The enchanting Medieval city of Esslingen is an arm of the Neckar River upstream from Stuttgart. Esslingen is blessed with centuries old architecture and has more than 200 half-timbered houses protected by once impregnable fortifications.
When you’re in Esslingen have to be sure to battle your way up the steep, vine-decked slopes to the north to look down on the city from these 13th-century walls. In the townscape below are Gothic churches that still have their original stained glass windows, and some of Germany’s oldest half-timbered houses, going back to the 1260s.
You could not wish for a quainter setting for a German Christmas market. And Esslingen goes the extra mile at this time of year, setting up a medieval village with craftsmen and roving street entertainers.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Esslingen:
1. Stadtkirche St. Dionys
Esslingen’s Protestant city church commands the Marktplatz from the south and is the most memorable landmark on the skyline.
The church has High Gothic architecture, mostly from the 13th century, but was built over two much older churches, from the 700s and 900s.
Outside you’ll see that its two towers are linked at the top by a footbridge.
This was built in the middle of the 17th century and replaced with a wood-clad steel structure in 1900. If you love Gothic art, you’ll have your hands full inside, where there are 14th-century stained glass windows, oak choir stalls carved with strange characters in 1518, a golden 16th-century tabernacle and a marvellous late-15th-century rood screen.
2. Altes Rathaus
The beguiling old town hall creates a different impression depending on how you approach it.
The south facade is one of the outstanding examples of Alemannic half-timbered architecture and dates from the building’s origins in the 1420s.
In those times the council chamber was on the upper floor, while the ground floor was for trade and taxation.
Death sentences would be handed down from the window of the upper council chamber.
Step around to the north and you’ll be greeted by a refined late-16th-century curved gable, by the master Renaissance architect Heinrich Schickhardt.
The astronomical clock came in 1592, and its allegorical automatons Justitia (Justice) and Temperantia move at the stroke of every hour.
Claimed to be the first Gothic hall church in Southwest Germany, the Frauenkirche required almost 200 years of construction before it was completed in 1515. Amazingly, this makes it Esslingen’s newest church! The tower at 72 metres high is a wonder of Gothic masonry with almost ephemeral tracery patterns.
Before entering, give yourself time to savour the carvings on the south tympanum of the Last Judgement and the Lie of Mary, and Saint George slaying the dragon on the north.
The choir has stained glass windows painted around 1330, while those in the nave are by the 20th-century artist Hans Gottfried von Stockhausen who produced more than 500 stained glass windows around Germany after the war.
4. Villa Merkel
Esslingen’s art gallery is in a Historicist villa designed for the industrialist Oscar Merkel in 1873, and was the first building in southern Germany to be constructed with concrete.
The property is beside the Neckar, in its leafy namesake garden, which was even equipped with a winter house and a house for the Villa Merkel’s gardener.
Fifteen rooms in the villa are given over to international contemporary art exhibitions.
There are usually two or three concurrent shows, either for individuals or groups, and all related to each other by a loose theme.
Some of the familiar contemporary artists to be featured recently are Lutz & Guggisberg, Melanie Smith, Emily Jacir and Adrian Schiess.
5. Esslinger Castle
Amid rows of vines above the city these fortifications were never a castle in the sense of being the residence for noble families.
Instead they had a purely defensive job and were called into action time and again to keep armies and raiders out.
Entering the castle from Burgplatz to the north you can get a clear view of the whole site from a canon emplacement.
Close by is the squat, circular Powder Tower (Pulverturm) from the 16th century and an exquisite apothecary garden.
Maybe the most memorable section is the covered wall linking the Powder Tower with the Fat Tower (Dicke Turm), which is Esslingen’s symbol.
This walkway grants a panorama of Esslingen that you won’t soon forget.
6. Half-Timbered Houses
Together with Göttingen and Limburg an der Lahn, Esslingen is the city with the oldest half-timbered houses in Germany.
On top of that, there are more than 200 in all, infusing the old town with romance and wonder and demonstrating all phases in the evolution of Alemmanic house-building.
The oldest house of all is at Heugasse 3 and dates to 1262-63. Webergasse also deserves a mention for its houses from 1267 at 6 and 8, while the oldest complete row of half-timbered houses in the country can be found at Hafenmarkt.
And if you’re curious about why no houses are older than the 13th century; well until that time the timbers would be buried straight into the ground, where they would rot after 30 years or so.
After the 13th century the frames were built onto stone bases, which helped to preserve them.
One of the few places in Esslingen that isn’t actually historic, the market square is where the Katharinenspital, the city’s first hospital used to stand.
This was pulled down in 1811 around the time Esslingen started growing beyond its city walls.
Still, that takes nothing away from the beauty of the square, which is boxed in by monuments like the Stadtkirche and long rows of gabled houses.
Wednesday and Saturday mornings there’s a special atmosphere on the square for the market, selling flowers, Swabian delicacies and fresh produce.
And as the Esslingen’s largest outdoor meeting place Marktplatz is the venue for celebrations like the Bürgerfest in July and the Zwiebelfest (Onion Festival) in August.
The Franciscan order showed up in Esslingen around 1230 and work started on a gigantic church in 1270. The monument was completed in short order, as the stained garden glass windows have been dated to 1320. Something special about them is that they were painted with a shade of silver yellow that had only appeared in Paris a few years before, indicating that Esslingen was at the forefront of art in Swabia at the time.
In the 1300s the monastery served as a lodging for the Holy Roman Emperor, but following the Reformation both the monastic buildings and the nave were demolished.
Only the choir an west wing of the monastery remain, but both give a clear idea of just how big this complex used to be.
9. Museum St. Dionys
If you happen to be in Esslingen on a Sunday afternoon, you should jump at the chance to go down into the excavated crypt of the Stadtkirche.
There are haunting vestiges of the first two churches of St Vitalis, dating from the 8th and the 10th centuries.
On the walls you can even make out the soot left by pilgrims’ candles many centuries ago.
Behind glass and aided by information boards you can make out inscriptions, architectural fragments like columns and jewellery recovered from the dig.
Poking through the hardened soil are the bones of buried bodies.
And one of the grislier exhibits down here is a plaster cast of the preserved corpse of a plague victim who died in the 1650s.
One sight that captures everyone’s heart in Esslingen is Klein Venedig (Little Venice), where the branches of the Neckar, the Rossneckar and the Wehrneckar are like Venetian canals.
Half-timbered houses and watermills dating from the 15th century crowd the waterfront, and looming behind are historic landmarks like the towers of the Stadtkirche.
The Innere Brücke crosses both channels and is lined with pretty houses.
As you wander this little quarter you’ll take in willow trees, old water wheels, cobblestone lanes, and if you continue upstream to the Neckar itself you’ll eventually get to the 19th-century Wasserhaus dam, built like a Medieval covered bridge.
11. Grünanlage Maille
The biggest park in the centre of Esslingen takes up the bulk of the Schwemminsel between the two arms of the Neckar.
If you’re curious about the name, it relates to palle-malle, a ball game that arrived in Germany from Italy in the 17th century and was a precursor to croquet.
And the reason this island in the middle of a densely built city has been left mostly empty is that the Neckar was guaranteed to flood every year until the dam was built.
You can take a quick break from sightseeing, by the river, while there are playground for littler tourists as well as cafes for coffee or a cool drink in summer.
12. Merkel’sches Schwimmbad
There’s no more dignified place to take a swim than this Art Nouveau pool from 1907. The industrialist Oskar Merkel donated the pool to the city as public baths, a deed that earned him honorary citizenship.
The pool was the work of Jugendstil virtuoso Hans Meyer, and it would be a good idea to pack your swimming gear just to be able to see this building.
In the high stucco ceiling, see the stained glass window depicting of an Italian coastal landscape, while there are magical flourishes at every turn, from the wrought iron balustrades, classical statues, vintage clocks and stone fountains.
For relaxation or muscle recovery, the Warmbadehalle (warm bathing hall) has water heated to 30°C.
Raised around 1220, the oldest defensive tower in Esslingen controlled a trade route through that coursed through Esslingen between Speyer and Ulm.
On the outer side, over the portal, flanking the Holy Roman Eagle, is a pair of lions carved in the 13th century.
These symbolise the long line of Hohenstaufen Holy Roman Emperors (Henry VII, Conrad IV, Rudolf von Habsburg) who held court in Esslingen in that period.
But humorously, centuries of weathering and the Romanesque style of the sculptures has left them looking more like wolves, which is where the gate’s name comes from.
14. Kessler Sekt
If there’s one souvenir or gift to take home from Esslingen it’s a bottle or two of Kessler Sekt, sparkling wine.
That’s because Esslingen was the first place in Germany to adopt French secondary fermentation techniques from the Champagne region.
The man to thank for that is Georg Christian Kessler, who brought the secret back with him after a spell in Reims.
Since he returned in 1826 his enterprise has been based in a half-timbered former administrative building for monks behind the Stadtkirche.
But what you can’t know is that there are 2 kilometres of tunnels under the streets of Esslingen where wine is stored to ferment in the bottle.
And there might be no better way to kick off a tour of the city than with a glass of sekt from the little bar in front.
15. Medieval Market and Christmas Market
With its half-timbered houses and gabled town hall, Esslingen is something out of a movie during its Christmas market.
The main location is the Rathausplatz, but the stalls and fun spills onto adjoining streets and the neighbouring Marktplatz.
Between the end of November and the last days before Christmas Day there’s a village of craft stalls, selling candles, decorations, hand-made clothing and classic Christmas food and drink.
But for extra magic there’s also a medieval market where you can see old-time trades in action like weaving, spinning smithing, listen to musicians and watch fire eaters.
To take the old-time adventure to the next level you can drink mead and order roasted meat straight from the spit.