This sleepy little town in rural eastern Germany doesn't look like the center of a revolution. But the events that played out here in the 16th Century shook the foundations of Christendom.
It was here in Wittenberg, Germany, that Martin Luther lived and preached, and on October 31, 1517, he nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church. The Protestant Reformation had begun.
Visitors come here from all over the world to see the places where these historic events took place. This could be a good day trip from Berlin; it's about one hour on the IC train. But to see everything without having to rush, I would recommend spending at least one night here.
For such a small town, there is a lot to see:
Other things to see:
Note on closures: because Wittenberg is gearing up for its 500 year Luther celebration in 2017, some historical spots will be closed for renovations. The Luther House will be closed from August 29, 2016 until April 2017.
The town's official name is Lutherstadt-Wittenberg, and this is definitely Martin Luther Central! Everywhere you turn, there's a spot associated with Martin Luther's life. The shops carry everything you could imagine associated with their most famous resident: books, posters, mugs, statues...even Martin Luther socks! In spite of that, it's really a pleasant little town and crammed with interesting history.
Wittenberg is designed for easy walking. The old town is long and narrow, and flat, laid out along two parallel streets: pedestrian-only Collegienstrasse (which turns into Schlossstrasse), and Mittelstrasse.
Most of the historical sights are along Collegienstrasse and Schlossstrasse.
A stream runs along the main street, partially underground. Half way along, the street opens out into an attractive square, or Markt, with a statues of Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon.
Pretty pastel-colored buildings, many from the 16th and 17th centuries, line the streets and there are a number of inviting restaurants serving hearty German cooking. During warmer weather, many of the restaurants have tables on the sidewalk, great for relaxing and people-watching.
The Tourist Information Office is located at the western end of Schlossstrasse across the street from the Castle Church. You can get maps of the town, as well as information on all the local activities. This is a good pace to book a hotel if you don't have reservations. Open daily (except in winter). They also have a smaller office in front of the train station with more limited hours (closed Saturday afternoons and Sundays). www.wittenberg-information.de.
English tours: the Tourist Office can arrange English tours for groups, but the regular daily tours are in German. They do have do-it-yourself audio tours in English for rent. In addition, they have a "cell phone tour", where you call a certain number and extension at each sight, and hear information about it in English, for only a connection fee.
This is the famous church where Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door. Luther gave some of his sermons in this church and now is buried just under the pulpit.
The church was severely damaged twice during wars in the centuries following the Reformation, but it was rebuilt each time.
The doors you see now were put up in the 19th century (the original wooden doors are long gone, with the Middle Ages). The current doors are made of bronze and are engraved with all ninety-five theses.
It is called the Castle Church because it is part of a church-castle complex. The castle tower rises high above Wittenberg and you can climb the winding stone stairs for a great view of the town. Open daily from noon to 4:00. On the Schlossplatz, at the end of Schlossstrasse.
Something cool: starting April 22, 2017, English services will be conducted on Saturday evenings at 5 p.m., at either this church or the Town Church. You can sing Luther's most famous hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God in English, in the church where he sang it. Check for scheduling on the website: www.wittenberg-english-ministry.com.
This is a lovely old church (the Stadtkirche), very large, with its double towers reaching high above the town. It is just behind the Markt on Kirchplatz.
One of the first buildings on the left on Collegienstrasse as you enter the old town is the large cloister that Martin Luther used as a home.
The Luther family, wife and six children, and various students and visitors lived in the central part of the building. He was given the building by one of the aristocrats supporting his movement.
The building is now a museum, open daily, and maintains Luther's living rooms in their original state. This is where Luther sat with his family and friends in the evenings, discussing a wide range of subjects from the sublime to the earthy (yes, earthy, not earthly!)
Martin Luther was known for his rather blunt way of speaking as well as for his eloquence. Students were allowed to be present during these evening discussions; they took notes and later published thousands of his comments in a book called "Table Talk". To read a sampling of his sayings, see Martin Luther Quotes.
Inside the museum are some interesting artifacts from that period, including one of the chests used for collecting money for indulgences, an "indulgence" letter itself, and the pulpit that Martin Luther used for preaching.
Lucas Cranach's fascinating painting of the Ten Commandments is located on wood panels in the refectory of Martin Luther's home. The Wicked Deeds are presented quasi-cartoon style for the faithful to ponder.
Lucas Cranach (the Elder) was not only one of the most accomplished and prolific painters of the 16th century, he was also the mayor of Wittenberg and owned a pharmacists shop that is still doing business as a pharmacy (or Apotheke) in Wittenberg!
He painted many of the well-known figures of the Reformation, as well as the local princes and princesses, and his paintings, drawings and woodcuts are in museums all over Europe. His house on Collegienstrasse is now a museum and his artist studio behind the house has some interesting exhibits.
In 1520, Martin Luther's supporters piled up a stack of writings of Church doctrine and set them on fire. Luther threw in the Papal Bull, the document threatening him with excommunication unless he recanted his writings.
In 1830, an oak tree was planted on the spot where all this allegedly took place. The tree is at the corner of Am Hauptbahnhofstrasse and Collegienstrasse on the way in from the train station, just before you enter the old town.
Twice a year the town of Wittenberg turns into a medieval village, with music, costumes, hearty peasant fare, plenty of wine and beer, and medieval dancing, juggling and processions.
There is also an annual Pottery Fair in September, where local potters display their wares in the main square.
There has been a university here since Martin Luther's time, located on Collegienstrasse. Parts of the structure date back to that period, and Luther himself worked within these walls. Quotations of his are displayed on the walls in the entrance hall.
There are several charming, older hotels in the heart of the old town, conveniently located and loaded with ambiance:
Less expensive, but only a six minute walk from the Castle Church, is the Am Alten Anker (At the Old Anchor), at Dessauerstrasse 286, just outside the old town (where I stayed). A friendly, family-run hotel with a nautical theme, it's very quiet and clean . It has an impressive breakfast buffet and a restaurant, in case you don't want to go out again in the evening. www.hotel-am-alten-anker.de.
Wittenberg is located on the Elbe River in eastern Germany, 62 miles (100km) southwest of Berlin and it's about one hour by train from both Berlin and Leipzig.
The train station is just to the east of the old town, about a ten minute walk. If you come by train, take a left on the street in front of the station (Am Hauptbahnhofstrasse) and follow that until the street ends near a traffic circle. See maps below.
The famous oak tree is to the right of the circle. Turn right and you will be on the main street of the old town, Collegienstrasse. Most of the main sights are on this street. The Castle Church (Schlosskirche) is at the far end, and you will pass Luther's house, the old University, Melanchthon and Cranach's houses and the Markt. The Town Church (Stadtkirche) is on the parallel street, Mittelstrasse. It has enormous towers; you can't miss it.