On song: summer at the Festspielhaus

Richard Wagner's festival city sings with dramatic history, says Adrian Mourby

You can't move for history in Bayreuth, the small Franconian city that celebrates Richard Wagner's 200th birthday this year. Before Wagner arrived here in 1872 to build his Festspielhaus, Bayreuth was just a beautiful Rococo city bursting out of its medieval city walls in southern Germany.

Wagner's semi-religious music festival, intended by the Meister to revive a spiritually bankrupt Europe, put Bayreuth on the map almost immediately as a place of international musical pilgrimage. When the First World War broke out in 1914, the majority of English nationals caught behind enemy lines were at Bayreuth. This year's festival begins on Thursday, with Wagner enthusiasts cheering on a performance of Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman); it ends on 28 August, with a performance of Tannhäuser.

Yet the city today is not as beautiful as it ought to be. We can thank Wagner for that as well. The presence of his annual festival inspired the Nazis to make Bayreuth the capital of a new Gau (shire) north of Munich. Although Hitler preferred Franz Lehár's operettas, he recognised Wagner as a useful tool in the redefinition of German identity. Unfortunately, this meant that when the RAF and USAF got near enough in 1945, they spent three nights bombing Bayreuth, destroying 4,500 houses, many Gothic or Rococo in style. The raids had no strategic purpose but they were highly symbolic.

So, when I walked around the town centre recently I tried to avoid certain broad, glassy streets. They were too much like the centre of any British city that also had its heart bombed out in the war, and then broken in the 1960s during a period of insensitive rebuilding. Much remains, however. On the ramparts you can visit the Schlosskirche where Anton Bruckner played the organ at Franz Liszt's funeral in 1886 and, below it, the Margravial Opera House where Wagner conducted Beethoven's Ninth in 1872 to raise funds for his Festspielhaus.

This old opera house is an ideal place to begin a tour of Bayreuth. It is a solid, almost austere stone building on the outside and, once inside, its plain white foyer in no way prepares you for the auditorium which erupts – there is no other word for it – in a blue-and-gold vision of Rococo heaven. Gods and cherubs preside over the box belonging to the Margrave and Margravine (the hereditary ruler and his wife) of Bayreuth, who are flanked by tier upon tier of seating and platforms (not everyone sat at the opera in the 18th century). Margravine Wilhelmine designed the auditorium so that her entire court encircled her like angels around the throne of God. Nothing presented on stage could compete with what the singers saw when they looked out into the brightly lit auditorium. The conductor also got an eyeful of Margravial glory as he was not allowed to turn his back on the pair while conducting.

Given that Wagner believed in lowering the house lights and hiding the conductor and orchestra entirely, it's not surprising that he eventually decided on a new build. However, he stayed in Bayreuth because he wanted his festival to have no competition from gaming houses, nine-course restaurants or spas. His temple of the arts on a wooded hill just outside the city was only ever intended as a temporary structure, but its superb acoustics and revolutionary design guaranteed that it remained.

Many people dislike Wagner by association because his daughter-in-law supported Hitler. Yet even if you don't love the music you can't deny the beauty of his architecture. Wagner wanted no ostentation. Everything is plain inside the Festspielhaus, and the furniture and red/grey colour scheme in the foyers reflect excavated Pompeiian villas in Italy. You don't get inside the auditorium without a ticket to the festival – and obtaining one can take years of lobbying. But it's worth it, a fan-shaped theatre-space like no other.

The grounds of the Festspielhaus are open to the public, although traffic is stopped during performances. There are statues of Wagner, his wife Cosima, and her father Liszt, and there are flowerbeds, restaurants and a Freiluftbad where the audience and public can cool their feet in running water. There's also a fine view back down to the city. With two world-class opera houses, Bayreuth is something special – but the city can also offer a fine Baroque palace, the Neues Schloss. Wagner's home, Wahnfried, is in its grounds. For a left-wing revolutionary on the run in 1848, Wagner became adept at cosying up to the ruling classes.

A new Wagner museum is being created in the grounds of Wahnfried, but when it is completed in 2015 the family home will be reopened to the public. (The house is now the property of the German government. It was targeted in 1945 and so badly damaged that Wagner's grandsons handed it over to the state in the hope – eventually realised – that it would be restored.)

Next door, the red-brick villa where Liszt died in 1886 is a far less elegant house. Cosima, Wagner's widow, had insisted her father, the great pianist, attend Bayreuth that year but the old man developed pneumonia. The house is now a museum. The curators make no secret of the fact that what killed Liszt was a local doctor who tried to cure him by making the one-bottle-a-day whisky drinker go cold turkey. Sometimes it feels there's more history around here than one visit can handle.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

The writer travelled to Bayreuth with Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; raileurope.co.uk) from London via Brussels, Frankfurt and Nuremberg; returns from £425. The nearest airport is Nuremberg. CityJet (0871 221 2452; cityjet.com) flies from London City; Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Stansted.

Staying there

Hotel Fantaisie (00 49 921 758 64 480; fantaisie.de) has B&B doubles from €80

More information

Bayreuth Festival (bayreuther-festspiele.de); Bayreuth Tourism (bayreuth-tourismus.de);

German National Tourist Office (germany.travel). See also bit.ly/TGwagner