The Overlooked German Region Hiding Behind a Corporate Front
Forget hedonistic Berlin or tourist-heavy Munich. Southwest Germany is stocked with palaces, charming villages, churches, and fascinating museums.
Of all the historically “manly” pursuits, the one I can claim the least affinity for is car culture. Don’t get me wrong—I love driving fast and enjoy a luxury ride as much as the next person, but beyond that my interest level is pretty much nil. So nobody could have been more surprised than I when I chose to spend two precious summer days this year indoors learning about… cars.
It was the end of August and I found myself whiling away the hours at two of the best museums I’ve been to in a long time—ones belonging to Porsche and Mercedes-Benz in the industrial German city of Stuttgart. I was there for a few days at the culmination of a week racing around southwest Germany for our twice-a-month series on underrated destinations, It’s Still a Big World.
Most people visit Germany and head either to its hedonistic capital city of Berlin or to Munich to gawk with countless others at the wonders built by the Wittelsbach dynasty (including the Sleeping Beauty castle and a Versailles replica). And while statistically plenty of Americans also head to the southwest of Germany, a lot of that is for the military base here, which plays host to thousands of Americans, or just for the ruins of Heidelberg Castle or the splendor of Hohenzollern Palace. What gets overlooked is a region stocked with an overwhelming number of palaces, charming villages, churches, over-the-top libraries, and a major city just waiting for visitors to look past its corporate reputation.
My journey began immediately after landing from an overnight flight to Frankfurt, which is just north of the region. Bleary-eyed and not the cheeriest, I made my first stop Schwetzingen Palace, the summer residence of the Electors Palatinate from the area in the 17th and 18th centuries. While my very enthusiastic guide pointed out that Voltaire reportedly finished Candide while visiting and 7-year-old Mozart played here, the palace itself wouldn’t stand out in the glittering array of residences across Germany. Instead, the gardens are what make this place truly remarkable.
I generally don’t like baroque gardens. They often feel overwrought and their follies forced. But somehow Schwetzingen, which is almost a fusion of the formal French style and the increasingly popular English style, was just right.
In the mid-18th century under Charles Theodore, a member of the Wittelsbach family, the gardens of Schwetzingen underwent a massive overhaul to become what present-day visitors can experience, with vantage points meant to convey drama that are genuinely dramatic. Walking through some of the hedges, I felt like at any turn I could stumble upon romantic lovers stowed away in one of the nooks. And every folly serves the purposes of leaving one wishing one could be the Elector’s guest wandering the ground with clever surprise after clever surprise waiting.
From there I sped (literally, as there’s no limit on the autobahn) on to Bruchsal, where I’d spend the night and visit another underrated attraction, the Bruchsal Palace. Built by the Prince-Bishop of Speyer in the early 18th century and mostly designed by that era’s Baroque “starchitect,” Balthasar Neumann, it was partially destroyed by bombs during World War II. While its wings have largely been modernized inside, the central public rooms have been painstakingly restored, which is a blessing, as they have some of the most spectacular trompe l’oeil I’ve ever seen, which all complement Neumann’s renowned staircase.
I sometimes felt as a child as if God was playing a funny little game placing the library I wanted to stay in forever next to the basketball courts where I was forced to spend most of my time. So it’s no surprise that my second day was heavenly, as it was spent mostly in libraries. I won’t go into too much detail with the fascinating histories, as they’re near future selections for our fantastic series on the World’s Most Beautiful Libraries, but I will say unequivocally that visiting the jewel-box libraries at Wiblingen and Schussenried are worth any schlep. Plus, right near Schussenried Monastery is the Steinhausen church, a masterpiece of Baroque in the miniature by the Zimmerman brothers.
After a couple days in the pastel confections of the Baroque and Rococo eras, I was immediately transported into the 20th and 21st century upon entering Stuttgart the following day. While some of the core of the city and the hillsides retain some of the 18th- and 19th-century buildings, the last century dominates much of what one sees in the city today, in part due to some areas being destroyed in World War II. Though it looks like Stuttgart has already undergone a number of transformations, it’s actually in the midst of another massive one right now, turning a major central chunk of the ever-expanding metropolis into a massive park with modern developments all around it.
I spent my three nights in Stuttgart at the Jaz Hotel—named not for the music but the flower—which sits atop a rise behind the train station and right next door to one of the city’s best modern attractions, the new Stuttgart City Library. One of the best meals I had in my three weeks in Germany was at Weinstube Frohlich, which is your spot if you want to try traditional German food that is a bit more on the elegant side.
Stuttgart has a unique culture and vibe that can be a bit hard to get a grasp on, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be kept busy. In fact, I found that with a number of palaces, museums, and climbs to the surrounding hills, I had too much to do. So, rather than see more pretty palaces, I opted to go for the experience that has made Stuttgart so central today—cars.
Before I visited the Porsche and Mercedes-Benz museums, I had been told by a number of people that my experience with each would really depend on how much I loved cars. If I was a car fanatic, Porsche would be my heaven, whereas Mercedes-Benz was more general audience. I have to say after experiencing both that while I can see why some might say that, I found both fascinating.
Porsche was filled with car aficionados. As I took in each car in this famed company’s evolution and tried to balance my interest in the history and business aspects with my ignorance of the mechanics, the number of Italian men I saw excitedly pointing and arguing with their friends about what they were seeing and what it meant were too many to count.
The company was founded by Ferdinand Porsche in 1931, and what becomes evident wandering throughout the long line of cars is just how much racing shaped everything. The push to win the world’s major races resulted in magnificent advances that eventually trickled down into our car experience today. From my vantage point, the Porsche Museum was also part art history, and I was constantly thinking about Tom Wolfe’s famous The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby essay about the car artists in America who shaped car design in ways we can’t imagine for such a corporate entity. In spite of my ignorance, I found myself mesmerized by the artistry and sensuality of the cars, which despite a “need for speed” often managed to be sexy. The museum also doesn’t shy away from Ferdinand’s close work with the Nazi regime.
The Mercedes-Benz museum, on the other hand, is definitely for history buffs. It follows the massive car conglomerate from its origins out of the minds of rival inventors Otto Benz, Wilhelm Maybach, and Gottlieb Daimler (it's believed that Benz never met Daimler), early dominance in the first decades of the 20th century, on through cooperation with the Nazi regime, and a number of reinventions throughout the modern era. The historical tidbits one walks away with are too numerous to count, but one thing the museum does very well is weave in the historic and cultural shifts outside the car industry that affect and are affected by this central part of modern life. (Perhaps my favorite artifact there was the first-ever gas-powered engine for a boat designed by Maybach and Daimler and owned by Chancellor Bismarck.)
From gardens to libraries to palaces to car museums, a journey around southwest Germany has something for everybody. And when you sit back and tally the things to see, it’s quite impressive, and far more than just a center of industry.