A short break guide to Thuringia, Germany

Dense with both UNESCO-listed heritage and extensive forests, compact Thuringia is easily explorable, discover a small state full of history, culture and nature...

5 mins

Classical music titans, trend-setting painters, design innovators and a religious revolutionary. Over the centuries, Thuringia has been home to stars in the pageant of world history. And yet it is no museum. Wherever you go, the past is part of the present, from cobbled streets and half-timbered houses to forbidding fortresses and cosy pubs.

Thuringia is one of Germany’s smallest federal states, so all the major sights are within easy reach of one another while the main towns are compact and easy to explore on foot – perfect for a short break. Although Weimar lent its name to the 1930s Weimar Republic, its 12 UNESCO-listed sites are the main draw today. Erfurt, the state capital, has a medieval quarter that is a ready-made film set. Eisenach may be small, but on the outskirts is Wartburg Castle; set high on a crag, it has dominated the countryside since the 11th century. Gotha boasts a 17th-century palace and the treasure-filled Ducal Museum. And, on the far western border of the state, poignant reminders of the Cold War still loom large in the memories of locals.


St Severus in Erfurt (Shutterstock)

St Severus in Erfurt (Shutterstock)

Germans love nothing more than communing with Mother Nature and Thuringia has plenty of it. Think mysterious mountains, rolling hills, lush valleys, ancient woodland and fertile farmland. With one third of the state covered in forest, Thuringia deserves its ‘Green Heart of Germany’ nickname. Some of the hundreds of miles of hiking trails have been byways for centuries; more modern, but equally well-maintained, are clearly-signposted cycle trails.

But wherever you go in what is the geographic centre of Germany, be prepared for surprises. Did you know that the first glass Christmas tree ornaments were made here? Or that Thuringia is the home of the gnome – the garden variety? These traditional skills still thrive alongside other crafts and jolly festivals.

As always, however, people make places. Talk to locals about their favourite brews and comfort foods, such as klösse potato dumplings. Move on to their love of music and their memories of the GDR and the Cold War. And don’t leave Thuringia without munching Germany’s tastiest sausage. With a 600-year-old recipe of minced pork and beef, spiced with caraway and marjoram, a Thüringer Bratwurst is best enjoyed from a market stall, hot off the charcoal grill, slathered with mustard.

Five day guide to Thuringia

Domplatz square in Erfurt (Shutterstock)

Domplatz square in Erfurt (Shutterstock)

Day 1: Weimar

Start with the new Bauhaus Museum in the birthplace of this world-famous design movement - Weimar. On student-led tours of the university, see where architect Walter Gropius, artist Paul Klee and others key members of the movement taught. Prefer literature? Then wander around the sumptuous Duchess Anna Amalia Library, the Goethe National Museum and the house where Johann Wolfgang von Goethe lived for 50 years.

Day 2: Erfurt

Walk through Domplatz square in Erfurt, dominated by St Mary’s Cathedral and St Severus Church; stroll across the 14th-century Merchants’ Bridge, still lined with houses and shops, to St Augustine’s Monastery, which looks much as it did in 1505, when Luther joined as a monk. Visit the thought-provoking Memorial and Education Centre Andreasstrasse in a prison once run by the Stasi, East Germany’s feared secret police.

Day 3: Crafts, rails & royals

Drive south through countryside to the Schwarzatal Valley, where railway enthusiasts can ride the historic mountain railroad and funicular. For special souvenirs, stop in Lauscha, where they still hand-blow glass Christmas ornaments, and Gräfenroda, for its garden gnomes. Circle north to Gotha, home to Friedenstein Palace and Lucas Cranach, the first Reformation painter. www.thueringen-entdecken.de

Day 4: Eisenach

Excellent museums commemorate Luther and Bach in Eisenach. In Bach’s House, historic keyboard instruments are played every hour. Catch free organ concerts at St George’s Church, where Luther preached and Bach was baptised (summer, daily, 11am). In Wartburg Castle, enter the cell where Luther translated the New Testament while on the run 500 years ago. The castle’s Hall of the Minstrels inspired Wagner to write the opera, Tannhäuser.

Day 5: Point Alpha, Geisa

Although the Iron Curtain lifted in 1989, you can still see watchtowers, fences and tanks at Point Alpha. In the museum, learn why generals thought World War III might start right here.

Read next Short break guide to Lubeck, Germany

Outdoors in Thuringia 

Hainich National Park (Shutterstock)

Hainich National Park (Shutterstock)

Hainich National Park

Spend a day hiking, biking or horse-riding in one of Europe’s most ancient beech forests at Hainich National Park. Explore the 120km network of hiking and cycling trails that wind through what is still 90% wilderness. A canopy walk offers wide-ranging views; you can even do yoga at treetop level. Below, the forest floor is home to rare lynx, wild cats and wolves.

Feininger Cycle Trail

Rent a bike from the Weimar tourist Information centre and pedal this 30km loop along country lanes, where Bauhaus professor Lyonel Feininger loved to ride his bike. The route links villages, an art gallery in Gelmeroda and churches with the distinctive spires that inspired the artist’s sketches and paintings. 

The Rennsteig Hiking Trail

Waymarked with a white ‘R’, Germany’s best-known hiking trail runs for 170km through the Thuringian Forest. This ridge path once marked the border between Thuringia and Franconia. Pause to photograph vistas, stop at village inns, explore Lauscha’s glass museum and hail fellow hikers with the traditional greeting: “Gut runst!”

Indoors in Thuringia

Church of St Peter and St Paul, Weimar (Shutterstock)*

Church of St Peter and St Paul, Weimar (Shutterstock)*

Haus Am Horn, Weimar

The first house built using Bauhaus design principles was the box-like Haus Am Horn. With its small rooms and high windows, it feels cramped today; when it opened in 1923 as a show house, it was revolutionary. For working-class families, this was a dream house, with its gas stove, washing machine, built-in cupboards, central heating and running hot water.

Church of St Peter and St Paul, Weimar

Painter Lucas Cranach was great friends with Martin Luther. The power of his art is exemplified by the triptych in the Church of St Peter and St Paul. Considered by some to be ‘the first Protestant religious painting’, it depicts the crucifixion, with Luther among the faithful, holding an open Bible. www.weimar.de

Old Synagogue, Erfurt

Now carefully-restored, the medieval Old Synagogue and its treasures were unearthed during archaeological excavations in the 1980s. In the museum are 13th- and 14th-century gold ornaments and coins galore, including an extremely rare and ornate ceremonial wedding ring. 

Where to stay in Thuringia

Hotel Elephant Weimar

Hotel Elephant is a 300-year-old landmark has 99 luxurious rooms; the stylish Restaurant AnnA serves locally sourced trout and game.

The Alt Weimar

Sleep in affordable rooms with Bauhaus furnishings at The Alt Weimar, close to the centre of the city; meet the friendly locals in Andreas Scholz’s wood-panelled restaurant.

Hotel Krämerbrücke Erfurt

Book rooms in the 15th-century Red Tower on the medieval bridge at Hotel Krämerbrücke; the menu at its 700-year-old Alter Schwan restaurant includes pork, dumplings and red cabbage. www.hotel-kraemerbruecke.de

Gotha Augustinerkloster

Time travel in the 800-year-old Augustinian monastery, Gotha Augustinerkloster. Hostel rooms are plain but comfy and you can get breakfast in the monastery café. 

Vienna House Thüringer Hof Eisenach

Vienna House is a grand 126-room hotel has chandeliers and antiques; the Restaurant Leander balances modern European with traditional Thuringian dishes.

Romantik Hotel at the Wartburg

Next to Wartburg Castle, the neo-Gothic Romantik Hotel has 37 romantic rooms. Chef Annett Reinhardt’s imaginative menus complement the sweeping views.

Top things to do in Thuringia

National Buchenwald Memorial Buchenwald (Shutterstock)

National Buchenwald Memorial Buchenwald (Shutterstock)

Buy presents and enjoy a drop of mulled wine at the Christmas markets. In Erfurt, 200 booths cover Domplatz square. Think locally crafted toys, jewellery, decorations and Stollen, a cake rich with fruit, nuts and marzipan. Wartburg Castle’s medieval market features woodcarvers, candle makers, musicians, jugglers and more.

Listen to music by local hero JS Bach, whose works are performed across Thuringia. During the annual Thuringian Bach Weeks at Easter, concerts are held in churches with Bach-connections in towns like Eisenach, Dornheim, Mühlhausen, Arnstadt and Weimar. 

Steel yourself to visit Buchenwald, one of the first Nazi concentration camps to be liberated. Permanent exhibitions detail the horror. Take your time; it is a sobering experience.

Let your hair down at traditional festivals. Sommergewinn marks the arrival of spring in Eisenach; cheer as ‘Frau Sunna’ bests and banishes ‘Herr Winter’. In June, Erfurt goes medieval during the Merchants’ Bridge Festival. In Weimar, October’s Zwiebelmarkt, Onion Market, dates back to 1635.

Thuringia essential travel information

Belvedere Palace in Weimar (Shutterstock)

Belvedere Palace in Weimar (Shutterstock)

International dialling code: +49

Currency: Euro (€). Currently, around 1.15 € to the UK£

Getting there: British Airways and Lufthansa fly regularly from the UK to Berlin and Frankfurt (2hrs; from £100). Thuringia is then a three-hour drive; fly into one and back from the other. Ryanair also flies to Dresden, two hour’s drive from Weimar.

Getting around: Fly-drive is a great way to explore. Berlin, Frankfurt and Dresden feature all the major car rental companies. Or take the efficient Deutsch Bahn rail service (www.bahn.com/en) from Berlin, Frankfurt or Dresden; continue on local trains and buses.

Weather: Warm, rather than hot, May to September is the best time to visit. In winter, expect snow: perfect for traditional Christmas markets.

Cycling: Pedal the easy Towns of Thuringia Cycle Route, linking Eisenach, Gotha, Erfurt, Weimar, Jena, Gera and Altenburg.www.thueringer-staedtekette.de

Further information: visit-thuringia.com. The Weimar and Erfurt tourist offices offer English-language multimedia self-guided tours via apps or iGuides.

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