Oct. 31 marks the 500th anniversary of the date Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, an action historians consider the beginning of the Reformation. That makes it an especially good time to visit Germany, with many special events and exhibits honoring the occasion both now and in the years ahead.
Plus, the towns where Luther lived and worked are unspoiled gems in their own right. But, since Luther traveled so extensively and left his mark in so many places throughout Germany, it’s difficult to decide the best bets to visit. Here are four quintessentially charming cities to consider.
Luther called this town his spiritual home. Legend has it that he vowed to become a monk after an especially close call with a bolt of lightning, and Erfurt’s Augustinian Monastery is the place he chose to answer the call. Visitors today can still see the church where he prayed, the cloisters he walked in silent meditation, and the chapter room where he publicly confessed his sins. Look long and hard at that tomb on the floor of the monastery church. The entire night prior to his ordination, Luther lay there in the shape of the cross.
It’s easy to imagine Luther striding through the streets of Erfurt. It’s like a fairy-tale city with half-timbered medieval structures and Renaissance townhouses standing side by side in one of the best preserved cityscapes in Germany. On hills overlooking the town square are two Catholic cathedrals and a huge Renaissance fortress.
Stroll Erfurt’s charming streets aimlessly, and don’t miss the 400-foot-long Krämer Bridge, like Florence’s Ponte Vecchio lined on both sides with artisans’ shops. There’s even a puppet maker.
Eisenach is a town important to Luther at two different times in his life. As a young boy, he attended school there and sang in the choir of the imposing St. George’s Church dominating the town square. The home where he boarded with a local family is now a museum called the Luther House with fascinating exhibits describing his translation of the Bible into German.
But it’s the magnificent castle on the mountain overlooking Eisenach that’s of greater significance. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Wartburg Castle is where Luther hid out for nearly a year after he refused to recant and the pope declared him an outlaw. Luther resided there as “Squire George,” allowing his hair and beard to grow and disguising himself in aristocratic clothing. The room he occupied at the castle is where he supposedly flung an inkwell at the wall in battle with the devil.
Like Erfurt, Eisenach also has charming architecture, including a high tower over a gate that was an entrance to the walled medieval city. Johann Sebastian Bach was born here, and at the museum in his boyhood home it’s possible to hear frequent concerts on Baroque keyboard instruments or to sit in “bubble chairs” and listen to Bach’s music in a form of “surround sound.”
In modern times, the town of Torgau is the site where Russian and American troops met and shook hands for the first time in the waning days of World War II. The significance to Luther are the ties to Katarina von Bora, his wife, a former nun who fled here after her escape from a convent. She also died in Torgau after being thrown from a horse cart and is buried in the town’s St. Mary’s Church.
With 500 Renaissance and late Gothic structures dominating the central city, Torgau is another architectural gem. Most visitors, however, make a beeline to Hartenfels Castle with its stunning outdoor spiral staircase and a pit outside the main gate that for centuries has been the home of shaggy bears. Behind an ornate doorway in the castle’s courtyard is a church deemed the first Protestant place of worship, personally consecrated by Luther himself. It’s said that its simple design is what Luther favored.
Elsewhere in town, enjoy the whimsical fountains in the town square, the oldest toy store in Germany, and a restaurant called “Herr Käthe” for one of the best meals of German food anywhere. The name translates to Mr. Katie, Luther’s playful name for his wife, a skillful household administrator who supposedly wore the pants in the family.
Since Wittenberg is the city where Luther lived and worked the longest, it’s the epicenter of Reformation tourism at the moment. The site of the famous church door where he posted his 95 theses is now a monument on the exterior of All Saints Church, which burned in the 1800s taking the door with it. Luther’s simple tomb can be found inside the restored interior.
More significant to Luther is the nearby St. Mary’s Church, where he preached as many as 3,000 sermons. Look closely at the mural on the church’s altar. In its depiction of the Last Supper, it includes Luther and several of his contemporaries. Just steps away from the church is the main town square with one of the most impressive town halls in Germany and cobblestones that Luther himself very likely trod.
The very pulpit where Luther preached, his monk’s cowl, and other impressive memorabilia are currently on display at a special exhibition called “95 Treasures, 95 People,” which closes on Nov. 5. After that date, they’ll likely be moved back to the adjacent “Luther House,” the sizable structure where the Luther family resided with as many as 50 to 60 other people, including relatives, servants, and boarders.
The house is now the largest museum devoted to Reformation history in the world with thousands of documents and artifacts. There’s not much sense in the Luther House of a family home, with the exception being the famous “Luther Room,” where he retreated after dinner every evening with his students and guests for what have come to be called his “Table Talks” on important matters of the day. With its original windows, plank floors, wainscoting, and period furniture, there’s still a sense, even across five centuries, of the Great Reformer’s presence.