Walking into Augsburg from the train station is a slow progression back through time. One starts with the modern era with coffee shops and McDonald’s but, before long actually, glimpses of the past start to take shape. The curiously serpentine route of the old town and colorful buildings so rich in design, one knows immediately they belong to a different era when such things mattered. That was my introduction to one of the best cities in Germany I had never heard of, Augsburg.
There’s really no reason why I shouldn’t have heard of Augsburg. Its history is one of the oldest in the country; people have lived there continuously since the Romans. Located close to Munich it’s also conveniently located and, as I discovered over two days of exploration, it has a lot to offer anyone who wants to enjoy the best of German culture, whether that means food, history or something else entirely.
Founded by the Romans thanks to its strategic importance, over time that importance took new forms but never really waned. Trade kept the city alive throughout the last 2,000 years, reinventing itself every so often like an urban metamorphosis. Rather than continue to wax poetic about the city’s charm, history and inherent beauty, today I want to instead share some of my favorite experiences in the city that I think share in large part some of the magic that makes Augsburg so very special.
Since my hotel was in the historic center of Augsburg, that’s where I began my own wanderings starting at the Rathaus or Town Hall. One of the most impressive buildings in a city full of them, it’s hard to miss and had been luring me closer and closer ever since I had arrived. The Renaissance-style building actually replaced a far older version when the cornerstone was first laid in 1615. At that time, Augsburg was one of Germany’s most important cities and the city leaders wanted a new, more modern building to reflect that level of notoriety. Unfortunately, as happens so often in Europe, war intervened and afterwards the city was never quite the same. And yet, the incredible town hall remained, until it was largely destroyed in World War II. Since then it has been restored to its former splendor, thanks to meticulous records and early 20th century photographs, including one of Germany’s most impressive rooms, the Golden Hall. This massive space was meant to impress and intimidate, which it still does today. It’s hard to know where to start looking, the murals and gold leaf adornments all fighting for attention. It’s an incredible space and the perfect introduction to Augsburg.
By pure chance I found myself in Augsburg, Germany for their annual peace festival. It’s a public holiday in the city and commemorates the peace that was established in 1648 guaranteeing rights to both Protestants and Catholics. First celebrated in 1650, today it includes a day off from work, church services and a special lunch in front of town hall that’s free for anyone. Even though the skies looked a little threatening, scores of long tables and benches were set up in the town square and soon, the free snacks signifying Peace Day were laid out. Sweet pastries baked in the shape of doves and fresh fruit were on hand to satiate anyone who wanted to stop by, local or visitor it didn’t matter. It’s always fun to be a part of these community celebrations, to feel less like a tourist and more like a local, if even just for a little while. It’s just one of many reasons why I really enjoyed my time in Augsburg.
History can be a strange thing and that’s keenly felt in Augsburg. While today it is in the German state of Bavaria, many residents consider themselves Swabian so, in effect the food is a mix of both. That was great news for me since both regions reflect my own personal culinary preferences almost perfectly. After a long day of sightseeing, I decided to enjoy a type of dinner that I truly enjoy, a laid back evening in the Ratskeller. The bar/restaurant in the basement of Augsburg’s city hall was the ideal choice for me; a place where I could sit back and relax with a pint of beer before indulging in some of the region’s best specialties. Pretzels, Würziger Obazder, schnitzel and Kaiserschmarrn were all on the menu and provided me with a fantastic night out enjoying some truly incredible food. Traditional food can be found throughout the city though and while there are some staples, like local sausages and meat dishes, other items are seasonal. In the spring that means white asparagus, but when I visited in the summer it meant a special kind of plum cake. A very simple flat cake piled on with a massive heap of sliced fruit, it’s an intense explosion of flavor, but the perfect afternoon wake me up after a long day of exploring the city. Augsburg has all of those German classics we know and love, plus many you may not know but I guarantee will love just as well.
Jakob Fugger is one of the most important names in world financial history that you probably have never heard of. The family’s wealth started with the textile trade, but grew rapidly to include many different industries, including lending, in all corners of the known world. In modern dollars, he was one of the richest men the world has ever known and, believe it or not, the family’s impact is still felt today. Like many members of the extreme-elite, Fugger created a philanthropic arm to his empire, creating the Fuggerei in 1516. It’s the world’s oldest social housing complex still in use and was a concept well ahead of its time. It was an effort to help the poor rise out of their situation with both dignity and grace. Rent was, and still is, 1 Gulden per year (less than 1 Euro) and the conditions to live there have also remained the same. Residents must have lived in Augsburg for at least two years, be Catholic and have become poor without going into debt. The dwellings aren’t huge, but they’re comfortable, and have been updated throughout the years to meet modern needs. Today, many of the residents are retired individuals who have found it difficult to live on their pensions or other incomes. It’s a remarkable complex, not just for its history but for the fact that it still operates today as it did in the 1500s.
Water and UNESCO
Germany has many UNESCO World Heritage Sites to discover and they range from the very ancient to the modern. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit a great number of them, but in Augsburg I had the opportunity to see one that, while not on the list quite yet, is likely to be added soon. While it may not be the sexiest of UNESCO sites, it’s certainly an important one – Augsburg’s history of hydraulic engineering and drinking water. The city was founded thanks to its proximity to key waterways, and those rivers and streams have been used to the benefit of Augsburg’s citizens for centuries. Canals for generating power were dug as early as the 8th century and water towers first emerged in the 14th century. At a time when most of Europe was an incredibly dirty and unsanitary place, Augsburg had clean water and even a complex system of fountains for locals to use. The waterworks evolved over time, but the importance of water has always been a prominent feature of life in Augsburg and it’s this unique history that will lead to its eventual inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The best part of the travel experience though isn’t anything planned or organized, it’s those special moments that happen when we least expect them. They don’t have to be momentous or life altering, they can last just a few seconds, but that never diminishes their importance. For me, Augsburg impressed me the most as I wandered around the city center after a delicious meal. It had been raining for large parts of the day, but by early evening the sun was out once again, casting incredible light on the guild houses and other business in this ancient city. Augsburg is an undeniably colorful place, maybe one of the most vibrant I’ve ever seen, and those colors and nuances came to life with just a few beams of sunlight cast on them. It was then that I truly learned to love the city, to appreciate it for its inherent beauty and not only for an accolade or accomplishment. Ultimately, that’s what we seek when we travel, those simple moments of wonder and awe.