Germany holidays: Bonn, little big town

For forty years Bonn was at the epicentre of German and European politics. This medium-sized town on the Rhine was the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany from 1949, after it had been preferred to the more natural choice of Frankfurt. That choice was to emphasise the fact that it was a temporary situation whilst Germany remained divided, and whilst Berlin, the natural capital city, could not be used.

Berlin reclaimed that crown after re-unification in 1990, although Bonn remained the seat of government until 1999, when parliament moved into the Reichstag. Bonn however has subsequently not returned to its pre 1949 status as a provincial town in the shadow of its much larger neighbour Cologne.

From a visitor point of view, Bonn’s centre is attractive enough in its own right, with the Romanesque former cathedral the 11th century Münster and the marvelously ornate Altes Rathaus, which glistens with silver and gold. It is also of particular interest to classical music fans as the birthplace of Beethoven, but its real significance remains its huge contribution to the development of modern Germany.

Still here

Despite the overall move to Berlin, a number of federal departments have retained their place in town, including some big-hitters such as Defence, Health and Environment. In addition several others have secondary offices in the city, such as Justice and Foreign Affairs. Both the Federal President and Chancellor still have official residences in Bonn, the Villa Hammerschmidt and Palais Schaumburg respectively. Inevitably there are a disproportionally high number of civil servants (around 8,000) still working here.

The United Nations also retains a significant presence, with the headquarters of its climate change department located in a building close to the Rhine, next to the former Bundestag and Bundesrat, which were the two houses of the Bonn-based parliament.

All these buildings are of major historical significance in post World War II history. Federal Chancellor Adenauer’s first official engagement at the Palais Schaumburg was with French Foreign Minister (and architect of the current EU) Robert Schuman. They are all located very close to each other in the Bundesviertel (Federal Quarter) along the Adenauerallee, around a mile south of the city centre. These form the central attractions of the Weg der Demokratie, a self-guided and interactive tour of the former and current sites of interest.

Situated in the same area is the excellent Haus der Geschichte (free to visit)  which charts the postwar development of German history of both the Federal Republic (West) and the German Democratic Republic (East). It is easy to distinguish between the two because the sections on the GDR are on a red background to emphasise its Communist control. Artefacts include a fuselage from an aircraft used to supply West Berlin during the Blockade, a Trabant car from the 1980s, and Elvis Presley’s kitbag from his time in the US army in Germany.

For those interested in art as well as history the Kunstmuseum Bonn and the Bundeskunsthalle are located next door to the Haus der Geschichte, whilst the Museum Koenig, a natural history museum,  is nearby on the Adenauerallee. – Mark Arrol

Looking for more? See other destinations in Western Germany

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