Bravo for Bonn
By Monique Burns
Bonn has never really chased the tourist trade. Frankly, it’s been too busy running the country. Capital of West Germany for nearly 40 years, starting in 1949, Bonn’s chief concern has been the health and welfare of the German people. Even after the capital officially moved east to Berlin in 1990, a year after the Wall fell, Bonn remained Germany’s ostensible capital for nearly another 10 years.
Situated in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Bonn enjoys the unique status of “Federal City.” Nearly half Germany’s government’s offices remain in Bonn as well as the President’s second residence, Villa Hammerschmidt, a.k.a. “The White House.” Other offices have been filled by U.N. Secretariats and the corporate headquarters of Deutsche Telekom, T-Mobile, Deutsche Post, and broadcaster Deutsche Welle. Haribo, maker of cute, colorful gummi bears, is in Grafschaft, part of greater Bonn.
Officialdom seems to suit Bonn. And, judging by their confident, contented manner, Bonners couldn’t be happier. But don’t think all that business and politics make Bonn a dull city. For decades, Bonn not only has housed government officials, visiting dignitaries and corporate executives, it has entertained them—and their families—in high style.
Along with excellent hotels and restaurants, there’s a slew of visitor attractions, easily visited with the Bonn Regio WelcomeCard. This being Germany, where culture, past and present, is revered, you’ll find theaters, concert halls, an opera house, even cabarets and comedy clubs. Beyond Museum Mile’s five major museums are several surprises.
Opened in 1981, the Frauenmuseum Bonn, the world’s first museum for women artists, exhibits works by international superstars, from venerable Expressionist sculptor Käthe Kollwitz to multimedia artist Yoko Ono and newer contemporary artists. The art-filled August-Macke-Haus is the former home of the eponymous artist who lived in Bonn from 1911 to 1914 and was a member of Der Blaue Reiter, the influential German Expressionist group we know as The Blue Rider.
The University of Bonn has another handful of excellent museums. Judged fourth among German universities in 2019 by the prestigious Shanghai Report, U. Bonn gives the city an intellectual mien along with a youthful exuberance. Adding to the bonhomie is Bonn’s Karneval, or Fasching. Held in late February or early March, it’s, by all accounts, pretty raucous for a pre-Lenten festival in northerly climes.
Last but not least, Bonn has Beethoven.
From December 16, 2019 through December 17, 2020, Bonn celebrates the 250th birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven, its favorite son and the world’s most frequently played composer, with picnics, theater, museum exhibits and, yes, concerts.
Since there are no direct flights from the U.S. to Bonn, at least not at the time of this writing, many Americans fly into Frankfurt. From there, high-speed trains whisk passengers an hour north to Bonn’s Hauptbahnhof, or central train station.
If you can spare a week or two, feature Bonn on a meandering circuit through Germany’s Rhineland. Heading northwest from Frankfurt, visit Koblenz, a garden spot at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle rivers. Trier, known for its storied Roman ruins and high-tech archeological museum. Aachen, “City of Charlemagne,” famous for its golden, mosaic-filled Cathedral. Wiesbaden, with healing hot springs, lively cafés and an art museum brimming with 700 recently bequeathed Art Nouveau treasures.
At the Rhine’s northern end, Bonn is easy to navigate. Most center-city attractions are a 5 to 15-minute walk apart, though first-time visitors sometimes find themselves happily lost in the Old City’s maze of winding lanes. Bonn also has an excellent metro system not to mention S-Bahn suburban trains. High-speed trains reach German cities, great and small, as well as Europe’s most dazzling capitals.
Given Bonn’s stature, it’s hard to believe that it covers a mere 55 square miles and has a population of only 330,000 people. A little smaller than Washington, D.C., Bonn has half as many people as our nation’s capital—and a tenth as many as its own capital, Berlin. Clearly, Bonn punches well above its weight. And it has for some time.
Just how long becomes apparent if you follow the city from north to south along the River Rhine. At Bonn’s northern end, now a residential area called Bonn-Castell, the city began life in the 1st century as a Roman fort, Castra Bonnensia. Bonn was also the center of the popular Cult of the Aufanian Mothers, which worshipped three fertility goddesses. Look for their ornate stone altar (and other historic finds) in Bonn’s LVR-Landesmuseum. As for Fort Bonn, archeologists know it covered 62 acres—the largest known ancient fort.
Clearly, the Romans saw great strategic value in Bonn, less than 80 miles east of France and even closer to Belgium. So did the medieval Franks who conquered them. Even now, Germany’s citizenry must feel secure knowing that they’ve got one official capital, Berlin, looking east toward Russia and the Balkans, and a second unofficial capital, Bonn, looking west toward France, Belgium, the Netherlands and, ultimately, across the Atlantic to the United States.
Just south of Bonn-Castell is the Old City, a compact warren of streets that make you think you’ve wandered into a little German village. Even with big-city attractions, Bonn has a small-town look and feel. Accustomed to dealing with international bigwigs, Bonners have developed an urbane sophistication along with a trenchant wit that they deploy equally well in their near-perfect English as in their native German. Yet, much like prosperous burghers of old, Bonners seem unflappably solid and down-to-earth.
From the Hauptbahnhof, it’s a five-minute walk to the Münsterplatz, surrounded by outdoor cafés and shops, and dominated by a bronze statue of the great man himself, Ludwig van Beethoven. When the statue was dedicated on Beethoven’s 75th birthday in 1845, ceremonies were attended by Prussia’s Kaiser Wilhelm I, England’s Queen Victoria, and Hungarian composer Franz Liszt. The unveiling also marked the occasion of Bonn’s first annual Beethovenfest.
Rising across the square are the five stately spires of Romanesque-style Bonner Münster, built between the 11th and 13th centuries and one-time seat of the Archbishop of Cologne. When I visited, the cathedral was under scaffolding. So I didn’t get to see the two giant stone heads of Saints Cassius and Florentius, Roman legionnaires, who, legend has it, were martyred outside the church. Nor did I see the church cloisters, site of the Latin School where young Beethoven studied grammar, rhetoric and logic.
From the Münsterplatz, it’s a stone’s throw to the Beethoven-Haus where the composer was born in December 1770 and spent his first 22 years. Re-emerging after a long, painstaking reconstruction by Holzer Kobler Architekturen of Zurich and Berlin, the Beethoven-Haus now includes four properties. Known for superb acoustics and burnished-wood splendor, the Chamber Music Hall, built in 1989, hosts the annual BTHVN Week chamber-music festival in January and February.
Next door, Beethoven’s birthplace, a three-story pink Baroque house with green shutters, has been completely reimagined with exhibit themes like “Beethoven and Bonn,” “Work-Life Balance” and “Illness and Deafness.”
An adjacent building houses a new listening room where visitors can don headphones and hear five Beethoven compositions. A new climate-controlled Treasury Chamber displays Beethoven’s hand-written musical scores. Also new: A Concert Room for films, lectures, and short performances on vintage keyboard instruments, and a Special Exhibition Hall. Across the street, another building houses a new café, ticket office, cloakroom and lockers, and seminar rooms.
Just east of the Marktplatz, site of the ornate Altes Rathaus town hall as well as the city farmer’s market, is St. Remigius. Not the old St. Remigius where the great composer was baptized in 1770 and where, at age 12, he played organ at 6 a.m. morning mass. But the new St. Remigius with Beethoven’s huge, ornately carved bronze baptismal font, a monumental sight to behold.
A 10 or 15-minute walk northwest—across from the highly regarded four-star Hotel Collegium Leoninum—you’ll find the 18th-century Alter Friedhof. Shaded by moody hemlocks, the three-acre burial ground houses the simple graves of Beethoven’s mother, Mary-Magdalena Keverich, and violin teacher, Franz Anton Ries. Composer Robert Schumann rests in an elaborate white-marble tomb festooned with carved garlands and angels. Also here: Mathilde Wesendonck. The married beauty, whose portrait hangs in Bonn’s Stadtmuseum, so bewitched composer Richard Wagner that he abandoned his operatic masterpiece, “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” for 12 years to compose “Tristan und Isolde,” the ultimate tale of forbidden love.
At a spot called the “Axis of Bonn,” a few minutes’ walk southeast, you’ll find the University of Bonn. Facing each other across the long manicured Hofgarten are two Baroque palaces, former retreats of the Prince-Electors of Cologne. Along the northern end is the bright-yellow Kurfürstliches Schloss, now the university’s main building, steps from the institution’s Egyptian Museum.
At the other end, in and around Poppelsdorfer Schloss, are several university attractions: the gem-filled Mineralogical Museum; the art-filled Akademisches Kunstmuseum, and the glass-fronted Arithmeum, crammed with calculators and computers. In 2003, the Botanical Gardens earned a spot in the Guinness World Records when its amorphophallus titanium reached an obscenely tall nine feet.
Museum Mile and the former Government Quarter, the Bundesviertel, are a 20 to 30-minute walk, or a five-minute U-Bahn subway ride, south. Museum Koenig—with its own metro stop—fascinates children and adults alike with stuffed specimens and other natural-history displays.
Haus der Geschichte, at the nearby Heussallee/Museumsmeile metro stop, traces Germany’s history since 1945, including exhibits of everyday objects like photos, advertising signage, even an Army duffel bag Elvis Presley used while stationed nearby in 1958.
Politicos can tour the former German Chancellery, with its cabinet room, and its study still filled with Chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s furnishings. Also open: the Chancellor’s Bungalow, as well as the Bundesrat, where German state representatives approved bills drafted by Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag. Palais Schaumburg, the Chancellor’s Bonn office, features the study of Germany’s first post-World War II chancellor, Konrad Adenauer.
Steps away, the Kunstmuseum Bonn displays one of Germany’s largest collections of works by German Expressionists. Chief among them is August Macke, who left a stunning legacy before dying at age 27 on the battlegrounds of Champagne during World War I. Also represented: German contemporary artists like Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer and the late Joseph Beuyers. The nearby Bundeskunsthalle stages major temporary exhibits like the four-month “Beethoven. World. Citizen. Music,” December 17, 2019- April 26, 2020.
If it’s a mild day, head east and stroll along the Rhine promenade. From there, sightseeing boats leave on day cruises. And, on the first weekend in May, “Rhine in Flames” brings a flotilla of 60 illuminated vessels here from Linz, Austria, for a fireworks extravaganza.
In the riverfront Gronau district, Bonn’s former Bundesviertel, with glass-fronted government buildings, now houses U.N. Secretariats and corporate headquarters. You can’t miss 377-foot-high Lange Eugen, or “Tall Eugene,” one-time home of Germany’s Bundesrat. Nor the World Conference Center Bonn with the ultra-modern Marriott Bonn.
On the opposite right bank is lush green Siebengebirge, or Seven Hills. It’s a 25-minute train ride from Bonn’s Hauptbahnhof to Königswinter. From there, take the little green Drachenfels Bahn, Germany’s oldest rack-railway, up its namesake crag to historic Grand Hotel & Spa Petersberg. It’s surrounded by lofty overlooks and nature trails that once inspired celebrated composer Ludwig van Beethoven, Bonn’s favorite son.
IF YOU GO
Monique Burns is a longtime travel writer and editor, and a European Correspondent for Jax Fax Magazine, a travel magazine for U.S. travel agents. A former Travel & Leisure Senior Editor, she travels frequently to Europe, but can sometimes be found in far-flung locales like India and Asia. After more than 30 years in the travel business, she still appreciates the world’s many cultural differences and can honestly say that she’s never met a place she didn’t like.