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Germany Travel Ideas:

Tracing Goethe’s footsteps

Germany has earned itself a number of nicknames internationally, but none of them is as flattering as the one calling it “the country of poets and thinkers”. In fact, the country boasts quite a number of acclaimed philosophers and authors, including Kant and Hegel, Lessing and Schiller, Hesse, Mann, Brecht and Schopenhauer. All of these names bear an outstanding worldwide reputation, but none of them quite reaches the spheres of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the writer the Germans are so proud about that they even christened their worldwide cultural institution after him.

Goethe was born in Frankfurt in 1749 and died in Weimar in 1832. These two cities are important stops when travelling in the great author’s footsteps, but Goethe left his mark in many other places as well. Here are some suggestions for a Goethe-themed journey through Germany. 

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Frankfurt is the ideal first stop on a Goethe tour. Conveniently being the location of Germany’s largest airport, the city offers a number of locations that lead visitors on the writer’s path. The house he was born in and, with interruptions, lived in until age 26 is extensively described in his autobiography From My Life: Poetry and Truth. The building can be found at the address Großer Hirschgraben 23-25. The building has been made the home of a museum exhibiting artworks from Goethe’s times.
There are a number of other places in Goethe’s hometown associated with the great writer. Frankfurt proudly displays this heritage, it has for example named the university after him and in the central downtown area, a large momument erected in 1844 can be found. Furthermore, there are the taverns around the historic marketplace in the Hoechst district, which he often visited with his friends. Hoechst also played an important role in a later period, when Goethe returned to the Greater Frankfurt area for a summer visit in 1815. During the visit, he stayed in an old family friend’s summer residence called “Gerbermühle”. While spending time there, Goethe fell in love with the much younger Marianne von Willemer. The secret passion between them can be found in Goethe’s poetry work West-Eastern Divan, to which Marianne also contributed a number of poems. The house is now a hotel and restaurant, located at Gerbermühlstrasse. 
Also in Frankfurt, Goethe had as a young attorney followed the legal proceedings against a maid who had under unfortunate circumstances killed her newborn child. The maid was subsequently sentenced to death and executed in a public square and the story inspired Goethe to create Gretchen’s tragedy in Faust

Leipzig is a place where Goethe, sent there by his parents to study law, encountered new influences. The Saxony city, far away from his hometown, had a more progressive and vibrant atmosphere than Frankfurt and it took the young man a while to grow accustomed to his new surroundings. The house he lived in was located in the central city area, It was destroyed in World War II and the ground it stood on is now occupied by the Galeria Kaufhof department store. At Leipzig university, where Goethe was supposed to study law according to his father’s wishes, he preferred to listen to lectures in poetry, seeking to advance his own style, which was otherwise influenced by the young man experiencing his first romantic relationship.
With his friends, he frequently visited a wine bar not far from his apartment called Auerbachs Keller. Goethe’s readers know this place well, as it is extensively described in his play Faust I. The bar exists to this day, it can be found in a shopping arcade called Mädlerpassage at Grimmaische Strasse. In fact, when Goethe was a guest here, there were two paintings of the legendary Faust figure at the walls. There is today a statue of Mephisto outside the bar’s entrance.

Wetzlar is a small town about 70 kilometers north of Frankfurt in rural Hesse. Goethe was sent here by his ambitious father in 1772 to serve as an apprentice in the Imperial Chamber Court. Again, he devoted little time and attention to law and again, he fell in love with a girl; young Charlotte Buff who was the fiancée of a friend. Charlotte rebuked him and Goethe fled the city. This experience, as well as the suicide committed by an acquaintance named Karl Wilhelm while he was at Wetzlar, is retold in the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. In town, the Jerusalemhaus is notable. Located at Schillerplatz, the historic building is home to a diligent reconstruction of the apartment of Karl Wilhelm as well as to an extensive collection of documents and artefacts illustrating how Goethe created the Young Werther story. 

Weimar, today a mid-sized town with a population of about 63,000 in Eastern Thuringia, was a small place with only 6,000 residents in Goethe’s days. It had nevertheless already developed into a cultural center when the writer arrived here in 1775. The resident duke Karl August quickly grew fond of GTHU Weimar Goethes Gartenhausoethe, who already had a reputation as an author and he applied a number of strategies to keep him in town. In 1776, Goethe became one of three official advisors of the duke. Before, the ruler had made him the gift of a house to live in. The house was rather a summer house, located in a braided garden which Goethe would diligently restore. He greatly enjoyed his home, located at Park an der Ilm, which can be visited today. Visitors will find Goethe’s original interior inside and will get a glimpse of the way the author lived in his days.
In his Weimar time, Goethe initially did not write much, a fact that might be due to his everyday work keeping him busy. He nevertheless created some works that would become famous later, with the poems Der Erlkönig and Wanderer’s Nightsong being among them. He also began work on some plays such as Egmont. It was part of his work duties to create stage plays and musical pieces. 
When Goethe’s library and his collections of natural artefacts grew too big and his importance in Karl August’s duchy rose further, he moved into a much larger house in the city center, known as the “Haus am Frauenplan”. The long-stretched building would remain the writer’s on-and-off home until his death in 1832, interrupted by his long stay in Italy and a three-year stint in another house in the city. While living here, Goethe once again tended to the garden with great devotion. In one of the garden houses, he kept his collection of minerals, while samples from many other of Goethe’s collections, such as artworks, can be seen in thTHU Weimar Nationaltheatere residential areas of the house. Expanded by two ancillary buildings, the structure today serves as the Goethe National Museum. There are guided tours available.

Weimar is, by many accounts, the most important stop when travelling in Goethe’s footsteps. This is the place he spent most of his lifetime in, where he could commit to his nature studies and where he also found the freedom and inspiraion to further hone his skills. This is especially true for his second stay in town, after he returned from his long stay in Italy. He was now exempt from most duties as a minister, but received responsibility for most aspects of the court theater, where soon a number of Goethe’s plays would be performed. In the framework of his theater duties, Goethe often collaborated with Friedrich Schiller, another famous German playwright. The two developed a lasting friendship, going on to influence one another and working on common projects. Schiller moved to Weimar in 1799. The Thuringia town thus has a number of further locations associated with the two writers. Most notably, the Main House of the Deutsches Nationaltheater at Theaterplatz is the place where Goethe and Schiller worked together. There is a statue of the two playwrights in front of the building, which cannot be missed on a journey in Goethe’s footsteps.