Disclosure: This guided tour of Mainz was a collaboration with mainzplus CITYMARKETING GmbH and Tourismusfonds Mainz e.V., however all editorial and opinions are my own. For more information about visiting Mainz, head to the Mainz Tourism Board website.
A (very) brief history of Mainz
There are a few things a first-time visitor might like to know about the city of Mainz. Situated where the river Rhine (Rhein) meets the river Main, it was founded by the Romans in 1BC, when it began its long and successful history as an important centre for trade. In the 1500s, the city was home to Johannes Gutenberg, who invented the movable type printing press. Mainz’s university is named after him, and the Gutenberg Museum is home to one of the few remaining Gutenberg Bibles – one of the earliest major works printed using his technique.
Mainz has changed hands between the Germans and the French a number of times throughout its history, and French influence can be seen in some of its architecture and town planning. On the other side of the border, the city goes by its French name, Mayence. Mainz was bombed heavily towards the end of World War II and around 80% of the city was destroyed, but a small cluster of charming medieval buildings remain, as well as the imposing, 1000-year-old St. Martin’s Cathedral and a scattering of Roman ruins that include an amphitheatre and parts of an aqueduct.
Surrounded by the gently rolling vineyards of Germany’s largest wine region, Rheinhessen, Mainz is known as Germany’s wine capital. The steep hill by the main train station is home to several layers of historic wine cellars, and the city’s wonderful collection of rustic wine taverns are cosy spots to hole up in during winter. Come summer, wine stands pop up around the town centre and there are also wine festivals aplenty.
Mainz’s reputation for partying doesn’t end there, however: along with Cologne and Dusseldorf, it’s one of Germany’s most famous carnival cities, and various riotous celebrations take place here throughout the “fifth season” (11 November until Ash Wednesday the following year). Costumed revellers gather in Mainz in their thousands for the German carnival highlight, the Rose Monday parade.
A guided tour of the city
Just before Christmas, I was invited to tour the city with Lothar Schilling, a hugely knowledgeable guide who was born and raised Mainz. (Scroll to the end for more information about how to book.) Having lived in the neighbouring city of Wiesbaden since 2010, and having worked for several years in Mainz and visited my in-laws regularly in one of its suburbs, I thought I knew quite a lot about the city, however Lothar very quickly showed me that I had an awful lot left to learn. He gave me a thoroughly entertaining tour and showered me with information about pockets of Mainz that I had never really explored, his facts and historically accurate tales peppered with nostalgic anecdotes from his own life.
Mainz Altstadt (Old Town)
Lothar and I met in the south of the city at one of Mainz’s two train stations, Römisches Theater, which is named after the Roman amphitheatre ruins next to which it’s located. After passing the Museum of Ancient Seafaring, which is directly next door to the station – a lovely building that was once an engine house and then a market hall – we first explored the southern part of the city.
Strolling through the cobbled streets of the Altstadt, we took in a handful of noteworthy sights. The small Kirschgarten square is lined with the most charming of half-timbered buildings, all but one of which is original. Amongst the others is Mainz’s oldest house, the Haus Zum Aschaffenberg (the House of Aschaffenberg, pictured top), which was built around 1500.
Just round the corner back on Augustinerstraße is a tall, very narrow building from around 1780 that has a Louis XVI-style pink façade. It’s known as the Haus Zum kleinen Elefanten – Little Elephant House – and though Lothar couldn’t tell me how it got its name, he did suggest, with a twinkle in his eye, that it might have something to do with its wonky-looking top floor.
Halfway down Augustinerstraße, the old town’s main thoroughfare, is the gorgeous church of St Augustin. Behind the heavy wooden doors in its pretty baroque façade is an extraordinary rococo-style interior, with extraordinary altars, an original painted domed ceiling and a beautifully-preserved organ.
The narrow backstreets on either side of Augustinerstraße were remarkably peaceful given the activity going on in the rest of the city, and they’re well worth exploring for their half-timbered buildings, charming independent shops and a number of intriguing historic sites. Amongst others, Lothar pointed out the Haus zum Stein (House of Stone), a romanesque residential tower that retains some of its original architecture from the 13th century and wouldn’t look out of place in Tuscany. We also wandered down Fischergasse, a narrow street that was once the city’s fishing quarter: inscriptions of fishmongers’ names are still visible on the front of several buildings; to their rear, it’s also possible to see how part of the medieval city wall was integrated into them.
After passing a couple more Roman remnants and skirting the Christmas market on the market square, we wandered over City Hall Bridge to take a look at the rather controversial City Hall. Designed by Danish architect and designer Arne Jacobsen, it was formally inaugurated at the end of 1973, and hasn’t proved particularly popular since. From our spot on the bridge, however, we could also see the tiny, pale green wine tavern where I would later have dinner.
Mainz Neustadt (New Town)
We walked back through more of the old part of the city, passing the State Theatre (pictured towards the top of this post) and stopping for a stiff drink at the Christmas market at Schillerplatz. Afterwards, Lothar led me across a broad, green boulevard – Kaiserstraße – and into Mainz’s new town. Rebuilt directly after World War II, the area is considerably less charming than the old town architecturally speaking, but no less interesting to explore.
The Neustadt is home to another chunk of the old town wall and a number of interesting monuments. As a neighbourhood popular with the students of Mainz’s university, there are bars and cafés aplenty. It was here that Lothar shared some wonderful memories from his childhood, pointing out, for example, the building he’d grown up in and the site of the old dairy he was sent to to collect milk from as a small boy.
We attempted to go for lunch at Möhren Millieu, a small, relaxed café that serves seasonal vegan food, but even at 14:00 there was no room for us to sit. Instead, we headed round the corner to Gasthaus Grün, a simple but welcoming spot that offers employment opportunities to locals with mental illnesses and learning disabilities. The food here – I had a pancake stuffed with feta and spinach, Lothar an enormous salad – was freshly made, tasty and inexpensive, and the service efficient and friendly.
After we’d eaten, Lothar walked me a short distance to the New Synagogue. Mainz’s Jewish community is one of the oldest in Europe, first mentioned in around 900BC. The website of the New Synagogue’s architect, Manuel Herz, shares a succinct overview of their history, stressing that “almost no other city have Jews been persecuted so often throughout history, and have still time and again attempted to build up a Jewish community”.
The first synagogue to be built here in 1912, the Main Synagogue, was destroyed during Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass, 9 November, 1938). The New Synagogue was erected on the same spot in 2010, its form is taken from the letters of the Hebrew word השודק, meaning holiness or blessing. Though it’s not possible to visit the inside of the building, it’s worth seeking out for a look at its striking exterior and the sobering ruins of the former synagogue that stand before it.
This stop was the last on my tour – one I’d highly recommend – and where I said goodbye to Lothar. From there, I headed off to explore to Mainz’s Christmas markets and then on to enjoy a delicious festive dinner – all of which I’ve written about in my post about Christmas in Mainz. If you’d like to see more impressions of my day trip to Mainz, I also shared my trip in my Instagram Stories (link directly to highlight – you don’t need to log in to view it).
Getting to Mainz
Mainz’s main train station, Mainz Hauptbahnhof, is served by InterCity Express (ICE) trains as well as regional (RB and RE) and local S-Bahn services from destinations including Frankfurt and Wiesbaden. From Frankfurt Airport (FRA), the journey time to Mainz Hauptbahnhof is around 25 minutes. Regional and local trains also pass through Mainz Römisches Theater train station in the south of the city.
Train tickets and seat reservations can be booked up to three months in advance on the multilingual Deutsche Bahn website*.
Getting around Mainz
Mainz is very walkable and has a pedestrianised centre, however there is an excellent network of buses and trams that run frequently around the city.
A 48-hour mainzcardplus (11,95€ single or 25€ for up to five people) includes free travel within the Mainz-Wiesbaden tariff zone as well as free admission and various discounts to the city’s sites, leisure facilities and at some shops. It also includes a free guided tour of the city.
Guided tours of Mainz
I was shown around Mainz by brilliant local guide Lothar Schilling, who has been running tours in both German and English for ten years. You can book guided tours of Mainz, focusing on various different themes, through the Mainz tourism board.
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