The German city of Darmstadt rarely makes it onto the tourist route. This is understandable, since from a afar it just looks like your average German industrial town, but upon closer inspection you'll find it's rich in cultural curiosities and sites.
I used to work at the particle accelerator (GSI) located nearby, so I know Darmstadt pretty well. While I lived in Frankfurt, I often travelled to Darmstadt since all my friends from work lived there, which meant I went out in Darmstadt more than in Frankfurt. Even when I moved to Spain, I returned to GSI and Darmstadt on a regular basis for my work, and until I gave up my career in physics, I made at least one or two trips a year.
Darmstadt is a fascinating city and it has most certainly earned its title as "the City of Art and Science."
With two particle accelerators (GSI and the recently constructed FAIR on the same grounds), the German site for the European Space Agency, the industrial centre of the German pharmaceutical industry (with big companies such as Merck basing their main plants here), it's easy to see why Darmstadt has earned it's scientific wings. Not to mention the city has a chemical element named after it: Darmstadtium (atomic number 110, which was discovered in GSI in 1994).
On the arts side, Darmstadt is also home to the former Artists' Colony, Mathildenhöhe. Artists from the German Jugendstil movement both lived and worked in this community. The artists were financed by patrons while they worked together with other members of the collective. Darmstadt Artists' Colony is not just a movement in the history of German Jugendstil, but it also refers to the modernist buildings left behind. From the exhibition hall to the houses artists houses, Mathildenhöhe's modernist architecture has put Darmstadt on Europe's map of art nouveau cities.
Darmstadt's avant-garde doesn't stop there. Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser's Waldpirale is also hidden away in this small, industrial city.
Darmstadt might have earned its title as the city of art and culture, so what specifically should you see?
If you're staying in nearby Frankfurt, then Darmstadt is just a short train ride away. If you're looking to get out of the city and away from Mainhatten's high-rises, it makes a nice escape. Or, if you're travelling down towards Heidelberg, Darmstadt is a great place to break the journey.
Visiting the center of Darmstadt will take you to the area surrounding Luisenplatz. This is the largest square in the city, and it's also the central hub for any public transportation. You'll find many shops and restaurants in this pedestrianised area, but it's also easy to navigate the city from here.
Many of the monuments are walking distance from Luisenplatz, such as the ducal palace of Darmstadt. This was once the palatial residence of the counts of Hesse-Darmstadt, and then the Grand Dukes of Hesse.
The palace's look stems from its 18th century refurbishment and additions, but the castle itself actually dates back to the 13th century.
Opposite the square is the historic Marktplatz. Facing the front of the ducal palace is the old town hall, which now houses a tavern. The "Ratzkeller" (link in German) serves its own beer (there is a brewery in the basement) and traditional food from the Hessen region. It sports a cosy atmosphere and bags of character, not to mention the high quality food and delicious selection of wheat beers.
The Artists' Colony in Mathildenhöhe is a little out of town, but worth a visit. Here you'll find the iconic five fingered "wedding tower" which has become a symbol of the city. In addition, there is a Russian chapel and a number of the artists' houses in the Jugendstil style.
The colony was founded at the end of the 19th century by the Grand Duke of Hesse, Ernest Ludwig. Mathildenhöhe was created by Ludwig to promote the art scene of the Hessen region, helping to combine trade and art so it would act as an economic stimulus for the land. Artists housed in the colony sought to develop the modern and avant-garde into a way of living and construction.
As a result, Ernest Ludwig brought many of Germany's top Jugendstil artists to live in Darmstadt, such as Peter Behrens, Paul Bürck, Hans Christiansen, Rudolf Bosselt, and more.
A short walk from Mathildenhöhe is Hundertwasser's surreal Walspirale. Hidden away between allotments, concrete block apartments and an Aldi supermarket, this is hardly a prime location.
The Hundertwasser House in Vienna is famous, and always full of tourists. When I visited the Austrian capital it was marked on my list of key things I had to do while I was there. The Hundertwasser House was stunning, a modern-day rival to the modernist buildings of Barcelona, yet the Waldspirale in Darmstadt is even more spectacular. It's downfall is that it's hidden away in Darmstadt's uglier outlying neighbourhoods.
Darmstadt is an attractive destination for those looking to immerse themselves in the German countryside. The nearby Bergstrasse (part of the larger Odenwald), a chain of low mountains that run between Darmstadt and Heidelberg, offers stunning hikes. The rolling mountains of the Odenwald are rich in woodlands, vineyards and are dotted with historic, ruined and romantic castles. The most famous, Castle Frankenstein, is located in Darmstadt's suburbs.
Legend has it Mary Shelly drew inspiration for her novel Frankenstein after a trip to the to the region. Whether this is true or not is another matter.
Looking beneath the surface, Darmstadt has a lot to offer any traveller interested in science, art history or even Gothic literature.
Find more information about Darmstadt here!
In the modern age of low cost flights and workaholic hours, more and more people are getting their travel fix through weekend escapes. Flying out on Friday and coming back on Sunday means that you'll only get one full day at the destination of your choice, which isn't enough to truly experience the city and country at its best. However, some of my most memorable travel experiences have been through flying visits, whether in the form of a 9 hour stop over or a weekend escape. Here are my top 5 mini-breaks from the past couple of years.
This was literally a flying visit to the Ukrainian capital, since I had 9 hours to kill in Kiev airport on a stopover from Tbilisi (Tbilisi-Kiev-Rome-Madrid). I landed at 9 a.m. and I was determined not to spend the entire day imprisoned in Boryspil airport. After pleading my case to the airport staff for my release, I received a satisfying stamp in my passport and was free to go.
Even a few hours in Kiev's centre was worth all the hassle. It's a city that combines elegance with the exotic, where its brightly coloured buildings and the golden churches livened up the sour grey skies. The elegant boulevards are characteristic of central and eastern Europe, bringing back nostalgic feelings of my childhood in Budapest.
The few hours I spent in Kiev was just a teaser introducing me to the city's sites and character and left me hungry to consume more. Fortunately, my brisk walk took me past the principal sites like the gold-domed churches of St. Sophia and St. Michael's Monastery, taking me back to Maidan Square and along Khreschatyk Street. I swept the streets as a manic tourist, but I found time to sit down some very cheap and quality Ukrainian food before continuing my long journey home.
This one is perhaps a bit of a cheat. I grew up in Budapest, so I know the city very well. Last year, Ryanair opened a new route between Madrid and the Hungarian capital with tickets costing 20€ return. This was an offer too good to miss, even if it was with Ryanair, so we impulsively booked flights that would arrive in Budapest Friday night and left Sunday morning. This meant that we only had one day to explore the city. A couple of my friends in our group had been before, but the others had not. This inspired me to draw up a concrete itinerary to guide them through the city's most important sites. The apartment we rented (if you're going to Budapest in a large group, I'd recommend renting an apartment over a hotel - it's much cheaper and far more fun) was right in the centre, making it easy to get around on foot.
Budapest is a fairly small city, as capital cities go, and you can explore most of it on foot. An unmissable Budapest experience is a visit to one of the classic, historic cafés. My personal favourite is the New York Café on the Körút, but the of the proximity of the Café Gerbeaud to our apartment and our planned itinerary meant we started our day there.
We strolled along the Danube banks and ambled across to the Chain Bridge over to Buda Castle. Instead of contending with the steep hill we opted for the funicular, which is a fun and easy way to get to the top, not to mention the wonderful views you're treated to on your ascent. Castle Hill has so much for the discerning tourist, with walks around the palace grounds and the Fisherman's Bastion. Here you can enjoy incredible riverside views through the cloisters and down to the Parliament.
Our route descended back down across the river and onto Andrássy Avenue, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This scenic walk took us past the Opera house all the way up to Heroes Square, just in time for sundown. The intensive walking tour ended with a night time stroll through City Park and the atmospheric Vajdahunyad Castle.
From Madrid this is the perfect weekend getaway. You can find tickets for as low as 30€ with Ryanair and the flight is under an hour. Portugal's second city is definitely worth a visit, whether you're a fan of decaying grandeur or you just love Port wine. Oporto is the ideal size for a mini-city break. You can spend one day sightseeing, and if you have another day to spare, you can go Port tasting in the cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia, or even cram both in the same day if you get up really early.
I went with the misconception that Portugal was going to be like Spain. It's not just in the language and cultures that differ, Oporto is architecturally unique when you pair it against other Spanish cities, even the nearby Santiago de Compostela. The buildings are beautiful, yet half of them are abandoned. Churches with blue and white tiles dot every other street, tucked between small and colourful townhouses and grand neoclassical structures. Top places to visit are the Majestic Café, the Lello & Irmão Bookshop (one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world, and apparently inspired J.K. Rowling's Diagonal Alley in the Harry Potter books) and of course, the Port Cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia.
While I was living in Tbilisi in neighbouring Georgia, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to hop on a marshrutka, a Soviet era minibus, and travel to the capital of Armenia. Yerevan is a city full of surprises and one that surpassed all expectations. Many said that it was a "dump" and a depressing city filled with Soviet era buildings, yet my personal impressions were the complete opposite. I found Yerevan to be a cosmopolitan city with a vibrant night life and some of the friendliest people I've met. Yerevan makes a unique city break, especially since it's the ideal base to visit the surrounding Armenian countryside with regular and cheap tours on offer to Geghard, Garni, Lake Sevan and Khor Virap.
While most of my long weekend in Armenia was spent exploring the historic sites outside of the city, I felt I got a taste a sample of Yerevan as well. The city is very tourist friendly, and unlike Tbilisi, it's easy to cross the roads without fear of getting run over. The streets are marked in both Latin script as well as Armenian and it's easy to navigate.
The Cascade is the place to be at sundown. This modern arts centre merges art with architecture, with stunning views at the top over Yerevan and Mount Ararat.
The square next to the Opera house is surrounded with outdoor pavilions and bustling bars tempting you in for a taste of Armenian brandy or elegant cocktails. At 11 p.m. head over to Republic Square to take in the "singing fountains," a light and fountain show that is both spectacular and wonderfully tacky.
Writing about Venice in this list feels like a cop-out or a cliché. I mean, how many times has Venice come up in a list like this? Saying that, Venice has been one of my favourite mini-breaks, and since it's my blog I'll post what I like.
I was apprehensive about travelling to Venice, scared that the city wouldn't meet my expectations. The city of Venice has appeared in countless movies, artworks and books leaving it with some pretty big shoes to fill. Luckily for Venice, it has the big feet to match. Venice didn't only live up to its image, it swept me away on a gondola with Casanova.
I took my mini-break at the end of March, just after Carnivale, when the flights and hotels were a bargain. The weather was ideal, not too hot nor cold, and the city wasn't crowded at all.
No trip to Venice is complete without visiting the usual suspects, like San Marco, Rialto Bridge and the Grand Canal, but my personal highlights were the cemetery on Isola San Michele, the towering spiral staircase of Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo and drinking Aperol cocktails with local Venetians in Campo di Santa Margherita.
Have you ever had a short stop over some place interesting? What's your favourite city break?
Jennifer is a freelance writer specialising in art, travel & culture. This blog is a melange of her published articles and independent thoughts.