hectares on Philosophenweg to the northwest of the city lies the botanical garden, maintained by the University of Oldenburg.
The garden is carefully delineated according to geographical zones like South America, Australia, Japan, China, North America and the Pacific Northwest, as well as environments like marsh, dune, heath and forest.
The cactus and succulent collection is inside a greenhouses that popped up in the 1990s, and around this time the picturesque cottage garden was laid out and the medicinal garden was revamped and expanded.
Botany aside, there are also terrariums and aviaries, while fearless peacocks patrol the park.
11. Landesmuseum für Natur und Mensch
This museum was born back in 1835 when Augustus, Grand Duke of Oldenburg purchased a compendium of insect and bird specimens.
Since then the attraction has taken on an array of cultural artefacts to go with its natural exhibits.
The most engrossing galleries here are all about the moorland around Oldenburg, and all of the items that have been discovered in the peat bogs.
There are Bronze Age amber beads, leather boots, stone steles, details of ancient bodies and a 4th-century veal-skin cape belonging to a boy.
There’s a detailed summary of the moors’ flora and fauna, as well as reconstructions of primitive houses in this environment.
You can also dip into the nature and history of the Hunte River at the freshwater aquarium in the basement.
On the southern side of the Lambertikirche is the last remaining vestige of Oldenburg’s city defences.
This powder magazine dates from the final expansion of the fortifications in the 1500s, and at first would have been used as a watchtower when it had a conical roof.
The structure was converted into a powder magazine when Oldenburg was under Danish occupation in the 18th century.
And from 1765 on it was used as a icehouse before being declared a historic monument in the 1960s.
Since 1988 the Pulverturm has been used for exhibitions, including one for ceramic artists that has been running for the last 20 years.
13. Oldenburgisches Staatstheater
This splendid Historicist theatre is a big institution in Oldenburg, employing 450 people and attracting 200,000 spectators each year.
The multidisciplinary venue stages opera, operetta, musical theatre, ballet, concerts and children’s theatre.
It’s just the ticket if you’re up for a blast of high culture and want to see something by Wagner or Mozart, or want something lighter and more accessible like a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
There are 30 premieres a season in a breathtaking hall that seats 540 people.
The present theatre dates to 1893 and is easy to spot for its regal balustrades, pediments, Corinthian columns and portico.
On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays there’s a fresh produce market at Markt between the town hall and the Lamberikirche.
The business hours are 07:00-14:30 (15:00 on Saturdays), and the market brings life, scents and colour to the centre of the city.
Come for fruit and vegetables, meat, cheese, flowers, bread and pastries, as well as occasional jewellery, leather and wickerwork stalls.
You can pick up a hot snack or cup of coffee during your shop, while if you visit in December this square is one of the locations for a Christmas Market that draws visitors from across the Dutch border.
15. Bad Zwischenahn
Minutes west of Oldenburg is a sophisticated resort on the south shore of the Zwischenahner Meer.
This 550-hectare lake has been drawing holidaymakers for its water sports and healthy air since the mid-19th century.
Bad Zwischenahn is still a lucrative health resort but also promises a lot of fun for families.
You can go for cruises on the lake and make a splash at one of many open-air pools around the lakeshore.
The resort has a nostalgic, rural feel to it, reflected in attractions like a windmill dating back to 1811 and an open-air museum, Freilichtmuseum Ammerländer Bauernhaus, where you can watch demonstrations of old trades in 14 preserved buildings going back to the Middle Ages.