Koblenz reveals itself at many levels. At first glance, a cursory look reveals an undistinguished, small, modern city. But don’t rush away. Although more than 85 percent of the city was destroyed in November 1944, this is a city of surprising history, charm, and architectural treasures. The art museums alone could keep some guests captivated for a week. And Koblenz is a perfect base for exploring not only the Rhine and Mosel Rivers that border the city, but also lesser known rural regions like the Westerwald, Hunsrück, and Eiffel.
Koblenz is a case study in the dilemma faced by many German cities after the war: how to rebuild. Many structures retained their old façades but were otherwise rebuilt from the ground up. For a compelling example, visit the Jesuitenkirche, which retains its 17th-century giant rosette window and portal but was entirely rebuilt inside—in boldly modern form—with relics from its lengthy history.
Some buildings have been painstakingly restored. But even today’s most skilled artisans can’t always match their predecessors. Stand at the center of the so-called “Four Corners” in the pedestrian zone. Four ornate 17th-century oriel windows stand over each corner. Three were re-built in the 1950s following detailed designs. Line for line, they probably match the precise specifications and designs of the originals. But the fourth oriel, in its original form, projects so much more life and vibrancy.
Many structures were demolished and replaced by fully modern construction. It’s easy to see how the haste and economy of the 1950s translated into somewhat straightforward, efficient, and unimaginative structures. But buildings from the 1960s and 1970s reveal the more modern flair of the times. Some structures raised eyebrows—but perhaps no more so than the baroque architecture that replaced many Gothic and Romanesque buildings after the French destroyed two-thirds of the city in 1688. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, Jugendstil (art nouveau) architecture must have caused a stir as well. At Firmungstrasse 11, look up to see the giant head of the Greek goddess Hygieia.
This is not to say that Koblenz is devoid of old architecture or old-town charm. Quite the opposite is true, especially in the Altstadt in the corner of town bordered by the Mosel to the north and Rhine to the east. It’s a town of narrow alleys and vibrant plazas.
Perhaps the most calming and scenic walk, and one that gives a sense of the breadth of the Altstadt, is along the Mosel and Rhine promenades. Start with a stroll across the Balduin Bridge, first built across the Mosel in 1337. The view back to the Altstadt gives a good perspective with the turrets of the Old Castle and the two steeples of St. Florin’s Church.
Walk past these buildings to a reminder that the effects of war linger: vacant lots and stark walls of buildings quickly repaired. This lasts barely the length of a football field, however, and soon the Rhine and Mosel flow together at the so-called “German Corner.” It’s here that a giant copper statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I on horseback was erected in 1897, close to the spot where the Order of German Knights had its headquarters as early as 1216. The statue was destroyed by bombs in 1944. From 1953, the bare pedestal was known as the “Memorial to German Unity.” After reunification, a copy of the statue was replaced in 1993. Today, flags of all German states wave proudly over the two rivers.
Watch the waters of the Mosel enter and mix with the Rhine; it’s entrancing. The backdrop of the Ehrenbreitstein across the Rhine doesn't hurt either. From this mighty Fortress, looming 388 feet (118 meters) above the Rhine, visitors gain an instant sense of Koblenz’s symbolic strength and historic significance.
To visit the fortress, travel by passenger ferry from near the German Corner to the base of the fortress, and take a small cable car to the top. For those who prefer more conventional transportation, it’s about 20 minutes by car or 30 minutes by bus. The Prussians built the extensive fortress in the early 19th century as a line of defense against the French. With three other nearby fortresses (destroyed by treaty after World War I), Koblenz contained the largest fortifications in Europe after Gibraltar. Tours in English are by appointment only (tel. and fax +49/261/9742440), but English-language pamphlets are available, and most of the facility is open for exploration.
The view from the fortress points out the strategic significance of the city. More than 2,000 years ago, Romans built their first fortress in a town they called Confluentes, Latin for confluence, or “where rivers flow together.” They controlled traffic and commerce on both rivers, and for much of two millennia the city fell in an intermittent tug-of-war, starting with the Romans and Franks, continuing between the Prussians and the French, and with occupying nations following both World Wars. As they have for centuries, riverboats and barges cast their wakes toward the riverbanks.
The two rivers play a major role in the German mythos. The Rhine symbolizes strength and pride, while the Mosel is more nurturing. Indeed, just a short stroll upstream along the Rhine promenade, sculpted figures of “Father Rhine and Mother Mosel” lie caressing and affectionate on a bed of grapes. Behind them in stately counterpoint stands the sprawling neo-classical Elector’s Palace, built in the late 1700s (closed to the public).
One of the Rhine’s most scenic promenades starts here, just outside the Altstadt, and continues about two miles (three kilometers) upstream. Energetic walkers can enjoy extensive flower gardens of the Empress Augusta Park, commissioned by the Prussians. At her monument, walk to the street, enjoy a view of the early 20th-century villas, and take a short bus ride back to town.
Less energetic visitors—or those with a touch of hunger or thirst—may wish to break instead at the Wine Village, built for the 1925 German Wine Exhibition and consisting of half-timber buildings from Germany’s major wine regions. Inside, the view is to the relaxing Rhine. Outside, there’s a trellised courtyard.
On the return to the Altstadt, stop at the Görresplatz and study the Koblenz History Column, a towering statue built in 1992 to mark the city’s 2000-year anniversary. The 10 layers depict key scenes from the past including the first Roman settlement, seat of the empire of Charlemagne, Crusades, Thirty Years War, French Revolution, Prussian period, destruction in 1944, and, from the storm clouds of war, a revived city looking to the future. It’s a brilliantly graphic visual display that gives a historic perspective to the city and, to a great extent, the evolving nation. A marker gives detailed descriptions in English and German.
Continue to the “Plan,” or main square, once and still an important meeting place. While the focus on wine and food persists, the jousting and hangings of the past have yielded to more amiable social activities.
Stairs lead from the Plan through a small gate to the Liebfrauenkirche (Church of Our Beloved Lady), one of the oldest sites of Christian worship along the Rhine. As early as the 5th century, Christians worshiped in a church on this site. Today, the church stands as a stone tutorial with brilliant examples of architectural styles from the late Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque periods. The main basilica was built in the 12th and 13th centuries.
From the nearby Münzplatz (Mint Square), site of an early Roman fort, pass by the tacky bars and tattoo parlor to find the hidden Kunst-Gässchen (Little Art Alley) at Münzplatz 6-8, which snakes through a line of cubby-holed studios. Persist to the end and be rewarded with the Ceramics Studio Erdreich, where owner/artist Michael Borowieck displays and explains his avant garde and often R-rated work. The alleyway offers an excellent opportunity to view medieval construction, as many of the walls have been left open to reveal the weave of wood, plaster and straw.
From this high point in the Altstadt, narrow alleys wind to the Mosel making for eager exploration. The 13th-century Old Castle starts a row of architectural treasures: the 16th-century Lay Jurists Building, the 15th-century Old Merchants and Dance House, and St. Florin’s Church, constructed between the 12th and 14th centuries. Don’t walk by too quickly. Over the entrance of the Old Merchants and Dance House is the “Eye Roller,” constructed beneath the tower clock in 1724 to commemorate the execution here of a legendary robber baron. Instead of chiming bells, the eyes in the carved face roll.
Walk parallel down the Mosel toward the Rhine, and St. Castor Basilica comes into view. The Romanesque church was consecrated in 836, and most of the impressive structure dates from the 12th century. Behind it, stroll along the gravel paths of the peaceful Blumenhof (Courtyard of Flowers) under a canopy of trees and high shrubs. Behind the ivy walls, time feels little changed through the centuries.
Although Koblenz lacks a university in its downtown area, the city maintains a youthful vibrancy through its lively café and bistro scene—morning, noon and night. It’s a city that likes to have fun, and the most fun is along the Firmungstrasse in the pedestrian zone.
Café Einstein (Firmungstrasse 30) is one of the hot new restaurants and bars with as much emphasis on eclectic ambiance as on food. A broad seating area surrounds a circular bar, and tall windows fold back so that chairs and tables sprawl into the plaza. It’s worth a stop whether for coffee, a drink or more, especially when there’s live piano music—jazz or classical are equally typical. Or just look around at the paintings of namesake Albert riding a bike, playing a violin, sticking out his tongue or in more formal portraits.
Einstein faces its more sedate but still pleasantly quirky partner, Da Vinci (Firmungstrasse 32b), which offers Mediterranean cuisine in a classically beautiful setting. Floors are cherry, walls a sumptuous green, and the restaurant features paintings and sculptures in Renaissance style but by modern Italian artists. Other Italian artisans were brought in to work on the gilding and scrollwork.
The spacious, multi-story Grand Café (Firmungstrasse 2) offers an eclectic mixture of styles and atmospheres: Viennese-style café (in art deco design), cocktail bar, basement dance floor (for events like salsa nights and jazz concerts) and cigar lounge. The grand-scale interior is wide open with mezzanines—an excellent example of modern flair mixing with traditional styles. Lunches are popular with three-course specials from less than €8.
To get a taste of the local art scene, try Café Miljöö (Gemüsegasse 8), one of Koblenz’s many “art bars.” The outstanding artwork from local artists changes often, and it’s worth a stop for wine, coffee or a full meal. Breakfast is served until 5pm.
There’s been a heavy Italian influence in Koblenz since the 1930s, and one sign is the proliferation of ice cream shops and cafés. The best of the bunch is Eiscafé am Jesuitenplatz (Firmungstrasse 34), started in 1934 by Nonno Vincenzo Brustolon, whom the Jesuitenplatz reminded of his favorite Italian “piazzas.” Try the spaghetti (ice cream, not pasta) with fresh fruits and berries, liqueurs or caramelized walnuts.
Hotel Haus Morjan
The Hotel Haus Morjan, overlooking the Rhine promenade, is worth an overnight if only for the stunning views from its flower-decked balconies. Imagine waking to the sun rising over the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress and the Rhine. Or relaxing at “home” in the evening, while the last steamship casts off its lines barely 100 feet away and couples stroll along the moonlit promenade. Although the hotel itself is modern, it stands adjacent to the Altstadt and in a line of cafés, restaurants and Weinstuben that lend plenty of Old World charm. All 33 rooms are spacious, bright, and clean. Ask for a third-floor room with balcony (the fourth floor offers better views but no balconies).
Daily Rates: Singles from €57-72, doubles from €87-113.
Ratings: Quality: 14/20 Value 16/20
City-Hotel Kurfürst Balduin
If budget is a priority, the prices are great at the City-Hotel Kurfürst Balduin. The rooms are clean, quiet, well-outfitted and modern, if not spacious, and the location is great: immediately across the street from the pedestrian zone, one block from the Mosel and on a direct bus line to the train station. But the ambiance is bare-basics, nondescript conference hotel.
Daily Rates: Singles €44, doubles €62. Breakfast €8.
Ratings: Quality: 10/20 Value 14/20
The new (2004) Lorenz Hotel is just plain cool. Individually designed rooms are chic, but not overdone, and modern, but not sterile. Comfort is key. The black-and-white color scheme draws warmth from the hardwood floors and wooden furniture. There’s no elevator, and steps wind up a tower-like staircase to three levels of rooms. Room 10 on the top floor is huge with three broad windows opening on one side to the colorful Jesuitenplatz and on the other side to the Jesuitengasse, a narrow alley that opens to the Rathaus. The café-restaurant-bar of the same name is on the ground floor.
Daily Rates: Singles €75-85, doubles €102-117
Ratings: Quality: 15/20 Value 16/20
The Hotel Contel seems designed with the words “eclectic” and “whimsy” in mind. Murals cover the outside walls of the main building in Hundertwasser style: a solid-color scene of earth, heaven, sky, sun and stars with metal figures “climbing” toward the roof. Guests use a wooden bridge to cross duck ponds, where sculptures poke through reeds. Inside, it’s a labyrinth of surprises: In the bar, the seats are saddles, and traffic lights are chandeliers. Classical statues stand under hanging marionettes, knights’ armor next to carousel horses. Artwork and antiques from the past two centuries fill every possible nook. The initial overwhelming effect transforms quickly to a sense of fun, that some people shared their love for whimsy and detail to create this unusual space. As expected, the 185 guest rooms are individually designed, and all were full during a recent visit. Many have kitchenettes. Waterbeds are available upon request. It’s about 20 minutes by foot or 5 by car to the Altstadt.
Daily Rates: Singles and doubles €71-91. Breakfast €10.
Ratings: Quality: 14/20 Value 15/20
Small wine restaurants are extremely popular in Koblenz, most serving regional foods like sauerbraten with potato dumplings, potato pancakes served with bacon or smoked salmon and “heaven and earth,” a concoction of blood sausage and liverwurst fried with slices of potato, apples, cabbage and onions. Not surprisingly, wine plays an important role in many dishes.
The Weinhaus Hubertus is one of the oldest wine restaurants in town. Built in 1689 and damaged only slightly during the war, the half-timber building feels its age right down to the antique furniture, parquet floors and medieval hunting scenes lacquered on the walls. It’s cozy and comfortable, with sincere and friendly service, a place where it’s easy to spend an entire evening. The local clientèle, mostly consisting of frequent and long-time guests, is equally cordial. Some menu favorites include venison goulash in wine sauce with potato dumplings and red cabbage, jellied pork with remoulade sauce, herring salad with apples and cucumbers, boiled beef with horseradish and creamed cabbage (excellent) and lighter salad, cheese and sausage plates. Most entrées fall between €9-12. On any given evening, 40 open German wines and more than 70 bottled wines are available.
Contact: Weinhaus Hubertus, Florinsmarkt 6, 56068 Koblenz, tel. +49/261/3 11 77, fax 100 4919.
Rating: Quality: 15/20 Value 14/20
For a wine-centered evening, the Winninger Weinstuben is a Koblenz best bet. “Winninger” refers to the village of Winningen, just a short distance upstream on the Mosel, where the restaurant’s partner vineyard is located. The Weingut Rüdiger-Kröber provides many of the wines available at the restaurant, including less common Mosel red wines. A range of Germany’s highest-quality wines (Qualitätswein mit Prädikat) is available at various levels (based on sugar content): Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein—the rare wine made from grapes harvested after the first frost. While full bottles can cost €100 or more and are hard to find, guests can try samplers of .05 liters (€5.90 for a 1993 Eiswein, for example).
The food is typical vintner’s fare of cold dishes—sausages, cheese platters, smoked trout, pork in aspic—and crêpe-like flammkuchen served sweet with cinnamon and sugar or savory with blood sausage and onions. A couple can dine for less than €15.
The restaurant is open for dinner only, the perfect time to sit by a window or at one of the outdoor trestle tables and watch the setting sun reflect its changing colors on Ehrenbreitstein Fortress.
Contact: Winninger Weinstuben, Rheinzollstrasse 2, D-56068 Koblenz, tel. +49/261/38707, Web www.
Rating: Quality: 14/20 Value 14/20
Lorenz Café Restaurant
Lorenz Café Restaurant typifies the more modern Koblenz gastronomy scene with its upbeat, hip design and imaginative international cuisine. The trendy architecture blends well with the old styles: Floor-to-ceiling glass fills Romanesque archways and opens in warm weather to extend seating onto the Jesuitenplatz below the façade of the town hall. It’s great for a light lunch or longer dinner, and breakfast (a choice of French, American, Italian or American) is extremely popular and served to 6 p.m. Lentil soup with coriander and grilled shrimp (€5) was the perfect prelude for spinach ricotta gnocchi with grilled duck breast in orange estragon sauce (€6.50). Save room for dessert.
Ratings: Quality: 15/20 Value 16/20
In front of the Alt Coblenz, a blackboard tempts passersby with a list of regional and Italian dishes: potato soup with sausage or fish, chicken roulade stuffed with sheep’s cheese, tomatoes and rosemary, pork hock with cabbage, baked goat cheese with huckleberries, lamb ragout with red wine, and a variety of pizza and pasta selections. Entrées range from €9-13 with plenty of lower-priced options like cheese, sausage and salad plates. Imported steaks served from “natural” to Chateaubriand range higher. Seniors and children can also order half portions.
An extensive variety of regional wines is available by the glass or bottle. Each year, owners Marianne and Joe Wilbert choose one wine as their house wine, and the “My Way” from Weingut Michael Dorsch was fruity and sharp. Tasters start at €1 for 0.1 liters.
The setting is a relaxed tavern, slightly busy upstairs, and quiet but somewhat remote in the 18th-century wine cellar. If the weather’s good, sit outside on the Plan, one of Koblenz’s many airy squares. Service was often distracted but always friendly: “I forgot to give you a napkin? Then let me give you two.”
Rating: Quality: 13/20 Value 14/20