Sunday, April 26, 2015

Day Trip 6: Ulm

Ulm is a city on the Danube with a population of about 123,000. It lies in the state of Baden-Württemberg, but Neu Ulm, on the other side of the Danube, is in Bavaria. It is a unique town with lots to offer the casual tourist, and even more for travelers who want to dig into some history, art, church architecture, and culture.

Ulm was first mentioned in written records in 854 AD, and in the 12th century it became a free imperial city. The building of the church began in 1377. Albert Einstein was born here in 1879, and on your walk from the Bahnhof to the church you will pass a monument marking the location of the house where he was born.

As always I recommend going first to the Tourist Information to find a tour book in your language of choice and get some advice from the friendly staff about what to see and where to eat. They'll also be able to provide you with a map.

Apropos eating: plan to have lunch around 13:00 (1:00 pm), because many restaurants close their kitchen between about 14:30 and dinner time. This is standard in most German towns, and although you'll always be able to find something open, it may take some hunting (which is unpleasant when you're already hungry).

We had lunch at the Zunfthaus der Schiffleute in the Fischerviertel (Fishermen's Quarter), and although on that day service was a bit slow, the food was delicious and we were not in a rush. I had the Katzagschroi, which is a horrendous name for a dish ("Yowling of Cats"), but it was delicious to the last bite.

Katzagschroi - roast potatoes, strips of beef, and scrambled egg

Ulm's Tourist Infomation is on the Münsterplatz, so head toward the big church. You'll want to see the church first anyway, so it's a convenient location.

Buy some postcards; the church always looks better
when photographed by a professional.

The church is the Ulmer Münster (Ulm minster - though I have yet to meet an American who knows what a "minster" is, and I only have a vague idea myself). It is not a cathedral, because although "cathedral" only means "big church" in America, a European church must be or have been the seat of a bishop to qualify as a cathedral.

If you are not afraid of heights, I recommend you climb the steeple early in your day while you're still fresh, before exploring the inside of the church, and before lunch. The brilliant thing about climbing this tower is that - up to a certain point - the staircase has one-way traffic. There is a stairway to go up, and another one to come down. The builders of the tower (finished in 1890) already anticipated plenty of tourist traffic - clever lads! If you want to go all the way up to the peak, then you need to navigate a narrow two-way spiral stairway. If you accomplish that you will have climbed 768 steps to the top of the highest church steeple in the world (161.5 meters, or 530 feet).
The view does make the climb worth it.

This is the tower I did not climb to the peak.

The church itself is rife with statues, frescoes, altars, carvings, and paintings and probably deserves its own post. For now I'll recommend you have a look at the tabernacle to the left of the choir, the altar with Last Supper painting, the Man of Sorrows to the right of the choir, and the choir itself. The stain glass windows are the original windows from around 1400, and the choir stalls are impressively carved (from oak) with important faces and representative figures. The ornate baptismal font near the exit was created in 1474.

The sanctuary seats 2000, but in the Middle Ages there was room for 20,000. Can you figure out why, when the church has not changed in size?

After you've explored the interior, do walk around the church as much as construction will allow, and have a look at the gargoyles (some of which you will have seen close up during your climb up the tower) and portals.  Can you find an elephant gargoyle? What about an ostrich facing backward (so that when it rains, the water comes from its bum)? There's a legend behind that one!

The Rathaus is also worth a visit with its rich fresco paintings, astronomical clock, and ornamental windows. Look for Ulm's coat of arms (a shield with black on top and white below) and the two-headed Reichsadler (imperial eagle) showing that Ulm was once a free imperial city. The Fischkasten (fish fountain) located on the south side of the Rathaus is Ulm's oldest fountain and was once used by local fishermen to sell their fresh fish, which were swimming around in the fountain until purchased.

Go then through the Fischerviertel and don't miss the Schiefes Haus, which is a very crooked and slanting hotel. We knocked on the locked door and asked to see a room, which the woman who answered was proud to show us. I took some photos, but she said they should not be published online, which I will honor. The floors of the halls and the rooms are dramatically slanted, the mirrors in the bathrooms are atilt, and the windows aren't straight. But the beds are all flat and adjusted as needed so guests don't roll out - each has a built-in level!

das Schiefe Haus
From the Fischerviertel you can go up onto the town wall and walk east to one of the bridges over the Danube. You'll pass the Metzgerturm (butcher's tower) which is visibly tilted - another town legend here!

As you cross over the bridge you'll have one foot in Baden-Württemberg and one foot in Bavaria, as the river is the border. When you get to the other side of the bridge you are in Neu Ulm, whose American partner city is New Ulm, Minnesota. Makes sense. Turn right after the first few buildings and find a path leading along the Danube. As you walk along west toward the next bridge, you will find lovely views of Ulm with the towering minster.

Cross over the Danube again back into Ulm. At this point we were nearing the end of our time and ambled back to the Bahnhof to meet our train. The Wilhelmshöhe offers a lovely view of Ulm, so include that on your way back. Instead of that we walked through the Duft- und Tastgarten (scent and touch garden) and were rather disappointed. Perhaps it's more impressive in the summer.

There are several museums which I hope to have time to see on another visit - most importantly the Museum der Brotkultur (bread museum)! I'd also like to visit the Ulmer Stadtmuseum (city museum).

This is not all we saw, and there are other things to see and do in Ulm that we didn't have time for. If you're not with a group I would arrange to stay overnight and give the town at least two days. As always, my Schwiegermutter and I had a lovely day together. Neither of us likes shopping (though Ulm appears to have plenty of stores and shops for those who do), we love doing self-guided tours through towns and reading about all the sights we can find, she's patient while I stop to take photos, we are both interested in churches from an artistic and historical point-of-view and like challenging ourselves or each other to identify various saints by their attributes and other figures or scenes. Basically we both love learning, and there is a ton to learn in every town we choose to visit together.

Ulm is well worth a visit, and I am looking forward to returning in July with a group of 7th and 8th grade exchange students from Sheboygan, Wisconsin (USA) and Esslingen, Germany.

Perhaps I'll even pretend to be courageous enough to make it up to the tippy-top of the church steeple.
Schau'n mer mal. (We'll see.)

das schmale Haus (narrow house) - only 4.5 meters wide
Three rooms are available as b&b - there's no space for a restaurant!

Stadtmauer (city wall)

Heumarkt (former hay market square)
The city's stocks and gallows were here.

the new synagogue, built close to the spot
where the original synagogue was located


  1. Oooh, it looks lovely! The only place I've been in Ulm is the train station - I used to have to change there when I lived in Austria and visited Jan in Karlsruhe. I kept meaning to take a proper trip there but never did...

    1. I definitely recommend adding Ulm your travel plans - say for a nice weekend trip.

    2. Super helpful article...thanks!