Tucked into the southwestern corner of Germany at the crossroads of France and Switzerland, and with the Black Forest at the very gates of the city, Freiburg-im-Breisgau is the stuff medieval fairytales are made off.
From Market Town to Center of Learning
In the late 11th century, the local ruler Berthold II von Zähringen, built a fortified castle on top of what is now known as Schlossberg (Castle Mountain) to control the local trade routes. Under his protection, the castle’s supporting cast of craftsmen and servants settled at the foot of the mountain in what is now the Altstadt (Old Town). Bolstered by the proximity of silver mines in the western Black Forest, the settlement quickly prospered. Declared a free market town in 1120, Freiburg (or Free Town) developed into the area’s main center of trade. Then in 1457, with the founding of the Albert-Ludwigs-Universität, the city established itself as a learning center that remains prominent to this day.
As is frequent with most European towns, its fortunes ebbed and flowed as it fell under the control of the Austrians, the French, the Spanish and several independent German states at various times throughout its long history. But in spite of it all, Freiburg managed to retain the unique atmosphere of an ancient Germanic town with its maze of narrow cobbled streets leading to its magnificent Gothic Minster (cathedral).
Sadly, Freiburg did not escape the devastation of the Second World War. In a single bombing in November 1944, the majority of its historic center was reduced to ashes in twenty minutes, miraculously leaving the cathedral mostly untouched. But an exacting re-creation of its original plan and thoughtful reconstruction of its historic buildings have since restored the charm of the medieval market town.
The Iconic Symbol of the City
The main focal point of the city is its majestic cathedral, considered one of the great masterpieces of Gothic art in Germany. Although construction began around 1200, so that the transept and the towers that surmount it are actually Romanesque, the Minster or Münster, as it is known locally, evolved over three centuries as an exquisite Gothic gem. Its delicate spire of filigree stonework soaring 116 meters (318 feet) into the sky was built in the 14th and 15th centuries and has been the iconic symbol of the city ever since.
Inside, a number of remarkable sculptures such as an early 16th century adoration of the Christ Child by the Magi (in the transept) and a lovely 13th century Virgin flanked by two adoring angels (by the entrance to the tower) are eclipsed by the triptych altarpiece by Hans Baldung Grien, who is considered the most gifted student of Albrecht Dürer. The aisles are lined with vibrant 14th century stained-glass windows. Some panels, however, are reproductions. The originals can be seen at eye level in the nearby Augustiner Museum.
Ever a Market Town
Freiburg remains faithful to its market tradition. Every weekday morning, the square surrounding the cathedral, Minsterplatz, is still home to a popular outdoor market where local farmers and craftsmen sell their produce, flowers and handicrafts. On the side of the main portal, a set of medieval measurements remain engraved in the stone, a reminder of a time when they ensured that merchandises (e.g. lengths of cloth or loaves of bread) were of the required size. Along the north side of the church, the row of food trucks offering local sausages is one of the market’s most crowded area.
On the south side of the square, the 16th century gothic Historisches Kaufhaus (Historical Merchants’ Hall) is one of the most photogenic buildings in the city. Rising from its street-level arcade, its flamboyant red façade is embellished with polychrome tiled turrets. The coats of arms on the oriels and the four statues above the balcony symbolize Freiburg’s allegiance to the House of Habsburg.
From Monastery to Museum
A short walk away from from the Minster, a former monastery of Augustinian monks has come back to life as the Augustiner Museum. A masterful redesign of the church has created a spectacular exhibit hall for the four-meter-high stone prophets from the Minster. They are one of the main attractions along with polychrome wood sculptures and panel paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Matthias Grünewald and Hans Baldun Grien among others. Upper galleries allow the works to be seen from various angles, and offer a close-up view of the gargoyles and stained-glass windows from the Minster.
A City Made for Wandering
The best way, the only way actually, to appreciate the unique charm of Freiburg is to wander its picturesque narrow streets.
One of the first things to catch the eye is bound to be one of the two gate towers that are all that remain from the city’s fortifications. Martinstor is the oldest, officially dating back to 1238, although research proved that the beams are even older (1202). Schwabentor is not far behind, having stood guard over the city since the year 1250. Both have had to adapt to modern times, however, and allow trams to now circulate under their arches. In case you are wondering which is which, Schwabentor is the tower with the painting of St George, the Patron Saint of Freiburg, on the side facing away from the city. Martinstor no longer features a painting but it does have an unfortunately unavoidable McDonald sign over its ancient archway.
Haus zum Walfisch (House of the Whale) is the red mansion with the heavily decorated, late Gothic doorway on Franziskanergasse. The building’s best known resident is the humanist scholar Erasmus von Rotterdam, who lived there between 1529 and 1531 after fleeing the Reformation in Basel, Switzerland. The name of the building has no connection with its famous tenant, but it is believed to have a possible link with the biblical story of Jonah and the Whale (?).
Altes Rathaus and Neues Rathaus (Old and New Town Halls). The Freiburg Town Hall situation can be a bit confusing in that it consists of two elegant Renaissance buildings connected by a small covered bridge and facing a lovely tree-shaded square (predictably named Rathausplatz – or Town Hall Square). However, the ox-blood building on the right is the Old Town Hall. Completed in 1559, it has held the offices of the city government ever since, which by the way now include the Tourist Office. The white building on the left, completed in 1545, was used by the university for over three centuries before being purchased by the city for additional town hall space in 1891. And so it is that in Freiburg, the New Town Hall is older than the Old Town Hall.
Mind the Bächle
Watch your step as you roam around the Old Town. Most of the lanes are lined with narrow, ankle deep ditches of running water known as Bächle. Dating back to the 13th century, they are filled with water diverted from the nearby Dreisam River. In the Middle Ages, they were used to provide drinking water for livestock and to battle fires. Today, in the summer, children run tiny boats in the Bächle, and local lore has it that anyone who accidentally steps in their water is destined to marry a local Freiburger.
Another thing that can’t be missed when walking around is the elaborate pavement design in front of most shops. Cut out of round stones this mosaic signage identifies the type of business to be found inside.
The Green City of the Future
Over the past few decades Freiburg has emerged as a European leader in sustainable urban development. One of the birthplaces of the German environmental movement, it is home to the Heliotrope, the very first “plus energy” house in the world. Designed as his own home in 1994 by Freiburg native architect, solar energy pioneer and environmental activist Rolf Disch, the Heliotrope generates more energy than it uses as it physically rotates with the sun to maximize its solar intake. It can be seen peering from a copse of trees, at the edge of the vineyards that reach the southern side of town.
The nearby Quartier Vauban, also a plus energy district, is widely known to promote an environmentally conscious, family friendly life-style. In addition to the ubiquitous solar panels, it is notable for its variety of colorful paneled and vegetalized facades. Further eco-conscious developments can be seen throughout the city, including the new energy-efficient University Library building, which opened in 2015.
Note – Across the street from the library, the Holocaust Memorial black granite reflecting pool follows the outline of the foundations of the synagogue burned down during Kristallnacht, on November 9-10, 1938.
Good to Know
- Getting there – Conveniently located at the border triangle of Germany, France, and Switzerland, Freiburg is easily accessible by train though the excellent railroad system that connects it to the most major cities in Germany and neighboring European countries, making it an easy destination for a weekend side trip. By car, the city is connected to the German autobahn system via the A5, which runs along the Rhine Valley from north to south all the way to the Swiss border.
- Visiting –The Minster is open to the public year round, Monday through Saturday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm and Sunday from 1:00 pm to 7:00 pm. NB. The Organs:The Minster is famous for its rich musical history. Over the centuries it acquired four great pipe organs created by some of the most prestigious organ builders of their time. The four instruments are strategically placed throughout the church for optimum acoustic effect. They can be played together from the main console or as individual instruments. There are regular Tuesday night concerts throughout the summer season (tickets are sold at the door). But they can also be heard for free year-round at the Saturday morning “Orgelmusik zur Markzeit” (market time organ concert) from 11:30 am to 11:55 am. The Minster Market –The Market is open year-round, Monday through Saturday from 8:00 am to 1:00 pm. The Augustiner Museum, Augustinerplatz, 79098 Freiburg im Breusgau, is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm and closed Monday. Contact: tel. +49 (0) 761 201 2531.
- Best Viewpoints – Although the iconic spire of the Minster is visible throughout the city, the best place to get a close-up eye-level snapshot is the terrace of the the cafeteria-restaurant at the top of the Kaufhtof department store just around the corner from Münsterplatz. For a panoramic view over the rooftops of the city and the Black Forest hills to the horizon, take the footpath opposite Schwabentor, or hop on the cable car to the top of the Schlossberg.
- Green City – Freiburg was the recipient of the German Sustainability award in 2012.
Another excellent article, you always inform and intrigue, a rare quality. Have added Freiburg to my list to visit.
Thank you Saym – so glad you are enjoying.
I spent most of a day in Freiburg back in 2008. It was rather overcast and I didn’t get to see a lot of what you talk about. I remember there being open drains set into many of the streets that I really liked. Thanks for another great post. I learn so much through you.
David – thank you for your feedback. Freiburg actually claims bragging rights for the best weather in Germany – but that’s a relative concept. I was there for three days in early May and experienced everything from snow on arrival, to mainly overcast, and finally a day of sunshine. As for the overall experience, I had a secret weapon, my host was a proud and very knowledgeable native.