BONN: Berlin's classically inclined precursor

A typical street in Bonn's city center.

For most visitors to Germany, the history of the country's split into East and West is well known; many people visit Germany with the expectation that they will learn more about how this division actually played out in the country through visiting museums, stumbling upon memorials or chatting with locals. But one fact about this time period that still escapes many visitors to Germany is that while many of the most dramatic moments were happening in Berlin, all of the major policies and decisionmaking from West Germany was coming from somewhere else -- Bonn.

Bonn was the capital of West Germany from 1949 to 1990. For many people, this was an odd choice given that Bonn was not particularly large (today its population is about 300,000) nor was it as prominent a German city as Frankfurt or Hamburg. But the master plan was always for Germany to be reunified and for Berlin to be the capital city of that reunified country. There were fears that it would be harder to make this eventual transition if the capital were situated in a larger city more suited to being the capital of Germany. Thus, unassuming Bonn became the (temporary) center of the West German government.

My friend Chase and I used this bit of knowledge to guide our travel planning when we were trying to come up with a place for us to go together where neither of us had been. Someone floated the idea of Bonn, and, seeing as how we knew effectively nothing about the former capital of Western Germany, we decided to make a weekend trip there to learn more about it and see what the city had to offer.

The front of Beethoven's birth house. 

Bonn is certainly not one of Germany's most scenic cities, but it does have a very lively, international atmosphere (the main UN campus in Germany is located in Bonn which contributes to this internationality). We enjoyed strolling down the wide shopping streets lined with bright white and pastel-colored buildings; the dominant design aesthetic was from the 18th and 19th centuries. While wondering through the town, we followed signs to find Beethoven's birth house, although we initially walked right past it. Unlike Mozart's birth house in Salzburg, which is denoted by a long flag and large letters on the front of the building stating "Mozarts Geburtshaus," Beethoven's house was a little more demure, bearing only some small signage on the front of the brightly colored pink house.

Bonn's Marktplatz features the classically designed Bonner Rathaus, built in 1737. Having been used to buildings that are more in line with the half-timbered aesthetic common in smaller German towns, or more opulent Rathäuser in the vein of Bremen and Munich, this Rathaus was quite small and tidy looking. In a way, it seemed to reflect Bonn itself, being neither ugly nor exceptionally remarkable -- simply, a nice, dignified building with a clear classical flair.

The Bonner Rathaus

From the Marktplatz we headed toward the river area, passing the lovely university building (a former palace) and some sprawling green spaces. Bonn is right on the Rhine River, and the area along the river has been developed into a beautiful promenade where tourists and locals alike can walk along the tree-lined path watching the freighters carry their loads down the river.

The view of Schloss Drachenburg from the hike up.

On Saturday, our second day, Chase and I took a short train ride to neighboring Königswinter. From there, we set off on a hike up the Drachenfels to see the Burg Drachenfels, the ruins of a 12th-century castle built on a hill overlooking the Rhine River. The hike up was steep at times but enjoyable, with plenty of small shops and restaurants along the way, ready to lure in hikers in need of a break. Along the path up to the ruins is Schloss Drachenburg, a 19th-century villa built by a local wealthy businessman. We opted to first make our way all the way up to the ruins, then tour the villa on our way back down.

After 45 minutes or so of walking, we finally made it to the observation area just below the ruins; another ten minutes of walking brought us to the ruins themselves. There isn't much left of the castle, which was a casualty of the Thirty Years War. Just a portion of a wall and the jagged remains of a tower. Perhaps more striking than the ruins themselves is the wonderful view you have over the Rhine River as the neighboring towns and cities. On a clear day, as was the case when we visited, you can even see the city of Cologne in the distance -- we could just barely make out the towers of the city's massive cathedral.

The ruins of Burg Drachenfels.

On our way down, we decided to pay the 4 euros or so to enter the grounds of Schloss Drachenburg. I was uncertain if this would really be worth the money, since the castle is pretty, but not particularly historic. Overall, I would say it was probably worth the money, but only barely. The grounds were not huge, but they were well-maintained and pretty to walk through. However, the interior was absolutely overrun with tour groups, which made it hard to move through the rooms and actually take the time to learn about them. Moreover, it was hard to figure out which way you were supposed to move through the villa, leading us to double back and take roundabout ways of getting to different rooms. The interiors were pretty and very classically German in the design aesthetic, but still, having seen a fair amount of palaces and castles, it wasn't anything particularly special. Schloss Drachenburg is hardly a "can't-miss" -- more just something to do if you feel like breaking up your hike up to or down from Drachenfels.

On Sunday, we went to the attraction I was probably most excited to see in Bonn -- the museum Haus der Geschichte (House of History), which tackles the subject of recent German history. I had heard a lot of good things about this museum in terms of its quality and originality, and it did not disappoint on any fronts. For starters, the museum is free. Moreover, the earliest era covered by the museum is the immediate post-WWII period. This means there is minimal discussion of the rise of the Nazi party, the crimes committed against the Jews and other peoples, the major battles that were fought, etc. Obviously these are all topics that are worth discussing and which should be discussed, but there are already a multitude of museums in Germany that cover these topics and do so extremely well. By starting exhibits with the years 1945-50, the museum is able to focus solely on aspects of German history that are largely neglected in other museums.

Campaign posters from the early days of Germany's post-war parties. 

For example, the museum does a great job of tracking the development of German political parties through the decades, tracing their roots and highlighting early party platforms through historical documents and original campaign posters (I loved the posters in particular). It also followed the rebuilding of the German parliament and the country's efforts to find a new place for itself in Europe as a whole. I've never been to a museum that gave so much attention to these areas, and I was able to learn so many new things about German history. Other more culturally based topics included post-war Trümmerfilme (depicting the post-war devastation), 1950s Germany and the student protests and left-wing terrorism of the 1960s and 70s.

This was hands down the single best museum I have seen in Germany. It was extremely well laid out, featured tons of creative and interactive exhibits and was overall incredibly informative. Anyone with an interest in German history needs to go to this museum. The only downside is that I found the English-language content to be lacking. Main texts at the beginning of an exhibit were always translated into English, but smaller texts (for example, those explaining a photograph or a specific document) usually were not. So I think some of the nuances of the museum might be lost on those who do not speak German, although perhaps the audio guides would fill this gap.

Though my time in Bonn was ultimately brief, it was interesting to get a glimpse of what was once the most politically significant city in Germany. Since the fall of the wall, Bonn seems to have faded into the background a bit, but it remains an interesting place to visit, particularly for students of German history.