While there are many picturesque towns lying around the perimeter of the magical mountains of the Harz, colorful Wernigerode is the medieval town that beckons most tourists, German or not. There are at least three very good reasons for this:
- Wernigerode is an authentic medieval town, little changed since it was officially chartered in 1121. The Town Hall, along with the other half-timbered buildings surrounding the Market Square, will surely hold you spellbound as you snap away with your digital camera. Actually, the Town Hall was described back in 1277 as a “spelhus” but by 1544 was transformed into the current Rathaus (Town Hall).
- Wernigerode Castle is only one of many in the Harz, but what a beauty! Every fairytale, every romantic legend you have ever heard might have taken place at Schloss Wernigerode.
- Wernigerode is home to the world-famous Harzer Schmalspurbahnen (Harz Narrow Gauge Railways), which maintains the largest fleet of steam locomotives in Germany, and operates year-round over its 140 km of track.
Most tourists drive to Wernigerode, which is 240 km from Hamburg, 300 km from Frankfurt, and 530 km from Munich. The Deutsche Bahn (DB) can get you there quickly by mainline rail from anywhere in Germany, or you can go by deluxe coach (bus) from nearby major cities.
Upon arrival, check into your hotel, get settled, and then get started! Pick up a small map of the “Old Town” at the reception desk and have the receptionist mark the locations of the DB Bahnhof, the Westerntorturm, and Schloss Wernigerode. Now “connect the dots” and study the map. Everything you might want to see is probably located within this triangle. Now, have the receptionist highlight the most direct path from the hotel to the Market Square, which is at the heart of medieval Wernigerode (and the middle of your triangle).
The Market Square is large, but not huge. The water fountain is one of the prettiest you will ever see, and the Rathaus behind it is a medieval jewel. Almost every road in Wernigerode will have a sign pointing to this Market Square, so don’t worry about getting lost. Walk to the “front” of the plaza (farthest away from the Rathaus) and face the Rathaus. This should be the starting point for your adventures.
Explore the main road going off to your left, keeping an eye out for the gorgeous Café Wien just as you exit the plaza, but don’t stop anywhere yet. Keep walking for about ten minutes, then turn around and come back, visiting whichever shops you fancy. When you reach the Market Square again, it might be time for a snack at one of the many cafes. Afterwards, head off on the same road as before, but going out the other (right) side of the plaza. The road is not as straight here, but by now you realize that the distances on your map are not very far. If you lose your bearing, just consult you map, or follow the other tourists back to the Market Square.
Once upon a time, Wernigerode was a walled town. Portions of the wall still exist, complete with towers, and offer a fine setting for a quiet picnic lunch. No longer attached to the medieval walls, the Westerntorturm (Western Gate Tower) is still an imposing structure, located only a few minutes from the Market Square.
Walk through the tower and to the intersection just ahead. You should be standing in front of (or just across the street from) the Westerntor-Apotheke. Take a good look, folks. Where else in the world could you ever find such a beautiful drugstore? Notice the women’s face carved in one of the panels: isn’t that the witch/queen from Disney’s “Snow White” film?
There are many sights in Wernigerode that will enhance your “fairytale” experience. You’ve already admired the Rathaus, the Benefactor’s Fountain, and Café Wien, but also look for the “Smallest House,” and the Krummelsches House. Children might want to look for the six-legged bird fountain and the giant snail.
Of course, Wernigerode Castle and the Harz Narrow Gauge Railways are major attractions, but I will cover each in a separate article.
If you don’t like exploring on foot, there are other options, such as horse-drawn wagons or a “pretend-train” called the Bimmelbahn. Your hotel receptionist can provide additional options and details, or visit the Info Center, which is located on the left side of the Rathaus. However you get around, your family will certainly be enchanted by quaint and colorful Wernigerode.