The oldest city in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Schwerin got its city rights from the great duke, Henry the Lion in 1160. The first thing to mention about Schwerin is the enthralling palace and seat of the prosperous Dukes of Mecklenburg-Schwerin.
Looking like a Loire Valley Château the palace is on an island of its own, joined by bridge to a picture-book Baroque garden strewn with regal monuments, sandstone sculptures and divided by a Versailles-style cross canal. Schwerin is a city of water, with 12 different lakes in its limits. The prettiest of these is the Pfaffenteich, framed by grand 19th-century apartment buildings, while a boat tour of the Schweriner See in summer is a must.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Schwerin:
1. Schwerin Palace
Stranded on an island in the Burgsee lake, the big sight in Schwerin is the splendid residence for the Dukes of Mecklenburg-Schwerin.
The island had a castle as early as the 10th century, and from the 16th century this took on the form of a Renaissance palace.
Some 300 years later Duke Frederick Francis II ordered a drastic overhaul and in the 1840s the palace was remodelled as a magnificent Loire Valley Château.
If you know Chambord you’ll definitely see a resemblance in the conical towers and the cupolas on top.
Since Reunification the palace has held the state assembly for Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, but the apartments and reception rooms are a museum, which we’ll talk about next.
2. Museum Schloss Schwerin
You can’t pass up the opportunity to look inside the palace, which has 635 rooms, many of which have been set aside for visitors.
This is all managed by the Staatliches Museum Schwerin, which also has the Ducal art collection at a separate location.
In exquisitely furnished ballrooms and private apartments you’ll be left in no doubt about the wealth of the Dukes who lived here . You’ll pore over paintings, porcelain, ceremonial armour, hunting weapons, swords, animal sculptures and silverware.
But a lot of the pleasure will come from the building itself and its surprisingly little nooks, oriels, ornaments and anecdotes about its inhabitants in the 1800s.
3. Schwerin Cathedral
One of the high points of the North German Brick Gothic style, Schwerin Cathedral is as old as the city.
It was founded by the fabled Duke of Saxony and Bavaria, Henry the Lion in 1160. The modest church at that time became a famous pilgrimage site in the 13th century when a count returned from the crusades with the “relic of the Holy Blood”, a drop of Jesus’ blood.
From 1270 to 1416 the nave and choir were enlarged to their current awe-inspiring dimensions.
In the chancel you’ll be greeted by the Loste-Retabel, part of outstanding Late Gothic winged altarpiece, dating to the 1420s and depicting the crucifixion with a sandstone relief.
Also obligatory is the triumphal cross from around the same time, and brought here after the Marienkirche in Wismar was demolished in the GDR era.
There’s much more besides, from a 14th-century Bronze baptismal font to Medieval tomb monuments for bishops on the north transept wall.
4. Galerie Alte & Neue Meister Schwerin
Belonging to the Staatliches Museum Schwerin, this art museum is in a regal Neoclassical palace on the Burgsee.
Here you can revel in a sensational collection of Dutch and Flemish Old Masters.
We’re talking, Rubens, Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Brueghel the Elder, Peter Claesz, Paulus Potter and more.
Moving forward, there’s also a strong array of works from the 1700s to the 1900s, by Caspar David Friedrich, Lovis Corinth, Max Pechstein, Picasso and Alexej von Jawlensky.
The gallery has also amassed some 90 works by Marcel Duchamp, among which are “readymades”, sculptures, graphical works, posters and books.
5. Schwerin Palace Garden
On the Schlossinsel, and continuing south across the water with perfect symmetry is one of North Germany’s finest Baroque gardens.
The gardens have free entry for the public and are immaculately tended, with a long cross-shaped canal, sculptures, terraces, fountains, tree-flanked alleys, a grotto, a pergola, a hippodrome and a “floating meadow” by the Burgsee.
But best of all is the orangery beside close to the palace on the east side of the island.
This dainty cast iron and glass building is still used for wintering plants, but has a cafe looking through big glass panes onto a courtyard garden.
Schwerin’s answer to the Binnenalster in Hamburg, the Pfaffenteich is a 12-hectare pond that was first dammed in the 1100s to power watermills on its south shore.
The banks have a band of grass and tree-lined promenades in front of tall 19th-century apartment buildings.
The south shore, closest to Schwerin’s old town, is a hangout in summer when residents and tourists crowd the cafe terraces and steps behind the pleasure boat jetty.
Look to the left and you’ll see another of Schwerin’s landmarks, the Neo-Gothic Arsenal from 1840, and now holding Mecklenburg-Vorpommern’s interior ministry.
7. Freilichtmuseum Schwerin-Mueß
In 1936 when the fishing village Mueß was absorbed by Schwerin, the historic centre of the village was left untouched and converted into an outdoor museum.
Most of these 17 buildings are the same now as they were when they were built as much as 400 years ago.
And because many of the structures were village amenities they give us a clear glimpse of rural life and folk culture in Mecklenburg in times past.
You can idle around the half-timbered shepherd’s croft, a village school, a blacksmith’s forge, while on display are old tools, costumes and everyday objects.
The museum is in 5.5 hectares, and growing outside are the 100 or so different fruit trees and crops cultivated around Mecklenburg.
The standout building is the landowner’s estate, the Büdner, built right after the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century.
Moments south of the cathedral, Schwerin’s historic marketplace was built in one go following Schwerin’s great fire of 1651. There are four listed buildings around the square, along with newer, post-war houses that have been given Baroque and Renaissance designs.
One monument that will catch your eye is the market hall Neues Gebäude (New Building) on the north side and dating from 1783. With a Doric colonnade, this Neoclassical edifice was deliberately kept to just two storeys high to make sure it didn’t obstruct the view of the cathedral.
Come around to the southwest corner to Am Markt 3, a Baroque half-timbered shop, and take a photo of the city hall.
There has been a municipal building at this location since the 14th century, though the 17th-century fire and later redesigns have left with Renaissance Revival architecture from the 1830s.
There’s an homage to the city’s founder, Henry the Lion on the market square beside the Neues Gebäude.
This is only from 1995 and was placed here in 1995 on the 800th anniversary of the founders’ death.
The funding came from a bank, and the sculptor was the esteemed Peter Lenk.
There’s a little history lesson on the pedestal, with satirical reliefs of critical moments in Henry’s life.
These include the foundation of Schwerin in 1160 and the Wendenkreuzzug of 1147, when a coalition of German and Scandinavian princes embarked on a crusade against the pagan Sorbian Slavs to the east.
10. Schelfkirche St. Nikolai
This fabulous Baroque church from 1713 took the place of an earlier Medieval building wrecked in a storm in 1703. Straight away the floor-plan is unusual as it is in the shape of a creek cross, with nave, choir and transept all at roughly equal length.
The other remarkable thing about the church is that it was the funerary church of the ruling House of Mecklenburg-Schwerin.
Possibly its most famous burial is Sophia Luis of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Queen Consort of Prussia at the start of the 18th century by her marriage to Frederick I. At the back, above an carved wooden gallery is the organ by the highly-regarded 19th-century organ-maker Friedrich Friese III.
Near the water on Schlossinsel is this church, built when the palace was remodelled in the Renaissance style in the 1560s.
It was later restyled in the 19th century by Neo-Gothic architect Ernst Friedrich Zwirner, renowned for helping to complete Cologne Cathedral.
So there are delicate vaults painted blue and flecked with stars, and tall, slender traceried windows.
There are hints of the first Renaissance building in the galleries which are held up by Tuscan-style columns and have six alabaster reliefs showing bible scenes like the Fall of Man, Jesus’ Birth and his resurrection.
12. Reiterdenkmal Friedrich Franz II
In 1883 Frederick Francis II passed away from pneumonia.
And no sooner had the funeral taken place than the court made plans for a monument for him.
The cast was completed in 1891, and the monument was unveiled a decade after his death in 1893. The sculptor Ludwig Brunow drew on two models for the design: The Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome and Berlin’s Equestrian Statue of the Great Elector.
Facing the castle from the grounds across the water, the nine-metre monument is uncommonly large, and the marble plinth alone is four metres.
Carved onto the stone are two reliefs depicting Frederick Francis’ reign, and at the corners are allegorical figures symbolising the four virtues of a ruler: Faith, righteousness, strength and wisdom.
13. Schwerin TV Tower
The city got a modern landmark on its eastern horizon in the early 1960s when the television tower was erected.
The space age reinforced concrete structure from the days of the GDR , the tower is 136.5 metres high, mast included and has both a panoramic restaurant and an observation deck.
The restaurant comes highly recommended and has an upscale menu with dishes like baked camembert and pheasant breast with Bearnaise sauce.
One floor below is the observation deck, best scaled on a clear evening when you can watch the sun setting over Schwerin and its lakes.
14. Zoo Schwerin
Open all year round, the city’s zoo is in six hectares on south shore of the Fauler See lake.
There upwards of 650 animals here, in large, natural enclosures that are often co-inhabited.
The lions for example, share with meerkats and fox mongooses, while brown bears and wolves are also in the same space.
One of the things that allows the zoo to stay open even in winter is the many indoor habitats, and in the last couple of years a new frog house presents amphibians in up-to-date terrariums.
This follows the Warmhaus, where Central and South American species like the two-toed sloth and giant anteater live among tropical and plants.
15. Boat Tours
At a city with so many bodies of water a boat trip is almost a mandatory activity on a summer’s day in Schwerin.
The cruise company Weiße Flotte has a jetty just below Schwerin Palace and every day between March and October you can embark on a tour of the Schweriner See lake.
This might be a typical 1.5-hour trip, an intimate sunset cruise or a party boat at night.
If you sail during the day you’ll drop anchor at the Kaninchenwerder island in the middle of the lake, an unblemished nature reserve with distant views back to Schwerin.