A two-hour train ride from Frankfurt brought me to the Christmas markets in Nuremberg (or, in German, Nürnberg), and I knew immediately this city was special. The main train station from which I exited turned out to be one of the city’s most beautiful buildings, as was the opera house to the left. Directly across the street, I was greeted by Handwerkerhof Nürnberg, a collection of half-timbered buildings and narrow alleys in the old arsenal behind the old city walls where vendors sell handmade wood, glass, gold, and metal products from their small workshops in the shadow of the old Frauentorturm (1300s). Having barely walked a dozen feet, I was already captivated. With such an impressive introduction, Nuremberg should be extremely proud of its architectural beauties. These are my favorites.
#1 St. Sebaldus Church (Sebalduskirche)
One of the city’s oldest and most important churches, St. Sebaldus Church has been soaring over the city since its initial completion in 1275. Construction didn’t end there, though: Subsequent additions and reconfigurations included the widening of side aisles, addition of towers and galleries, heightening of steeples, and conversion of the interior from a Romanesque style to Baroque, all of which lasted through the 17th century. Then, all was peaceful — until World War II and the virtual obliteration of the church. The archival photos of the church and its near complete destruction that I found inside provided fascinating snapshots of how badly this church suffered — but you’d never know it by looking at it today, thanks to a meticulous reconstruction completed in 1957. Named for the city’s patron saint, an 8th-century hermit and missionary, St. Sebaldus sports a formidable stone façade, complete with twin towers capped by verdigris-green spires, pinnacles, and some wonderful stone details, like the Palm Sunday panel and the statue of St. Christopher toting the Christ Child on his shoulders by the entrance. I enjoyed all that majesty while snacking on a sausage at the adjacent Christmas market. Then I headed inside, where I was surprised by the unexpectedly bright interior, warmed by flickering candles on altars and in Advent wreaths. Soaring cluster columns support the high groin-vault ceiling. Painted statues of saints standing on little shelves abound, and a wide painting tells the whole story of Adam and Eve. The very vertical windows combine stained and plain glass. The most notable feature is the Shrine of St. Sebaldus, which survived the World War II bombings. This extremely ornate tomb, adorned with figures ranging from religious personae and angels to mice and snails, houses a silver reliquary casket that contains the bones of the church’s eponymous saint.
#2 St. Lawrence Church (Lorenzkirche)
Although it’s a bit newer than St. Sebaldus Church, St. Lawrence Church followed a similar historical path: completion, expansion, and additions, severe damage during World War II, and reconstruction. From the booths of the Christmas market outside its doors, I stared up at the two massive towers, with their gargoyles and finials, and two different, spiky spires. The central space between them is filled in by a wonderful rose window encircled by outstanding tracery, and by a highly ornamented portal with dozens of figures representing everything from the birth of Jesus to His crucifixion to Judgment Day, with a disturbing scene of corpses breaking out of coffins. Completed in 1477 and switched to a Lutheran church during the Reformation, the Gothic three-aisle church was spared the destructive iconoclasm by the city council and wealthy citizens who had paid for it in the first place, but it couldn’t emerge unscathed from the destruction of the Second World War. On the feast day of the church’s namesake, August 10, Allied bombs struck the building for the first time, in 1943, followed by another bombing in 1945. By the end, much of the church was completely destroyed and the towers badly damaged, but most of the art survived, having been removed prior to the war and safely stored in art bunkers. Removal of all the rubble and reconstruction lasted for years, completed in 1952. Like St. Sebaldus, the interior is extremely vertical, with tall cluster columns and arches leading up to a high, groin-vault ceiling above the nave. Throughout, I kept coming across wonderful features and details, thankful for the foresight of those who stowed away the church’s treasures before the bombs fell. The stained-glass windows, the small human heads on the wood choir stalls, the finely sculpted pulpit with depictions of the four evangelists, a gorgeous raised platform swathed in tracery and human and animal figures that rests on the shoulders of three kneeling men, and wonderful centuries’-old wooden sculptures, including a particularly fine Last Supper, all survived and make you almost question whether a war ever took place here at all.
#3 Opera House (Opernhaus)
The first building I saw as I emerged from the fantastic Central Station (Hauptbahnhof) loomed large to my left. Nuremberg’s Opera House is one of the largest theaters in Germany. Completed in 1905, this massive Art Nouveau structure with Baroque touches houses three separate halls that can seat nearly 2,000 audience members who attend performances, especially those of the famed Nuremberg Philharmonic Orchestra. Complete with a sandstone and limestone façade, glazed roof tiles, a dome, gables, and dormer windows, the Opera House was the most expensive theater built in Europe at the time. Following heavy destruction during World War II, the building was reconstructed after the fighting stopped — sort of. The exterior looks largely the same as it did originally, with plentiful statuary and sculptures adorning the façade that stem from Richard Wagner’s musical dramas, the history of both the city and the theater industry, and Norse mythology, including a mosaic of the three norns (the trio of female beings who rule the destiny of gods and men in Norse mythology) set into the arch over the main entry. At the very top of the building, above the Nuremberg coat of arms, three larger-than-life figures greet concert-goers. The interior, however, did not fare as well, suffering from both a pre-war redesign that did away with the Art Nouveau elements in favor of the National Socialism style favored by the Nazis, and from the post-war rebuild that further made things even simpler. Yet, if you’re just viewing it from the street, this remains one of the city’s grandest edifices.
#4 St. Egidien’s Church (Egidienkirche)
A little walk uphill from the heart of Nuremberg brought me to St. Egidien’s Church, facing the equestrian statue of Wilhelm I at the head of Egidienplatz. This lovely church, with its twin bell and clock towers, was the largest construction project in the city when the foundation stone was laid in 1711. Like its contemporaries here, it was a victim of an air raid in World War II, suffering substantial damage to the outer walls and the total collapse of the roof, destroying much of what had stood underneath it. Following a dozen years of reconstruction after the war, the church’s exterior gives no hint of its formerly ruined state, but the interior was largely altered and simplified, as the cost of reconstructing the Baroque interior was unaffordable at the time. The exceptionally plain but bright interior, with a very subtle salmon color on the walls between white pilasters, belies the Baroque vocabulary. Nevertheless, there are two very fine reasons to visit here, one seasonal, one yearlong. If you’re here during the Christmas season, you’ll love the Nativity scenes that have been displayed annually since 1989. From the Annunciation through the Magi’s arrival, the displays depict the key events surrounding the holiday, although the creators do take some liberties: The inn where Mary and Joseph arrive, for instance, is a half-timbered house you’re more likely to find in Bavaria, rather than a Biblical land. The other is the gorgeous stucco ceiling behind the altar that elevates this church beyond the ordinary. Largely wrecked during the war, the work of the Italian plasterer Donato Polli has been restored to its former magnificence, with ceiling panels and ribs covered in finely sculpted flowers, leaves, medallions, and swirls.
#5 Old City Hall (Altes Rathaus)
I was exploring the unique Christmas market beside Nuremberg’s City Hall, where, instead of locally produced goods with a German flair, vendors from Nuremberg’s sister cities — including Antalya, Turkey; Atlanta, Georgia; Kavala, Greece; Kharkiv, Ukraine; San Carlos, Nicaragua; and Shenzhen, China, among others — sell products from their homeland. Once I had made my way through all the stalls and loaded up on some fine international products, I decided to give the City Hall a closer look. This massive building had a long history, starting from its construction in the 1330s, which included the largest secular hall north of the Alps — a lavish space with a barrel ceiling, balustrade, the largest mural of its kind in Northern Europe, and tremendous chandeliers — through its extension in the early 1600s, which leant it its palazzo-like form and Renaissance style. Then, along came the destruction of the Second World War, and City Hall was reduced largely to a pile of rubble. Reconstructed from 1956 to 1962, today the building’s exceptionally long façade is marked by regimented fenestration and topped by three short towers, the central one rising a bit higher. At the street level of the towers, three Baroque portals grant entry to the building and add a splash of fine ornamentation. Figures resting on top of the pediments above imperial eagles and coats of arms represent Babylon, Greece, Persia, Rome, and the Roman Catholic Church. If you have time, head down to the old dungeons in the vaulted cellar for a gruesome education of how prisoners were detained, interrogated, and tortured in the 14th century — an extraordinary contrast to the merriment of the Christmas markets above.