In the midst of vineyards, Würzburg is a historic university city in Franconia. All eyes are drawn to the two palaces either side of the Main River. On the right bank behind the old town is the UNESCO-listed Würzburg Residence, the Baroque home for the Prince-Bishops of Würzburg, a palace of staggering size and splendour that has the largest fresco in the world.
On the left bank is the Marienburg Fortress, where the Prince-Bishops lived before the 18th century. In between is a city of astounding churches, chapels and museum. Most of these contain works by one of the masters of the Northern Renaissance, the sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider. He produced dozens of religious statues and effigies in the city and was even locked up in the fortress for a time during the 16th-century German Peasants’ War.
Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Würzburg:
1. Würzburg Residence
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the palace for the Prince-Bishop Johann Philipp Franz von Schönborn is on a scale that has to be seen to be believed.
Constructed from 1720 to 1744, the Würzburg Residence is among Europe’s great Baroque palaces and is considered architect Balthasar Neumann’s greatest achievement.
The Residence was hit during the Second World War, but its most splendid architecture survived.
The grand staircase is nothing short of dazzling for its self-supporting trough vault that climbs to 23 metres, and painted with a gigantic fresco by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.
This is the largest fresco in the world and symbolises the four continents: Europe, America, Asia and Africa.
Visiting dignitaries were received in the breathtaking Imperial Hall, a dazzling mass of painting, stuccowork, statues and marble completed at head-spinning expense in 1751.
2. Marienburg Fortress
A permanent landmark on the left bank of the Main, the Marienburg Fortress crowns a spur high above the river, in a spot that has been fortified since Celtic times.
The castle’s story begins in the 1200s when defensive walls were built around Würzburg first church, which had stood here since the 8th century.
For almost five centuries up to 1719 the Marienburg Fortress was the seat of the Prince-Bishops, and it gradually changed from a defensive building into a Renaissance and then Baroque palace after it was almost razed by the Swedes in the Thirty Years’ War.
The Fürstenbaumuseum reveals Würzburg’s 1,200 years of history, and uses period furniture to help you picture the opulence of the Prince-Bishops.
Among the many enlightening things on the tour is the dungeon where Renaissance master Tilman Riemenschneider was imprisoned for allying with the peasants in the 16th century German Peasants’ War.
In the 17th century the Prince-Bishop Johann Philipp von Schönborn created an adorable little formal garden on one of the former gun platforms atop the old ramparts at the fortress.
The Fürstengarten is on the eastern flank of the complex and is arranged geometrically with fountains, neat flowerbeds and pavilions.
The idea most likely came from Italy’s Renaissance “giardini segreti” (Secret Gardens). Best of all is the view of the Main and Würzburg from the balustrade.
4. Alte Mainbrücke
Linking Würzburg Altstadt with the old fishermen’s quarter, the pedestrian bridge Alte Mainbrücke was the city’s only river crossing all the way up to 1886. As you cross there are fabulous views east towards St Kilian Cathedral and the Alstadt, and also to the Marienburg Fortress high to the west.
The bridge was started in 1476 and replaced an earlier Romanesque version that had been wrecked by floods.
Up to the 1700s the bridge was totally fortified, but around that time the Prince-Bishops Christoph Franz von Hutten and then Friedrich Karl von Schönborn sculpted 12 statues of saints facing the roadway.
5. Museum für Franken
In Marienburg’s outer fortifications there is a museum packed with the marvellous works of Franconian artists.
In 45 rooms there’s archaeology, painting, sculpture and applied art from Würzburg and the Mainfranken region from the Palaeolithic to the 1800s.
There are masterpieces by Riemenschneider, including his original Adam and Eve statues from the Marienkapelle and a mourning Madonna dating to 1505. You can also size up carved Romanesque capitals, a treasure from the late Bronze Age and a wealth of Baroque sculpture by names like Ferdinand Dietz and Johann Peter Wagner.
The arts and crafts section is a must for its glassware, silver and gold, antique clocks and textiles going back to the Middle Ages.
6. Würzburg Cathedral
Despite sustaining heavy damage in the Second World War, Würzburg Cathedral still has a lot of mesmerising art and architecture by Tilman Riemenschneider and Balthasar Neumann.
The church as it is now was begun in the 11th century and at more than 100 metres is noted for its extraordinary length, being the fourth-longest Romanesque church in Germany.
For all its history Würzburg Cathedral was the burial place of the Prince-Bishops, and this is how Riemenschneider and Neumann got involved.
Riemenschneider carved the magnificent tomb effigies for Rudolf von Scherenberg (1499) and Lorenz von Bibra (1519), as well as the Apostles’ Altar from 1502/06. The Prince-Bishops of the House of Schönborn were interred in a chapel designed by Neumann, holding the tombs of four rulers.
On both storeys of the Residenz and with oval vaults and curved walls, the palace’s chapel is held as one of the high points of sacral Baroque architecture.
There’s beautifully textured marble, giltwork and stucco almost everywhere you look.
The chapel’s six lustrous statues were fashioned from white marble in Genoa, while the delicate marble-effect stuccowork on the high altar as well as the ornamentation on the ceiling was by the Italian Antonio Giuseppe Bossi.
Look up to the three monumental frescoes in the domes, representing the War in Heaven, Coronation of the Virgin and martyrdom of the three Franconian apostles Kolonat, Totnat and Kilian.
On the Unterer Markt square, the Marienkapelle is officially designated a chapel despite its imposing scale.
The building is in a uniform Late Gothic style and went up between 1377 and 1480, when the tower was completed.
Once again, Tilman Riemenschneider contributed a lot to the beauty of this monument.
He carved the statues of Adam and Eve on the south portal, as well as the tomb of the Franconian nobleman Konrad von Schaumburg.
The latter is one of several epitaphs to have survived the allied bombing of 1945, which left the church in ruins.
Balthasar Neumann is also buried in the church, and in the absence of a monument from the time of his death, a bronze plaque was installed in the 1950s.
9. Kollegiatstift Neumünster
This church started out as a Romanesque basilica in the 1000s, but nearly all the current architecture is from an extensive Barque remodelling in the 18th century.
There has been some sort of religious building here since the 8th century when the Bishop Meningaud constructed a memorial to hold the tombs of St Kilian and his companions Kolonat and Totnan, missionaries who were killed in 689. Their tombs are in the crypt, along with Bishop Meningaud’s, whose tomb bears the oldest known Frankish inscription.
Some art to check out upstairs includes a Gothic plague cross from the 1300s and a Madonna carved by Riemenschneider in 1493.
10. Martin von Wagner Museum
In the south wing of the Residence Palace is a museum for archaeology and art based on a collection that was started in 1832. The museum is named for Johann Martin von Wagner who donated his own art and ancient antiquities to the museum in 1858. In the antiquities galleries the assortment of Ancient Greek vases is especially important, counting around 5,000 pieces and forming one of the largest collections in the country.
The museum also has Dutch, German and Italian paintings from the early Renaissance to the 1900s by artists like Hans Leonhard Schäufelein, Pieter Claesz and Max Liebermann, while the sculpture galleries have yet more works by Tilman Riemenschneider.
The graphics collection is also worthwhile for its woodcuts and copper engravings by Albrecht Dürer.
11. Schloss Veitshöchheim
Würzburg’s Prince-Bishops and then the Kings of Bavaria had their summer residence at Veitshöchheim, moments northwest of the city.
The palace is open for guided tours from April to October and is noted for its stuccowork by Antonio Bossi, sculptures by Johann Peter Wagner, as well as the sumptuous private apartments that were used by the Duke of Tuscany.
But maybe the main event is the Rococo garden, and there’s an exhibition on the ground floor of the palace about how this wonderful feat of landscaping and art was achieved.
Laid out in the 18th-century, the gardens are embellished with more than 300 sculptures, as well as artificial ruins, arbours, pavilions and magical grottoes inspired by the Boboli Gardens in Florence.
The kitchen garden is a wonder in its own right as it is planted with historic vegetables, fruits and herbs that have mostly been forgotten.
12. Rathaus Würzburg
One of the distinguishing sights on Würzburg’s historic skyline is the Grafeneckart, the tower belonging to the Medieval town hall.
The Rathaus is a muddle of connected buildings constructed at different times.
The Romanesque Grafeneckart is the oldest of these, dating to the 1200s and after its first owner Graf (Count) Eckard de Foro.
Inside this edifice is the Wenzelsaal (Wenceslas Hall), the oldest secular room in the city.
There’s also a memorial room in the Grafeneckart for the bombing on 16 March 1945 in which 5,000 people died in a single night.
Another of Balthasar Neumann’s Baroque masterpieces is just south of the Marienburg fortress, atop the 366-metre Nikolausberg hill on the left bank of the Main.
Reached via 352 steps, this pilgrimage church, distinguished by its bud domes, was built in just a couple of years up to 1750 and once again boasts works by the court sculptor Johann Peter Wagner.
He carved the life-sized representations of the 14 stations of the cross at small chapels posted on the route to the main church.
This was no small undertaking as there are 77 sculpted figures in total, and the ensemble took more than 30 years to complete.
Inside the church itself, take some time to appreciate the frescoes, Neoclassical high altar and ornamental stuccowork.
14. Museum am Dom
The art museum for Würzburg’s diocese opened in a modern building in 2003 and has around 700 Christian-themed sculptures and paintings from the 900s to the present day.
Modern and contemporary artists like Joseph Beuys, Andy Warhol, Käthe Kollwitz, Ernst Barlach and Otto Dix share the space with Würzburg’s historic masters: Good old Riemenschneider appears again, as does Johann Peter Wagner and the 18th-century Baroque painters Johannes Zick and Georg Anton Urlaub.
15. Röntgen Memorial Site
At the former physics institute of the University of Würzburg two laboratories have been preserved in which Wilhelm Röntgen made the discovery that earned him a Nobel Prize in 1901. On the evening of 8 November 1895 Röntgen observed rays that penetrated through solid material and coined the term “X-Rays”. The small museum is a glimpse of particle physics at the end of the 19th century.
You can observe a recreation of Röntgen’s experiment with the same apparatus that he used, while in the next room are all the early applications of his discovery: There are vintage X-Ray tubes and a Siemens & Halske X-Ray machine from 1912.