More than any other city, Wittenberg (also known as Lutherstadt Wittenberg) is identified with Martin Luther and Reformation history. Most of its historical buildings survived WWII intact, after which East German authorities renovated many of the key tourist attractions. Even more were repaired after German reunification. Wittenberg’s Luther sites became UNESCO World Cultural Heritage sites in 1997.
Major sites in Wittenberg
Castle Church: Located on the western edge of the old quarter, the church was once part of a castle used by the electors of Saxony and became the official university church after its consecration in 1503. The tower of the church bears a colorful mosaic with the opening of Luther’s famous chorale “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott, ein’ gute Wehr und Waffen” (A mighty fortress is our God, a trusty shield and weapon.) With its late-Gothic-style vault, coats of arms, and graves of Luther and Philipp Melanchthon, the church is an impressive memorial to the Reformation. Appropriately, Luther lies beneath a simple bronze tablet located below the pulpit. The site everyone comes to see is the door on the side of the church, the place where Luther nailed his 95 Theses protesting the sale of indulgences. Unfortunately the original door was destroyed in a fire in 1760, but a black bronze door marks the spot where history was made.
Town Church: This is the town’s oldest and most striking building. Its full name is the Town and Parish Church of St. Mary. It began as a chapel built around 1280, with a larger addition constructed later on the west end. The church’s most outstanding feature is its Reformation-era altar created by Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1547. Its four panels represent the pillars of the Protestant faith and include portraits of Luther, Melanchthon, Cranach and Katharina von Bora. Take note of the memorial plaque set into the ground at the southeastern corner of the church. The plaque is a response to an anti-Jewish image on the church that dates from 1304. Rather than remove the offensive image, the people of Wittenberg have instead used it as a chance to educate people about anti-Semitism in German history.
Melanchthon House: This site was once home to Philipp Melanchthon, the man called “Praeceptor Germaniae,” or Germany’s teacher, because of his major role in the reform of the country’s educational system. He also wrote influential theological works and was Luther’s closest collaborator. The house was built between 1536 and 1539 for Melanchthon and his family. It’s now devoted to a museum celebrating his life and work.
Market Square: With its splendid Renaissance town hall, Wittenberg’s market square is one of the finest in this region of Germany. Built in the early sixteenth century, it housed administrative and judicial offices and also had a large hall where traders offered their wares. In front of the town hall today are monuments to Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon. Inside is a permanent exhibition on “Christian Art in the 20th Century,” with works by Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, and other artists.
Luther House: This UNESCO World Heritage Site preserves the place where Luther lived and worked and is the world’s largest museum on Reformation history. Luther lived here from his arrival in Wittenberg in 1508 until his death in 1546. It includes a series of rooms with exhibits on Luther’s life, work, and influence and the great hall in which Luther gave his lectures. Also on display are an indulgences box from the period, Luther’s pulpit from the Town Church, and a first edition of the Lutheran Bible, printed in Wittenberg in 1534. The Luther House also features an exhibit on the “Reformation as Media Revolution,” which looks at the various debates that arose during the early days of printing and how new technologies helped spread Luther’s ideas around Europe. Outside the museum is a bronze statue of Katharina von Bora, Luther’s wife (those seeking a happy marriage rub her wedding ring).
Cramach Houses: During Luther’s day, Lucas Cranach the Elder was court painter to Frederick the Wise and also operated a successful printing workshop in Wittenberg. In 1518 he became the owner of Schlossstrasse 1, the most prestigious property in town. The site included his home, painting studio, printing workshop, and a pharmacy. Today the building and a neighboring structure are owned by the town of Wittenberg. They border a charming courtyard and feature an art gallery, an artist in residence, pharmacy, and wine store. Don’t miss the historical printing workshop, where you can see how Luther’s Bible and other works were printed.
Additional Things to Do in Wittenberg:
Bike Paths: Three long-distance bike paths pass through Wittenberg’s historical quarter. The most popular is the Elbe Cycle Path, which links Prague, Dresden and Hamburg. The R1 European cycle path runs from France’s Atlantic coast to St. Petersburg.
The House of History: This historical exhibit gives a picture of life in the former GDR (also known as East Germany). Photos, documents, and personal accounts are presented amid rooms decorated in period furnishings. If you like orange, you’ll love the 1970s-era display.
River Cruise: Take an Elbe River cruise on the Lutherstadt Wittenberg, which leaves from the town harbor (a 15 minute walk from the Castle Church).
The brilliant red Luther at right resides at Wittenberg’s Brauhaus Restaurant (he is one of several hundred brightly colored Luthers created by an artist and then sold to Luther fans around the world). The restaurant brews its own beer and serves such Wittenberg favorites as Luther rolls (beef rolls filled with onion and topped with gravy), red cabbage, and potato dumplings. In nice weather you can enjoy your meal in a pleasant courtyard. You’ll find the restaurant at Markt 6.
Lodging: Luther-Hotel Wittenberg (Neustrasse 7-10) is a charming hotel located within walking distance of the town’s historic sites. It has a garden courtyard, rooftop terrace, medition room, meeting rooms, and sauna. At its restaurant, I enjoyed one of the best meals I had during my stay in Germany.
The town’s largest festival is Luther’s Wedding held on the second weekend in June. The three days of medieval merrymaking include strolling musicians and entertainers, a procession, and historical reenactors. The celebration commemorates the wedding of Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora in 1525. There is also the opportunity for couples to renew their own wedding vows at the Saturday evening “Celebration of Christian Marriage” service sponsored by the Wittenberg English Ministry.
The Wittenberg English Ministry coordinates a variety of events and services from May through October each year. Staffed by visiting Lutheran pastors from the USA, Canada and Australia, half-hour English services are held every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 4:00 to 4:30 p.m. in the quaint Corpus Christi Chapel (built ca. 1368) that stands adjacent to the Town Church. An hour-long English Service of the Word is held every Saturday from 5:00 to 6:00 p.m., alternating weekly between the Castle Church and the Town Church. Luther’s great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress” is sung at each of the English services. For details ask at Wittenberg Information near the Castle Church or visit www.WittenbergEnglishMinistry.
Reformation Festival: Held on October 29-31, this event features festival church services, exhibitions, and special events. On October 31, professors of Halle-Wittenberg University parade in ceremonial robes to an academic debate at the Leucorea, the former Wittenberg University.