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Except for East Berlin, historically it was perhaps the most important city in the old East Germany. Sometimes called the "Athens of Germany," it was never a spawning ground for extreme politics, but a cradle for great literature, music and ideas.

Hotel Amalienhof
Hotel Amalienhof

Given its important place in German history, one might expect more in a physical sense than the small-town atmosphere of this placid city of 60,000. A visit to the small chapel in the town's Alter Friedhof (old cemetery) underscores Weimar's role in the development of German culture. Beneath its ancient floors, the Ducal Vault houses the ornate sarcophagi of the royal family of the Grand Duchy of Saxe-Weimar. But impressive as they are, these fancy caskets play second fiddle to a pair of plain, side by side, polished wooden coffins which bear the remains of two of the most revered citizens in German history, Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Friedrich von Schiller. Weimar was the physical and creative headquarters for both.

The genius Goethe, who created Faust and directed the National Theater, is often referred to as the greatest German of them all and his pal Schiller—as in Schiller's "Ode to Joy" in the glorious choral movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony and the William Tell drama—is not far behind. Their impact on Germany is demonstrated by the literally thousands of Schiller Strassen and Goethe Platzen in towns all over the country.

Among Weimar's other famous citizens: the painter, Lucas Cranach the Elder; J.S. Bach and Franz Liszt, both of whom directed the local orchestra; Walter Gropius, founder of the original Bauhaus, which altered forever the course of modern design and architecture; and the philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche.

Of course, there is a Cranachhaus, a Liszthaus, a Bachstube, a Schillerhaus, a Goethehaus and even a Goethe Gartenhaus in the town's lovely Ilm Park, all of which can be visited.

The Deutsches National Theater, where the Weimar Republic's constitution was adopted in 1919, was almost totally destroyed in World War II but today offers a schedule of music and drama whose frequency and quality are extraordinary for a town of this size.

Visitors can also take in a variety of palaces and museums or make the grim, five-mile pilgrimage to Buchenwald, one of the largest of Hitler's concentration camps.

Even if most Americans know little of Weimar, the Germans, of course, are in love with the town and fully aware of its historical significance. Soon after unification, the government began pouring millions of Deutsche Mark into making it a showplace and it was Europe's Cultural Capital in 1999. Weimar is by far the smallest city so named and follows such European metropolises as Madrid ('92), Lisbon ('94), Copenhagen ('96) and Stockholm ('98).