In 1648 Osnabrück helped bring the curtain down on the Thirty Years’ War when the Peace of Westphalia was signed between Sweden and the Habsburgs. Even now this city in Lower Saxony is known as Friedensstadt (City of Peace), and you can go to see where the treaty was signed at the historic Town Hall.
A modern native of the city was the Jewish painter Felix Nussbaum, who recorded his persecution by the Nazis in his work: Nussbaum is remembered by a thought-provoking museum designed by Daniel Libeskind.
The old centre was hit during the Second World War, but much of its history has been restored, from Romanesque and Gothic churches to a defensive tower and Schloss Osnabrück, the residence of the Prince-Elector in the 17th century.
Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Osnabrück:
1. Osnabrück Town Hall
Constructed on Markt from 1587 to 1612, Osnabrück’s Town Hall is in the Late Gothic style.
On the facade is a row of statues, centring on Charlemagne, the founder of the city in the 8th century.
Joining him are eight other significant German emperors, including Kaiser Wilhelm I as the statues were placed here in the 19th century.
The centuries-old bronze door has a gold handle moulded into a dove with the word “Friede” (Peace) and the year 1648. This commemorates the Peace of Westphalia, which was negotiated here between the Kingdom of Sweden and Habsburgs, in conjunction with talks in Münster.
Although the building was hit during the war all of its precious fittings, artefacts and artwork had been stored away in advance and were kept safe.
So be sure to take the 90-minute tour for more depth on that famous treaty and to see the 42 portraits of the envoys at the peace talks.
2. St Peter’s Cathedral
Consecrated at the end of the 8th century, the current architecture for Osnabrück’s Cathedral dates to the 12th century and is in a late Romanesque style.
The oldest parts are the western facade and its square towers, as well as the octagonal tower above the crossing.
There’s no lack of historic decoration and fittings to appreciate inside, like the triumphal cross and baptismal font with a relief of Christ being baptised, both Romanesque and from the 13th century.
There’s also a set of 12 polychrome sculptures by the 16th-century master Heinrich Brabender on the walls of the nave.
3. Museum Industriekultur Osnabrück
The museum about Osnabrück’s industrial culture is at Piesberg, a mine with more than 1,000 years of history.
Mining activity really took off here in the 19th century with industrialisation, and in the Haseschacht building you’ll see how Osnabrück changed from an agricultural town to the modern industrial and economic centre it is today.
You can find out about the geological makeup of the coal deposits at Piesburg and see some of the fossils recovered from the mines.
One eye-openeris the machine room, where two mighty turbines from 1849 and 1916 are still in working order and power a metal workshop with a drill and lathe.
You can also catch an elevator 30 metres underground to a 300-metre tunnel that leads to the mine’s old wash house.
4. Felix Nussbaum Haus
This museum is deals with the German-Jewish painter Felix Nussbaum, who was persecuted by the Nazis and was eventually murdered at Auschwitz in 1944. His works recorded Jewish persecution and the Holocaust more than any other painter: Self Portrait with Jewish Identity Card (1943) and his final painting Triumph of Death (1944), encapsulate the fear and horror of the period.
The American architect Daniel Libeskind designed the building as a “museum without exit”, conceived to be discomfiting and oppressive.
Felix Nussbaum Haus was Libeskind’s first museum and was inaugurated in 1998.
5. St Mary’s Church
Set on Markt and facing the Town Hall, St Mary’s Church is a splendid Gothic edifice dating in its present form to the 14th and 15th centuries.
The main entrance is on the southern Brautportal opening onto the square: On columns flanking the doorway are Gothic sculptures of the Five Clever Virgins on the left and the Five Foolish Virgins on the right.
A couple of the outstanding works of art to seek out inside are the winged altar, which was crafted and painted in Antwerp in 1520, and the triumphal cross, which goes back to the 1200s and shows Jesus with a crown of thorns and a nail through his feet.
6. Kulturgeschichtliches Museum
In 2011 the city’s cultural history museum was absorbed by the Felix Nussbaum Haus as a single museum.
Here you can follow Osnabrück’s growth, from prehistoric times to the city’s foundation in the 8th century.
There are coins, medals, pieces of furniture, costumes and some of the original art from the city’s churches.
One must-see exhibit is the set of original clever and foolish virgin sculptures from St Mary’s Church, which were replaced by replicas in the 1800s for the sake of preservation.
Dating back as much as 5,000 years is the Kupferschatz von Osnabrück, a Copper Age treasure with a copper axe and set of lunulae (crescent-shaped collars), some of Germany’s oldest metallic objects.
The gift shop for the whole complex is in the Akzisehaus, the city’s last remaining custom house, dating to 1817.
7. Schloss Osnabrück
After the Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648, Ernest Augustus, Elector of Brunswick-Lüneburg (Father of King George I of Great Britain) had a four-wing Baroque palace built as a residence in the centre of the city.
The palace was completed in 1673 and the family lived here for six years before moving to Hanover.
After Ernest Augustus’s youngest son Ernest Augustus II died at the palace in 1728 the building lay empty and fell into decay, and in the Second World War was prison and interrogation centre for the Gestapo.
Since 1974 it has housed the University of Osnabrück’s administrative offices.
Although it isn’t strictly a visitor attraction, you’re free to enter, while three hectares of gardens are delightful and host cinema screenings in summer.
8. Heger Tor
This Neoclassical arch takes the name of the city’s western Medieval gate, and is integrated into the walls Situated around 20 metres from where the Heger Tor used to be, the monument was built in 1817 to commemorate the many soldiers from Osnabrück who fought at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. All the funding came from a local citizen, Gerhard Friedrich von Gülich.
The design of the arch is inspired by the Arch of Titus in Rome and has two pairs of Ionic columns flanking the arch.
In the architrave above is an inscription in gold lettering honouring the soldiers’ “German courage” and naming Gülich as the benefactor.
9. Osnabrück Zoo
Up there with the best zoos in the country, Osnabrück Zoo has won widespread acclaim and has spent the last decade replacing all of its old concrete enclosures with near-natural environments.
The latest of these is Manitoba, a North American landscape being rolled out over 2017 and 2018, and where bison are free to graze in a 3,800-square-metre area.
Also recent is Angkor Wat, a walkable South Asian temple habitat where macaques go where they please, and there are also enclosures for tigers and orangutans.
Just a couple of the many other habitats that need to be seen are the Unterirdischer Zoo (Underground Zoo) for subterranean species like prairie dogs and naked mole rats, and the Tal der Grauen Rienen (Valley of the Grey Giants), holding antelopes, rhinos and African elephants.
10. Botanischer Garten der Universität Osnabrück
In the Westerberg district a couple of minutes west of the Altstadt, is a botanical garden in a former limestone quarry and managed by the University of Osnabrück’s biology and chemistry departments.
The garden was planted in 1984, and growing in these 5.6 hectares are more than 8,000 different plant species.
The beds are arranged according to geographic regions like the Mediterranean, Eurasian Steppe, China, Japan and North America.
In a small rise in the centre is the a landscaped Alpine garden, while the 21-metre-high greenhouse went up in 1998 and has rainforest species from Central and South America.
11. Museum und Park Kalkriese
One of the most mysterious events in the history of the Roman Empire may well have taken place just north of Osnabrück in 9 AD. In the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, also known as the Varian Disaster, three Roman legions were ambushed and wiped out by an alliance of Germanic tribes.
The slaughter took place of a wide area, but after archaeological discoveries in the 1980s the district of Kalkriese in Bramsche became one of the mooted locations.
In the museum which opened in 2002 are 400 of the 6,000 finds made on the site, the most thrilling being an intact mask from a Roman cavalry helmet.
If you’re the kind of person who has to squeeze in a morning jog, or just want a spot for a peaceful walk or summer picnic, Osnabrück’s oldest park is just north of the Altstadt.
The park is from the first decades of the 19th century and is a blend of forest, meadows, water features and play areas in seven hectares.
Two hundred years after they were planted the Bürgerpark’s 450 mature trees are a big part of the park’s appeal.
The Osnabrück University of Applied Sciences planted the park’s lovely perennial garden, and just next door are the remnants of a 19th-century ice house, which now has a big population of bats.
If you trace the wall up from Heger Tor you’ll come to the most complete piece of Osnabrück’s medieval fortifications.
Bucksturm is a watchtower with a semi-circular plan dating to the 1200s.
Throughout the Middle Ages Bucksturm was the city prison and many interesting figures did time here, like John V, Count of Hoya, who spent six years in the 1440s in a tiny oak cell named the Johanniskasten.
Then in the 16th and 17th centuries the tower was regularly used as torture chamber for witches.
The building opens every Sunday: There are guided tours at 12:00 and then at 15:00, while the museum, which explains the context behind the witch trials, is open from 11:00 to 17:00.
Osnabrück is also known in Germany for its Steinwerke (roughly, Stoneworks). These are Medieval structures specific to North and West Germany and are multi-storey stone buildings erected next to houses.
With a rectangular plan, most Steinwerke look a little like defensive buildings, and were built as warehouses, but also as refuges for noble or wealthy families.
Even after the Second World War there are Steinwerke throughout Osnabrück’s Altstadt.
One can be seen at the Ledenhof a few steps up from Schloss Osnabrück, and there are also classic examples at Dielingerstraße 13 and Bierstraße 13.
One of North Germany’s biggest folk festivals brings upwards of 700,000 people to the city for ten days of parties and culture in the middle of May.
During the festival local and nationally renowned bands and artists perform at outdoor stages on squares around the city.
For kids there’s a huge carousel on the square beside the cathedral, and as the festival has moved with the times it has introduced a wider selection of international street food and beer to go with the music.
Over the last few decades the celebrations have been brought to a close with a show by the Osnabrück band Blues Company, a local institution.