The Saxon city of Zwickau sometimes goes by the moniker “Automobil- und Robert-Schumann-Stadt” (City of Cars and Robert Schumann). And while not exactly concise, the name sums up two of Zwickau’s fortes: The 19th-centuy composer Robert Schumann was born in Zwickau and his birthplace has an absorbing museum about his life and relationship with the genius pianist Clara Wieck.
And Zwickau is also the city of Robert Horch, the engineer and inventor to thank the car brand Audi . Going back further, the city is blessed with Late Gothic and Renaissance art and architecture due to an influx of wealth from silver mining at nearby Schneeberg after 1470.
Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Zwickau:
As old as the 1100s, Zwickau’s cathedral was redesigned as a magnificent Late Gothic hall church between 1463 and 1565. The Baroque spire came a little later, replacing the old Gothic one in the 1670s after it was struck by lightning.
At 88 metres that spire remains the tallest structure in Zwickau to this day.
The church is bursting with valuable works of art from the Late Gothic and Renaissance, and has a sensational star rib vault in its nave and choir.
The winged altarpiece was the work of Michael Wolgemut, who tutored a young Albrecht Dürer in the late 15th century.
There’s also a tremendous Pietà (Lamentation of Christ) from 1502 by the Saxon sculptor Peter Breuer and a beautiful Holy Sepulchre from 1507.
2. Horch Museum
Zwickau’s former Audi plant is a car museum named after the engineer and automobile pioneer August Horch.
In 1932 he founded what we know as Audi, as a union of four brands, Audi, Horch, Wanderer and DWK, each now symbolised by a ring in Audi’s badge.
The museum recounts August Horch’s innovations, and also reveals the origins of Saxony’s automobile industry in 1903 with the creation of the Saxon-Thuringian Automobile Club.
There’s a fleet of vintage Audi and Horch vehicles from before the Second World War, many of which are prototypes or were produced for the German military.
After the war this plant manufactured Trabants for the GDR and there’s a range of models from the 1950s to the early-90s, all in mint condition.
Reworked around the same period as the Marienkirche due to a fire in 1403,, the Katharinenkirche is also a hall church in the Late Gothic style.
The nave and choir were richly furnished in the 16th century, and most of those fittings remain in place today.
The standout is the winged altarpiece, produced by the workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder.
This beautiful work of art was presented to the church in 1518 by the Elector of Saxony Frederick III (depicted on one wing), and its central image depicts Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.
There are more sculptures here by Peter Breuer, as well as a pulpit and baptismal font from the 1530s by the local artist Paul Speck.
The composer Robert Schumann was born in the house on the corner of Hauptmarkt in 1810. His childhood home is now a museum comprising the world’s largest exhibition on Schumann’s career.
The treasure of the exhibition is the catalogue of 4,000 manuscripts by Schumann and his wife Clara, and after eight rooms you’ll be wiser about the couple’s relationship, as well as Schumann’s health troubles and friendship with Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy.
The museum has an invaluable collection of keyboard instruments, and the most valuable of these is the André Stein-built piano commissioned for Clara by her father Friedrich Wieck for her first public concert in Leipzig at the age of just nine.
5. Göltzsch Viaduct
Near the village of Mylau in the countryside southwest of Zwickau is the world’s largest brick-built bridge.
The Göltzsch Viaduct crosses the river valley of the same name and was completed in 1851 after five years of construction.
Still taking trains today, the bridge is over half a kilometre long, has 98 arches and has a maximum height of 78 metres which made it the tallest railway bridge in the world for a time.
Some of the statistics for the viaduct’s construction are staggering: It is composed of 50,000 bricks, and an army of 1,736 workers worked on its construction, 31 of whom were sadly killed during the endeavour.
Around the valley there are a lot of vantage points on walking trails if you want to get a photo of this early megastructure.
6. Priesterhäuser Zwickau
Next to the Marienkirche is a row of houses built for the clergy, dating back as far as 1264, making them the oldest surviving residential buildings in Saxony.
The last changes were made in 1466, and you can go in to have a look around.
The Priesterhäuser present a snapshot of when Zwickau was at the peak of its powers in the Late Middle Ages, in meticulously restored rooms decorated with reproductions of furniture from the period.
To round off the experience you can go into the kitchen, with soot-coated brickwork, for a bowl of bread soup, cooked according to a medieval recipe.
7. Max-Pechstein-Museum Kunstsammlungen Zwickau
In a majestic building with a rotunda, this 100-year-old museum holds the city’s art collections.
The exhibits span hundreds of years, from the Late Gothic to the Expressionists of the early 20th century.
The Late Gothic art, by masters like Lucas Cranach the Elder reflects the sudden wealth in Zwickau during the 15th century.
The museum is named after the Die Brücke Expressionist of Max Pechstein and has some 40 paintings, mosaics and works in stained glass by this artist.
The museum also has a science department, with one of Saxony’s largest mineralogical collections, numbering 16,000 specimens.
8. Alter Gasometer
Northeast of the Altstadt, this gasometer is a testament to Zwickau’s industrial culture in the second half of the 19th century.
The refined brick-built structure only stored gas up to 1900, before becoming a warehouse.
In the late 1990s a plan was put in motion to turn the gasometer into a performing arts venue, breathing new life into the monument.
There’s a schedule of plays, concerts, comedy shows and cinema screenings in a jaw-dropping environment.
9. Galerie am Domhof
In 1977 the distinguished Neoclassical building of the old Zwickau art association was transformed into a multidisciplinary cultural centre.
Set on Domhof, this monument completes a wonderful ensemble, along with the Marienkirche and Priesterhäuser.
The main speciality is contemporary art, and there are two short term exhibitions at a time for anything from painting to graphic design, sculpture, installation art and photography.
Along with these exhibitions, there are concerts, comedy shows, lectures and readings, and the gallery has a neat little shop selling locally produced art, jewellery, textiles and more.
A must-see during your stroll around the city, the Dünnebierhaus is a Late Gothic burgher house built in 1480 for the silver merchant and councilman Nicol Römer.
This commanding townhouse is on the eastern side of Hauptmarkt and is distinguished by its peculiar window mouldings and a five-storey stepped gable.
In the 19th century the house was a distillery and coffee roastery run by the Dünnebier company, which is where the name comes from.
Since 1984 the house has been owned by the city and is hired out for weddings.
The park to the west of Zwickau has its origins in the 15th century when Nicol Römer and another silver merchant Hans Federangel, got permission from the city to dig a big pond, 555 metres by 300. That pond is still the focus of the park, which in the 19th century was redesigned by the noted landscape architect Eduard Petzold.
The swans that gave the park its name were introduced in 1850, while the various leisure amenities were added right after the Second World War.
When it’s warm you can amble along the trails and see horses grazing in their paddocks, before hiring a pedal boat or rowboat for up to an hour.
Swimming is turned into an art-form at this captivating Art Nouveau pool in Zwickau’s northern suburbs.
The Johannisbad was ordered in the 1860s as a bath and spa for the city’s workers, while the swimming pool was added at the turn of the century.
The pool came through both wars untouched but fell into disuse by the end of the 20th century before a grand renovation starting in 1997. It’s a thing of beauty, with a cathedral-like atmosphere thanks to a vast skylight an two tiers of galleries trimmed by wrought iron balustrades.
On one end of the pool is a Gothic-revival fountain at the other stands a vintage clock.
13. Gewandhaus Zwickau
Once a guildhall for Zwickau’s clothes-makers, the exquisite gabled Gewandhaus went up in the early 1520s.
Back then ground floor was a space for shoemakers, skinners and clothiers to sell their wares.
In the 19th century the interior was converted into a theatre, which it has remained ever since.
There’s seating for almost 400 people, and the venue books a wide variety of entertainment, from classical musicians to contemporary dance.
When this post was written in 2017 the theatre was in the middle of a two-year renovation, but the monument still warrants a look from the outside.
In the town of Lichtenstein, around 15 minutes northeast of Zwickau by road is an international centre of excellence for wood-carving.
The exhibitions is in the noble confines of the Baroque Schlosspalais Lichtenstein and boasts 550 pieces from 30 different countries across five continents.
Just to summarise, there are works from Europe, Oceania, China, Indonesia, the Native American Hopi tribe, Tanzania and West Africa.
In creatively designed galleries are religious sculptures from churches and monasteries, totem poles, masks, shields, drums, furniture and delicate Arabesque carvings from North Africa
15. Burg Schönfels
Also under 10 kilometres from the city is a Medieval hilltop castle perched 380 metres above sea level.
The Duke of Saxony, Henry the Fowler ordered this fortification in the 10th century to control the Via Imperii trade route and guard against the Sorbs to the east.
The namesake Schönfels family held sway here from the 13th century, and by the 1400s the castle was in the hands of wealthy silver magnates.
The level of preservation is almost unbelievable, with architecture that has endured since the last update in the 1500s and 1600s.
The complex has an intact keep, bastion and gatehouse, as well as an astounding Late Gothic wooden hall.
Also see the chapel from the early 1600s, with a winged altar by the Renaissance painter Mathias Krodel the Younger.