48 Hours: Mainz

This German city where the Rhine and Main meet is gearing up for carnival season, says Susan Griffith.

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Travel essentials

Why go now?

While sober Euro-bankers swarm into nearby Frankfurt, Mainz is immersed in Fastnacht, the carnival season. The city's population of 200,000 more than doubles for an alcohol-propelled fancy-dress street party and the spectacular Rosenmontag parade on 20 February, when sweets and other goodies are thrown from floats. In the weeks before, local troupes in elaborate costumes throng the streets, playing piccolos and glockenspiel.

Touch down

Mainz railway station (1) is a 25-minute, €4.10 train ride on the S-Bahn (line S8; rmv.de) from Frankfurt-Main airport which is served daily by dozens of flights from the UK. (On the way back to the airport, on the S-Bahn from Mainz, you must not only find the right platform, but the correct section of it.)

Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) links Stansted, Manchester and Edinburgh with Frankfurt-Hahn airport, which is much closer to Mainz than Frankfurt. Direct buses (€12.50) leave Hahn every two hours and take an hour to reach Mainz station (1).

Get your bearings

Mainz stretches along the Rhine at its confluence with the River Main. Coloured street signs provide instant orientation: blue for streets parallel to the river, red for those at right angles (it is said to prevent late-night carousers from getting wet). The Old Town extends south of the massive Dom (cathedral) (2) along the attractive pedestrianised Augustinerstrasse that leads to a Roman theatre (3). The train station is not much more than a kilometre west of the Dom. Quiet cobbled lanes, comical statues of Fastnacht and Virgins peering down from niches reward random explorations on foot.

The tourist office (4) (00 49 6131 286210; touristik-mainz.de) is on the city side of the footbridge across Rheinstrasse from the Rathaus (city hall) (5). Maps and info can be picked up 9am-6pm weekdays, 10am-4pm Saturdays, and 11am-3pm Sundays.

Check in

The unfussy Hotel Stiftswingert (6) is on a suburban street (Am Stiftswingert 4; 00 49 6131 982 640; hotel-stiftswingert.de) a pleasant 20-minute walk from the centre or a short ride on the 62 or 63 bus. Double rooms are €99, though this can be reduced to €80-€85 online, via agencies such as booking.com. Generous breakfasts are included and front-desk personnel are helpful without being effusive.

Of the several decent hotels across from the main station, discreet Hotel Hammer (7) at Bahnhofplatz 6 (00 49 6131 965 280; hotel-hammer.de) has the most élan. Doubles from €115, including buffet breakfast.

The youth hostel (8) is on a great spot on the edge of the Volkspark (9) overlooking the Rhine (Otto-Brunfels-Schneise 4; 00 49 6131 85332; jugendherbergen.de).It exemplifies the modern take on hostelling with a congenial bar, children's play area and large garden. The normal price of a dorm bed is €21 with breakfast but until mid-March a special price of €36.50 covers bed and all meals for two.

Day one

Take a view

Because Mainz is built on a hill it is easy to gain elevation to survey the city's roofs and spires, for example from Kupferbergterrasse (10) or the Zitadelle (11). To appreciate Mainz in its riverside setting, it is best viewed from the railway bridge (12) across the Rhine. Romantics might be tempted to add a "love lock" to the thousands of inscribed padlocks fastened to the metalwork of the bridge before throwing the key into the river.

Window shopping

A wonderful farmers' market takes place every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday in the shadow of the Dom (2). It provides the most photogenic food shopping experience. Dozens of varieties of potato and apple are sold, with most labels prefaced "Deutscher" to indicate home-grown provenance. Long, brown salsifies are piled up next to fat pomegranates, and the egg stall is presided over by a fierce cock. Shopping streets and lanes fan out from Marktplatz (13). If the cheery chocolateries and novelty shops along Augustinerstrasse are not sufficient, head for the Römerpassage (14), a small precinct with some trendy shops. Underneath, the artfully lit remains of a Roman temple dedicated to Isis can be visited for free. This was discovered only 12 years ago when the area was being developed.

Lunch on the run

The farmers' market has great take-away vans selling specialities such as Leberkäsweck (meatloaf on a bun), wurst with senf (choice of sweet or spicy mustard) or Fisch Brötchen (herring and bread), from €2. Finish with a pastry topped with toasted hazelnuts from the bakery stall and a coffee or hot chocolate from the converted old Citroën van called Caffee Moguntia.

Take a hike

Most Mainz residents have walked or cycled the Three Bridges Walk dozens of times. This two-hour circuit heads south from the city centre along the broad riverside path favoured by joggers and cyclists towards the railway bridge (12). The section on the other side is far from scenic, but grit your teeth, bear left when you come off the bridge and carry on to the second bridge over the Main and into the peaceful neighbourhood of Kostheim.

Sticking close to the water you pass a shallow bay where water birds congregate. Carry on back to the Rhine and pause at the Dom Blick Terrasse & Biergarten (15) for a reviving Bitburger beer or bite to eat. Before climbing up on to the Theodor-Heuss road bridge (16) back to the city centre, look under the bridge for skilled wielders of spray cans who endlessly re-decorate the massive concrete arch with high-quality graffiti.

An aperitif

Cosy wine bars offer an impressive selection of local wines, especially Rieslings, sold by the (enormous) glass from €2.50. One short street, Jakobsbergstrasse, has three Weinstuben including dark-panelled Lösch (17) at number 9 (00 49 6131 220 383; weinstube-loesch.de). Contrary to Anglo-Saxon notions of personal space, Mainz hostelries often feature large shared tables. One of the most convivial is Weinstube RoteKopf (18) at Rotekopfgasse 4 (rotekopf.de) where jolly locals of a certain age will cheerfully budge up to make space for you.

Dining with the locals

In the tranquil upper part of Mainz, the regional kitchen of Heinrichs (19) at Martinsstrasse 10 (00 49 6131 9300661; heinrichs -die-wirtschaft.com) produces dishes several notches above schnitzel and sauerkraut. Slide into a comfortable banquette in this warmly lit restaurant and, perhaps after asking the waiter's advice, order something from the blackboard such as goose rillettes with gherkins for €9.50 or roast veal in burgundy for €17.

To join a younger, zippier crowd, the brew-pub Eisgrub-Bräu (20) at Weisslilien- gasse 1a (00 49 6131 221104; eisgrub.de) is the place to sample Mainz specialities such as Spundekäs, a cream cheese, onion and garlic dip, along with a glass of dark or light beer, followed by hearty and good-value dishes.

Day two

Sunday morning: go to church

Like most of the churches in Mainz, St Stephan's (21) with its Gothic cloister was badly damaged by Second World War bombs, then meticulously rebuilt in the 1960s. Stunning stained-glass windows by the Jewish artist Marc Chagall, primarily in shades of blue, lend the church a watery, ethereal light. Comfortably corporeal angels figure in the windows, including one who hovers above the prophet Jeremiah, both reading a book – quite apt in the city of Gutenberg.

A walk in the park

The Rosengarten (22) is a pleasant destination, despite the absence of roses in winter. The gardens lie between the ramparts under the Citadel (11) and the somewhat featureless Volkspark (9), and provide access to the railway bridge walkway.

Out to brunch

Try the Café Codex in the Gutenberg Museum (23) at Liebfrauenplatz 5 for Sunday brunch between 10.30am and 3pm. The basic buffet brunch costs €9.50 while the all-you-can-eat Frühstücksbuffet is €13.50. Beyond the buzzing bar, tables for two overlook the attractive museum courtyard where you can adjourn once the temperature climbs. Free Wi-Fi accompanies your Bircher muesli or pancakes with syrup.

Cultural afternoon

The Gutenberg Museum (23) (00 49 6131 122640; gutenberg-museum.de) tells the story of the city's most famous son – Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press – and how movable type revolutionised western culture. Displays on three floors include the precursor of the Kindle, a small portable "girdle book" carried by medieval pilgrims. The most precious object is one of fewer than 50 surviving Gutenberg bibles, printed in the 1450s. The museum is open 11am-5pm on Sundays, 9am-5pm Tuesday to Saturday; admission is €5.

To delve further back, the free Museum of Ancient Seafaring (24) has painstaking reconstructions of late Roman ships excavated from the Rhine's muddy banks in the 1980s. The museum at Neutorstrasse 2b (00 49 6131 286630; rgzm.de) is open 10am-6pm daily except Monday.Icing on the cake

Catch the half-hourly bus 28 from the Rathaus (5) to the centre of historic Wiesbaden, arch-rival of Mainz and "on the wrong side of the river". In its heyday as a 19th-century spa town, grand buildings were erected to house its thermal attractions. Take a swallow of the hot sulphurous water in the Kochbrunnen fountain.

Still in pursuit of Wiesbaden's past glories, take a short ride on the funicular which opened in 1888 and still operates using water as ballast. The reward is an arresting view from the top of the Neroberg hill over trees and red roofs.