Like many college towns, the city of Ulm, Germany is a happenin’ place that belies its rather modest size of 120,000 residents. Unlike any other college town though, it can boast of being famous for two things: it’s the birthplace of Albert Einstein (which is pretty cool), and it’s home to the tallest church in the world. Though I don’t necessarily jump on board the superlative train, sometimes they’re actually worthy of taking note. The Ulm Minster is one church you don’t want to miss while in Germany.
When two friends of ours from Trav’s grad school days came to visit another American friend living in Ulm, we knew it was time for a road trip. Looking forward to the relatively short drive (Ulm is only about four hours northeast of Fribourg, Switzerland where we currently live), we loaded up our camping gear, the dog, and hit the road for Germany.
After arriving at Helen’s apartment in Ulm, we eagerly soaked up giant North American sized hugs from all three. We caught up on gossip and news, jobs and what it’s like living as expats in Switzerland (for us), Canada (for Michael and Alanna), and Germany (for Helen). Helen, who’s been in Ulm for some time and knows the city well, was gracious enough to not only invite us to crash at her place for the night, dog and all, but she enthusiastically offered to show us around town as well. At the top of the list, of course, was Ulm Minster, the tallest church in the world!
Ulm Minster is located in the Münsterplatz in the old, historic part of town. The 161.5 meter spire of the church towers above its surroundings.
Travel Tip: Ulm Minster is free to enter, but it costs a few euros to climb to the top of the spire.
Visitors who don’t feel up to the entire climb can stop at the bell tower to see the bells. From here, the view of Ulm is still quite pretty.
From the walkway, a sizable room is lined with numerous sketches of famous world churches.
We found two, in particular, rather interesting. The first was a comparison drawing of the Ulm Minster before construction was completed on its record-breaking spire in 1890. The second was a sketch of Strasbourg Cathedral in France and its uniquely asymmetrical single-tower construction.
Joining us in the bell tower, a church employee explained that money shortages prevented completion of the second spire in Strasbourg. Welcoming us into another, smaller side room, he continued to point out interesting historical objects, such as the cannonball on display that Napoleon’s troops fired at the church during a battle in the early 1800s.
Entering into a discussion about terminology, he explained that Ulm Munster isn’t a cathedral at all and that the terms cathedral, church, and minster aren’t all interchangeable.
I had never even thought about it, but by definition, a cathedral is the main church for a diocese with a bishop presiding over his diocese, or parishes. Ulm Minster has never had a bishop, so it’s not a cathedral. While that actually makes sense, the debate about whether a site is a church or a minster gets a whole lot murkier, so I’ll leave that for the linguists.
Next, the church employee showed us the buttons for ringing the bells. Though they were mechanized in 1953 and are no longer rung by hand, ten of the thirteen bells are still in use.
When he asked if we’d like to see the bells themselves, we eagerly responded in a chorus of yeses.
We followed him back downstairs to the bell room, which had been locked when we passed it on the way up. Producing a ring of heavy metal keys like a medieval jailer, he unlocked the door. Entering the room quietly, we filed past the long row of pendulous bells, silent in their slumber.
My immediate favorite was the Gloriosa, if for no other reason than her name.
Weighing in at nearly 5,000 kg (over 11,000 lbs!), she’s the chubbiest of the bells and has the prettiest name, though she’s also one of the plainest.
When the employee warned us that one of the bells was going to sound, we waited in anticipation. Prepared to not be startled, I still jumped when the bell clanged loudly right in front of us.
Once we’d visited the bell room, we were enjoying the company of the minster’s friendly and engaging employee so much that we ended up following him on a personalized tour all the way to the top.
Returning to the spiral staircase, we climbed, and climbed, and climbed – finally reaching the third gallery. This is the very uppermost portion of the spire with the final staircase leading to the very top.
I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but the staircase of the third gallery is even narrower than the stairs below.
Luckily, we met very few visitors. When we did, it became an acrobatic challenge – a three-step process of wrapping your arms around the central spiral in an intimate embrace, standing on tiptoe with one foot, and hanging the other foot and the rest of your body out over empty space while passersby inched past along the outer wall.
Claustrophobic? Scared of heights? Then this is definitely a great place to practice overcoming your fears!
After dragging ourselves up a total of 768 steps, polished smooth and soap-slippery from millions of foot steps, we finally reached the top of the minster.
Not too shabby. On a clear day, the Alps are even visible.
Pointing out areas of newer construction in town, our “tour guide” told us about a single day during WWII that devastated Ulm.
On December 17th, 1944, 330 Allied planes dropped nearly 1500 tons of bombs on the city, reducing it to rubble. In less than 30 minutes, over 80% of the city center was destroyed, hundreds were killed, and thousands were left without homes. The railroad tracks west of the minster were a primary target, so most of the houses between the church and the tracks were destroyed, as were entire neighborhoods north of the minster.
Every year on December 17th at 7:15 pm, the Gloriosa rings through the city for 15 minutes as a reminder of that horrible night.
Turning to the south, it was a relief when the discussion turned to a lighter topic: Fisherman’s Quarter along the Danube. As early as the year 854, craftsmen such as fishermen, leather artisans, and shipbuilders lived in this quarter, which at the time was the heart of medieval Ulm. Now home to upscale restaurants and galleries, it would be our next stop after the minster.
Thanking our unofficial tour guide before parting ways, we descended the tower stairs, arriving at the bottom in considerably less time than it’d taken us to reach the top. We couldn’t leave without seeing the interior as well, so we popped inside to the main nave.
Ulm offers several other notable sites not to miss while you’re in town. If you have some time after visiting Ulm Minster, walk the short distance to the Fisherman’s Quarter, where you can hopefully catch a glimpse of the famousSchiefes Haus – the “Most Crooked Hotel in the World” – according to the Guinness Book of Records.
During our visit, I was disappointed that a gated entry blocked us from the best views of it over the river Blau, where the entire house is so crooked it appears to be slanting into the river. Hopefully we’ll have a chance to go back as guests and stay there for a night of perfectly crooked sleep.
Even if you don’t see the hotel, the Fisherman’s Quarter is unbelievably charming. You can spend hours wandering the narrow streets, admiring the architecture and dreaming about life along the cobblestone-lined canals. Plus, the area offers an abundance of cafes and restaurants, perfect for a snack and a break from sight-seeing.
We certainly took advantage of the variety of dining options. Meeting up with Helen’s boyfriend, the six of us had dinner at an Italian restaurant in the Fisherman’s Quarter. Splurging because of the “normal” prices, Travis and I both ordered full-on large pizzas and drinks, a rarity for us.
Oh Switzerland, you’re amazing in so many ways, but how you hurt our pocketbooks…
The tinkling of a merry waterwheel in a nearby canal accompanied us as we dined.
Travel Tip: Make sure to swing past Ulm Minster at night as well, when it's reflected beautifully in the Danube.
We were grateful we had the chance to visit Ulm while our friend Helen is living in Germany. Huge thanks to her for sharing her beautiful city and its sights with us, especially the spectacular Ulm Minster – the tallest cathedral church in the world!
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Know Before You Go
Dogs are not allowed on the tower climb in Ulm Minster.
Even if you’re “all churched out” on your European vacation, this is one church you want to still visit, especially for the climb up the tower stairs and view from the top.
The church interior is free: ticket prices to climb to the top are only about 5 euros per adult.