Cultural Capital: Why you need to visit Chemnitz

When I said I was visiting Chemnitz the most common reply was “Where?”. Next most common was “Karl-Marx Stadt!” Beyond that nothing. Here’s why you need to visit Chemnitz.

Socialist Realist sculpture with concrete modernist building in the background
Dignity, Beauty and Pride of Man in Socialism
Disclosure: I stayed as a guest of the German Tourist Board on my visit to Chemnitz

Why you need to visit Chemnitz

Art, Architecture and Industry. Being Germany’s richest city meant that there were some seriously rich people who built houses in the latest Art Nouveau style and bought lots of art. Communist reconstruction endowed the city with a wealth of Brutalist architecture and public art. Chemnitz is the place for Ostalgie. All good reasons why Chemnitz has been selected to be European Capital of Culture 2025.

Brief History of Chemnitz

Before we get to know Chemnitz now, a little bit about her past. Benedictine monks were the first known builders in Chemnitz and in 1170 it was created a free Imperial City. Chemnitz was a prosperous textile producing city through the medieval and early modern eras. Then in the 19th century things began to change. Manufacturing in factories took off. Not only textiles, especially stockings, but also steam engines, office machines and cars. It was known as the Saxon Manchester. At the turn of the 20th century Chemnitz was the wealthiest city in Germany. Auto Union, which we now know as Audi was founded here in 1932. The Enigma encoding machines were made in Chemnitz.

Schlossberg castle Chemnitz seen across a lake
Schloßberg

All that manufacturing attracted Allied bombs with 42% of the city being destroyed. In 1945 Chemnitz came under Soviet control. In 1953 the city was renamed Karl-Marx Stadt. In 1990 after reunification residents voted to change the name back to Chemnitz. Many young people left after reunification and only now is the population beginning to recover.

East Modern in Chemnitz

Let’s start with the second part of the 20th century in Chemnitz. All wide boulevards and brave new brutalist buildings. Socialist Realism sculpture abound, adorning public places and buildings. Chemnitz is the place to see the impact of the Soviet presence on East Germany. Now viewed through the rosy lens of Ostalgie.

Karl-Marx monument

Karl Marx monument giant bronze sculpture of Karl Marx head Chemnitz
Karl Marx

It is only when you stand next to the Karl-Marx statue that you realise how huge it is. At 7.1 meters high, 13 meters including the plinth it dwarves people standing at its base. It stands in front of a huge bronze mural with “Workers of the World, unite!” from the Communist manifesto inscribed in four languages (English, German, Russian and French) and on a hugely wide street which was called Karl-Marx Allee and is now Brückenstraße. The sculpture was gift to the city from Russia to mark the renaming of Chemnitz in 1953 but was not unveiled until 1971.

Stadthalle

Socialist modern concrete Stadthalle with tower block Congress hotel in Chemnitz
Stadthalle

Karl Marx looks out on the Stadthalle and Congress hotel. I confess that I quite like the concrete laciness of the Stadthalle. Socialist Modernism at its best. Built as and still functioning as a concert and events venue. The Congress hotel towers above the Stadthalle and offers fine views from its top floor restaurant. Take a look at the sculptures in the gardens between Karl Marx and the Stadthalle, they are a fine collection of Socialist-Realism, all with handy labels to read.

Architectural art

Socialist realism mosaic showing folk dancers on the side of a block of public housing
Folk dancers

You will see quite a lot of art on buildings as you walk around Chemnitz. Finest of all are a series of tiled murals found on the base of residential blocks on Brückenstraße. Stand with your back to Karl, turn right and walk up the road, the blocks are on your left after the major road junction.

Bus Station

Eastern modernism bus station Chemnitz
Now that’s what I call a bus station

Ordinarily the only reason I would suggest a visit to a bus station is in order to catch a bus. Chemnitz bus station is worth a visit just to gawp at. Built in 1968 it is a marvel of concrete suspended on wires held on slender pylons

Historical central Chemnitz

Not all of central Chemnitz was flattened by Allied bombs. Indeed, one of the most appealing things about Chemnitz to me was that you could stroll through medieval, renaissance, art nouveau, east modern and tranquil lakeside park in a morning.

Roterturm or Red tower

Roterturm Chemnitz seen across a park
Roterturm

Built in 1423 the Roterturm stands just over the way from the concrete brutalism of the Stadthalle. It looks a little lost among the newer buildings but is a reminder that Chemnitz has been an important textile centre for centuries.

Market Place

Market stalls in foreground with baroque houses and town hall in background Chemnitz
Market Day

Twirl around the Market Place and you can see the history of Chemnitz. As you enter from the West you are greeted with a Communist era compass on the pavement, complete with directions to Moscow. Look around and you will see Baroque townhouses, a Renaissance and Art Noveau town hall and a 21st century plate glass department store. In middle crowd market stalls in a scene unchanged for centuries. I visited on a Tuesday and the market was in full swing. At Christmas this is where you will find the Chemnitz Christmas Market.

Old and New Town Halls

Baroque and Art Nouveau old and new town halls in Chemnitz Germany
Old and New Town halls

Chemnitz has a rather fine town hall, well two town halls but one site. On the left is a white plastered renaissance building built at the end of the 15th century. On the right made of stone, is the extension built in 1910 in the wake of Chemizitz’s nineteenth century boom.

Baroque houses

Pink and yellow baroque houses Chemnitz
Pretty in Pink

Three pastel coloured Baroque houses flank the town hall. In reality the originals were bombed and what you see are 1950s reconstructions.

Chemnitz Museums

Art and industry are the two great subjects covered by Chemnitz’s museums. It is worth visiting the city for Otto Dix and the Expressionists alone.

Gunzenhauser Museum

Expressionist painting Suburbs (Vorstadt) Erich Heckel
Suburbs by Erich Heckel

I confess that I love a collection amassed by a person rather than a museum board and the Gunzenhauser is exactly that. Munich art dealer Dr Alfred Gunzenhauser has amassed this collection over his life time. You will find that largest collection of Otto Dix work anywhere, large swathes of both Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter branches of Expressionism. Downstairs there are Hockney prints and Warhol screenprints. Also an excellent cafe in the foyer.

  • Gunzenhauser Museum, Falkeplatz
  • Open: Tuesday – Sunday 11am – 6pm (9pm on Wednesday)
  • Admission: €8

Kunstsammlungen am Theatreplatz

Expressionist painting Chemnitz Factories by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Saxon Manchester as depicted by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Kunstsammlungen am Theatreplatz houses one of the largest public art collections in Germany. You will find a wealth of Expressionists as well as Caspar David Freiderich, Käthe Kollwitz, Edvard Munch, Georg Baselitz and Tony Cragg. Not everything is displayed all the time with displays being curated changed regularly. All housed in a beautiful building with an excellent cafe.

SMAC (Staatliches Museum für Archäologie Chemnitz)

Curved modernist building formerly Schocken department store designed by Erich Mendelsohn
SMAC building

Ordinarily, I find museums of stuffed animals, minerals and tiny shards of pot, are interesting if you have a deep interest in the area but otherwise not so much. SMAC is different. The stuffed animals, minerals and shards of pot are displayed really well. What stands out though is the way that the history of the building is told. It was the first Modernism building in Chemnitz, absolutely revolutionary in that the outside walls are not load bearing and made of glass. It was built as a department store for the Schocken family and designed by Erich Mendelsohn (he also designed the De la Warr pavilion in Bexhill) all of whom where Jewish. Those revolutionary glass walls now house three galleries that tell the story of the department store, the architect and the owner and what became of them.

  • SMAC, Stefan Heym Platz 1
  • Open: Tuesday – Sunday 10am – 6pm (Thursday until 8pm)
  • Admission: €8

Das Tietz

Europe's largest fossil petrified forest in Chemnitz Germany
Petrified forest

Another defunct department store that is now home to a whole clutch of cultural institutions including the Museum für Naturkund and Neue Sächsische Galerie showing natural history and post war art from Saxony. I confess that whilst both these sound excellent, I didn’t have time and only popped into the foyer. What lured me into the foyer is Europe’s largest plant fossil. A whole copse of trees 290 million years old. It is free to gawp at the fossil.

  • Das Tietz, Moritzstraße 20
  • Open: Wednesday – Tuesday 9am – 5pm (weekends 10am – 6pm)
  • Admission: Free to see the fossil €4 each for the museums

Industrial Museum

Camping Trabant at the Industrial Museum Chemnitz
Camping Trabant style at the Industrial Museum

Zwickauer Straße was home to many factories back in the day on of them has been transformed into the Industrial museum. It tells the story of all the many things that were made in the city. Textiles, especially stockings. Cars, Auto-Union now known as Audi was founded in Chemnitz, the Trabant was made here, VW’s still are. Office machinery, that’s tills and the Enigma encoding machine. I confess that I love an industrial museum and Chemnitz is a particularly fine example.

Art Nouveau in Chemnitz

Chemnitz boomed at the time that Art Nouveau was flowering and so the city has a wealth and beautiful Art Nouveau buildings. You can even dine inside one of them.

Walk round Kaßberg

Art Nouveau building covered with Majolica tiles in Kaßberg Chemnitz
Majolica building in Kaßberg

Kaßberg has one of the largest collections of domestic Art Nouveau architecture anywhere. Wandering around is the best way to discover the area. After I had visited the Industrial Museum I walked up Ulmenstraße, turned right onto Puschkinstraße and then started to follow the route I found in a tourist board leaflet. Make sure you look down as well as up.

Stumbling blocks plaques bearing witness to the Jews who were forced to leave Germany and what happened to them
Stumbling blocks

Across Chemnitz there are 307 Stolpersteine (or stumbling blocks) small brass plaques outside the houses of Jewish peoples home with the names, dates and fates of those people forced from those homes.

Villa Esche or the Henry van de Velde Museum

Yellow Art Nouveau building Villa Esche designed by Henry van der Velde
Villa Esche

Villa Esche was designed as a family house for Chemnitz textile manufacturer Herbert Esche and his family by Henry van de Velde. He didn’t only design the building, the furniture and fittings were all his design too. Frau Esche even wore clothes approved by the architect. The house is all soothing curves. You can even eat in Art Nouveau splendour in what used to be a garden room and garage.

Stadtbad

Art Deco public swimming pool Chemnitz
Swimming in style at the Stadtbad

A swimming pool?! I hear you say. Yes a swimming pool. My only regret is that I didn’t have enough time to actually swim here. It is an Art Deco beauty (yes I know this is under the Art Nouveau heading). Outside there are charming sculptures of otters and human bathers. Inside the pool is glorious.

  • Stadtbad, Mühlenstraße 27
  • Open: Daily
  • Admission: Free to gawp, €3 swim, €10 sauna

Industrial History in Chemnitz

As you meander round the centre of Chemnitz admiring its architecture you will see industrial buildings old and new. Many of them repurposed for twenty-first century use.

Bunte Esse or Lulatsch

Blue painted communist era housing block with multi coloured chimney, the Bunte Esse in the background
Bunte Esse … Europe’s tallest artwork

Europe’s tallest art work. 302 metres tall. It was originally the chimney of the Chemnitz power station. French artist Daniel Buren transformed it with seven bands of colour at night it is lit with 168 LED lights and you can see it from miles away. You can see the Bunte Esse from most places in Chemnitz.

Chemnitz Two Day Itinerary

First things first, don’t plan anything that involves a museum visit on a Monday, most of them are closed.

Karl Marx Stadt and Chemnitz spelt out in pavement art
Chemnitz once known as Karl Marx Stadt

Day One: What to see in Chemnitz

What I did was on day one, Gunzenhauser museum and meandered through the centre of Chemnitz taking in the Roterturm, Stadthalle and Karl Marx. With Karl behind me I headed right to the architectural art and the Stadtbad. Make sure you look for the Bunte Esse to the east by the Stadtbad. After that a mooch around the Kunstsammulungen, on to the bus station and then up Georgestraße (passing by some excellent modern street art) to the Schlossteich. Finishing up at SMAC. Coffee and cake were eaten at the cafe next to the gondolier station overlooking the lake and lunch was an excellent sausage from the market.

Day Two: Chemnitz itinerary

I caught a bus to the Industrial museum. Ate lunch in the excellent museum cafe. Then I walked up Ulmenstraße to the start of a self guided route round Kaßberg that I found in the tourist office. After an hours happy meandering I caught another bus to the Villa Esche.

Where to stay in Chemnitz

All three of these hotels are walking distance from Chemnitz train station or a short bus hop if you’d prefer.

  • Super 8 by Wyndham This is where I stayed. It is clean, modern and functional. Breakfast was good, there is a car park (but I didn’t use it) and bikes to hire. What I liked most of all was the lobby with comfortable seats, lots of plugs and free black coffee all day.
  • Congress Hotel For fans of Ostalgie. The Congress Hotel is housed in the brutalist block that towers over the Stadthalle and Karl Marx. Friends of mine stayed here and I joined them for lunch on the very top floor. Wow stunning views. You get great views from the rooms too, but whole hotel is a little dated. Breakfast was deemed to be good.
  • Hotel Chemnitzer Hof Art Deco hotel right by the Opera, Kunstsammlungen and St Nicholas Church. Be warned those church bells toll on the hour every hour. Friends also stayed here, they say that it was comfortable and the food good both for breakfast and dinner. They even have their own vineyard and serve wine made from the grapes.

Where to Eat in Chemnitz

Asparagus for sale on a market stall in Germany
Asparagus season
  • Miramar Beer garden One of the things that I love most about Germany is the beer gardens (and I’m not really a beer drinker). The Miramar is a fine example. You get great views of the castle and the Bunte Esse across the Schloßviertel (lake) and if the weather is less than warn there is an indoor space.
  • Kellerhaus The oldest restaurant in Chemnitz housed in a suitably old, timber framed building serves traditional food.
  • Gondel Station. In the summer you can hire a swan shaped pedalo from the Gondel station. My visit was in very early spring and sadly out of pedalo season. So I enjoyed views across the Schloßviertel lake to the castle whilst I drank coffee and ate cake.

How to get to Chemnitz

I flew into Berlin and then caught a train, on the way there I changed at Dresden and on the way home at Leipzig, the journey took about 3½ hours. You can also catch the Eurostar to Brussels and then the European Sleeper to Dresden and then to Chemnitz.

We love Germany. Read about our adventures in Berlin, staying in Colditz Castle, discovering the UNESCO treasures of Weimar and the delights of Munich’s Beer Garden, cycling round Lake Constance and exploring a blast furnace

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