A city with two separate centres, Villingen-Schwenningen sits among the peaks and coniferous woodland of the eastern Black Forest. The elder of the two, Villingen was founded by the mythic House of Zähring and has a millennium of history within its city walls, still guarded by three gates from the 13th century.
Schwenningen is a little younger and in the 19th century rose to become one of Europe’s top clock manufacturers, a craft that has permanently shaped the townscape. Schwenningen also happens to be the source of one of Germany’s most famous rivers, the Neckar, which surfaces in a mist-shrouded swamp to the south of the town.
See if you can time your visit for late-Winter, when the carnival (Fasnet) unleashes bizarre folk characters onto the streets.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Villingen-Schwenningen:
1. Villinger Münster
The heavyweight attraction in Villingen’s old town is the sublime Gothic minster with towers 50 metres tall.
It began life as a Romanesque church in the 12th century, but a fire in 1271 saw the minster rebuilt in the High Gothic style.
Those captivating towers came a little later in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Puritans were in charge here in the 19th century, which unfortunately stripped the minster of its most valuable fittings.
But in 2006 it was given 51-bell carillon, one of the largest in southern Germany.
The carillon is a tribute to Villingen’s historic Grüninger bell foundry and chimes each day at 10:05, 12:05, 15:05 and 18:05.
2. Franziskanermuseum Villingen
This museum is in Villingen’s old Franciscan monastery, which was disbanded in 1797 after more than 500 years.
Despite the religious-sounding name and the atmospheric setting, the museum is more concerned with the rich human history of Villingen-Schwenningen and the Black Forest.
There are seven millennia to explore, and one of the most engrossing exhibits is the reconstructed burial chamber of a Celtic prince dating to 616 BC and excavated in the 1970s.
The wooden chamber is in the centre of the room, and in showcases on the walls are 300 artefacts like precious amber jewellery and amulets, but also everyday utensils like shaving razors and nail clippers.
The museum also has an exhibition about Villingen-Schwenningen’s famous carnival, a series of Medieval tapestries and an array of clocks assembled in the city.
3. Uhrindustriemuseum (Museum of Clock-making)
All through the 19th century and into the early 20th century, Schwenningen was a hub for the mass production of clocks and other timepieces.
The museum is in the premises of the Württembergische Uhrenfabrik Bürk, established in 1855, the oldest industrial clock-maker in Schwenningen.
This brand was a market-leader for precision portable clocks used by night watchmen, and later produced alarm clocks and timekeeping devices for railway systems.
Bürk went out of business in the 80s, and the factory recalls both the history and development of watch-making technology, but also the routines and welfare of the people who worked here.
Best of all you can see skilled clock-makers at work producing alarm clocks cuckoo clocks by hand, which are then sold in the museum’s shop.
4. Münsterbrunnen Villingen
In Münsterplatz beside the church is a fountain made by the Black Forest artist Klaus Ringwald and unveiled in 1989. The peculiar octagonal sculpture here is fashioned from bronze, gold, enamel and concrete, and condenses the 1,000-year history of the city into a single monument.
Each of the eight sides handles a different period, combining inscribed tablets with sculpted characters.
Look closely at the window frames around each of these characters and you’ll see how they change from Gothic to Renaissance, Baroque and Art Nouveau.
5. Villinger Stadtbefestigung
Check a map of Villingen and it’s easy to work out where the city wall is.
The ditch defending the partially intact inner wall forms an almost complete oval belt of parkland around the old town.
Three of four gates survive: The Oberes Tor in the north, the Riettor in the west and the Bickentor in the east.
They are almost identical, put up in the middle of the 13th century and standing at about 20 metres.
The Bickentor is attached to a roundel, which came much later in the 16th century, at a time when Villingen was transformed into an artillery fortress.
At the western Käferbergle area the wooden covered battlements on the wall have been restored, while the most impressive of the remaining towers is the Romäusturm, dating to the late 14th century and used as a prison from the 1500s onwards.
6. Heimat- und Uhrenmuseum Schwenningen
This museum about clocks and local culture is in a half-timbered building from the 1700s that was once a lodging for teachers.
The museum first opened in 1931 and tackles Schwenningen’s history from a few angles: There’s an exhibit about the Alemanni tribe, based around Schwenningen 1,300 years ago, as well as interiors from rural homes, the 16th-century stone marking the source of the Neckar River, and a 19th-century horse bridle from the long defunct salt plant at Wilhelmshall.
Upstairs you can dive back into the local clock-making craft, with a big collection from workshops across the Black Forest.
Also up here is the private collection amassed by the eminent clock-maker Hellmut Kienzle, with timepieces dating from the 1500s to the 1800s and gathered from clock-makers across Germany.
7. Aussichtsturm auf der Wanne
Looking over Villingen’s old town atop the 778-metre Wanne mountain to the east is an observation tower from 1888. With an octagonal footprint, three platforms and a steel lattice construction, the tower looks like nothing else from the period and has a height of 30 metres.
The tower was cast and assembled by the Glockengießerei Grüninger, that bell foundry with history in Villingen dating back to the 17th century.
8. Internationales Luftfahrt-Museum
This aviation museum is based in a hangar at the Schwenningen am Neckar airfield.
Go in to see light aircraft like a First World War-era Fokker Dr.
I, along with hundreds of model planes, an early de Havilland Ghost jet engine and an assortment of ejection seats.
On the asphalt outside are more piston and jet aircraft, gliders and helicopters from both sides of the Iron Curtain.
Some of the more noteworthy pieces are a MiG-15, an Aérospatiale Alouette II helicopter, a Dassault/Dornier Alpha Jet, an F-104G Starfighter and a Hawker Sea Hawk.
9. Schwenninger Moos
On Schwenningen’s southern rim is a three-square-kilometre expanse of moorland and peat bogs.
Now that might sound forbidding, but the Schwenninger Moos is threaded by a hiking path through spruce and birch forest and along a pier to let you gaze over this unusual landscape.
What makes the Schwenninger Moos so interesting is that more than 400 different species of plant flourish in this nature reserve, many of which are rare forms of peat moss.
But the Schwenninger Moos is also the source of the mighty River Neckar, which begins its 362-kilometre journey to the Rhine from this swampy ground.
10. Stadtpark Möglingshöhe
Merging with the Schwenninger Moos to the north is Schwenningen’s city park.
Large tracts of the park are taken up by deep forest, accessed via a web of walking trails.
In the clearings there’s a playground for kids, flowerbeds, hedges, shrubs, a sculpture trail and a pond.
But the park’s most famous feature is the Neckarquelle, the monument marking the official source of the river.
The actual Neckar spring is more widespread and surfaces in the Schwenninger Moos.
But the symbolic Neckarquelle monument, redesigned for the State Garden Show in 2010, pumps water from deep underground into a fountain and along a stone conduit into the pond.
Villingen’s Benedictine church is a holdover from the monastery founded in the city in the late 17th century by monks forced to move a few kilometres down the road from St.
Georgen im Schwarzwald during the Reformation.
The church has the Baroque architecture of the day and wouldn’t be finished until well into the 18th century because of the Nine Years’ War and War of the Spanish Succession.
The nave is 50 metres long and has a whitewashed barrel vault, edged by galleries, rising 16 metres from the church floor.
The original organ was designed by two members of the famous Silbermann family from Alsace, and although this was removed after the dissolution of the monasteries a faithful reconstruction was presented in 2002.
Departing Villingen’s old town via the Riettor you’ll be on the Hubenloch, a hill in the west of the city crested by a nine-hectare park.
When the Baden-Württemberg State Garden Show (Landesgartenshow) came to Schwenningen the Hubenlochpark was planted with a Rosarium, where 100 varieties of rose are in bloom in summer.
At 750 metres this is also claimed to be one of the highest rose gardens in Europe.
Another small attraction added before the show is the 25-metre observation tower, which has another satisfying view of Villingen, this time from the west and framed by the Wanne hill.
13. Zehndersches Haus
On Bärengasse in Villingen you can pause for a look at the most striking half-timbered house in Villingen’s old town.
The Zehndersches Haus was constructed in 1690 for the city’s Augustinian convent.
What will surprise you about the building is its size, with a massive ground floor that would have been used as a warehouse and sales room.
The timber-framed upper floors are where the living quarters would have been.
The house was badly decayed by the end of the Second World War before being rescued in 1970.
14. City Rondell
Mauthe was another of Schwenningen’s stalwart clock manufacturers, producing timepieces in the city for 130 years and across five generations of the same family until the 1970s.
The Mauthe brand hit its peak in the 1950s when the Volkswagen owners who made it to 100,000 kilometres without requiring major repairs were given a Mauthe wristwatch by VW as a gift.
After the factory shut down in the 70s one of its circular gates was adapted into a shopping mall, City Rondell.
Under one roof the City Rondell has a line-up of popular German retailers like Gerry Weber, Bijou Brigitte and Esprit.
In Germany, when most people think of the name Villingen-Schwenningen they picture the bizarre array of characters that take to the streets at on Rosenmontag (Rose Monday). The best known of these is the “Narro”, wearing a white linen outfit decorated with Medieval-style images of animals and plants, as well as four chest straps loaded with bells weighing 18 kilograms.
But the weirdest, and most important part of the outfit is the wooden mask painted bright orange.
Other characters on parade are the “Altvillingerin”, dressed in the fashion of the early 19th century with silk shawls and headscarves and the “Wuescht”, who wears trousers padded with straw and a kind of wooded shield for when kids throw pine cones and snowballs at them.
Many of these outlandish figures go back to Medieval times and have come through plague, war and bans from authorities.