Kassel is a medium-sized town smack in the center of Germany, approximately two hours north of Frankfurt and easily accessible both by car and by train. It is probably best known for Documenta, the world’s premier contemporary art show that takes place here every five years.
I didn’t travel there; Kassel is my hometown. Reading so many travel blogs, seeing countless beautiful pictures of places both far and foreign, it can be easy to forget that what is normal for me could be a trip worth taking for someone else. And as fate had it, I chanced upon a blog post about Kassel the other day, so I took that as a sign and decided to talk a little about the town where I cook up the plans to go somewhere else.
There are two possible ways to approach Kassel and which one it will be largely depends on where you enter the city. Let’s face it, in most parts of town, Kassel isn’t exactly a jewel. In one fateful night in World War II, thousands of fire bombs had been dropped over the city, because it had been home to an aircraft plant back then. The raid caused bad wounds, there was hardly a structure that remained unscathed. With town fathers being faced with the task of having to rebuild the city quickly and with limited resources after the war, Kassel now has a lot of practical yet unattractive Fifties-style buildings and much of the historic structure of a place that was founded in 913 has been irrecoverably lost.
On the other hand, some of that history remains and that’s the other approach to Kassel. Most impressive is the landscaped Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe with the palace, a castle and the picturesque Hercules statue. The park, an UNESCO world heritage site, is the main tourist draw in town and the place where you bring out-of-town visitors when you’re a resident.
From the Palace, which hosts a museum with paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries, a boulevard leads to downtown, past the new rail station with the towering roof all the way to Brothers Grimm square, so called because the storytellers once made their home here. Today, the Hessian state museum is located here, just one of a large number of museums in town. Many of these are based on the art collections of the former dukes who had their seats in Kassel, but there are also more quirky ones, like the tapestry museum or the museum for caricatures in the old main station.
Stepping away from the downtown pedestrian zone which is really not much to talk about and crossing the Friedrichsplatz square, the attentive traveler gets another idea why Kassel is indeed a city of the arts. The impressive 18th-century Fridericianum is one of the world’s oldest public museums and, along with the square in front of it, is routinely used as the center point of the Documenta. This renowned art show draws almost a million visitors every five years and regularly moves Kassel into the glaring spotlight of articles in the international press. Hosting Documenta has its perks for Kassel, too, as the city after each show purchases one of the larger-scale artworks and integrates it into the townscape.
One of those can already be seen from the Fridericianum. It’s a giant-sized metal structure called “picture frame”, a remnant of Documenta 7, intending to focus the viewer’s sightline towards the Orangerie below it. The Orangerie, completed in 1711, marks the access point to a beautiful urban park called Karlsaue. Stretching alongside the Fulda river, this large park was conceived in the latter quarter of the 18th century and is, next to the Wilhelmshöhe park, Kassel’s main recreation area and an oasis of tranquility.
Walking through my own town like that, trying to see it with the eyes of someone who doesn’t know the place, makes me realize that much of Kassel’s beauty is lost in everyday chores. This really is a nice place to make a stop in. Especially if you’re interested in art, plan a stopover in Kassel next time you are going somewhere more popular in Germany.
Itinerary: For a few hours in town, go to the central downtown part of town. Start at the old main station with the Documenta sculpture “Man walking to the sky” in front of it, then cross into the pedestrian zone. After a stop at the town hall, find your way to Fridericianum and walk towards the “picture frame”. From there, continue down to see the Orangerie, but make sure not to miss the Claes Oldenburg giant ax at the river bank, before you continue into Karlsaue for a leisurely stroll.
If you have two days, add a trip up to Wilhelmshöhe. You can go there by tram from downtown. See the palace and take a hike towards the Hercules statue for a sweeping view of the town below.
A recommendation for dinner: Shinyu in Friedrich-Ebert-Strasse has the best sushi I ever had anywhere in the world. It’s not exactly traditional German food, but you shouldn’t miss it, either.