City hopping in Swabia
Swabia is a historical region in south-western Germany nowadays divided between federal states of Baden-Würtemberg and Bavaria. The name dates back to early middle ages when the Dutchy of Swabia belonged to one of the five stem duchies of medieval East Francia, parts of which later became the Kingdom of Germany.
To this day, Swabians use their distinctive dialect and have a traditional cuisine. The beautiful historical Swabian towns Ulm and Augsburg offer great sightseeing opportunities, ideal for weekend city hoppers.
The history of the city dates back to the 9th century AD when King Louis the German sealed a document in the then-called settlement of Humla, which later became Ulm. After that, the town’s importance subsequently grew. The settlement on the bank of the river Danube provided refuge to many kings on their travels through the kingdom. By the end of the 12th century, Ulm got its free imperial city privileges, and trade flourished.
In the 14th century, Ulm’s inhabitants funded the construction of a church. The builders, who had laid the foundation stone, never attended a mass in it. The building was finished 5 centuries later as the famous Ulm Minster, which to this day, remains the highest church in the world.
After the discovery of new sea trade routes outside Europe and the consequent establishment of new markets, Ulm’s importance began to decline. Wars and plagues that ranged through the city in the 17th century left it devastated. At the beginning of the 19th century, the free imperial city lost its independence. It was divided into a Bavarian and a Württembergian zone with the river Danube functioning as the border. This division has lasted to this day. The industrial revolution and the building of the railway in the second half of the 19th century put Ulm back into the spotlight. The town attracted many international companies. The founding of a university and an institute for engineering in the 1960s helped Ulm to become a science hub.
The tradition mixed with modernity is what the city’s spirit is about today. On the one hand, visitors can stray their necks while admiring the tallest church in the world, measuring 161,5 meters (530 feet). On the other hand, the futuristic glass pyramid design of the city library offers unique photo opportunities.
Walk through the city
The best way to explore Ulm is on foot. Start your day with a tour through the narrow streets of Fishermen’s and Tanners’ Quarter. The historic district with Blau river channels is Ulm’s charming docks area. Tiny bridges connect plazas surrounded by spectacular centuries-old half-timber houses.
One of the most photogenic houses is Schiefes Haus (the Leaning House). Its foundations literally lie in the soft bottom of the Blau. Throughout centuries the weight of the house caused it to lean until restoration works in the 1990s saved it from total self-distraction. Another half-timber masterpiece is Schönes Haus (the Beautiful House).
Then, continue to the city center with the city’s iconic landmark – the Ulm Minster. The 161,5 meters (530 feet) high Lutheran church still remains the world’s tallest church (until Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is finished). The spire offers a fantastic panoramic view of the city. With excellent visibility, Germany’s highest mountain, the Zugspitze in the far south, can be seen. To reach the top of the building, visitors need to climb more than 700 stairs.
Tip: The last segment in the steeple is very steep and narrow. Persons suffering from vertigo or even mild claustrophobia should not attempt to reach the very top of the church.
After that, head for the promenade of the Danube river. On the way, pass by the Stadthaus Ulm, a modern assembly hall, and an exhibition center at the foot of the minster. Don’t miss the renaissance building of the Rathaus (city hall) with its magnificent frescos and astronomical clock.
Pose for a picture in front of the glass pyramid of the city library and exit the old city through the medieval gate in the city walls, Metzgerturm (Butcher’s Tower).
For a panoramic view of the Ulm’s half-timber houses behind city walls, cross to Bavaria, to the Danube Island using the Herdbrücke bridge.
Good to know: Ulm is the birthplace of Albert Einstein. Real fans can visit the Albert Einstein Fountain located in Zeugenhausgasse 15. Enthusiasts of mankind’s earliest history should visit the Museum Ulm, which displays the world’s oldest (at least 30.000 years old) animal-shaped (zoomorphic) sculpture.
Augsburg, one of Germany’s oldest cities, was founded in 15 BC on the orders of Emperor Augustus as a Roman garrison camp. Shortly afterward, it became the capital city of the Roman province of Raetia. Its excellent geographic position with closeness to the Alpine passes provided the town with great prosperity. In the 13th century, the town gained the free imperial city status, which guaranteed unique trading opportunities. Two wealthy European banker and merchant families, the Fuggers and the Welsers chose Augsburg as their seat. To this day, their influence is visible all over town.
By the end of the 17th century, Augsburg followed the faith of Ulm. Devastated by religious wars and plague, its importance began to decline. After the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, Augsburg joined the Kingdom of Bavaria.
The industrial revolution brought the textile industry and mechanical engineering to the city. During WWII, Augsburg was the headquarters Messerschmitt AG and was therefore bombed many times. During the 1970s, several social sciences and economics colleges fused into a university, which today makes Augsburg a vibrant student town.
As in Ulm, the ideal way to get to know Augsburg is to take a walk. Start on Augsburg’s main square ‘Rathausplatz’ with a fountain commemorating the Roman emperor Augustus, the town’s founder. Over the square guards the city’s landmark, the 17th-century renaissance Town Hall with its two distinguished onion shape domes. It belongs to the masterpieces of secular renaissance architecture north of the Alps. Directly adjacent to the Town Hall stands the medieval watchtower Perlachturm.
Good to know: As of May 2020, the watchtower is closed to the public indefinitely due to construction work.
East of the city center, the merchant Jakob Fugger the Rich established the first-ever social housing complex for Augsburgians in need in 1521 called the Fuggerei, which survived to this day.
Since then, the year’s rent for a flat has been 1 Rheinish gulden plus utilities (approximately 0,88 € now) as well as three daily prayers for the donor and his family. The rent has remained frozen since 1521.
The Fuggerei has had its own walls, gates, a school, and a church. It still functions as a little town within the town. Nowadays, about 150 people live in 67 perfectly arranged houses with small gardens.
The Fuggerei can be visited for a small fee. A walk among the neat yellow houses in the afternoon sun is spectacular.
Tip: In 2019, the Water Managements System of Augsburg was inscribed into the UNESCO World Heritage List for its unique technological innovation. The network of channels, water towers, and fountains have evolved since the 14th century and has provided sustainable energy since then.
Lovely Swabian towns of Augsburg & Ulm are great for weekend city trips. Easily reachable by train, full of history, architecture, and panoramic views, they offer a perfect escape from a bigger metropolis.
Caution: The COVID-19 pandemics influences travel all over the world, and Germany is no exception. Before visiting, carefully check opening times and ticket availabilities for the sights. Also, seating in restaurants is limited. A reservation could be useful even for lunch. Due to the federal system, the health measures in Germany differ from state to state (Bundesland). Therefore, checking with the regional health authority is crucial before visiting: https://www.augsburg-tourismus.de/en/ (Augsburg) and https://english.ulm.de/tourism (Ulm)