11 Best Things to Do in Marburg – Germany’s Fairytale Town

Marburg in the state of Hesse, Germany, feels like a town that popped out of a dusty old hardcover book full of witches, and tailors, and cobbler’s wives, and magical creatures. You’ll find crooked houses, Medieval walls, stone stairs leading here and there, whimsical gargoyles and carvings, uneven cobblestone paths, and narrow alleyways like something in a dream. As a matter of fact, this is the very town that inspired the Brothers Grimm to collect and save old tales of German folklore that we know today as Grimm’s Fairytales!

There is no shortage of things to do in Marburg, or you can just simply jump in and explore all the charm and whimsy the town has to offer.

Here are the best things to do in Marburg if you decide to step back in time to this magical place.

1. Marburg Castle and Museum

Towering over the Medieval town, you can’t help but notice Marburg’s crowning jewel – Marburg Castle (Landgrafenschloss). This imposing 13th-century fortification, perched on top of a steep hill, offers gorgeous panoramic views of the town and its surroundings.

Early History

The hill and those long beautiful views made Marburg’s location particularly strategic, and a prime spot to build a defensive stronghold. The first mentions of a structure on the site describe a wooden fort which existed as early as the 11th century! But it wasn’t until 200 years later that Landgrave Henry I of Hesse began construction of a strong and impressive stone castle.

Subsequent generations of Landgraves continued to build to impress by expanding and embellishing the castle to advertise their wealth and stature. 

The Chapel

Landgrave Henry II, Henry I’s son, added the magnificent “Schlosskapelle” (castle chapel) in 1288. This exquisite space, adorned with stunning medieval frescoes, served as a place of worship for the Landgraves and their court. You’ll be able to walk through it during your visit to the museum. Take special note of the tile floor which is really beautiful and ancient.

The Marburg Colloquy and Martin Luther

The Landgrafenschloss also staged a significant religious and historical event. In 1529, it played host to the famed “Marburger Religionsgespräch” (Marburg Colloquy). Philip I of Hessen wanted to bring together the leading figures of the Protestant Reformation, including Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli, to bridge their theological differences and create a strong Protestant coalition. That kumbaya moment didn’t happen, because on the fifteenth of fifteen points, they disagreed. Luther said the eucharist was actually the body of Christ, and Zwingli said it was more like a metaphor. Neither would budge, but the event was historic nonetheless and there’s a huge and impressive painting of it in the castle’s museum.

The Witches’ Tower

A low wide stone tower sits on a grassy hill with stairs leading up to it

Around the back of the castle you’ll find a large circular tower called the Hexenturm (Witches’ Tower). From the 16th to the 19th century (1550 to 1866) the tower was used as a prison, and many women who were falsely accused of witchcraft were held and tortured there in the 16th and 17th centuries. The exact number of executions and deaths that happened in the tower are unknown. The small barred cell windows are still visible today as you can see. It was one of those sad moments of reality to realize the huge amount of suffering that happened in this beautiful place.

Decay and Renovation

In the 18th century, the Landgraves relocated their primary residence elsewhere, and the castle gradually fell into disrepair. And in the 19th century people began to take an interest again in the castle, and restoration efforts began in earnest with the goal of preserving the castle’s history and architecture. By the 20th century a large part of the complex was given over to the university, and after further restoration it now houses the Marburg University Museum for Cultural History.

Getting to the Castle

To reach the castle, you’ll definitely get your steps in! There are two ways up to the top. One is primarily stairs, and the other is a fairly steep cobblestone street. We went up twice, once each way. The slope is probably a little bit easier, but if it were raining and the cobblestones were wet I’d definitely do the stairs.

At the top, you’ll reap the reward with a really stunning view of the Old Town of Marburg, and the newer buildings further in the distance. You’ll be able to see the Market Square with the Town Hall, and several impressive church steeples.

A couple stands on a terrace, framed in a wooden heart with panoramic view of the German countryside in the background

There are also large binoculars that will let you zoom in to examine the architecture from on high. It will cost you €1 – either via €1 euro coin or two 50 cent pieces, and a cute social media photo opp with a wooden heart.

The Museum

The museum costs €8 (about $9) per adult ticket, and they only take cash. If you were wondering why we walked up to the castle twice (once via stairs and once via the road), now you know. There are no cash machines near the castle. You’ll have to walk all the way back to the Old Town to an ATM and back up again if you are knuckleheads like us and forgot to bring cash!

Once you’re inside, the museum houses a fairly small but very interesting selection of items. You’ll see all kinds of ceramics, pottery, and tiles created in Marburg over the ages, showcasing its distinct style.

There are also artifacts from the Medieval life of the town, like the old original clockwork from the Town Hall clock, and the megaphone used by the town crier.

You’ll be able to see several rooms of the old castle with fragments of painting still on the walls, the old window seats, the chapel, and banquet room.

🚹🚺 You will also find restrooms here.

2. Phillips University

Marburg’s heart and soul is Philipps-Universität, Germany’s oldest Protestant university still in operation. Founded in 1527 by Landgrave Philip I of Hesse, it helped to usher in a new religious and philosophical wave that swept through Europe during the Protestant Reformation – a time of immense social, political, and religious upheaval.

Philip had better luck with this endeavor than unifying the Protestant theory of Luther and Zwingli. His university attracted scholars from across Europe and became known as a seat of lively intellectual exchange which challenged the established academic order of the time.

Many well-known and pioneering minds were drawn to Marburg to attend and teach at Phlilipps, like Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (the Brothers Grimm) who studied law here. The Grimm Brothers’ papers and first editions of their fairy tales are part of the university’s rare book collection.

Other notables who studied here were philosopher Christian von Wolff, pioneer of immunology Emil von Behring, philosopher and ethicist Hans Jonas, controversial philosopher Martin Heidegger who joined the Nazi Party, Nobel Laureate Theodor Mommsen, theologians Rudolph Bultmann and Ferdinand Christian Bauer, among many others.

It should also be noted that during Marburg’s notorious era of witch trials, Some prominent faculty members, including jurist Johann Georg Gödelmann, actively contributed to the witch-hunt hysteria that swept Europe by crafting the legal justifications used to persecute accused “witches.”

Their writings and unjustified legal pronouncements fueled the persecution of innocent people accused of witchcraft, resulting in the imprisonment, torture, and death of dozens and perhaps hundreds of women.

The university today has evolved from those dark times, and offers a wide range of programs in social sciences, the humanities, medicine, and natural science. And Marburg definitely has a university town vibe. About half the population of Marburg is either students, or employed by the university, so there are tons of pizza and döner joints, fun cafés and bars, posters everywhere advertising bands and events, and lots of youthful energy.

Its buildings are a collection of those that date all the way back to the university’s founding, to curving glass structures with a distinctly modern design. Be sure to visit the university chapel, which is beautiful, with a fabulous wooden ceiling and polychrome paint.

3. Town Hall (Rathaus)

In the heart of the old town, it’s easy to imagine the bustling square throughout the last 500 years. Timber-framed buildings with their distinct facades face the square, and the Rathaus, Marburg’s historic town hall, takes center stage with a unique blend of Gothic and Renaissance architecture and a fanciful and intricate clock tower.

And believe it or not, this 16th century building is the “new” Town Hall. The first one was destroyed by fire in 1514, but citizens immediately made plans and rebuilding was underway about 12 years later.

The Rathaus’ tower is over 130 feet tall, and features a clock with a golden rooster that crows on the hour and tries very hard to flap its wings!

And if you’re like me, you’ll get a good chuckle at the “lion” on the coat of arms over the door. The legend goes that the carver tasked with the job had never actually seen a lion… but he had seen a monkey!

The Rathaus, believe it or not, remains a functional seat of local government. Parts of the building are accessible to the public, though, so if you’re lucky enough to catch the building open you’ll be able to poke around. Keep an eye out for historical exhibits showcasing the history of Marburg, and for the magnificent stone hall with Renaissance plasterwork and a beautiful stained glass window.

4. See the Fachwerkhaus in Town Square

Another incredible stand-out in the Town Square is the iconic Medieval “Fachwerkhaus” (framework house) whose gorgeous facade is flanked by two cobblestone streets. Today you can grab a bite to eat or have a cup of coffee in it, and imagine the stories it could tell!

But this framework house is only one of dozens and dozens you’ll be able to find in and around this area of the city, just by walking around. It really is the defining activity in Marburg – exploring alleyways, turning down fantastical crooked streets, and gazing up at the Medieval architecture surrounding you.

There are also buildings from later periods, and some are gorgeous as well, but the overwhelming sense in Marburg is that you’ve traveled back to the Mittelalter (Middle Ages).

5. Zur Sonne

Speaking of gorgeous Medieval framework houses, right on the Town Square is a little eatery called Zur Sonne that’s been serving weary travelers and Marburgers for over 450 years! From 1569 to 1589 it served bread and apple cider, and grew from there to become an inn.

Later, the restaurant likes to say, the Brothers Grimm “stopped in for a merry drink,” in addition to many other notable scholars and professors from the university over the centuries.

We thoroughly enjoyed dinner here. We managed to come during “spargelzeit” (white asparagus time) which is quite a big deal in Germany! The spargel was fantastic, and we got to sit by the St. George fountain and see the rooster in the Town Hall clock crow on the hour as we enjoyed our meal and drinks. There really is no better seat to take in the beautiful historic center of Marburg.

Although we ate outside, we did go in to use the restroom and peeked around at the inside. There’s a reason Zur Sonne was voted “the coziest tavern in Germany!” When we come back to Marburg for its famous Christmas market, we’ll definitely stop in again “for a merry drink.”

6. St. Elizabeth’s Church

Elizabeth was born into Hungarian royalty, and married Landgrave Ludwig of Thuringia when she was just 14 years old. She never took to the life of the court and focused most of her time and resources on compassionate care for the sick and the poor, defying the societal norms of her station at the time.

Once Ludwig, who was supportive of her efforts, died, she was pushed out of the court, but used proceeds from her dowry to serve the needy. She lived in voluntary poverty herself, and died in 1231 at only 24 years old. She was canonized as a saint four years later.

Driven by a desire to honor the new saint and accommodate a mass of pilgrims, the Teutonic Knights, a religious order known for their charitable work, embarked on an ambitious building project. Immediately after her canonization, they laid the foundation stone for a grand church to be built directly over her tomb.

The main structure of St. Elizabeth’s church was completed in 1283.

In 2024 a large renovation project began which is forecast for completion by 2027. They are doing their best to keep only the parts they are working on closed off to the public, while allowing most of the interior to be viewed.

There are still many opportunities to take a listen to the beautiful organ inside the church. Informal half-hour long concerts (no fancy dress required) are held at 5pm, where you can just go and take in the incredible sound. You can find a schedule at the church’s webiste here. It should also keep you posted about the status of the renovation.

7. St. Elizabeth’s Hospital Ruin

The only remains of St. Elizabeth’s hospital are some of the walls of the the choir of the hospital chapel which can be seen across the street from the church, and are marked with a sign.

Elizabeth was a pioneer of medicine and her hospital welcomed anyone who was sick regardless of their social status during a time when healthcare was available mostly for the privileged few. Elizabeth herself, after taking her vow of voluntary poverty, played a hands-on role, tending to patients herself.

Her hospital continued to operate after her death, and became a model for health care reform.

Today, you can see the outline of where the old hospital once stood by noting the line created by different pavers used around Elisabethkirche.

8. Botanical Gardens

Marburg’s charm extends beyond its buildings into the large and beautifully tended botanical gardens of the university. It’s a great place to find a little serenity, greenery, and shade. This is also the beginning of the Grimm Trail, featuring sculptures that evoke some of Grimm’s best known fairytales.

Founded in the 18th century, the garden boasts a diverse collection of plants from around the world, and greenhouses to boot.

You can check for the current opening hours and fees at their website.

🚫🐕 Do note that dogs are not allowed in the botanical gardens.

9. The Old Synagogue

Close to the Town Hall and the center of Old Marburg you will find the area that used to be the Jewish neighborhood. Like so many places in Germany the horrors of Medieval pogroms and the Holocaust are visible in memorials, tributes, and ruined synagogues.

In Marburg’s case, the remains of the oldest synagogue can be seen under a large glass cube. During construction work in 1993, the old foundation walls were discovered after being buried for 550 years. A vault keystone which has survived shows a Star of David. This synagogue was demolished in 1452.

Another former synagogue location you can visit is the Garden of Remembrance, created by students in 1963. This synagogue was burned to the ground by Hitler’s stormtroopers on Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) in November of 1938. Hundreds of synagogues across the region were demolished, along with Jewish businesses, homes, hospitals, and schools.

After the night of violence, many of Marburg’s Jewish citizens were transported to the Buchenwald concentration camp, or forced into ghetto housing.

After the war, surviving former residents began to come back to Marburg in small numbers. Many of them eventually relocated to Israel. Today, Marburg has a new synagogue and there are now more than 300 members. Miraculously, the Torah scrolls from the old synagogue survived, and are now located in the new space.

10. Look for Marburg’s Distinctive Coat of Arms

An iron grille with a coat of arms of a knight on a white horse carrying a flag and shield

What better coat of arms for Marburg could there be than a knight on horseback? This heraldic emblem can be seen in many places around the town.

The Hessian Landgrave mounted on a white horse represents the powers that ruled Marburg for centuries. The Landgrave holds a flag and is clad in a full suit of armor. He also holds a flag with a blue “M” on it. The letter is a late 19th century addition and of course stands for “Marburg.”

You’ll find the symbol on signage related to the administration of the town, on buildings like the Rathaus, on items in the museum, and other locations that identify with the history of the town.

11. The Grimmdichpfad (Grimm Path)

Following the “Grimm Path” is a quirky and delightful way to explore the town while continuing the Brothers Grimm fairy tale theme.

Winding through the historic town center, the path leads you past iconic landmarks and hidden gems, and brings you all the way up to the castle. All along the path you’ll see art installations of various types which represent different fairytales in the Grimm collection.

The whole trail is a little over a mile long, and each site has a descriptive sign and definitely provides a great photo opp. And be sure to pick up a copy of Grimm’s Fairytales from one of the several little bookshops in the area! I got mine, right next to the Rathaus!

If you don’t mind the spoiler, you can see all the fairytales represented at the waypoints here.

More Great Food and Drink

Restaurant Ratsschänke

Restaurant Ratsschänke, which is also located right on the old town square. It’s about 15 feet away from the Rathaus! You can enjoy outdoor seating, or eat inside as we did. It’s a tiny cozy space with only a few tables, and it really does feel like you’ve stepped back in time. Definitely make a reservation here because the location and food can’t be beat.

The menu is full of hearty local specialties with fresh regional produce and meats. I had the pork loin with spargel (white asparagus) and David had a pork stew with mushroom gravy. Both were outstanding, and the cute little dessert was the perfect end to the meal.

You can reserve in person, or better yet by phone at the link above where you can also find days of operation and hours. They do speak English.

Café am Markt

Another spot right on the square is Café am Markt – “Where Breakfast Never Ends.” It’s great for a less formal bite, and obviously breakfast! They have a big sign outside advertising their pancakes, and they also have a big Sunday brunch. I had a flammkuchen (which is a warm German flatbread) with pears, walnuts, goat cheese, and honey. Absolutely divine! David had a homemade apple strudel and ice cream and gave it a big smile and two thumbs up! You can check out the rest of their menu in English at this link.

🍑🍺 For a real only-in-Marburg treat, look around at local pubs and bars to find peach beer! And yes, it’s poured over an actual peach!

A Last Look at Quirky Things to Do in Marburg

Beyond all the specific places to visit and things to do in Marburg, much of the fun lies in unplanned discovery of the humorous, interesting, weird little things that seem to lurk everywhere. There’s an elevator that connects the upper and lower city, gargoyles old and new, the Unicorn Pharmacy, critters hidden everywhere, fountain dragons, and even adorable traffic signals.

With so much to see, you are sure to find plenty of things to do in Marburg, but we hope this post has been helpful, and inspired you to visit!

Getting to Marburg

🚗 By car

  • Frankfurt Airport – About 55 minutes (96km)
  • Kaiserslautern – About 2 hours 10 minutes (203km)
  • Heidelberg – About 1 hour 45 minutes (173km)
  • Wiesbaden – About 1 hour 15 minutes (116km)
  • Cologne – About 2 hours 10 minutes (188km)

🚉 By train

✈️ Nearest airport – Frankfurt International Airport

You may also like these posts about other fabulous castles and castle ruins in the area!

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