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A stroll through Freiburg’s city history

10 places the city’s history comes alive

History, tradition, and modernity – Freiburg combines the experience from history with curiosity for a sustainable future.

How time flies: In 2020 it will be exactly 900 years ago that Duke Konrad I of Zähringen, together with his brother Berthold III, granted the “Freie Burg” (meaning “Free Castle”) market and town rights. Both laid the cornerstone for the Freiburg of today – for this reason, the city will be celebrating its 900th birthday with many projects and events.

The following places show where city history can still be experienced today:

#1 Freiburg Cathedral – The city's landmark

The Swiss art historian Jacob Burckhardt once described the striking tower of the Freiburg Cathedral as the “most beautiful tower on earth.” 116 meters tall, it has become the city’s landmark, visible from afar. Freiburg can be viewed from above from the viewing platform at a height of around 70 meters. The origins of the Freiburg Cathedral go back to the year 1200. Because the church at the “Free Castle” had become too small at that time, Berthold V ordered the construction of the Freiburg Cathedral. Naturally, many years would pass before completion in 1513. The construction of the Freiburg church was begun in the Romanesque style. Essential parts, however, can be classified as Gothic and late Gothic.

The Cathedral in Freiburghas always had a high importance among the people. The church windows are quite famous; many were donated by the guilds. They date from around 1330 and use symbols such as pretzels, boots, mill wheels, or scissors to indicate the wide range of trades. The fact that the windows are even still around today is thanks to the foresight of the people of Freiburg. The windows were removed as a precaution during World War II to protect them from air raids. Miraculously, the Freiburg church was spared any direct bomb hits.

The surrounding Old Town, by contrast, was roughly 80 percent destroyed. Also not spared from destruction was the Cathedral Plaza – the place to which Duke Konrad I of Zähringen granted market and town rights in 1120. Even today, the bread measurements in the vestibule of the Freiburg Cathedral remind us of this time. In the Middle Ages they served to regulate sizes and quantities at the Cathedral Market.

City anniversary projects:

Blick vom Stadtgarten auf das Freiburger Münster
Blick vom Stadtgarten auf das Freiburger Münster - © FWTM-Baschi-Bender

#2 Freiburg city gates – Parts of the old city wall

In the Middle Ages, a total of five city gates granted access to Freiburg. They were integrated flush into the city wall and connected to the battlements. Today two city gates are still intact, Martin’s Gate:

Surprisingly, the greatest threats to the Martinstor (Martin’s Gate) and the Schwabentor (Swabian Gate) in Freiburg were not the wars over the centuries. Rather, the two city gates almost fell victim to the mobility needs of Freiburg citizens around 1888: Plans for an electric railway meant a planned demolition. But then Mayor Otto Winterer vehemently opposed it. Without further ado, he had the Martin’s Gate in Freiburg raised from 22 to 63 meters, creating an enlarged passage for the tram and thus satisfying the demolition advocates. Today, the Freiburg Martin’s Gate can only be viewed from the outside. A plaque on the inside commemorates the witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries.

In contrast to the Martin’s Gate, the Swabian Gate can be seen from the inside. The prerequisite for this is a visit to the Tin Figure Cabinet. There, the events of the Baden Revolution and the witch hunts are recreated. On the northern side of the Freiburg Swabian Gate, the dragon slayer St. George – the patron saint of the city of Freiburg– watches out. A salt merchant with his cart is depicted on the inside of the city gate. It stands for a nice little story about a foolish Swabian who once tried in vain to buy Freiburg. The Swabian Gate in Freiburg is named after him.

City anniversary projects:

Martinstor Freiburg
Martinstor Freiburg - © Angelina Antal

#3 View from above – Freiburg Bächle, cobblestones and stumbling blocks

Those who take a look downwards in the Old Town can discover a lot. Freiburg's Bächle have been flowing through the streets and alleys of the Old Town since the Middle Ages. The installation of the Bächle required the Old Town to be raised by up to three meters. This can still be seen in some places today, such as in the cellars of the University’s museum or the Inn "Zum Roten Bären". Freiburg’s Bächle have brought about tradition and a profession of their own: the Freiburg Bächle cleaner.

The Freiburg Bächle are fed by the commercial canal of the Upper Old Town. They can reach lengths of 14 to 15 kilometers – 7.2 kilometers of which are on the surface. Along the Bächle, many narrow cobblestone paths lead through idyllic lanes with pubs, galleries and unusual shops connecting the Martin’s Gate and Swabian Gate.

Filigree rhinestone mosaics in front of the shops indicate which shops are there. In front of the town hall, mosaics reproduce the coats of arms of the sister cities. On closer inspection, the stumbling blocks embedded in the cobblestones are noticeable everywhere in the city. They refer to the gruesome crimes of the Nazi era and inspire reflection.

City anniversary projects:

Steinmosaik auf dem Boden
Steinmosaik auf dem Boden - © FWTM-Antal

#4 University of Freiburg – Traces of America

The people of Freiburg are young – much younger than the state average. This is mainly due to the Albert Ludwig University of Freiburg and its approximately 30,000 students. Freiburg has been a well-known student city, far beyond the region, since the 15th century. Founded in 1547, the University of Freiburg is one of the oldest in Germany and is spread out over several buildings in the city area.

At the Kollegiengebäude III building, opposite the Haus zur Lieben Hand, is a plaque commemorating the Freiburg student Martin Waldseemüller. In 1507, due to a false assumption, he gave the American continent its name. The University’s Museum is located in the Old University on Bertoldstrasse. Here, Freiburg student life of the past is illuminated by presentations, original works of art, and productions from different eras. The cellar of the University’s Museum also offers insights into medieval residential buildings.

City anniversary projects:

Altes Universitätsgebäude -Uniseum
Altes Universitätsgebäude -Uniseum - © FWTM-Escher

#5 Schlossberg – Good views

With a fantastic view over Freiburg and the Rhine Valley, the Schlossberg is an attraction in itself. Above all, the 35-meter tall Schlossberg Tower offers an unforgettable, 360-degree panoramic view. In times past, the medieval castle with its fortress was enthroned here. Today, only the Bismarck Tower and the Kanonenplatz (Cannon Square) bear witness to an eventful history. The adjoining Commander’s Garden invites you to take a stroll. East of Cannon Square, you can climb up to the tower. The staircase up to the Schlossberg Tower is impressive evidence of the civic commitment of the people of Freiburg. The costs of EUR 90,000 were donated by companies and private individuals.

City anniversary projects:

Blick vom Freiburger Schlossberg
Blick vom Freiburger Schlossberg - © FWTM-Antal

#6 Town halls in the city center – Tradition meets modernity

The Rathausplatz (Town Hall Square) in Freiburg’s city center is home to three council buildings:

Paradoxically, the New Town Hall is older than the Old Town Hall. It was built between 1539 and 1545. Until 1891, the New Town Hall housed the medical and natural science departments of the university. Today, it’s also used as a town hall. The wood-paneled wedding room, for example, is located in this building. The Old Town Hall, on the other hand, was not completed until 1559 and has been the administrative seat ever since. On the ground floor, the Tourist Information office has brought the modern day into the Old Town Hall. Just behind the Old Town Hall is Freiburg’s oldest administrative building, the Old Court House. It is the city’s first council building, dating back to 1303.

City anniversary projects:

Neues Rathaus Freiburg
Neues Rathaus Freiburg - © FWTM-Mende

#7 Vauban District – Sustainable living in Freiburg

The Vauban District is comparatively young. It is visible proof of Freiburg’s reputation as a Green City. The Vauban District is regarded as a model project for sustainable living, and enjoys worldwide recognition. Passive construction, natural air conditioning, and several other measures make the Solar Settlement and the Sun Ship into energy-positive houses, producing more energy than their inhabitants consume. With the Heliotrope by solar architect Rolf Disch, the Vauban District is home to the world’s first energy-positive house. Boards in front of the Heliotrope allow interested people to learn more on the spot.

City anniversary projects:

Green City Freiburg: Houses in the district Vauban
Green City Freiburg: Houses in the district Vauban - © FWTM-Schoenen

#8 Old Cemetery – Mystery of the sleeping beauty

A tour of the Old Cemetery invites you to discover Freiburg’s history and art, from the Baroque to the Neoclassical period. People were laid to rest here from 1683 to 1872. Today, the living seek relaxation in the Old Cemetery and enjoy the natural and cultural monument. The mystery of the sleeping beauty is still unsolved today – Caroline Walter’s grave in the Old Cemetery is one of the most beautiful graves in Freiburg. Even today, fresh flowers are placed on the grave every day. Where do they come from? Nobody knows.

City anniversary projects:

Grab der schlafenden Schönen auf dem Alten Friedhof Freiburg
Grab der schlafenden Schönen auf dem Alten Friedhof Freiburg - © FWTM-Antal

#9 Freiburg Municipal Forest – Orderly forestry

Freiburg is green – and not just the mentality of its inhabitants. Roughly 40 percent of the city area is made up by forests, making the southernmost major city in Germany one of the largest forested communities in the country. Of course, this wasn’t always the case. From the Middle Ages – the so-called Wooden Age – until the year 1883, what was left of it had been deforested. Only then did regulation of the forestry industry begin.

And it has paid off – and can even come up with a superlative because: After all, the Waldtraut (Germany’s tallest tree) stands in Freiburg. Waldtraut, the more than 100-year-old Douglas fir, is 66.58 meters tall – and still growing. Waltraut vom Mühlwald stands in Freiburg Günterstal. A good starting point for a hike to the tree is the parking lot shortly past Freiburg Günterstal, at Schauinslandstrasse. The route is sign-posted.

City anniversary projects:

Waldtraut vom Mühlwald - höchster Baum Deutschlands im Freiburger Stadtwaldt
Waldtraut vom Mühlwald - höchster Baum Deutschlands im Freiburger Stadtwaldt - © FWTM-Xu

#10 Schauinsland – Foundation for wealth and prosperity

The Schauinsland soars, 1284 meters high. If you want to know how the mountain got its name, the Schauinsland cable car, Germany's longest cable car, is the best way to overcome the 746-meter difference in altitude. Over a length of 3600 meters, the gondola provides ample opportunity to “take in the countryside” across the Rhine plain, the Kaiserstuhl, and the Vosges mountains.

The Schauinsland is an ideal recreation area for hikers, bikers, and Nordic walkers. It also offers various possibilities for paragliders and winter athletes. One interesting side trip is to the Schniederlihof. The more than 400-year-old farmhouse museum brings old Black Forest history back to life.

A museum of a completely different kind is located in the interior of the Schauinsland. For 800 years, silver, lead, and zinc were collected in the Schauinsland Mining Museum. For 15,000 marks of silver, the city of Freiburg bought itself free from the rule of the counts in 1368, went under the protection of the Habsburgs, thus laying the foundation for wealth and prosperity.

City anniversary projects:

Fall at the Schauinsland mountain
Fall at the Schauinsland mountain - © FWTM-Antal