Karlsruhe, Germany: Off the Beaten Path in the Rhine Valley

Ron Stern
Located in the state of Baden-Württemberg roughly midway between Frankfurt, Germany, and Basel, Switzerland, Karlsruhe is the second largest city in southwestern Germany. Founded in 1715, the city boasts a mild climate, unique street architecture, green spaces, a zoological garden, and two notable...

Located in the state of Baden-Württemberg roughly midway between Frankfurt, Germany, and Basel, Switzerland, Karlsruhe is the second largest city in southwestern Germany. Founded in 1715, the city boasts a mild climate, unique street architecture, green spaces, a zoological garden, and two notable residents whose inventions transformed the face of transportation forever.

The name of the city actually translates to “Charles’ repose,” but what that means is subject to a lot of speculation. The prevailing theory is that Margrave Charles III William sought to build a palace here as a peaceful refuge away from his wife.

The Baroque palace is considered the heart of the city and was designed with 32 streets radiating out from its central tower. Some say this resembles a fan, and hence the moniker the Fan City has stuck. However, the streets also resemble spokes on a bicycle wheel, which would be appropriate considering the bicycle’s inventor, Baron Karl von Drais, was born here.

The design of the city caught the attention of Thomas Jefferson, who visited here while an envoy to France. Some believe that aspects of Karlsruhe were incorporated into the design of Washington, D.C.

Although the actual work on the invention of the bicycle was done in Mannheim, locals are quite proud of their cycling heritage and just celebrated the bicycle’s 200-year anniversary in honor of Drais. Special events, exhibits, and historical bike races were all part of the festivities and showcased some of the ingenious examples of this mode of transportation, like Drais’ original Laufmaschine (which means “running machine” —it was sometimes also called a “dandy horse”). The earliest (1818) model was made of wood and required the rider to straddle the bike and use his own feet to move it along. Many other cycles have been created since, of course, and during the anniversary festivities, cycle enthusiasts dressed up in period attire compete in races, all for the love of the bike.

Today, a bicycle is still one of the best ways to explore Karlsruhe, and you see them everywhere. Dedicated lanes for cyclists are found throughout the city, making it easy to get around without having to rent a car.

One of the more unusual sights you will find is a pyramid located in the center of the Market Square (Marktplatz). Currently undergoing renovation, this odd piece of architecture covers the tomb of Margrave Karl-Wilhelm, the city’s founder.

Karl Friedrich Benz was another of Karlsruhe’s famous inventors. Benz, like Drais, was born here. He received a patent for the world’s first practical motorcar, which he created in Mannheim in 1886. His Benz Patent-Motorwagen went into production in 1888, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Not to be a forgotten as part of Karlsruhe’s history, however, is the story of Benz’s wife Bertha. On August 5, 1888, Bertha loaded up her children in Benz’s automobile and, without his knowledge, drove from Mannheim to Pforzheim, a distance of approximately 66 miles, to see her mother. Seemingly an inventor in her own right, along the way Bertha had to obtain gasoline at pharmacies and fix several mechanical problems. She also enlisted a shoemaker to attach leather to the brakes, thus creating the first brake linings.

After arriving at night, Bertha sent a telegram to her husband letting him know about her adventure. Her ride had the effect of showing the practicality of motorized transport, and her shrewd marketing effort paid off for the entire world to see. Today, Germany honors her every two years with an antique automobile rally along the same route she traveled, which passes through the outskirts of Karlsruhe on its southbound leg.

There are plenty of open and green spaces in Karlsruhe, including some 70,000 kilometers of trails for walking or hiking. Since this area of southwestern Germany is among the warmest in the country, you can enjoy the mild climate at most times of the year.

The Karlsruhe Zoological Gardens are owned by the city and located just opposite the main train station. The gardens contain lush landscaping, a variety of native and ornamental trees, and a gondola ride that will take you on a slow, meandering tour of the gardens. The zoo here is well laid out over several acres and is home to birds, reptiles, elephants, penguins, and even a polar bear.

The ZKM Center for Art and Media is another popular venue for locals and tourists. Boasting the world’s first interactive museum, the building was a former industrial site but has been transformed with a modern design. The center hosts various conferences and exhibits featuring artists such as Markus Lüpertz and others from around the world.

There are a variety of dining options in Karlsruhe, but try regional fare at Oberländer Weinstube or international slow food at EigenArt.

As Margrave Charles III William sought out Karlsruhe as a refuge to get away from it all, so too will you find Karlsruhe a place of repose and relaxation where you can explore without getting caught up in the crowds of larger cities.

Resources:

Germany the Sunny Side — Tourist information for Karlsruhe’s state of Baden-Württemburg.

Hotel Eden — A three-star superior hotel located in the heart of the city. There is easy access to most of Karlsruhe’s main sights and attractions. Breakfast is included as part of your stay.

MK Bikes — Just a couple of doors from the Hotel Eden, they rent bikes, including the electric variety.

FTC Disclosure: This was a sponsored visit; however, all opinions herein are the author’s.