A hair’s breadth from the French border in Southwestern Germany, Saarbrücken mixes industrial history with the splendour of the Counts and Princes of Nassau-Saarbrücken who ruled the region for centuries.
Two people more than any left their mark on Saarbrücken, 18th-century Prince of Nassau-Saarbrücken, William Henry, and his architect Friedrich Joachim Stengel. For three decades the pair remodelled Saarbrücken into a Baroque city, building palaces, churches, squares and fountains.
One of most absorbing ensembles is Ludwigsplatz, where eight palaces face the sublime Ludwigskirche. Around Saarbrücken Castle there’s much to keep you occupied, as over the last two decades a system of tunnels and underground chambers has been excavated and opened as part of the Saar Historical Museum.
Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Saarbrücken:
In the 1760s Friedrich Joachim Stengel was commissioned by William Henry, Prince of Nassau-Saarbrücken to build not just this church but the surrounding square as well, all as a single harmonious work.
The result is one of the high points of German Baroque art, as well as one of Germany’s standout Protestant churches.
Outside you’ll find statues of the four evangelists in the niches, while on the balustrades are 28 figures among them prophets, apostles and other figures from the bible.
The interior is completely white and adorned with dainty stuccowork, with galleries on four sides held up by fine caryatids.
Stengel was involved in the design of the palaces around the church (eight remain today), right down to the door handles.
Drop by on Thursdays and Saturdays for the market.
2. Basilica of St. John the Baptist
Stengel was also responsible for another stunning Baroque church built in the mid-1750s for the city’s growing catholic congregation.
The church was partly funded by French King Louis XV and a collection was made in Rome by Pope Benedict XIV. Before you enter, you have to inspect the bronze doors, which show scenes from the life of St John the Baptist and were remade in 1986 by the local artist Ernst Alt after they were damaged in the war.
The interior was restored to its original Baroque decor in the 1970s.
A couple of things you have to take in are the intricate pulpit dating to 1764 and the four confessionals from 1789, each with famous repentant sinners: King David, Mary Magdalene, Saint Peter and the thief on the cross.
3. Deutsch-Französischer Garten
South of Saarbrücken and just a couple of kilometres from the border crossing at Goldene Bremm, the Deutsch-Französischer Garten is a park with a diplomatic past.
As the name hints, it was a joint effort between the French and German governments as a symbol of friendship after Saarbrücken had voted by referendum to become part of Germany in the 1950s.
There was a joint national garden show here, opened by French Prime Minister Michel Debré and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer.
As well as lawns, themed gardens, a water organ and a large ornamental lake for pedal boating, there’s miniature golf in summer, a miniature railway, a cablecar and a smattering of cafes.
4. Saar Historical Museum
The size of this museum beside Saarbrücken Castle is deceptive.
On ground level there’s a long narrow building from 1988 with a barrel roof, and this conceals a small world of historic underground chambers and tunnels that were excavated in the 1990s and 2000s.
In the galleries on the upper two floors you can take a trip through the last 300 years of the Saarland through its art, design and everyday items.
And then 14 metres below the Schlossplatz you’ll descend into Saar’s Medieval and Early Modern history, venturing through sections of the Medieval castle and a Renaissance casemate constructed in the 1560s.
5. Völklingen Ironworks
East of Saarbrücken a few kilometres down the Saar is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Völklingen Ironworks was established in 1873 and shut down in 1986, and is the only smelting works built in the 19th century to have made it to the present.
The facility is now an industrial monument and a science museum.
The Ferrodom on the ground floor of the Möllerhalle warehouse is all about the history and science of iron processing, and kids can use video microscopes to inspect the surfaces of iron and steel, and experiment with magnetism.
There’s also a lot of fun to be had on the site’s six-kilometre trail, encountering the epic machinery that once processed millions of tons of ore.
See the six massive blast furnaces in the blasting hall, and head up to the 30-metre-high charging platform.
6. Museum for Pre- and Early History
Also mandatory on Schlossplatz is this museum in the former district administrative building on the south side of the square.
The galleries guide you through thousands of years of Saarbrücken’s past, from the Stone Age to the Middle Ages.
You can pore over handaxes, grave finds from a Celtic princess, as well as Roman coins, glassware, steles and sculpture.
The 160 square metre mosaic floor from the Nennig Roman villa is the largest north of the Alps, and there’s also a wonderful mural from another villa in Mechern.
A little later is the museum’s Merovingian gold fibula (brooch), encrusted with jewels.
7. Saarlandmuseum – Moderne Galerie
One of three branches under the Saarlandmuseum umbrella, the Moderne Galerie is in a modern complex built in 1979 and made up of three interconnected pavilions.
The exhibition is for art from the 19th century to the present.
The high points are in the galleries for German Impressionism and Expressionist at the turn of the 20th century.
Many luminaries from both movements are represented, like Lovis Corinth, Max Liebermann and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.
One work takes precedence though, and that is the Little Blue Horse, painted by Franz Marc in 1912. At the time of writing in 2017 the museum was temporarily closed for refurbishment.
On the north fringe of the castle complex is a Late Gothic church from the end of the 15th century.
From 1651 the church became the burial place for the Saarbrücken dynasty, holding tombs and memorials for the likes of William Henry.
In 1743 Stengel reworked the tower into its present Baroque design.
The church was badly damaged in the War, and since the turn of the Millennium has become a museum for liturgical art from around the Saar region.
In glass cases there’s virtuoso Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque sculpture, together with other works like candelabras and tabernacles.
9. Rathaus St Johann
One head-turning landmark is the town hall, which is newer than it looks and has a Gothic Revival design from 1900. The facade is busy with traceried windows, pinnacles, and masses of other ornamentation.
The central tower is 54 metres high and as well as Saarbrücken’s coat of arms has a clock and carillon that chimes every day at 15:15 and 19:19. Further down you can make out a row of statues, and these represent the different trades in the city at the turn of the 20th century.
There’s a miner, an iron/steelworker, a farmer, a brewer, a merchant and a tanner.
Also here is a statue of St George slaying the dragon, presumably to symbolise the fight against evil.
10. Saarbrücken Zoo
The city’s zoo has around 1,000 animals in all, and has made a name for its large numbers of species from the African continent.
From this region are savannah species like cheetahs, giraffes, antelopes, meerkats and black crowned cranes.
And from the African rain forests you’ll come across gorillas, chimpanzees, mandrills, crocodiles and red river hogs.
Head to the Afrikahaus and Tropicarium for giant tortoises, anacondas, geckos, scorpions and even sharks.
Over the last decade the zoo has also has rolled out all sorts of refurbishments and expansions and so feels very up-to-date.
Since 2012 there have been new habitats for seals and penguins, and enclosures for lowland gorillas, meerkats and red pandas.
11. St. Johanner Markt
For the last 40 years the old centre of Saarbrücken has been a pedestrian zone, and this square in the middle somewhere to come and gauge daily life in the city.
Three days a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, St.
Johanner Markt is decked with the dozens of stalls for the city’s main market.
The square was reconfigured in the Baroque style in the 1740s by none other than Friedrich Joachim Stengel, and he conceived the sweet fountain on the east side.
Make sure to look around the adjoining streets: Fröschengasse has rows of former workshops, now housing restaurants.
And if you head along Saarstraße there’s a wall recording the river’s historic high water levels.
12. Stift Sankt Arnual
If you have time to spare you could take a walk up the Saar from the Saarbrücker Schloss to the district of Sankt Arnual, one of the oldest districts in the city.
Waiting for you is a 13th-century abbey church regarded as one of southwest Germany’s standout Medieval monuments.
That is partly because the church was the burial place for a succession of Princes and Counts of Nassau-Saarbrücken up to the 15th century.
One very interesting figure laid to rest here is Elisabeth of Lorraine-Vaudémont one of the first writers in the Early New High German language.
She was the wife of Philipp I, Count of Nassau-Weilburg and passed away in 1456.
13. Heizkraftwerk Römerbrücke
Wherever you are in Saarbrücken you should be able to see the chimney of this thermal power station, which soars to 177 metres.
The reasoning behind the great height of the chimney is to reduce emissions in the immediate area.
Since 2014 the structure has been fitted with LEDs and puts on a multicoloured light show at night.
The power station has a gas and steam turbine but also recovers a lot of its wasted energy with a thermoelectric generator.
If you want to know more about this process and see inside an architectural landmark, there are two-hour tours on Wednesdays starting in front of the gates at 17:30.
The final monument on the list by Friedrich Joachim Stengel is a church built in the 1740s at the request of William Henry who provided the funding and materials for construction.
Later, in 1793 the church was converted into a “Temple of Reason” during the French Revolution.
For most of the 19th century the building was a school, and it was here in 1871 that an incident took place that still has resonance today.
Julius Becker, a troubled student, shot two fellow classmates, both of whom survived, though badly injured.
Becker meanwhile was acquitted at his trial because of “temporary incapacity”.
In Saarland, summer is the time for something called Schwenker.
These are essentially swinging grills suspended from tripods over a beech wood fire.
They will be smoking away at most beer gardens in Saarbrücken.
The thing to try are Schwenkbraten, pork neck steaks.
These are marinated beforehand in green herbs or paprika, barbecued over the fire and then topped with onions.
Schwenkbraten will usually come with pasta or potato salad and a glass of pilsner lager.
Other classics cooked on these grills are German bratwurst, French merguez sausages and potatoes, while baguettes are also toasted and served on the side.