Weimar: a cultural tour from Bach to Bauhaus

This charming German city wears its illustrious artistic past lightly, says Mark Rowe

Economic catastrophe and devalued currencies may be on the minds of European governments at the moment, but the central German city of Weimar has been there and bought the T-shirt. In the 1920s, it became synonymous with hyperinflation and was the birthplace of the ill-fated Weimar Republic that gave way to the Nazis and the Third Reich. But today, Weimar is a charming destination, with a delightful architectural ensemble that attracts visitors, a busy programme of arts and music festivals and an easy-going pace. From Liszt to Goethe, Martin Luther, Nietzsche and Strauss, the list of those of old boys (and it is mostly boys) reads like a who's who of the German high arts. Another, Johann Sebastian Bach, is commemorated by the annual Bach Weeks festival (thueringer-bach wochen.de), a series of concerts running until 14 April. As this walk demonstrates, you can quickly settle into a life-affirming rhythm of museum, café, museum, park and just perhaps another café.

Set off from Goetheplatz, where it's worth peeking into the lobby of the landmark Russischer Hof hotel (russischerhof-weimar.de) to admire its pre-revolutionary decor of chandeliers and rich tapestries, before moving south along adjoining Wielandstrasse to the Theaterplatz. Here on your right stands the stately Deutsches Nationaltheater, where the Weimar Republic's parliament sat, while opposite stands the Bauhaus Museum (00 49 3643 545 400; das-bauhaus-kommt.de; €5; closed Tuesday). Even though it is housed in a distinctly un-Bauhaus 18th-century theatre carriage house, the museum reveals an overlooked side to the movement – the social dimension, so look out for the eye-catching displays of two-million Mark notes from 1923 when one US dollar was worth an eye-watering four billion Marks.

Leave Theaterplatz along the pedestrianised Schillerstrasse. If you feel the need to mop your brow in between these lofty arts and sights, pop into Frauentor café (00 49 3643 511 322; cafe-frauentor.de) at Schillerstrasse 2, an atmospheric dark-wood haunt where a coffee and a generous slice of cake come in at about €5.

Turn left to reach Weimar's gently sloping Markt, a gem of a market square whose pastel shades, stucco façades and swirl of gables – some wafer thin, others more blancmange in dimensions – are exceptionally easy on the eye. There's usually a statue of an artistic figure on the balcony of the Elephant Hotel, the city' swankiest address, while next door is Bach's former home and scene of a monumental hissy fit in 1718 when, overlooked as leader of the city orchestra, he flounced out, taking his genius elsewhere.

We need briefly to retrace our steps back up Frauentorstrasse to reach Frauenplan, the location for Goethe's house at No 1 (00 49 3643 545400; weimar.de; €10.50; closed Monday). The writer and politician, who died in the city, is perhaps best known as the playwright behind the Faust plays. The house where he lived for 50 years is worth nosing around, not least to admire his curious choice of interior colour schemes. Turn right out of the house and squeeze down the narrow Seifengasse, or Soap Street, where medieval washerwomen once scrubbed the pantaloons of Weimar's cerebral greats. Cross Ackerwand street and strike out across the graceful open spaces of the Park an der Ilm, a parkland with wonderful sightlines that stretches either side of the River Ilm.

To get a flavour for the park, make for the closest ruins, the remnants of an orangerie and teahouse designed by Goethe and his patron, the city's count, in an attempt to emulate an English garden. Drop down through another ruin – an artificial one this time, but again built on Goethe's orders – to cross a footbridge. Head across the park to the isolated, picturesque house ahead of you – Goethe's old garden house – and take the sloping track up to its right to reach Weimar's most exclusive residential street, Am Horn. Just to your right at No 61 is the Haus am Horn (00 49 3643 583000; weimar.de; €5 open Wed, Sat-Sun, April-September), a grey-white square building that happens to be Weimar's only house designed by the much-trumpeted but penniless Bauhaus artists.

Follow the road back to the city and turn left across the stone bridge above the Ilm to reach the Schloss, or former residence palace (00 49 3643 545400; weimar.de; €7.50). Developed by Weimar's main patron of the arts, the 18th-century Duke Carl Augustus, it's a sumptuous building with a striking collection of Old Masters.

Summon up one last morsel of energy to stagger through the front door of the Duchess Anna Amalia Library at Platz der Demokratie 1 (00 49 3643-545401; weimar.de; €7.50 tickets are allocated by time slot, so arrive early; closed Monday), an exquisite Rococo library beautifully restored after a fire in 2005. It's crammed with centuries-old dusty parchment books and has the feel of a church, but was in fact one of Europe's first public libraries when it opened in 1761. Look out for the intriguing life clock, which unsettlingly calibrated the time lived by its owner, right down to the last second.

Weimar finds it hard to let its hair down, but there are echoes of its more decadent past to be found. Cross the road to the cosy Residenz café at 4 Grüner Markt (00 49 3643 743270; residenz-pension.de). Pull up a wicker chair by the windows overlooking the park and schloss and order a slice of a butter-rich cake and a glass of the local dry white Saale-Unstrut, from Germany's smallest vineyard. It's a friendly place, often crowded with students – and there was once a violin student who frequented here, by the name of Marlene Dietrich.

Fresh cuts

The big spring and summer offering is an exhibition of the work, life and times, of Henry van de Velde, the Belgian Art Nouveau artist who paved the way for the Bauhaus movement. Housed in the Neues Museum (00 49 36 43545; klassik-stiftung.de; Tues-Sun 10am-6pm, €5.50/£4.60), the exhibition runs until 23 June.

Family Hotel at Seifengassse 8 (00 49 3643 4579 888; familienhotel-weimar.de) is a new offering with both a breezy Mediterranean restaurant and swish self-catering rooms. This is a slice of pine-based low-energy Scandinavian chic shoehorned between the chunkier Renaissance neighbours. Doubles from €85 (£72).

Travel essentials

Getting there

Mark Rowe travelled with the German National Tourist Office (germany.travel), flying to Frankfurt from Heathrow with Lufthansa (0871 945 9747; lufthansa.com), which offers returns from £190 and overnighting at the Frankfurt Airport Motel One (00 49 69 6 60 53 60; motel-one.com), which offers B&B from €84 (£71). A return rail ticket from Frankfurt to Weimar costs from €58 (£49) (bahn.de).

Alternatively, Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies from Stansted to Leipzig/Halle, the closest airport to Weimar, about 47 miles away. Travel with Deutsche Bahn from Leipzig/Halle airport station to Weimar from €23 (£19.50) return.


Staying there

Elephant Hotel (00 49 3643 8020; luxurycollection.com/elephant) offers doubles from €121 (£102), including breakfast.

Go guided

The tourist office at Markt 10 (00 49 3643 745; weimar.de) offers free guided tours in English as well as an audio-guided walking tour (€7.50/£6.30).

More information

Buy tickets for the Bach Wochen at Weimar tourist office or through the city arts booking service (00 49 36 43545; klassik-stiftung.de).