Visiting Goerlitz, Germany
Many people consider Goerlitz to be the most beautiful city in Germany. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I might say it’s the most beautiful German city you’ve never seen. Except that too isn’t quite true. If you’ve watched movies such as The Grand Budapest Hotel, Monuments Men, The Book Thief, Inglorious Basterds, or many others, you’ve seen Goerlitz. It’s become such an important place for shooting movies that it won the European Film Location of the Decade Award two years ago.
But besides film sites, there are many other places to see and photograph if you make your way to this eastern-most city in Germany. I’ve organized the locations as an ordered walking tour with tips for photographers along the way. But you can visit these and many other beautiful locations in Goerlitz in any order that works for you.
The main square (Obermarkt)
The Obermarkt is more an oval than a square but serves as a central starting point for your walking tour. Visually, it’s a shame the center of this oval is used as a parking lot, but reality and 21st century logistics will often intrude into many a photographer’s desire for a pristine historic setting. You can still find some lovely sights, stores and restaurants around the square.
The primary starting point of this walking tour is the visitor’s information center near the above fountain at the north end of the Obermarkt. Find out about filming sites and other happenings, then proceed across the street past the fountain to the Dreifaltikeitskirche (Holy Trinity Church). On the way, you might want to pop into the Hotel Schwibbogen whose breakfast room is lined with a five-hundred-year-old mural.
Stop 1: The Holy Trinity Church (Dreifaltikeitskirche)
At the church, the interesting interior reflects the building’s development from a 13th century monastery church to a school in the 16th century then to a parochial church in 1712.
Thus, in one building, you’ll see elements of the original Romanesque style mingled with later Gothic developments such as the nave and choir combined with a Baroque high altar and other later touches.
From a photographer’s perspective, check out the colors, lighting and layout of this church. You’ll need a fast lens or tripod due to the low light. A wide-angle lens also helps. I tried to stitch together several shots for a panorama of the ceiling, but the angles made it difficult to align everything well without a tripod.
The church is unique (at least to me) in that you have most of the pews facing west but several facing north toward the high altar (whose ceiling is a blue-gray color unlike any other church ceiling I’ve seen). I’d love to see how they conduct services with this setup. But for your visit, be sure to look up at the all the ceiling construction and paintings.
When you’re done, return to the Obermarkt and turn to your right. You can do a bit of shopping along this street filled with stores and eateries as you head for Bruederstrasse 9, about a block up from the church.
Look down at the cobblestones on which you’re walking. It’s easy to ignore these. But noticing them helps remind you that the street that you’re walking on was part of the Via Regia, the longest and oldest network of roads that connected the most eastern and western parts of Europe for 2,000 years.
This set of roads went from Kiev, Ukraine to Santiago de Compestella on the Atlantic coast in Spain. It served three seemingly disparate but historically common purposes. First was trade. Merchants in the West traded cloth and other goods for spices, furs and wood from the East. Second was military. In times of war, the route allowed a quicker movement of armies back and forth between countries or kingdoms. Finally, the Via Regia served as a pilgrimage route connecting the most Eastern areas of Europe with the famed Camino de Santiago in Spain. And central to all of this sat Goerlitz.
Goerlitz itself became wealthy by selling a blue dye derived from woad (a local plant). Woad served as the principle source of the color blue until the 18th century when cheaper indigo from India took over. But while the trade lasted, it resulted in vast wealth for Goerlitz merchants. They used this wealth to build what we now refer to as Goerlitz Hall Houses.
You’re going to explore one of those now.
Stop 2: Hall House
This was one of my favorite places in Goerlitz, but I’m not sure how long you’ll be able to see it as the exhibit itself closed at the end of that month. They may still allow visits after that without the exhibit, but check at the location on Bruederstrasse 9 or with the local tourist office to be sure.
The exhibit was the architectural equivalent of examining tree rings. You can see over 600 years of life and change to the same building. These palaces are known as hall houses because they are narrow at the front of the building but have long hallways extending hundreds of feet from the street. This particular merchant palace reflects a diverse history of multiple uses over the centuries, the most recent being a residence for low-income citizens of Goerlitz in the 20th century.
What makes this such a fascinating find for photographers is that you get to see the building in an untouched state. There’s a derelict feel to the place, exposed plumbing, layers of peeling paint, architectural details worn weary with time. Models of the house help to reveal its former glory, but it takes some imagination. Plus, natural lighting illuminates the empty rooms and corridors in a manner that makes you feel as if you’re witnessing something almost forbidden. It’s as if you’ve sneaked into an abandoned mansion but without fear of being caught.
Like so many hidden places, it will bore some for whom pre-renovated buildings just feel decrepit. For those, head next door to the more opulent Silesian Museum. But if you want to delve into the hidden past, both figurative and literal, you should try and see this place.
Stop 3: The library at Barockhaus
A few doors down from the hall house and the Silesian Museum lies another museum, Barockhaus (the Baroque House) at Neissestrasse 30. Here, you get to see what one of the hall houses looks like furnished. The museum has interesting exhibits of daily life, art and even scientific instruments.
They charge a few euros if you want to take photos (same with the Holy Trinity Church), but the library alone is worth it if you like the look of old books. Rated by some as one of Europe’s most beautiful, the library used to be even more extensive before much of the scientific works were moved during WWII to the other side of the river into what is now Poland. After the war, those books were never returned. You’ll want a wide-angle lens for the library since you’re limited, unless you’re on a tour, to viewing the the library only from the entrance (hence the shot above). But even with that restricted view, it’s an impressive sight. I used a wide-angle for this shot, but a mid-range telephoto lens would allow you to focus in on the inner arches and open tome in the center on the table.
Stop 4: Restaurants
Keep moving down Neissestrasse toward the river and you’ll come across many of Goerlitz’s restaurants. While relatively few Americans visit this city, it’s become quite popular with German tourists and retirees.
So much so that on a Saturday night in October, we couldn’t get into any of the most popular restaurants until late in the evening since every one of them were reserved. In addition to those shown above on Neissestrasse, other restaurants recommended to us (that were also fully booked) included two on Peterstrasse: Fileto and St. Jonathan.
Stop 5: The border with Poland
If you ever want to enter another country without knowing it, just cross the Altstadtbrueke (Old City Bridge) that spans the Neisse river. No sign or other indicator informs you that you are leaving the town of Goerlitz, Germany and entering Zgorzelec, Poland (which was all one city before WWII).
So much for the passport stamp.
From a photography perspective, you’ll get some great shots of Peterskirche (St. Peters Church, the largest church in Goerlitz), and the neighboring gray Waidhaus (with the red-brown roof), one of the oldest buildings in town, originally used to store the valuable dye-making woad.
You’ll also get views of both towns down the river banks. Cross over into Zgorzelec for cheap but good restaurants and to watch local German citizens loading up on relatively inexpensive alcohol and cigarettes.
Stop 6: St. Peter’s Church (Peterskirche)
You can visit most weekdays (here’s a helpful article on the history of the church and what you’ll see inside ), but one of the best way to appreciate this church is to attend one of their evening concerts where they play the magnificent Sun Organ. Check with the church or the visitor’s center for days and times.
From St. Peter’s Church, you have a few choices. You can follow the map to the next stop, or make a detour and wander back down the river. If you do the latter, just catch up to the next location (Stop 7, Nicolaifriedhof) when you’re ready. And no matter which route you take, spend time just wandering the streets. This, to me, was the best part of Goerlitz.
Go up and down almost any street and you’ll see all kinds of historic buildings. Much of the town has been renovated over the last decade due to the generosity of an anonymous donor who spent around 500,000 euros per year from the mid-1990’s until just a few years ago.
The old town is small enough that you’re not likely to get lost, so just wander and be sure to take in the many architectural details along the way.
Eventually, end up at the next stop, where, as the old joke goes, people are just dying to get in.
Stop 7: Nicolaifriedhof (St. Nicholas Cemetery)
No, this is not where Santa Claus is buried (who’d deliver all the toys if that were the case?). Instead, it has served as the graveyard for Goerlitz for over 800 years. It’s a quiet place to explore respectfully.
Stop 8: The Untermarkt and Hotel Boerse
There are many appealing hotels and guesthouses and apartments in Goerlitz. We chose to stay at the Hotel Boerse because of its history and location. OK, to be honest, we’d heard this was where Wes Anderson and the film crew for The Grand Budapest Hotel stayed. Plus, it looks like it should be in that movie. Actually, we stayed at the guesthouse that is part of the hotel but lies across the square from the main building.
From a photographer’s perspective, this hotel and square provide numerous subjects. Pay attention to the details such as the astronomical notations on the old pharmacist’s building (which now houses the inviting Ratscafe where you can stop for a coffee of snack).
The entrance to our guesthouse across from Hotel Boerse was marked by the Fluesterbogen (Whispering Arch).
A person whispering something on one side can be heard by a listener on the other. It’s like an echo: You try it because others have, but find it’s more remarkable than you expect.
Also of note for shoppers, the little glassworks shop next to the Whispering Arch has some beautiful handmade items. We arrived after the store had closed, but the kind woman reopened and let us buy some quick gifts that were some of the best received items we purchased in Germany. And if you come during the Christmas season, I’m told there’s a Christmas Market that takes place in this same square.
We arrived in Goerlitz on a rainy afternoon and left the following morning after a lovely breakfast at the Bourse Hotel. With the weather and logistics, we had far less time to make photos of this beautiful city than I would have liked. So if you visit Goerlitz, allow at least a full day to take in all that the city offers. And pay attention to all the details, both inside the buildings and outside. I wish we’d had sunnier weather for some of the bigger landscape shots. However, the clouds made it easier to photograph some of these details without glare or too much contrast. Thus, for photographers, any time or weather can result in good images if you take the time (I was a bit rushed) and venture into the side streets.
To me, those details are what made this such a fun and attractive city, both aesthetically and photographically.
I’ve linked above to various articles, but here are two sites that I found to be very useful for our time in Goerlitz:
Tessa Approves – The blog of an American who lives in Goerlitz.
Visit Goerlitz – Official visitor site for the city.
Finally, if you want to improve your own photography, particularly on a trip, check out my free Guide to Making Awesome Travel Photos.