It’s amazing how two German spa towns can be so different. I’d been staying in the small town of Baden-Baden, tucked away in the foothills of S.W. Germany’s Black Forest. From there I went straight to Wiesbaden, the capital city of the Federal State of Hesse, expecting to see much the same tourist fare offered by Baden-Baden.
However, I soon came to realize that trying to compare these two world-renowned spa towns doesn’t do justice to either of them. In fact, having natural springs welling up from the ground (dating back to Roman times)—and boasting two of the finest casinos in the country—is about all these two fascinating cities have in common. As it turned out, the burgeoning and stately city of Wiesbaden, in the middle of the Germany’s Rhine-Main heartland region, had plenty of attractions to keep me busy. Not to mention an elite world-class hotel that capped off my experience in this upscale city very nicely (more about that later).
A little known fact about German cities is that you can arrange a private tour guide through their tourism agencies. Each city’s tourist agency keeps a list of freelance guides, and if you contact the agency to request a personal guide they’ll line one up for you, given a few days’ notice. And their fees are very reasonable.
My Wiesbaden guide was a doctoral student named Patrick who specializes in military history, so we immediately hit it off. Our Wiesbaden tour started with a drive through the uber-wealthy suburb lining Wilheminnen Strasse and Nerotal. This immaculate suburb, nestling gently at the base of the Neroberg, a 245-meter high mountain overlooking the town, is one of the city’s top tourist attractions.
The elegant baroque and Victorian-style homes sprawling up the hillside and along the foot of the hill are spectacular. “When Wiesbaden was capital of the duchy of Nassau in 1806 it soon became a famous destination renowned around the world. Europe’s wealthy nobility came here to soak in the town’s naturally heated and health-giving mineral water spas”, Patrick informs me. There are 26 spas and thermes (thermal baths) concentrated around Wiesbaden’s spa quarter. They range from well-frequented public baths to beautifully decorated semi-private affairs inlaid with colorful mosaic tiles and baroque paintings decorating the walls. The Kaiser-Friedrich-Therme is the most spectacular.
Celebrities like Goethe, Dostoyevsky, and Otto von Bismarck visited Wiesbaden to take the waters, and see and be seen. The town was so popular that between 1880 and 1905 its population doubled. (Today’s population is 279,000). The intriguing mansions that I’m seeing alongside the tree-lined boulevard are a tangible legacy of this golden era. They present an eclectic range of architecture. The houses range from Tudor to Baroque style, and from Victorian to art nouveau, some with Bavarian red tiled and steep pitched roofs tossed in to add some local flavor.
I see chateaus four stories high, much taller than their width, with small balconies and Roman columns. Some have turrets and spires, like mini-castles. Other houses are made from red brick or Italianate stucco. Austere wooden mansions are sprinkled everywhere. Tall, ancient evergreen trees screen the houses from each other for privacy. I ask Patrick what caused this huge assemblage of upper class architecture. In its heyday, there were 200 millionaires living here. During the Baroque era, these wealthy residents tried to outdo each other by building houses with classical or historic architecture. And they still stand today as superb examples of this one-upsmanship. The Romans, who settled here 2,000 years ago would be impressed.
Half way up Neroberg Mountain we come to the Church of Saint Elizabeth. Duke Adolph of Nassau built this impressive classic Russian Orthodox Church in the mid-1800s. It’s a heartfelt memorial to his 19-year old wife, Elizabeth, who died giving birth to her child. Known today as the Greek Chapel, it has five golden onion shaped domes and spires. We step inside the tall and quiet chamber to pay our respects at Elizabeth’s tomb. Everything is gilt-edged, befitting a queen.
We walk outside into the bright sunshine and up to the top of the hill. German locals and tourists are everywhere, enjoying the perfect weather. Three young German cyclists wave to us from their park bench.
From the Monopteros, an observation temple erected in 1851, we look down across a lush vineyard that belongs to the Hessian State Wine Estates. This vineyard has been here since 1525. The panoramic view over the old and new sections of Wiesbaden and Mainz is superb on this clear day.
A few high-rise commercial buildings jut skyward in the middle distance, counterbalanced by the tall sharp spires of the basilica in the near distance. Industrial buildings are banished to the outskirts of the city. This is what Wiesbaden is all about: a stately juxtaposition of old and new, and it all seems to work.
Our jaunt up the Neroberg complete, we catch the water-powered funicular railcar down the hillside. Operating since 1888, this funky wooden carriage still carts people up and down the 440-meter long rail. Today, it’s packed with tourists and a wedding party. This train is probably the world’s earliest example of ‘green tourism’. Its integrated water ballast and gear wheel system enables the train to pull itself to the top of the mountain.
The next morning, Patrick walks me through the pentagon-shaped old quarter. We stroll across Schlossplatz square, admiring the Old Town Hall (built from 1608-1610) and the (relatively) New Town Hall (built 1884-1887). The square’s dominant feature is the palace (Stadtschloss) of the Dukes of Nassau, used by Kaiser Wilhelm II during his Wiesbaden visits.
We stop at a thermal spring, located in Kranzplatz, one of Wiesbaden’s many town squares. Its fountain, called the Trenkshalle, was built in 1887. Warm water gushes out. The red deposits around the edge of the fountain don’t look appetizing, but Patrick has brought a plastic cup for me to taste the water, so I have to sample it. It’s hot, and tastes very strongly of minerals and iron. Within an hour I felt ten years younger, but that may have been due more to the lager we tried later at the local Gasthaus.
Our final stop is the Kurhaus, a magnificent example of Wilheminian Belle Epoque architecture. This huge white complex of imposing buildings boasts a series of domed spa assembly rooms, and ten halls completed in 1907.
Across the expansive green, with a large fountain in the center, we walk up the stairs to the casino, fronted by six massive columns. This is the most beautiful casino in Germany and one of the oldest in Europe.
After taking in the Kurhaus and casino, we amble through the manicured grounds that surround it. Across the road I see a villa that looks suspiciously familiar. Finally, I realize it resembles THE White House in Washington D.C. The Villa Sohnlein—aka the Small White House—is a scale knock off of The White House in Washington D.C, built in 1906 by champagne manufacturer, Wilhelm Sohnlein, for his American wife.
The Rhein-Mainz area offers far more tourist fare than described above. Art lovers will find the Museum Wiesbaden excellent, and if you love exploring old castles, palaces, and monasteries, they’re everywhere. Wine lovers enjoy the numerous wine festivals held around the region.
Hotel Nassauer Hof
To soak up the town’s imperial vibe, staying at a regal hotel should definitely be part of your experience in Wiesbaden. And you won’t find a more majestic or classier accommodation in town than the legendary Hotel Nassauer Hof. Located in the heart of Wiesbaden, directly across from the large green expanse that fronts the Kurhaus, Hotel Nassauer Hof is a tourist attraction in its own right. It’s ranked among Germany’s top three hotels—high praise indeed considering that Germans practically invented the hotel hospitality industry code.
What makes Nassauer Hof so special? With a sandstone Wilhelmian baroque exterior and 159 finely appointed rooms and suites, it’s considered one of Europe’s finest classical traditional hotels—a superb monument to Germany’s grandeur of the 1800s. Listed as one of the “Leading Hotels of the World”, and as the “Jewel in the crown of the German luxury hotel sector”, and one of the “Grande Dames of the Rhine-Main”, the rooms, décor, and service here are impeccable. Faultless.
Stay here and you’ll soon find out that I’m not exaggerating. I turned up after a long day’s travel in typical travel writer’s uniform of wrinkled khaki shirt and shorts, badly in need of laundering (and I probably needed laundering too). And laden with a backpack and roller suitcase. I wasn’t remotely close to meeting business casual dress standards.
The stunning young blond concierge, dressed in business suit, promptly acquired my baggage, arranged for my laundry to be picked up, and escorted me to my room at an efficient 5mph clip along the hotel’s lengthy hallways. She opened the door to my room. I glanced in and just stood there experiencing a shock and awe that Donald Rumsfeld would have been proud of. My room could accommodate a large family—and this was one of the hotel’s smaller suites. The shower room was as large as my writing office at home. Let’s just say I was extremely reluctant to leave the luxury of my room to explore Wiesbaden. With its high ceiling, ornate décor, tapestries, paintings, and embroidered carpet it was my baroque haven for the next couple of days.
Now you understand why, over the past two centuries, aristocrats from Russia, England, Germany, and France, and VIPs from the rest of the world have flocked to Wiesbaden and been stayed at Hotel Nassauer Hof. Crowned and elected heads of state like Kaiser Wilhelm II, Tsar Nicholas II, Presidents Kennedy and Nixon, Vladimir Putin, and even the Dalai Lama are among the hotel’s former clientele. Not to mention movie stars, politicians, athletes, and other glitterati: Gary Cooper, Esther Williams, Audrey Hepburn, Jean Cocteau, Willy Brandt, Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, Max Schmeling, Maximilian Schell, Boris Becker, Helmut Kohl, Pele, Curt Jurgens, and Siegfried and Roy, have all laid their heads on these same pillows that I’m resting on. The beautiful people come to take Wiesbaden’s waters and shop at its exclusive boutiques for high-end designer clothing, watches, and jewelry. They watch the operas and concerts at the city’s grand theaters, and gamble at it casino, conveniently located across the road.
You can take Wiesbaden’s thermal mineral waters in the 70 square-meter pool on the hotel’s fifth floor, fed by its own thermal spring. The water is rich in sodium chloride and is kept at a constant 65.8 Celsius, making it one of the warmest spas in Central Europe.
Dining in the beautiful Restaurant Orangerie and the gourmet Ente Restaurant are also unique experiences, with some of Germany’s finest cuisine. The spread for the breakfast buffet is lavish.
Hotel Nassauer Hof
Written by and photos by Roy Stevenson for EuropeUpClose.com